Are Eastern Europe’s new illiberal democracies sustainable?


hungary mediaHungary’s largest daily newspaper was unexpectedly shut down on Saturday (8 October), fueling concerns over a government crackdown on critical media. Nepszabadsag’s print and online editions were abruptly shut on Saturday, sparking protests and once again, concerns over Viktor Orban’s illiberal democracy, EU Observer reports:

Dunja Mijatovic, media freedom representative for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) told AP that she did not think economics was the real reason behind the closure.

“It’s hard to believe this is just a simple business move. All this to me looks like something that’s definitely further damaging media freedom in Hungary,” she said.

Meanwhile, Poland’s illiberal turn has been thrown into relief by the death of Oscar-winning film director Andrzej Wajda, who was active in the anti-Communist opposition and served as a senator during the country’s transition to democracy, according to Polish media (link in Polish):

Wajda was perhaps the most distinguished and revered Polish director, known for poignantly depicting important moments and periods in the country’s history. Four of his films were nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign film: The Promised Land (1976), The Maids of Wilko (1980), Man of Iron (1982), and Katyn (2008). In 2000, Wajda received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement.

If an illiberal government can be changed by democratic means, then the system may be sustainable. But if the centralization of power is so successful that the government can fend off any democratic challenge, then, paradoxically, an illiberal system may not be sustainable in the long run, argues John Shattuck, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

There are four key weaknesses in the system, he writes for the Fletcher Forum for World Affairs:

  • Hungaryorban_full_380First, the legacy of state control over the economy and its eventual collapse under communism show that it may be difficult for centralized illiberal regimes to deliver economically to their citizens without liberalizing their political institutions. This is particularly true for countries like Hungary and Poland that have been incorporated into a much larger interconnected market economy like the EU. Russia and China, the two main countries cited by Viktor Orban [right] as models of illiberal governance, are both faltering economically because of the way they are governed politically.
  • Second, illiberal governance tends to lead to systemic corruption, which is a drag on economic growth and a source of instability, as the situation in Russia shows. Eastern European countries have unfavorable ratings compared to other EU member states on Transparency International’s European Corruption Index.
  • Third, illiberal governance is vulnerable to the digital revolution, which allows increased peer-to-peer flows of information and creates horizontal pressures for change. Traditional media may have fallen under the control of illiberal regimes, but digital media have not. In Hungary, over 100,000 people took to the streets in 2014 when the government threatened to tax the use of the internet, and the government had to back down.
  • Fourth, as the internet tax controversy shows, illiberal regimes have few institutional safety valves for citizen discontent. When popular pressures build, the regime must either back down or resort to coercion. The Euromaidan protests in Ukraine demonstrated that the use of violence by an illiberal regime can lead to greater public discontent and pressure for more radical change.

russia clover

The tectonic plates of the Western world have started to slip, and many people have been slow to realize the potential consequences, argues former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Internally, nationalism has been gaining strength in nearly all EU member states; externally, Russia is playing great-power politics and pushing for a “Eurasian Union” – a euphemism for renewed Russian dominance over Eastern Europe – as an alternative to the EU, he writes for Project Syndicate.

According to Eurasianist ideologues, Russians are destined to dominate central and eastern Europe, Charles Clover writes in Black Wind, White Snow.

Clover astutely observes that similarities exist between Eurasianism and other ideologies that circulated in Europe in the wake of World War I, including fascism and Spenglerian conservatism, Jordan Michael Smith writes for The Boston Review. The philosophy is hostile to Enlightenment ideas of progress and equality, of civilization and the bourgeois life. It romanticizes primitivism, believing that comfort breeds complacency and decadence.

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