Eastern extravaganzas

Political vagaries, a hatred of the elite, corruption and staunch nationalism divide Eastern Europe between populists and liberals.

Ther article was first published in the EastWest magazine on 4 July 2016.

Among the multiple European crises, the crisis of the liberal order is the most worrying. The populist surge and antiliberal sentiments undermine the very foundations of the European community as well as the EU’s ability to address challenges from the outside. And yet it appears that the nature of the illiberal turn is still not sufficiently understood. The most recent developments in Central and Eastern Europe – the success of the nationalist conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland resulting in constitutional turbulences, the rise of right-wing populists in Slovakia in the parliamentary election and the anti-immigration campaign led by Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán – have produced as much concern as they have confusion about the state of liberal democracy in Europe.

Are Central and Eastern Europe, until recently examples of a successful transformation and democratization, backsliding into the nationalist abyss? Or is it rather the avant-garde of a pan-European trend? The notion of a new East- West divide is haunting the continent. Voices claiming that the EU’s eastern enlargement should have been avoided are gaining support against the backdrop of reports about the U-turn in Polish politics and other Central European predicaments. In fact, the speed of the politicisation of the feeling that Western and Eastern Europe possess different political cultures and moral systems reminds us that the decade of living together in the enlarged EU has been too short a time to overcome long-standing views and mental dispositions.

Understanding the features of the Eastern European populist adventure is instrumental for both avoiding the oversimplifications of an East- West rift theory and grasping the challenges emerging in those countries.

No, populism is not an East European speciality like pierogi or goulash. When the Czech media oligarch Ivan Babis entered politics with his own party and became deputy prime minister, there was much talk about the Berlusconisation of Czech politics, in reference to the former Italian prime minister. And the advance of nationalist-conservatives in Poland as well as the Orbanisation of Hungary may soon be paralleled by political earthquakes in Austria or even France. Thus a sense of complacency in the West would be inappropriate. The people’s discontent with liberal democracy and open societies which fail to deliver stability, prosperity and cohesion is not just a post-transition nightmare. The crisis of liberalism is not an East- West problem, and evoking this dichotomy only deepens the confusion,

Nevertheless, as much as the sources of populism are similar in the East and West – the feeling of deprivation and the perception that mainstream elites have lost control of the situation – its images vary. Is there an East European version of illiberalism? Certainly. Are Eastern European societies more prone to falling into the right-wing trap than their Western European counterparts? Not necessarily. Still, understanding the features of the Eastern European populist adventure is instrumental for both avoiding the oversimplifications of an East- West rift theory and grasping the challenges emerging in those countries 25 years after the end of communism.

The nations in Eastern Europe are not caught up in a collective nationalist or anti-liberal frenzy. The Polish Law and Justice party, ruling with an absolute majority, was elected with 38% of the vote from a voter turnout of just 50%. A much more accurate picture is one of divided societies, much more strongly polarised than in Western Europe. There are multiple reasons for this, but the transformation after 1989 did not create more social cohesion, rather the opposite. The transition process initiated the fragmentation of what were previously largely more or less equal societies. Eastern Europe has had a different experience than that of the trente glorieuse in Western Europe when liberal democracies stabilised in parallel with the creation of welfare states, providing for an easing of social tensions and the promise of fairness. The history of Western Europe after 1945 was one of the creation of large centre parties, forming the pillar of liberal democratic values and political predictability. As recounted by the late historian Tony Judt, it was the social democratic era which prepared the ground for the stabilisation of societies and political systems in Western Europe after the Second World War.

Central and Eastern Europe developed on a different path. When its democratic systems were established after the fall of communism, it experienced a (neo)liberal era. The consequences have included individualisation progressing at the expense of social capital and the retreat of a society based on mutual trust and support because it resembled communism. The same was true of the concept of a strong state, which was rejected by the elites. In fact, political and economic liberalism was the only game in town: the left was discredited and even the heirs of communist parties subscribed to the Washington consensus.

It is often forgotten that the revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe were both democratic and nationalist, related to the regaining of national independence.

Liberalism has had tremendous successes in Eastern Europe – but its ideological hegemony in the 1990s proved to be the source of political tectonic shifts. The Eastern European party systems (including, interestingly, former East Germany) are not characterised by the left-right dichotomy typical of Western Europe. As proof of this, see the weakness and programmatic fluidity of the left. The result has been a vulnerable political system. As Anton Shekevtsov argued, “when liberal parties fail, democratic alternatives are not always available”. This is exactly what happened in Poland and Hungary. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of Poland’s PiS, and Orbán were the only real alternatives to the liberal elites who had lost the confidence of the voters. In a sense, the anti-liberal backlash is a reaction to the genuinely liberal (both in economic and political terms) state model in post-communist countries whose deficiencies and problems became apparent when the new generation, born after 1989, entered political life.

It is no surprise that this anti-liberalism draws upon conservative and nationalist rather than left-progressive traditions. First, in a time of insecurity people tend to look for stable anchors associated with the nation-state, religion and conservative values. Second, in the absence of leftist narratives, this is simply the tradition that is available in most countries of the region. Pre-wartime nationalism was never discredited in the East as it was in Western Europe. It can thus more easily become a source of meaning and anchoring for various political groups and electorates. And the fact that in the history of the region the evil mostly came from abroad (not from within as in Germany or Italy) makes defensive and mistrustful sentiments even more plausible.

The legacy of 1989 also plays its role. It is often forgotten that the revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe were both democratic and nationalist, related to the regaining of national independence. This is the source of the Eastern European sensibility regarding sovereignty. It also explains the rejection of cosmopolitanism which became apparent in the refugee crisis. As Ivan Krastev noted, in Germany the shift towards cosmopolitan values was a reaction to the xenophobic legacy of the Nazi era. In Central Europe, the distrust of cosmopolitanism comes from the memory of the internationalism imposed by the communists.

So, is Central and Eastern Europe quite different, in fact odd, after all? It may appear so. Political upheavals in those countries occur more suddenly and are often deeper than on the rest of the continent. But they are certainly not doomed to go down a different path. The liberal centre of the societies in the West is dwindling. Meanwhile the East is constantly being subjected to political competition between liberals and populists. At the end of the day, however, the lack of response to crises will have the same result in both parts of Europe: the demise of the concept of the political community which was the main anchor of Europe’s success after 1945 and the key motivation for an unprecedented transformation of excommunist societies. The main dividing line today does not run between the East and West, but across almost each and every European society.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

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