X Close

SSEES Research Blog

Home

A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students

Menu

Eastern Europe: how to be a pessoptimist

Sean LHanley15 December 2019

Demonstration in Prague

Photo: Martin2035 [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Three decades after the fall of communism, Eastern Europe’s democratic development is seen in increasingly gloomy terms. However, we may need to find a more pragmatic, middle way in assessing the region, argues Seán Hanley.

The region termed Central Europe or Central and Eastern Europe – the body of small and medium-sized states between the former USSR and the established democracies of Western Europe – was once seen as the great success story of post-communist democratisation:  rapid and peaceful political transition in 1989-90; a quick return to economic growth; flawed but functional liberal democracy; relatively rapid integration into the EU; political elites who seemed, whether out of conviction or pragmatism, willing and able to imitate West European political, economic and ideological models – although these were (and are) diverse, ranging from Nordic style welfare capitalism to British-style deregulation and neo-liberalism.

Since mid-2000s, however, the intellectual climate  among both commentators and political scientists the agenda has shifted from one of understanding consolidation, integration and consolidation or remedying the flaws of stable, but weakly performing post-communist democracy to one of deep gloom.

Now, compared to early hopes of the liberal project, the narrative has become a pessimistic one. Of democratic decline or even backsliding toward authoritarianism. The rejection by voters and elites in Central and Eastern Europe of Western European models – and the EU status quo – as too socially and economically political for their traditions and societies. And of constitutional liberalism as constraining the democratic will of the people, or holding back the emergence of a capable modernising state.  Economic catch-up with Western Europe, especially in terms of the living standards of poorer, older, less educated, seems a chimera.

Populist critics now decry the locking in of Central and Eastern Europe as, once again, an exploited peripheral Europe (including Mediterranean democracies of Southern Europe and the Balkans) – analogous, but on a much bigger scale to the “left behind” marginalised regions within Western European countries, which have fuelled populist electoral insurgencies.

Given ineffective and cumbersome procedures for enforcing the rule-of-law – in what was supposed to a club of liberal-democratic nations – the EU, as R. Daniel Kelemen has suggested, is becoming a patchwork of  regimes encompassing democracies, semi-democracies and downright authoritarian states, hamstrung by North-South and East-West splits.

What is especially jarring is that some of the supposed frontrunners democratisation in the region – Hungary and Poland – are now the vanguard of “democratic backsliding”, conservative counter-revolution and experiments in liberal governance. Some prominent governance indices, such as Freedom House’s ‘Freedom In the World’, now classify Hungary as having slipped below out of the zone of fully liberal democratic ‘Free’ societies. Poland is rapidly heading the same way.

Worse still, some of the treasured mechanisms of building democracy such as civil society development and grassroots activism have turned out work in ways quite opposite to that  envisaged in 1990s. In Hungary and Poland, the electoral breakthroughs of the Fidesz and Law and Justice (PiS) parties were prefigured years before through the development of networks of conservative civil organisations and right-wing civic initiative at grassroots level.

Moreover, the main vehicles for illiberalism have not been ‘red-brown’ alliances of ex-communists and fringe nationalists, but parties and politicians with often impeccable roots in the anti-communist opposition, accepted by West European centre-right as mainstream conservative parties and political allies.

That said, there are many varieties of populism and democratic decline, ranging from the conservative electoral revolutions of Hungary and Poland, to the longstanding weak, but oddly stable corrupt democracies of Bulgaria and Romania, to the fragmented and feverish political landscapes of  Slovakia and Czechia – and the strange “technocratic populism” of Czechia’s billionaire prime minister Andrej Babiš ,who still unsure if he wants to be the Czech Macron or the Czech Trump.

George Orwell’s dictum that “All revolutions are failures, but they are not the same failure” is, unsurprisingly, often quoted these days in relation to East Europe. We could also paraphrase Tolstoy and say that all unhappy democracies are unhappy in their own way. Or we might remember the historians Joseph Rothchild and Nancy  M. Wingfield’s characterisation of the region – made originally after the decline and fall of communism in late 1980s – about Eastern Europe’s “return to diversity”. (more…)

Liberals against nationalism in Eastern Europe? It would have been a nice idea

Sean LHanley25 July 2018

Protesters in Sofia standing on statue of a lion wave EU flag

Photo: Tourbillon [CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

Some commentators say East Central Europe’s liberals made the fatal mistake of cutting themselves off from traditional nationalism. Seán Hanley and James Dawson disagree.

Ivan Krastev  recently argued that East Central Europe’s liberals had made the error of taking an anti-nationalist stance from some point in the late 1990s. This, argued Krastev, occurred when the region’s liberals drew the lesson from the wars in the former Yugoslavia that all nationalism leads inevitably to bloodshed and violence.

By following the German example of avoiding public displays of flag-waving and treating nationalism as a creed that ‘dare not speak its name’, he claims, these liberals unwittingly forced moderate nationalists into the ‘illiberal camp’, opening the door for the illiberal backsliding that blights the region today.

This would be a compelling story – if it bore any resemblance to the actual behaviour of East Central European liberals in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

But it doesn’t. Anti-nationalism hasn’t been tried and failed in East Central Europe, it has never been tried.

In the 1990s, much as today, the most significant barrier to the realisation of an inclusive, pluralistic vision of liberal democracy was the taken-for-granted idea that the national state is the property of and instrument for titular national majorities. Both the EU and their liberal partners in Central and Eastern Europe knew this, yet both opted to accommodate ethnic nationalism at the time rather than oppose it. (more…)

US Election Awash in Virtual Realities

BlogAdmin25 April 2016

by Professor Andrew Wilson

A decade ago, I wrote a book describing the ‘virtual politics’ of Eastern Europe. Many common patterns could be detected in all the post-communists states, but the paradigm was set by Russia, where the Kremlin had managed to create a world of puppets and fakes. Politics was not institutional, but theatrical, and its key principal was narrative control. The Kremlin determines a script, in Russian the dramaturgiia , that all the key players must follow, and whose carefully-staged ‘achievements’ are the basis of Putin’s super-ratings. In Russia, so-called ‘political technology’ has developed ever-broader forms since 2005. Peter Pomerantsev has even argued that the system requires ever-higher doses of drama; both the domestic Russian system and Russia’s tendency towards conflict with its neighbours is based on narrative escalation dominance, not on the conventional threat of military escalation.

Picture credit: Yale University Press

The West has different problems. The key parts of the political system are not fake; although there are some practices that Russians might recognise, like astroturfing  (running fake grassroots campaigns, and disguising the real sponsors of political messaging). Russians would also recognise the increasing abuse in US elections of what they would call ‘administrative resources’ – the resurrection of practices that were more common before the landmark Supreme Court judgements of the 1960s, particularly the abuse of redistricting powers by state legislatures and efforts to reduce the registration of minority voters.

But Russia’s would-be democracy has always been infected by ‘political technology’. In the West, the quality of democracy is under threat from technological and social change. The traditional institutions and formats of politics of the modern era, that predominated until roughly the 1980s, like political parties, broadsheet press and national TV news, are being disrupted by post-modern technologies. Moreover, new paradigms of social identity and new forms of social protest are replacing the agit-prop and door-knocking of party or trade union members with passive-aggressive activism or slacktivism. Virtuality, in the Western sense, is not an entirely fake democratic process, but the cumulative disruptive effect of technological and social changes that are now the tail wagging the democratic dog.

Donald

Nevertheless, the extraordinary 2016 US election has taken things a step further. But the election process has become more ‘virtual’ in several different ways. Many commentators have described the eruption of Donald Trump into the election as the victory of virtuality over reality, or of the takeover of reality by reality TV. According to Matt Taibi in Rolling Stone, for example, ‘the presidential election campaign is really just a badly acted, billion-dollar TV show whose production costs ludicrously include the political disenfranchisement of its audience. Trump is making a mockery of the show’, but his critics have ‘all got it backward. The presidency is serious. The presidential electoral process, however, is a sick joke, in which everyone loses except the people behind the rope line’. Politicians have been gradually turning into actors for some time, so why not a real ‘celebrity’ pretending to be a politician? (more…)