In CEE populism, culture and identity ‘back with a bang’


In the face of an illiberal upsurge, the European Union is lacking leadership, while the election victory of Marine Le Pen would mean the end of the European project, says Jacques Rupnik (left). The populist backlash in Central and Eastern Europe reveals the absence of checks and balances and of truly independent media to serve as a counterweight to creeping authoritarianism, but civil society also “distanced itself from taking responsibility,” he adds.

“Civil society organizations have especially developed in places where the political opposition was weak,” he notes. “In such a context, the organizations would have possibly a moral responsibility, but not a real one, in the context of ‘checks and balances’. This is precisely where the weakness of civil society lies: all you have is a civil society that is amiable, but is too weak, powerless to change things,” says Rupnik, author of From democracy fatigue to populist backlash in the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy, and a member of International Forum for Democratic Studies Research Council.

With rise of populism, illiberalism and xenophobia in EU’s Eastern Europe, a key question has become “what went wrong?” The Sofia Platform writes:

A region considered a textbook example for transition, EU integration and democratization, now writes alarming headlines almost every day. With the global West caught in its own democratic retreat and the single countries becoming increasingly isolationist, it is too tempting to look for the same explanations and same solutions in every country. Our understanding is that Eastern Europe needs a different approach, which begins with a closer look into both communism and a variety of transitional experiences of the past.

The platform’s latest publication “Mapping Transition in Eastern Europe: Experience of Change after the End of Communism” tries to map the challenges faced in Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Romania, Ukraine and Russia that can be ascribed to the recent past.

“Institutions and elites usually take priority in countries in transition, but unless attention is paid to the society at large, legacies of the past will loom in the present, opening space for illiberal and populist forces to determine the future of democracy,” the authors contend. (Download a free copy of “Mapping Transition in Eastern Europe: Experience of Change after the End of Communism” here.)

Highlighting the experience of change, the Sofia Platform raises the vexed issue of political culture, which refers to the psychological and subjective aspects of politics – the attitudes, beliefs and sentiments that give meaning to a political process, providing the underlying assumptions, ideals and operating norms that govern political behavior.

The relationship of political culture to democracy has long been subject to debate, but with the rise of populism, issues of culture and identity have come back with a bang, according to Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at the University of London’s Queen Mary College.

“Just as political scientists had begun to take it for granted we had moved from an era of ‘position politics’ (the clash of big ideas between two tribes) to an era of ‘valence politics’ (where competence and credibility counts most), culture and identity came back with a bang,” he contends. The re-emergence is “made all the more explosive by a pervasive feeling – especially among voters dispossessed and disoriented by the dizzying pace of social and economic change – of ‘disconnect’ with mainstream politicians.”

“Migration, and the multiculturalism that inevitably comes with it, is not the only contentious issue in all this. But it is, as opinion polls and media coverage attest, by far the biggest,” Bale suggests.

Viktor Orban’s brand of populism is also acquiring kleptocratic traits, says analyst G. M. Tamás, a Visiting Fellow at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in.

After some hesitant but repellent experimentation with a totalitarian-style mobilization he later wisely abandoned, he and his régime invent a technique whereby corruption, in the legal sense, is avoided, but state assets are used nevertheless to enrich the friends and retainers of the ruling family, he writes for Open Democracy:

The leadership is not bribed by outsiders, nor is theft committed: companies, lands, buildings, profitable enterprises, rents and, especially, money from European funds are simply donated to courtiers and flunkeys and to their bogus firms. State functions are outsourced to the leader’s allies (but still controlled by him, informally), private companies nationalized and then re-privatized to such allies. Tenders offered for catering to national and regional needs are invariably won by the same people and the same pro-Orbán and sub-Orbán companies.

The region’s anti-Western sentiment has been accompanied by rising criticism of the E.U., yet there is no sign that any of these countries is about to follow Britain through the exit door, The New York Times adds:

That does not make the assaults on foreign N.G.O.s, with their overt hostility to Western values and overtones of anti-Semitism and xenophobia, any less contemptible. The focus in many of the campaigns on Mr. Soros, who comes from a family of Hungarian Jews — like the calls for “de-Soros-isation” in Macedonia — is especially loathsome.

Illiberalism is the subject of a must-read article in the latest issue of New Eastern Europe by György Schöpflin, MEP, former Jean Monnet professor of politics, University College London.

Download a free copy of “Mapping Transition in Eastern Europe: Experience of Change after the End of Communism” here.

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