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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…)

Democracy up close: Experiencing Election Day in Poland

Lisa J Walters22 October 2019

By Carolin Heilig, (Current Early Stage Researcher of the FATIGUE project)

There are not many opportunities to experience democracy as directly as on election day. The opportunity to witness the 2019 parliamentary elections in Poland first-hand was an eye-opening experience. Thanks to the European Students’ Network, I was given the chance to join their international election observation mission to Poland.

As an independent, short-term election observer of the European Students’ Network (AEGEE), I experienced the whole election day in Krakow from the setting up of the polling station at 6:30am to the conclusion of the vote count at around 4:00am the next day. The AEGEE mission comprised 12 teams of international observers and local interpreters, covering 104 polling stations all over the country with a special focus on youth participation. The observation guidelines and standards we adopted have been developed by OSCE/ODHIR and the mission included meetings with stakeholders before election day [see here the official AEGEE press release ].

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East European liberals’ accommodation of ethnic nationalism has left the region’s democratic institutions vulnerable

Sean L Hanley18 March 2019

Photo: Akron/ Wikipedia Commons

East Central Europe’s democratic deterioration is as much  about the limitations of mainstream liberal forces as the rise of illiberal populists argue James Dawson and Sean Hanley.

Less than a decade ago the newer EU member states of East Central Europe (ECE) were considered the great success story of post-communist democratisation. This success was held up by scholars as a textbook illustration of how the EU, through the attractiveness of its political and economic model, and the toughness of accession conditions, could make a decisive difference by empowering pro-European liberals in the region’s shakier democracies to push their countries firmly on track to liberal democracy (and EU membership).

While poorer and more corrupt than the EU’s West European core, ECE was assumed to be a region safe for democracy with good long-term prospects for economic and political catch-up. Today this narrative of democratic progress is dead, replaced by one of democratic backsliding – and even sliding into authoritarianism – under the auspices of populist and nationalist politicians.

What has been especially disconcerting is that it has been the early frontrunners of democratization – Hungary and Poland – where such democratic backsliding has gone farthest and fastest: after winning decisive election victories (Fidesz in Hungary in 2010, Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland in 2015) conservative-nationalist governing parties have moved rapidly to dismantle liberal checks and balances, capturing or neutralising constitutional courts, state agencies, public (and in Hungary private) media and NGOs.

More strikingly still, Fidesz and PiS were not radical outsiders emerging from the fringes, but large right-wing parties once considered part of a pro-Western centre-right mainstream, whose representatives still sit with German Christian Democrats and British Conservatives in the European Parliament. (more…)

Beyond Borders: Sexuality and Cold War: On Łukasz Szulc’s book ‘Transnational Homosexuals in Communist Poland: Cross-Borders Flows in Gay and Lesbian Magazines’.

Lisa J Walters28 February 2018

Dr Ula Chowaniec (Impacts of Gender Discourse Series)

Transnational Homosexuals in Communist Poland: Cross-Borders Flaws in Gay and Lesbian Magazines. Pelgrave, London 2017.

The Myths, the Archives and the Impact of Community Makings

Łukasz Szulc’s Transnational Homosexuals in Communist Poland is not only about Poland and not only about Communism. It is a carefully executed study on the gay and lesbian movement in the so-called Eastern Bloc, it is a thought-provoking analysis of somehow mythical thinking of what is the “East,” and what kind of myths of the Central and Eastern Europe are particularly harmful, such as the myth of homogeneity; myth of the essence of the region; the teleological myth of good transition from communism into better kind of democracy and the right kind of ethics. Łukasz Szulc discussed all the just mentioned myths as based on one, more general myth of separation of the CEE countries from the West. Łukasz deconstructs those myths taking into account the stories of the emerging queer culture. This book is also an interesting debate on what “queer” means today and how it shapes our global identity and how those identities are used in geopolitical discourses, directly linked to the actual political decisions. The book actually starts with claiming that “we live in the age of ‘queer wars’”, where the issues of body politics, namely position on abortion, divorce and homosexuality divide the countries and people.

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The First East European Mainstream Film About Lesbians History of Sexualities, Politics and Cinema under Communism in Eastern Europe

Lisa J Walters28 February 2018

Dr Ula Chowaniec (Impacts of Gender Discourse Series)

The LGBT History Month, February is almost over, but it is never too late to talk about equality, justice and LGBT issues, especially in regions such as Eastern and Central Europe, where many issues, like same-sex marriage, are still to fight for. This text is based on my Lunch Hour Open Lecture,  that I delivered at UCL on the 5th of December, 2017 (See below).

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Queering Poland in London

Lisa J Walters20 October 2017

Starting from the century of Polish women’s movement, and the LGBTQ politics to Polish art in London and Brexit.

Dr Urszula Chowaniec, Senior Teaching Fellow in Polish Language (Impacts of Gender Discourse Series)

Emancipation now seems to be in a backlash. In October, Polish women again demonstrated  to commemorate October 2016, when the whole of Poland was dressed in black; when thousands of Polish women and men demonstrated against a proposal to radicalize already one of the most radical abortion laws in Europe. This was also part of the London story; many Polish women also honoured October 2016 a few weeks ago in front of Polish Embassy. The story of women’s emancipation, gender politics and migration was a leading theme of many SSEES’ seminars and talks. Let’s recall some facts….

When I start my Polish classes, I ask my students about any Polish people; Copernicus, Fryderyk Chopin, Lech Wałęsa… Women hardly ever appear in the list, so I mention, usually to my students’ surprise, Marie Curie. (more…)

Recycling Future or Free Painting

Lisa J Walters19 October 2017

Oskar OK Krajewski, Polish Artist in London, on art, recycling, and migration

Dr Urszula Chowaniec, Senior Teaching Fellow in Polish Language

Thousands of small objects… hundreds of fragments linked together in a seemingly random way create an ideal shape; a colourful space  interlaced with light and flickering glimpses, as if just for this sculptured form all the tiny items were intended. Was it only by accident or misunderstanding that they used to be a piece of computer, toy, or TV remote? They really meant to be Recycled Future.

Recycled Future is Oskar OK Krajewski’s centre sculpture presented during his exhibition at Oxo show (1-5 November, 2017). It is an amazing piece made of over 25,000 parts of old broken everyday objects. As a central piece, the whole exhibition is called Recycled Future. OK admits that this piece is representative to all his recent artworks. It took Oskar about 5 years to complete the whole show. He never works on one project at the time, rather he distracts himself over many works, and therefore it gets slower to complete the piece. But this is how ‘OK’ creates.

Recycled Future by Oskar OK Krajewski

Recycled Future by Oskar OK Krajewski

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Reproductive Justice and Discourses of Childbearing in the Fringes of Europe: Ongoing Discussions with SSEES and Partner Researchers and Activists

Lisa J Walters19 May 2017

Dr Nevila Pahumi,  Alexander Nash Fellowship in Albanian Studies

Over the past year, a group of us SSEES researchers have actively engaged questions of reproductive justice and discourses of childbearing in Eastern and Western Europe. Given the commonality of challenges women face in both ends of the continent to practice reproductive choice over their bodies, we have joined forces to give voice to some of the key concerns behind pro-choice and reproductive justice abortion debates now raging across the continent and beyond.

Choice (more…)