How central Europe’s high hopes gave way to creeping authoritarianism


The central European states were the vanguards of communism’s collapse in the late 1980s, prompting a sense of inevitability about democracy’s benign coming, reinforced by the diverse figures who stepped forward to help these societies transit to democracy with decency and, above all, without violence, analyst John Lloyd writes for The Financial Times:

In Poland, the shipyard electrician Lech Walesa gave the lie to the claim that communism had the support of workers and, in the Solidarity movement, gathered together a new ruling class. In what was then Czechoslovakia the playwright Václav Havel voiced the possibility of “living in truth” in a country shorn of one-party rule. Both became their countries’ (non-executive) presidents. Less celebrated, in Hungary former Communist minister Imre Pozsgay led talks that ushered in the institutional skeleton of a democratic state. Politicians fleshed out these bones, and the relative smoothness of the fall of authoritarian socialism beguiled the west into an assumption: the European Union, in helping these states “return to Europe” (as Havel put it), was heading for a 21st century it could name as its own.

Despots International

“This hasn’t happened,” notes Lloyd, reviewing Ellen Hinsey’s Mastering the Past, which outlines the “specters of populism, nationalism, extreme-right militantism and authoritarianism — released from their historical deep freeze.” Hinsey cites the view of political scientist Lilia Shevtsova (right) that Russia’s threat is not only to its former Soviet neighbours, Lloyd adds, but of a shift towards a “‘new global authoritarianism’, which over the last decade has been drawing countries such as Russia, Belarus, China and Hungary into political and economic alliance” – a Despots International.

The new authoritarian regimes that have emerged in eastern Europe have taken the form of authoritarian kleptocracies: Russia is the most enduring example; a revolution halted the development of a similar regime in Ukraine in 2014, notes Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University and the author, most recently, of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. In recent authoritarian regime changes, in Poland and Hungary as well as Russia, the executive power has been able to sideline the judiciary and then humble the legislature, he writes for TIME magazine.

“Once the courts are tamed, the legislature cannot defend itself, and we have authoritarianism,” Snyder adds. “If legislators do not support the judiciary, then their turn for humiliation will come, and the laws they pass will be unenforceable. This has been the pattern in recent authoritarian regime changes around the world.”

Hungary’s tide of “illiberal democracy” began in 2010 analyst Francis Wilkinson writes for Bloomberg.

“What we’ve seen is a weakening of democratic institutions around that part of the world for maybe a decade now,” said Jan Surotchak, Europe director of the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based NGO that promotes democracy worldwide and a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Europeanization & democratization ‘decoupled’

The EU could be an important corrective to current trends, but it must remain engaged, says political scientist Natasha Wunsch, who sees the support of civil society and independent media as a possible counter to antidemocratic tendencies. “Setbacks in democratization and fatigue from EU expansion fuel one another,” she told DW:

The concept of integration through democratization has become obsolete because Europeanization and democratization have been decoupled from one another. The EU must speak out sternly against democratic breaches while at the same time establishing mechanisms that promote democracy and civil society. Wunsch says that a more positive overall image of democratic progress and European integration could be furthered through exchange and education programs. Experts are unanimous in their opinion that two areas, above all, need special attention: the rule of law and freedom of the press.

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