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Eastern Europe: how to be a pessoptimist

Sean L Hanley15 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…)

SSEES Brexit Debate

yjmsgi315 June 2016

On 9th June 2016, SSEES hosted a debate on Brexit. We were lucky enough to have Liam Halligan of the Telegraph as our chair for proceedings.

Our panel of experts consisted of: SSEES Director Professor Jan Kubik, Pro-Vice Provost and Professor of Slavonic and East European Studies; Professor Anne White, Professor of Polish Studies and Social and Political Science; Dr Felix Ciuta, Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Professor Martyn Rady, Masaryk Professor of Central European History.

We would like to invite our readers to relive the engaging and lively debate below. Let us know what you think in the comments – are you voting In or Out?

 

 

Please note: All views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of UCL, SSEES or UCL SSEES Research Blog.SSEES RB logo

UCL SSEES: Director’s Position on EU Referendum

yjmsgi312 April 2016

UCL SSEES: Director’s Position on EU Referendum

Prof Jan Kubik, Director of UCL SSEES offers his personal opinion on Brexit

Personal opinion on Brexit

The debate about whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union is heating up. When June comes, it will be up to individuals to cast their votes according to their own conscience. Nevertheless, in the meantime, it makes sense to assess the balance of advantages and disadvantages that any eventual outcome would bring and to take a position accordingly. I believe that it is better for Britain to remain and I am committed to making the case for Britain’s continued membership of the EU.

It is hard for me to see a net advantage of Brexit for an institution like SSEES. As has been made clear by several studies, summarized by Universities for Europe, Brexit would deal a tremendous blow to the British university sector and its remarkable intellectual prowess, its institutional dominance, and its strong financial performance. The first two of these would diminish as a result of disruption to deep and extensive networks of academic cooperation; the last would suffer from the resultant reduction of student mobility in Europe. SSEES would be hit particularly hard here: our School is proud to attract many students from Europe (around 37% of our current undergraduates come from other EU countries) and to have a strong network of European partners and collaborators. Such networks of cooperation, built up over the years, are costly to repair, once disrupted. Some partnerships may simply collapse. For these institutional reasons alone, I am compelled to take an anti-Brexit position.

But the most important arguments against Brexit are not financial or institutional, but historical and philosophical. The EU is key among those institutions that restored peace and prosperity to Western Europe after the Second World War and, in the decades since, it has provided an effective counter-balance to the ‘darker’ forces that have torn the continent apart so many times in the past. More recently, the EU played an important part in the political and social unification of Europe through the accession of the former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. These states and societies have become beneficiaries of the common Europe, while also contributing increasingly to the EU’s success as a whole. Central and East Europeans have experienced only too well the damage wrought by European divisions in the past; as an expert on Central and Eastern Europe, I cannot be in favour of a reversal in the process of integration. Furthermore, I note and condemn the xenophobic rhetoric, directed largely against Central and East Europeans, that plays a part in much Brexit campaigning.

The European project, always evolving and never perfect, has recently come under tremendous strain. Europe faces many tests, among them the rise of right-wing populism that openly challenges the liberal-democratic culture that has been its hallmark. Brexit would signal the fact that that a key European power believes that the project is no longer viable and Eurosceptic and populist parties would be emboldened. As Director of an educational and research institution of humanities scholars and social scientists, I wish to warn against a political act whose economic outcomes would be uncertain, and whose longer and broader implications would certainly damage the delicate tissue of a hard-won European culture of coexistence.

I express here my personal opinion, developed as result of many days of thinking and discussions about our institution, UCL SSEES, about which I care deeply. I invite all colleagues to share their views on our blog and – even more importantly – to encourage our students to vote!

 

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

 

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