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.
The rise of Slovak-born tycoon Andrej Babiš and his anti-corruption movement ANO in the Czech Republic has been greeted more with dismay than delight, as a harbinger of the oligarchisation of politics and the flagging of Czech democracy. But the arrival of a billionaire populist on the scene need not deal a fatal blow to Czech democracy and may be seen, in hindsight to, have provide impetus for change. But does underlines that any reconstruction of the state needs to run in parallel with the reconstruction of politics and the emergence of a new, more settled form of democratic party politics.
Democratic politics is a moving target. The long term success of any programme to rein in the corrupt abuse of power arguably depends not only its ability to diagnose and treat current ills, but to anticipate the way democratic politics is moving. The danger is that changing nature of political and party landscape will run ahead of the reforms intended to regulate them, which are, in part, a response to a political era dominated by ODS and ČSSD that is now receding.
In 1990s the Czech Republic opted for specific form of democracy foregrounding the role of political parties. The Czech Constitution makes competition between parties the cornerstone of the country’s democracy. Legislation and Constitutional Court rulings specify in detail some they should organise and operate to play this role. Parties are supposed to be voluntary associations of members open to society, which mobilise, include and educate citizens and transform partial interests into different, competing visions of the public good
The reality of Czech party politics, although oriented towards ‘standard’ Western European parties, has, of course, very differently. Parties have typically been closed rather than open; attractive to limited numbers of citizens; organisations with largely passive paper membership rather hotbeds of political activism; collusive rather than competitive; and deeply vulnerable to capture by corrupt vested interests. With the possible exception of the Communists (KSČM) and Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) the country’s political parties seem shell-like bodies, which de facto are loose alliances of elite groups and political professionals, overlapping more with the worlds of business and public administration than with the life of grassroots communities. Although constitutionally and legally privileged, Czech parties are, in many ways, weak organisations. Read More…
In the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism many Western analysts feared that, far from ‘returning to Europe’, Central and Eastern Europe would slip into a spiral of Latin-American style instability and authoritarianism.
Stanford professor Ken Jowitt predicted that ‘demagogues, priests and colonels more than democrats’ would shape the region’s future, while Polish-American political scientist Adam Przeworski famously wrote that the ‘East has become the South’.
Even as astute an observer of the region as Timothy Garton Ash was moved to conclude in mid-1990 that ‘Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia are the countries where the fate of democracy hangs in the balance today’.
But the region quickly confounded the doomsayers. Central Europe emerged as one the most successful newly democratizing regions in the post-Cold War world. Many states including the Czech Republic made smooth and rapid progress to OECD and EU membership and were soon marked down by Western political scientists as consolidated, if flawed democracies. In the Czech case, the flaws were readily apparent. The democracy that emerged was, for example, far from the optimistic vision of a prosperous, settled Central European state sketched out by Václav Havel when he looked into the country’s future in his 1991 Summer Meditations.
As well as failing to sustain the common state with the Slovaks, Czechs saw overblown claims of a post-communist ‘economic miracle’ disintegrate amid corruption scandals that ended the Klaus government in 1997. And, while the Czech Republic did generate a stable system of ‘standard’ parties of left and right recognizable to West European eyes, Havel’s warnings that party politics would become the preserve of a caste of career politicians seemed, in hindsight, prophetic.
The strong locally-rooted civil society and political decentralization Havel envisaged as the bedrock of Czech democracy were present only in fragments. Local democracy was too often expressed in the murky world of municipal politics and a system of belatedly implemented regional government that become a still greater byword for corruption. Non-ideological consensus politics that Havel and others hoped would be a defining feature of Czech democracy have existed only in bastardised form of Grand Coalitions and power-sharing deals that had more to do with dividing the spoils of office than agreeing inclusive, balanced policies.
To most outside observers, however, the Czech Republic remained one of a belt of successful, stable Central European democracies, scoring well on most indices of governance, reform, and democracy, albeit with a clear lag behind West European democracies. Most would have agreed with the assessment of the Hungarian economist and political scientist Béla Greskovits that CEE states, including the Czech Republic, had created poor quality, but essentially ‘crisis-proof’ democracies where market economics co-existed in ‘low equilibrium’ with democratic politics.
However, following the enlargement of European Union in 2004 and, particularly, the onset of the global economic downturn and the Eurozone crisis, many commentators have started to view the future of Central Europe in much darker terms seeing the onset of ‘democratic backsliding’ or a ‘democratic recession’. Hungary has been at the centre of such concerns. The metamorphosis of Viktor Orbán from pro-Western Christian Democrat to authoritarian populist exploiting an electoral landslide to impose an illiberal constitution, rein in the media and emasculate the judiciary, was particularly shocking.
In 2012 Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta tried similarly to exploit a landslide election victory to overturn of established procedures and strip away constitutional checks and balances to unseat his country’s president Trajan Basescu. Elsewhere voters across CEE have turned not to establishment strongmen but to a range of to protest parties ranging from Poland’s ultra-liberal Palikot Movement to neo-fascists of Jobbik in Hungary. Where does the Czech Republic fit into this picture? Read More…
Original books often share two common virtues. They reach conclusions which make perfect sense in hindsight, but which somehow no one else managed to reach before. And they ask simple, big, often-asked questions, but answer them in new ways. Both of these apply to James Dawson’s new book Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria. How Ideas Shape Publics.
The book’s key finding – based on innovative ethnographical fieldwork – is that Serbia has a more vibrant and, to some extent, more liberal, public sphere than Bulgaria, despite being rated considerably lower on most governance and democracy indices (the book focuses on Freedom House’s Nations in Transit measures).
On a conventional reading this makes little sense: Bulgaria is a low quality democracy, which made slow, but steady progress towards EU membership in 2007, while Serbia slid into semi-authoritarianism following the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the wars of Yugoslav succession as the regime and (large parts of) the opposition embraced a culture of militant illiberal nationalism. Serbia began EU accession negotiations only this year and officials are carefully avoiding speculation about when it might eventually join the Union as its 29th member.
James Dawson’s book, however, tells it differently. Most conventional measures of democracy, he suggests, are too formal and legalistic, and do little to tap into the day-to-day thinking of citizens. ‘Hard’ comparative scientists are too often driven by an essentially procedurally framing of democracy leading them to overlook a multitude of defects and limitations in democratic practices. As a clever dissection of a well-known survey article in East European Politics and Societies makes clear, too many insights and observations appear simply as passing comments or incidental qualifying remarks, but in the end slip out of the final analysis.
The book addresses this gap by investigating the existence of an everyday public sphere conceived in (modified) Habermasian terms. This is investigated by examining the discourses employed by citizens in two provincial cities, Niš in southern Serbia and, Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv using an ethnographic method embracing both focus groups and more embedded forms of participant observation: following in the footsteps of Nina Eliasoph in her study of the culture of political avoidance in US civic voluntarism, Avoiding Politics, Dawson immerses himself in local associational life to reach a cross-section of informants in terms of age, education levels and sociological types:
I participated [he writes] in the activities of almost any available recreational and civic associations [in the two cities] which would accept me as a member. These included a mountaineering club, a careers office, an ‘alternative’ NGO, a sports club (Serbia), a private language school, an environmental NGO, a running club and a dance class (Bulgaria)
The result are slices of ethnographic data, which are both vivid and revealing opening up a world of what Dawson terms (adapting the nationalism literature) ‘everyday democracy’: one serving and two retired Serbian army officers walk up a mountain talking over who lost Kosovo; Bulgarian friends pick over the corrupt municipal politics and the still dirtier (in both senses) politics of local rubbish collection, touching on issues of clientelism and nationalism in the process; a young women denies the existence of gender discrimination, but then recounts how a job offer turned out to a thinly disguised attempt at recruitment for the porn industry and weighs up (but does not reject) her initial proposition.
This public sphere and public sphere pluralism Dawson seeks out is not some Habermasian abstraction but a curiously every day, workaday phenomenon, both less and more than formal, institutional civil society.
Bulgaria’s missing public sphere
At least where it exists. For the book’s headline finding is that while Niš does contain ‘vibrant communities of everyday debate’, ‘… the most remarkable thing about the public sphere in Plovdiv was just how rarely it was encountered’. This is especially the case for the minority of citizens in both countries who are, as Dawson puts it, ‘hard liberals’: the 10-15 per cent of the population who may be expected to develop and articulate a consistent discourse of liberal democratic citizenship, anchor democracy in both value and discursive terms, and perhaps act as focus of cultural change.
Why should be the case? This is perhaps an unfair question. Ethnographers are focused on meaning not causation. However, Dawson permits himself a hunch –and social researcher of all kinds should surely be allowed hunches? – that the more open and liberal political culture of socialist Yugoslavia has in some ways been carried through from the 1980s and fed into a distinct liberal public (or ‘counter public’). In Bulgaria, by contrast, despite more peaceful, institutional and economic patterns of development after 1989, legacies of a more authoritarian and closed form of communism have left a citizenry, whose most liberal ‘counter-public’ is still marked by illiberal nationalism and a view of liberal politics as mostly about forcing through (economic) reform.
The interpretation of Bulgarian liberals (in the broadest) sense of term as hamstrung by conservative and illiberal nationalism – influential perhaps precisely because it has been less militantly and radically asserted than in Serbia – is a controversial one. Many liberal Bulgarians are quick to assert that their country’s biggest problem is rampant corruption not rampant nationalism. In terms of action-this-day issues, this seems hard to argue with, but there seems sufficient evidence – as in the current dispute over Turkish language TV news – that the position of the Turkish minority cannot be taken for granted. Lessons from Hungary and elsewhere in the region suggest that all bets about what ‘cannot’ happen in CEE are now off. However, this perhaps misses the argument which is, in the end, more about the subtle influence of culture and discourse, rather than a scorecard of directly traceable political outcomes.
A similar set of question arises over the sustained mass protests in Bulgaria 2012 -13, which took place after the book’s fieldwork was conducted. If Bulgaria’s public sphere and liberal ‘counter-public’ were so weakly developed, how and why were civil society and social movements able suddenly to mobilise to hold corrupt elites to account? This issue is partly addressed in the preface and postscript (which also deals with the rise of the supposedly reformed nationalists of the Serbian Progressive Party [SNS].
Here, Dawson argues that while events in Bulgaria are positive in terms of long-term civil society development there is still greater reason for optimism in Serbia and pessimism in Bulgaria (especially beyond Sofia). ‘[T]here is’ he writes ‘little evidence that Bulgaria’s anti-government protests aspire to any emancipatory vision approaching the philosophically consistent liberalism of the cosmopolitan anti-nationalist, feminist and LGBT movement still audible from the margins in Belgrade’ and had that the protests, in particular, done little to challenge conservative nationalist assumptions underpinning much political discourse.
In this regard – although Dawson himself does not make this link – the reader cannot but be struck by the book’s discussion of the anti-Roma protests in Bulgaria in 2011 – triggered by an incident near Plovdiv – and his informants’ discussion of them. The account that emerges is not simply an outburst of familiar scapegoating ‘anti-Gypsyism’ but of inchoate and confused anger, which (at least in the minds and accounts of some of his informants) contained social, anti-corruption and anti-elite demands distinct from the obviously racist agenda of many rioters.
It is tempting to ask whether the wave of more civic anti-government mass mobilisation that swept the country in 2012-3 – while largely devoid of anti-Roma ethnic scapegoating – drew on a similarly confused mass of frustrations based on a loosely populist, anti-elite framing of politics which had little need of a strong liberal counter-public.
Accountants versus poets?
Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria is framed as a critique of conventional, democratisation theory and a world of ‘hard’ quantitative political science reflecting – as one panellist at the book’s launch event put it – a division between ‘accountants and poets’.
However, in many ways as book’s dissection of literature makes clear, traditional comparativists were aware of the limitations of surveys and quantitative data and keenly aware of the potential mismatch between liberal institutions and a society lacking extensive liberal values or well embedded liberal ways of thinking. Those pondering the fuzzy and much debated concept of ‘democratic consolidation’ have for years wondered whether spread of the liberal or civic culture is necessary condition of such consolidation.
Correspondingly, the book would lose much of its argumentative force in the absence of the (flawed) comparative indices it critiques (although in the bigger picture such indices do show Bulgaria as a consistent ‘laggard’ which is in many ways closer to SE Europe than the Visegrad states – indeed the latest Nations in Transit report shows improvement in the Western Balkans and backsliding in Bulgaria). Accountants read poetry, poets need the accounts to add up.
Moreover, although written in the language of Habermasian public sphere analysis and discourse theory, some aspects of the book run comfortably in parallel with mainstream, political science thinking about liberal democracy: the existence of publics and counter-publics fits well with classic and radical notions of pluralism; the emphasis on contending philosophical notions of citizenship is echoed in the literature on party based democracy and democratic quality which emphasises the need for completing programmatic alternatives,
The sense that meaningful consolidation of liberal democracy will occur only with the embedding of a widespread liberal culture is, as noted, not controversial for many political science. And this is perhaps unsurprising given that like Cultures of Democracy Serbia and Bulgaria most have a basic (if less clearly stated) normative commitment to liberal models of politics and citizenship.
Looking north, facing west
Despite its unusual and inventive Bulgarian-Serbian comparison, the book appears on first reading a work of South-East European studies. Questions will, however, immediately occur to anyone familiar with the supposedly more successful liberalisers of Central Europe. If indices can be wrong – or, at least, misleading and incomplete – on Bulgaria and Serbia can they be wrong elsewhere? If similar methodology was deployed in provincial cities in liberal front-running countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland, liberal discourses might be found to be similarly anaemic and economistic.
The narrowly economic, reform oriented nature of the Bulgarian liberal discourses identified might thus be more Central European than the book allows. Indeed, I wondered what kind of liberal discourses and public might emerge if similar research was carried out in the streets, sports clubs and voluntary associations of Clacton, Colchester, Wigan or Worcester. Anti-political and illiberal sentiments – and a populist desire for an out-of-the-way ‘stealth democracy’ for emergency use only, akin to a fire escape – run deep in Western Europe and North America too.
Mature liberal democracies may also have a shortage of liberal citizens. The desire of a young liberal educated Bulgarian woman for a government of non-political businesspeople to sweep aside discredited and corrupt politicians is a source of mild shock and disappointment. But when asked in 2012, some 38% percent of UK respondents told YouGov that ‘Britain would be governed better if our politicians got out of the way, and instead our ministers were non-political experts who knew how to run large organisations’.
Despite – or perhaps even because – of its immersive sense of place and locality, it is difficult in some ways not to feel that this a book about democracy more than it is a book about Bulgaria or Serbia.
This post is based on notes made for a panel discussion at the launch of Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria. How Ideas Shape Publics which took place at the UCL-SSEES School of Slavonic and East European Studies on 18 November 2014.
Like most British academics I’m loath to put any of my courses through multiple committees merely for a change of name. But sometimes you come to a point where you just know that the old name’s old name’s just got to go.
The Politics of Transition and Integration in Central and Eastern Europe course has evolved since I started teaching it some ten years ago. Less on communism, more on the EU. Out with Democratic Consolidation, in with Quality of Democracy. Downplay ethnic conflict, foreground state-building and welfare state reform. Fond farewell (sniff) to George Schöpflin’s book on Eastern Europe and the ‘condition of post-communism’. Hello to a new generation of work on leverage and democracy in CEE with sharper methodology and fewer Shakespearean quotes.
And yes the end, there are no two ways about it. That name too will have to change, paperwork or no paperwork. Transition, at least in the democratisation sense of the word, is almost a historical topic. And integration (well EU membership anyway) is ten
But the difficult question, of course, now is what do I call it? If the region’s current politics are no defined by transition and integration, what does define them? Read More…
The spectacular breakthrough of Pepe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy in February underlined the potential for a new type of anti-establishment politics in Europe – loosely organised, tech savvy and fierce in its demands to change the way politics is carried class, but lacking the anti-capitalism or racism that would make them easily pigeon-holeable as traditional outsider parties of far-left or far-right.
But for observers of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the dramatic eruption of new parties led by charismatic anti-politicians promising to fight corruption, renew politics and empower citizens is nothing new. Indeed, over the last decade a succession of such parties – led by a colourful array of ‘non-politicians’ ranging from aristocrats to central bankers, journalists and businessmen – have broken into parliaments in the region.
Some have achieved spectacular overnight success in elections on a scale easily comparable to Grillo’s and (unlike Grillo) have often marched straight into government. Some examples include Simeon II National Movement (NDSV) in Bulgaria in 2001, New Era in Latvia in 2002 and Res Publica (Estonia 2003) and, more recently, the Czech Republic’s Public Affairs party (2010), the Palikot Movement (Poland 2011), Positive Slovenia (2011) and Ordinary People (Slovakia 2012),
When the Arab Spring broke out two years ago, and there were plenty of commentaries about the Arab 1989. And, perhaps against their better judgement, many specialists on Eastern Europe – including me – piled in to muse about the lessons post communist transitions might hold for unfolding democratisation in the Middle East and North Africa.
A few of these, such as the lecture Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Foundation gave at UCL well thought through and insightful. But in hindsight many of these pieces did not go further than juxtaposition seasoned with a dose of speculation.
Having witnessed the academic spats of the 1990s when East European area studies got bogged down in polemics with comparative political scientists, in part driven by anguish and reproach over the failure of area specialists to anticipate the collapse of Communism, perhaps we should have known better.
The military intervention in Egypt and the brutal and tenacious resistance of the Assad regime in Syria – and the apparent internationalization of the Syrian civil war – have caught many commentators flat-footed. There doesn’t seem to be so much writing about the Arab 1989 (or even 1848) now.
One of the biggest problems of such current affairs driven, instant cross-regional analysis is that we hardly know the beginning of the story, still less its end. To put it in the jargon of political science, we do not have a consolidated outcome.
But perhaps, in any case, the question is the wrong way round. Rather than East Europeanists pondering what post-communist transition tell us what the unfinished story of the Arab Spring, we should asking what events in the Middle East tell us about post-communist region we actually (supposedly) know something about. Maybe we should view events in Eastern Europe in a new light.
The tenacity of regime resistance and ongoing instability driven by poverty and conflicts between political religion and the more secular groups in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) certainly makes what Ralf Dahrendorf anticipated would be Central and Eastern Europe’s ‘vale of tears’ look relatively quick, speedy and benign. The rapid reassertion of entrenched regime forces in the failed or failed transition in the former Soviet Union also begins to look more the norm than it once did. Read More…
I really don’t know why John Feffer’s Huffington Post post Hungary: The Cancer in the Middle of Europe? is being so widely shared and translated.
Its starting point that things are going badly wrong in Hungary and that the country is taking a sharply illiberal turn under the conservative-national administration of Fidesz – and that in Jobbik it has a strong and virulent far-right party – is reasonable enough (although it has been made many times before). And there is indeed a climate of nationalism and anti-Roma racism on the Hungarian right, although Fidesz and Jobbik are probably as much rivals as ‘occasional allies’ especially given the stuttering performance of Hungary’s divided liberal-left.
And the transformation of Fidesz from a liberal party to conservative bloc occurred in the mid-late 1990s, not recently as some readers might assume from reading piece. Nor, being one of the major governing parties in Hungary since 1998 can Fidesz have interrupted a ‘rotating kleptocracy’ of liberal parties – the intepretation of why parties like Fidesz come to power offered in the conclusion.
But piece’s main argument that Hungary is Eastern Europe writ large or the shape things to come in the region. ‘What’s eating away at a free society in Hungary’, Feffer writes, ‘has metastasized. This same cancer is present elsewhere on the continent’.
And this is really hyperbole. Read More…
The first direct elections of the Czech president offered a refreshing contrast to the back room manoeuvring and political horse-trading that accompanied the election in parliament of presidents Havel and (especially) Klaus. Despite the nastiness of the Zeman campaign and vacuousness of the political marketing around Karel Schwarzenberg, voters were offered a clear choice between personalities and priorities and turned out in large numbers to make it.
Television pictures of voters ranging from ski-suited holiday-makers to prisoners choosing the new head of state send quiet but clear message of a country that takes its democracy seriously and knows how to use it.
But the elections also hold up a more subtle mirror to Czech democracy, showing a political system still defined by patterns laid down in 1990s, which may nevertheless be on the cusp of change. Read More…