Democracy in Eastern Europe – an institutional bet gone wrong?


Image: rkarkowski CC0 Public Domain

It is now commonplace to observe that democracy in Central and East Europe (ECE) is not in rude health.

But despite a plethora of commentary on ‘democratic backsliding’ and ‘illiberal democracy’ and an uptick of academic interest in topics such as ‘de-democratisation’, ‘de-consolidation’ ‘democratic regression’, this is little agreement on the nature the problem – and still less on its causes.

An interesting light is cast on the issue is cast by Luca Tomini’s book Democratizing Central and Eastern Europe: Successes and failures of the European Union, which is interestingly poised between the optimism of the post-accession period and the pessimism and fearfulness about the region’s democratic development of today.

Tomini’s argues that

democratic consolidation is  best understood as the absence or prevention of authoritarian backsliding rather than the expectation that democracy is here to stay and that the key to the process was so-called horizontal accountability: the extent to which governing elites’ ability to concentrate power or plunder the state is held in check by institutions and norms. Read More…

My summer in Hitler’s Britain

For light summer reading in the Moravian countryside I grabbed an old copy of Len Deighton’s 1970s alternate history thriller SS-GB – a tale of cops and spies set in an alternative 1941, where a Nazi occupation regime is bedding in following a successful invasion in 1940 (warning: spoilers follow) and C.J. Sansom’s variation on  the same theme, Dominion, set in a parallel 1950s Britain where Churchill never made it to number ten and a government headed by Lord Halifax made a fateful peace deal with Hitler after the Fall of France.

To take the history first, the counter-factual premise of Deighton’s SS-GB is clearly the weaker. Most military historians – as well as German military planners of the period – agree that the projected Operation Sea Lion would have been impossible to successfully carry without both RAF and the Royal Navy being decisively knocked out – a task well beyond the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine. A 1974 wargame played between British and West German staff officers suggested that, if attempted in September 1940, Sea Lion would have been a military disaster with German invading forces being forced back from their bridgeheads in little over a week, resulting in a Nazi ‘reverse Dunkirk’. Read More…

Eastern Europe: When and why the radical right cuts through


Photo: Michael Thaidiggsmann CC BY-SA 3.0

Radical right parties have firmly established themselves in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) since 1989. However, their support has waxed and waned far more than that of their counterparts in Western Europe.

This paradox  Bartek Pytlas argues in Radical Right Parties in Central and Eastern Europe: Mainstream Party Competition and Electoral Fortune, a new comparative study of Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, can be explained by the fact that ideological boundaries between radical outsiders and mainstream parties are more blurred. Conservative nationalists (Hungary, Poland) and social populists (Slovakia) provide stiff competition for the CEE radical right, but can also legitimise radical right themes and offer it a route into coalition government (Poland, Slovakia).

 Competition between radical right parties and the mainstream ‘near radical right’, Pytlas argues, should be studied not just in spatial or directional terms (as in conventional party competition theory), but also in discursive terms: what matters is how parties frame and interpret radical nationalist narratives already widely resonant in CEE. Read More…

Does Eastern Europe have lessons for Brexit Britain?

Photo Bob Harvey, CC BY-SA 2.0,

In the aftermath of the EU referendum a number of Central and South East Europeanists wrote blogs reflecting on possible parallels between Brexit and break-ups of multinational socialist states like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in early 1990s.

There are certainly parallels to be drawn.  They lie, as Catherine Baker notes, often in the political dynamics of exiting a large multi-national structure: the desire of smaller nations (Scotland) to ‘exit the exit’; the woes of asymmetric federalism, where nations ina multinational union have varying degrees of autonomy; the changeable nature of public opinion; the EU as a symbol of modernisation and liberalism (the ‘March for Europe’, and the normalisation of  radical positions through by media coverage – and now social media ‘echo chambers;.

Scotland’s (now much more likely) exit from the UK – as noted in the lead-in to #indyref – had echoes not only of Yugoslavia’s disintegration or Czechoslovakia’s ‘Velvet Divorce’ in 1992 but also – more distantly, but perhaps more pertinently –  of the dilemmas faced by small, newly independent Central European states emerging from the Habsburg Empire in 1918. Read More…

Could Brexit lead to Frexit – or Czexit?

A powerful coalition of forces – ranging from the driest of conservatives to Greens and the radical left and taking in big business,  trade unions, churches and universities – has come together to underline the negative economic, social and political consequences of Brexit.

The UK leaving the EU, it is argued, will not only do lasting damage to the country’s economic prospects and political influence, but could have wider repercussions and might even  cause the Union to start unravelling.

This is not simply a matter of absorbing a mighty economic shock, the complexities of negotiating the terms of Brexit, or the umpredictable effects of a sharply changed balance of forces within a downsized Union – the greater weight of Eurozone vis-a-via the non-Eurozone, for example – but the new political dynamics that might take hold.

Some have argued that, emboldened by the example of Brexit, eurosceptics across the EU, will start to push for the exit option, triggering a kind of ‘domino effect’.  Writing for France Inter. Bernard Guetta gloomily takes for granted that post-Brexit

… so many politicians and political parties would follow headlong down this route to get a slice of the action. The pressure for similar referendums would arise all over Europe. The defenders of the European ideal would find themselves on the defensive. In such a crisis it would be very difficult to rebuild the EU.

Available evidence does suggest potential for such a process.  Polling by Ipsos Mori shows high public demand for referendums on EU membership in with significant minorities France (41%), Sweden (39%) and Italy (48%). favouring withdrawal. Other polling even suggested that post-Brexit a majority of Swedes would support exiting the EU.

 French, Dutch and Danish electorates do have experience of rejecting EU treaties in referendums – with voters in the Netherlands getting further practice in last month’s referendum on EU-Ukraine trade deal, which some see a dry run for a Nexit vote.

 And demands for exit from the EU – or referendums about it – have been raised by expanding parties of the populist right pushing their way towards power: Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in Holland advocates Nexit, while French Front National plans to organise a referendum on Frexit within six months of coming to power.

FN leader Marine Le Pen, who relishes the idea of becoming Madame Frexit, also recommends that every EU member should have one (although her offer to visit the UK and help out the Brexit campaign has been abruptly turned down). Read More…

Something rotten in the state of Czechia?

klima coverThe Czech Republic has been in the news recently because of its politicians’ somewhat quixotic campaign to rebrand the country to the world as ‘Czechia’. But among political scientists and businesspeople the country’s name has long suffered worst damage than this.

Widely seen in the first decade after 1989 as a leading democratiser with high standards of governance overseen by a well-established set of West European-style political parties, the country has since acquired a reputation for engrained political graft and high level corruption, which blemished its record of reform and modernisation.

In successive elections in 2010 and 2013, the established Czech party system collapsed like a house of cards as – as elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe – voters turned to a diverse array of protest parties promising to address the country’s ills by killing off political dinosaurs, fighting corruption and promoting the direct democracy. Political scientists quickly clocked thiselectoral turbulence and the unusual new parties it gave rise to, but few stopped to wonder why and how earlier judgements of the Czech party system as an ersatz, but basically functional, equivalent of West European party politics had been off the mark.

Michal Klíma’s  new book Od totality k defektní demokracii: Privatizace a kolonizace politických stran netransparentním byznysem [From totalitarianism to defective democracy: the privatisation and colonisation of parties by non-transparent business] tackles this issue head-on, suggesting that rather than being a normal party system distorted by elements of corruption, the Czech Republic’s post-1989 party-political settlement was a deeply corrupt system overlaid with a facade of left – right competition. Read More…

East Central Europe: liberalism gone missing – or just never there?

Refugees welcome hashtag

Spread of #refugeeswelcome 3 September 2015

This commentary on liberalism and the responses to the refugee crisis in East Central Europe was co-authored with James Dawson.

 Images from Hungary showing security forces turning tear gas and water cannon on refugees from behind a newly fortified border will come as little surprise to many observers of East Central Europe.  The government of Victor Orbán has systematically exploited the refugee crisis to ramp up a long-standing rhetoric of nationalist intolerance and consolidate its grip on power by passing a raft of emergency powers, further eroding Hungary’s once robust legal checks and balances. Such actions have drawn a storm of international opprobrium – including harsh criticism from the governments of Austria, Croatia and Serbia, all of which have taken a more humane and pragmatic approach to managing the influx of refugees.

Few criticisms of Hungary’s actions have come from neighbouring EU states in East Central Europe still widely seen as front runners in liberal political and economic reform. Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic initially opted to close ranks with Orbán to head off the European Commission’s proposals for compulsory quotas. Wrong-footed and exasperated by the sudden re-discovery of liberal compassion on the part on Germany and other West European governments, leaders ranging from Slovakia’s social democratic prime minister Robert Fico to Poland’s newly elected conservative president Andrzej Duda provoked astonishment in Western European capitals by conceding that they might take a handful of those fleeing the war in Syria hand-picked on the basis of their religion. Poland has lately broken ranks by responding to pressure from Berlin, Paris and Brussels to sign up to quotas, yet even the deal’s supporters doubt it will ever be implemented against a backdrop of consistently hostile public attitudes towards refugees in the region. As one social media visualisation graphically showed, widespread use of #refugeeswelcome stopped abruptly at the old Iron Curtain. Such stances have been widely lambasted as hypocritical, ungenerous, lacking in compassion, and contradicting the long-term interests of East Central European states themselves.

Yet just a decade ago these same former Eastern bloc countries acceded smoothly to the EU on the basis that they had fulfilled the Copenhagen Criteria as ‘functioning liberal democracies’. Why has liberalism, once a rallying cry for pro-European leaders from Warsaw to Sofia and a condition built into the EU’s demanding  pre-accession acquis, suddenly gone missing when it is needed most? Read More…

Populism: Europe’s coat of many colours


Photo: Henning Mühlinghaus CC BY-NC 2.0

The politcal challenges thrown up to the status quo in Europe in the aftermath of global recession and the Eurozone crisis has prompted a surge of media and think-tank interest in the concept of populism.

Although a notoriously slippery term – and one often used in a loose, disparaging sense to describe demagogic promise-making by unsavoury extremist outsiders – most academic researchers concur with the definition of the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde: an ideological construction that sees politics as dominated by immoral and collusive elites who do down a homogeneous and unsullied People – sometimes by promoting the interests of undeserving minorities.  Populists thus offer themselves to electorates as truth tellers, tribunes of the People and righters of wrongs.

However, as populism is famously a ‘thin ideology’ whose basic construct needs to filled in and filled out  with political ballast from elsewhere. For this reasons populism seems chameleon-like. It can assume many political colourations: from the (much studied) extreme right through regionalism, free marketry and radical left populism.

The academic study of comparative populism and the sense that populist movements have been the main beneficiaries of the politics of austerity triggered by the global recession of 2008-9 are brought together in a new collection edited by Takis S. Pappas and Hanspeter Kriesi European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession (ECPR Press, 2015).

ecpr bookThe book assesses the political impact of the Recession by examining pre- and post-crisis fortunes of 25 populist parties in 17 European countries, which are grouped in five regional clusters: Nordic (Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland); North European (France, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland); Southern Europe (Italy and Greece); and Central and Eastern Europe (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia); and the ‘Anglo-Celtic’ pairing of the UK and Ireland.

In Nordic and Northern Europe countries and – with the rise of UKIP – the UK the main populist challengers are radical right or anti-immigrant parties, in Southern and Eastern Europe populism is a more mixed bag comprising conservative-nationalism, radical leftists, technocratic market reformers and hard-to-categorize anti-corruption movements. Read More…

East European democracy: Sliding back or hollowed out?


2010 Fidesz fahaz MSZP sator” by Czank Máté – Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

For some time analysts and commentators have understood that all is not well with democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. In the immediate aftermath, the region defied a raft of predictions that the dislocating effect of economic reform and resurgence of nationalist traditions would lead to a Latin American style breakdown of democracy. Democratic change and marketization were – certainly compared to other parts of the post-communist world – peaceful, quick and far-reaching, with the EU membership achieved within a relatively short time.

Indeed, much conventional wisdom has it, that the incentive of EU membership ‘leveraged’ politicians and electorates in some CEE states away from illiberal and nationalist politics. In short, while CEE democracy might have been short on civil society and public engagement and high on corruption and inefficiency, it seemed consolidated and safe.

All this seems to have changed since EU accession. Commentators looked for and quickly found ‘backsliding’ in Poland in 2005-7 as short-lived minority government headed by the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which included two small populist-nationalist parties as coalition partners, took office. And post-transition fears of breakdown seemed belatedly to come true with onset of the Great Recession in 2008-9 and the landslide victory in Hungary in the 2010 parliamentary elections of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz.

Orbán’s subsequent use of his huge majority to rewrite the Hungarian constitution, strip back checks and balances and entrench his party in deep in the state, media civil society are well documented, as are his questioning of liberal democracy and formulation of a deeply illiberal nationalist project for the future of Hungary.

But discussion of the wider malaise seemingly gripping democracy in CEE has often been stronger on sounding the alarm and itemizing symptoms than on analysis.  Indeed, the term ‘backsliding’ was so loosely applied  that it covered phenomena ranging from the rise of right-extremism to difficulties negotiating coalitions.

Much writing has simply boiled down to the idea that development across the region simply can be understood as Hungary writ small.  Hungary’s illiberal political turn was a ‘cancer’ spreading to the rest of the region and Orbán, to quote the Guardian’s Ian Traynor simply the most prominent example of a new breed of ‘democratically elected populist strongmen …  deploying the power of the state and a battery of instruments of intimidation to crush dissent’.  Some journalists painting a bigger picture (or airing common geo-political concerns) preferred the term ‘Putinization’.

But such broad-brush treatment would never do. Anyone who knows the Czech Republic, for example, would see a democracy disfigured by corruption, disengagement and distrust. But neither its assertive head of state, president Miloš Zeman, nor ambitious billionaire populist newcomer Andrej Babiš quite fit the bill of a Czech Viktor Orbán. A nationalist turn, a new constitution, a dominant ruling party or a spectacular breakthrough by the extreme right. None of this is on the Czech agenda – or indeed quite  on the agenda elsewhere in CEE.

Clearly a much better comparative take on how to understand the travails of CEE democracy is called for, capable of embracing the political realities of both Prague and Budapest and all points in between.

And in an article in latest issue of Global Policy the Hungarian political scientist and political economist Béla Greskovits has now offered precisely this. Read More…

Havel: For young radicals or middle aged and middle of the road?

Václav Havel has lent his name and inspiration to many events and movements. His dissident writings have been translated into Arabic, serving as point of reference for activists and thinkers contemplating entrenched but brittle authoritarian regimes.

 More expectedly, perhaps Havel’s is a liberal oppositionists in Putin’s Russia which – as Havel himself suggested in later life – has seen communist structures morph into a new repressive structures.  So it’s no surprise to see a Guardian commentary by Natalie Nougayrède that flags Havel and the Central European dissident movement as inspiration for young, radical left movements that have emerged in Western and South Europe.

It’s a balanced piece, which notes the obvious differences between normalisation era Czechoslovakia regime and the far more open and competitive political and social systems of Western Europe.  The typewriter and carbon paper technology of 1970 and 80s samizdat is also clearly a world away from networked and internet-based communications of the early 21st century – even for those fighting authoritarian regimes thumb drives and encryption software have replaced clandestine printing and duplicating.

And Nougayrède is surely right when she suggests Václav Havel is in some ways an unlikely source of inspiration for Podemos, Syriza and similar movements (themselves often the products of mash-up of various heterodox Marxist traditions, Trotskyist, Maoist, Euro-communist etc)

 The sharp critique of Western societies Havel expressed in his writing of 1970s and 1980s as somewhat less extreme version of a single impersonal technocratic mass civilization mellowed after the fall of communism into a pragmatic, if critical, acceptance of conventional parliamentary democracy, capitalism and the European Union.  Havel’s disdain for party politics and big scale economics also saw him quickly outmanoeuvred after 1989 by opponents, on both left and right, who realised more quickly than he did both that parties were necessary workhorses of democracy and that voters’ concerns about economic security and prosperity needed addressing head on. Read More…