The illiberal, populist drift in Central and Eastern Europe is a consequence of disillusion with the European Union as well as historical legacies, says a prominent analyst.
“These countries had quite different experiences during World War Two, but their more similar experiences under communism brought, from the 1960s onward, a kind of grey stability and a slowly rising standard of living – at the cost of an increasingly sullen acquiescence in despotism,” notes John Lloyd, a senior research fellow at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
“Then came the ‘return to Europe’, an apparent settling of the injustice of forced ideological conformity, an opening to the world,” he writes:
And now, a reaction. Democratic, free market modernity has not been enough: the practices of the West remain only partially adopted, and a new elite has taken political and economic power – skilled, often corrupt, sometimes ruthless, and contemptuous of their backward fellow countrymen.
But recent events suggest that the optimism of the 1990s was misplaced.
The illiberal Czech President Milos Zeman, known as Putin’s Trojan Horse in Europe, will seek re-election, likely running on anti-immigrant platform, Transitions Online adds. Meanwhile, a law regulating nongovernmental organizations will be submitted to the Hungarian parliament within two weeks, The Associated Press reports.
To a certain extent, this, too, could perhaps be seen as a natural continuation of previous measures, Emily Tamkin writes for Foreign Policy.
“It’s kind of been brewing for a time,” said Richard Youngs of Carnegie Europe …Youngs also noted that previous measures have been more intermittent and informal. “Several countries in the region, they’ve been using let’s say surreptitious measures, particularly with anything to do with Soros people … Now basically it’s a question of formalizing or making it more explicit,” he said.
Some analysts see the corrosive ideological impact of the Kremlin’s information warfare behind the region’s authoritarian turn.
Putin’s objective in Europe is to weaken or dismantle the Western order and replace it with a spheres of influence system in which Russia enjoys a much greater say over Eastern Europe, argues the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright, author of All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the 21st Century and the Future of American Power. Putin’s primary target in pursuit of this goal has been the European Union, not NATO. After all, it was the E.U. partnership with Ukraine that prompted his intervention in 2013, he writes for War On the Rocks.
Illiberal leaders like Viktor Orban in Hungary have gradually strangled democratic pluralism in their countries, writes Stanford University’s Larry Diamond, a co-editor of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy. But, he adds:
It is important to note that all the instances of “creeping autocracy” have been accomplished in political systems that lacked the long duration, deep historical roots, and strong countervailing institutions that characterize the democracies of North America, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. It would be a much greater shock if any of these democracies were to succumb to the wave of (largely right-wing, nativist) populist authoritarianism sweeping through Central and Eastern Europe.
Perhaps the perpetual anxiety of Central and Eastern Europe — the “constant feeling that the region is on the edge of backsliding, because it’s never fully institutionalized good quality democracy” — is coupling with the so-called global illiberal revolution and backlash against liberal elites that is playing out across Europe, FP’s Tamkin adds.
“The more we talk about” global illiberalism, “the more it becomes counterproductive,” Youngs said. “Regimes feel empowered. They’re doing what everyone’s doing, and they’re getting away with it.”
In her recent book “Mastering the Past” (above), Ellen Hinsey writes of the “specters of populism, nationalism, extreme-right militantism and authoritarianism – released from their historical deep freeze”, stalking through the area, Oxford University’s Lloyd adds:
For the moment, they are gathering strength: pulling away from a Europe which had sought to define itself as harbinger of a new order, where nations, ethnicities, borders and old quarrels ceased to matter, and citizens could mix and mingle their cultures in the most civil societies in the world. That vision, now, seems all but lost.