Ivan Vejvoda

What is Happening with Central-Eastern Europe?

As we mark this year the 30th anniversary of the end of communism in Europe, epitomized by the fall of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989, there is no end to the questioning of “what went wrong” in Central and Eastern Europe, when everything seemed to be going fine at the beginning?

Why has there been a backsliding, regression of democracy and of the rule of law, and rise of nationalism and populism, in so many societies.

This, the rise of populism and nationalism, of the far right is no exclusivity to Central and Eastern Europe – we are seeing similar troubling political and societal dynamics, “culture-wars” in parts of the whole Western hemisphere. The West writ large – North America and Europe (confining ourselves to this area) has partially gone into reverse gear.

Democracy, the rule of law, the liberal international order is being questioned and challenged both within this family of countries and outside of its perimeter by the likes of China, Russia, Turkey and others.

But what happened to the model countries of Central and Eastern Europe’s “transition-to-democracy” – to Poland, Hungary, to the other two of the Visegrad 4 group, the Czech Republic, Slovakia. It must be said at the outset that although certain if not many features and dynamics are shared, lumping these countries including Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia together would be mistaken since they all have their own particular features, differences. The group of Baltic countries must also be considered separately in this context.

To understand the reversal of political and societal dynamics one must understand the hopes and expectations raised by the opening up of societies and the ensuing democratization dynamics that began after 1989.

The countries from behind the Iron Curtain “returned-to-Europe” in a steady, sustained process of Euro-Atlantic integration, joining the European Union and NATO in successive years 1999, 2004 (“Big-Bang” enlargement), and 2007.

The “end of history” (Francis Fukuyama) was proclaimed and many believed Europe was on a “highway to (a democratic) heaven”. It was surmised that given certain conditions even the rest of the world would progressively converge and be part of “democracy’s third wave” (title of an article by Samuel Huntington in the spring of 1991). After World War II Europe’s troubled and tumultuous history of unending wars had come to an end. European leaders embarked on a project of building joint institutions so that conflict could be avoided and peace consolidated. A European Community of values and institutions that created the fundaments of lasting peace was created by the mid-1950s.

But the other half of Europe, Central-Eastern and South-Eastern Europe was left out in “the cold” for 45 years behind an “iron curtain”. The countries of the Eastern bloc were abandoned to their fate, to the domination by the Soviet Union. And while peace reigned in the West, with countries such as Greece, Portugal and Spain eventually also overthrowing their dictatorships in the 1970s, the East among other saw the invasion by the Soviet Union of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

It was thus no surprise that in 1989 Europe and Europeans, both in the West and East, wished to right the wrongs of the historic fate that had divided the continent after 1945.

Freedom had been regained. Oppression and occupation by a foreign power ended. All these countries of post-communism were now for the first time in modern times choosing of their own free will to join the Western alliance, the European Union and NATO.

This process of reconquering freedom, a transition from communism to democracy transforming the states into constitutional democracies based on the rule of law, with economies that from command economies became market, capitalist economies aligned themselves to the EU’s acquis communautaire, establishing rules, norms of a free society. They began pursuing the establishment of democratic political cultures within their societies.

The desire for freedom, the desire to live in an open society to be able to travel freely and enjoy individual rights and freedoms was overwhelming. The gaze that had been cast toward the West in this Eastern part of Europe since 1945 created a deep-seated wish to at some point in time become “like-them” in the West, namely to enjoy the same degree of freedom, rights, justice, prosperity and security.

This huge political, economic and societal overhaul and reform process, often in a positively euphoric atmosphere took-off at break-neck speed. It was termed “shock therapy”. The goal was to make the move from communism to democracy and market economy as rapidly as possible. Not all was a linear progressive process, nor was it simple or fully successful. In the words of the Hungarian sociologist Elemer Hankiss after the annus mirabilis of 1989, came the annus esperantiae, then the annus miserabilis and in I992 the annus desillusionis or realismis.

This process was an accelerated replica of what Western societies went through after their democratic revolutions in the late 18th or 19th centuries – a process which historically took decades and even a century leading to consolidated democracies. This “pressure-cooker” (pentola a pressione) process was described succinctly by Ralf Dahrendorf: Constitutional reform would take mere six months, economic reform six years, but he warned ''sixty years are barely enough to lay'' the social foundation for bringing ''civil society'' to life, that is to create a fully functioning democratic institutional life and a strong democratic political culture.

He also warned then in 1990 that maybe later down the road a new form of ''fascism'' might appear. ''By that I mean the combination of a nostalgic idea of community which draws harsh boundaries between those who belong and those who do not, with a new political monopoly of a man or a 'movement' and a strong emphasis on organization and mobilization rather than freedom of choice.'' Europe was a long way away from the wave of far right political parties and movements.

And yet in 1991 there was something that appeared to be an aberration to this “return-to-Europe” with the breakdown of Yugoslavia that for many was going to be the frontrunner of Euro-Atlantic integration. The burst of nationalism, of violent ethnic conflict in the middle of Europe at the end of the 20th Century to many seemed an exception that would not be repeated. And, some twenty years later this now appears as a harbinger of elements of what we are witnessing today.

Why did then this current shift, resurgence of nationalism, nativism, sovereignism, populism occur? For what reasons did “illiberal democracy” emerge as a possible way forward in Central and Eastern Europe? Change was suddenly thrust upon these societies. They were awoken from their late communist slumber suddenly in 1989. Prior to 1989 there were dissidents and “oasis of civil society” in all these countries who worked tirelessly to conquer greater spaces of freedom. They succeeded and carried their societies toward a new path of freedom. But these societies were suffering from the long period of 45 years under communist rule. This left atomized societies with no sense of what pluralist politics was. The learning curve was steep. Politics and political parties came into being overnight, some based on old pre-WWII parties others completely new. Voters in turn at subsequent elections voted for center-right, center-left, for various coalitions of small and big parties. Until there was significant economic growth which allowed for increased living standards, coupled with the enjoyment of the political and individual human rights, freedom of speech and freedom a travel – things went progressively forward.

This was more or less the case for the first twenty years until the world economic and financial crisis broke out in 2008 first in the US with Lehmann Brothers Bank and the sub-prime mortgage melt-down, which then traversed the Atlantic and reached Europe.

Of course not all had been rosy in Central and Eastern Europe between 1989-2009, in spite of the fact that political pluralism had replaced the monopoly of the Communist Party, that borders were open and that freedom of entrepreneurship was alive. Foreign direct investments were flowing in, jobs were being created by big and small and medium sized European companies in search of qualified but more affordable labor. But there was not enough to go around for all, nor at the salary level that many wished for. Outmigration to other wealthier EU member states began. Hundreds of thousands left Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria etc., to find work in more prosperous member states. These were mostly younger liberal minded citizens who were leaving. This in turn diminished the voting pool in these countries In addition the negative demography, negative birth-rates created steadily a fear for the future of the countries concerned. Most of them are small countries with populations between 2 (Slovenia) and 10.5 million (Czech Republic) the exceptions being Poland (39 million) and Romania (20 million). Central and Eastern Europe followed also in the growing distrust in political elites and institutions, mainstream parties, and more generally there was loss of faith in the ability of all these to deliver on promises and expectations of well-being and security.

As the combined crises/events unfolded: economic and financial, migration in 2015, Brexit (a shock to the EU’s integrity and future), the election of Donald Trump in the US, and prior to that the return of geopolitics with Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and its annexation of Crimea in 2014, and support for the insurgents in Eastern Ukraine, and the geoeconomics of the rise of China – in Europe first a North-South divide appeared sparked by the Greek debt crisis and economic troubles in other South European countries (although economic turmoil occurred in Ireland in Latvia as well) and subsequently an East-West divide because of the divergences over migration, asylum, and quotas of refugees that EU member states were supposed to take in. The tectonic shifts and the rise populism along with that of “strong” leaders, populist leaders such as Viktor Orban in Hungary in particular, were the fruit of a combination of demographic fear for the future of their societies, of the questioning of the workings of globalization that was leaving many without jobs or precarious jobs, the technological revolution that is replacing or planning to replace many jobs by machines or digitalization.

This was also the result of varying degrees of “Brussels-bashing”: very simply of systematically blaming many domestic political and economic misgivings on the EU’s bureaucracy, on its lack of sensitivity for the grievances of citizens (common in many Western EU member states in particular in the United Kingdom and we see today in Italy as well).

One thing is certain after Brexit and the Trump election there was a surge of support for the EU in public opinion polls – it seems that the threat of an unraveling and possible falling apart of the EU sparked reminded European citizens of what they have and what might the prospect of a non-EU Europe bring, what a possible return to the dark times might mean. This was all the more the case in Central and Eastern Europe because notwithstanding the electoral successes of the populist parties – citizens of these countries with their support for the EU clearly see it, along with all the often justified criticisms of the EU, as a bulwark for the stability and security of their societies. In fact one of the latest eurobarometer polls found the highest percentage of support for the EU in 35 years.

Both Hungary and Poland are like other societies today deeply polarized. Through the mecha-nisms of electoral laws and gerrymandering it is possible for the ruling party in Hungary to have a two-thirds majority in parliament with less than 50% of the votes, and the ruling party in Poland to have an outright majority with38% of the vote.

The slogan of Brexit “taking back control” is applicable in large part to the ideas of the ruling parties in Poland and Hungary in particular although we see elements of this in other CEE countries and right-wing parties in some other EU member states.

Viktor Orban was called “the EU’s most dangerous man” by the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative think-tank in September 2015 – after his speech in which he asked others to follow and uphold “illiberal democracy”. This assault on universal human rights (not accepting rightful refugees), with anti-Semitic overtones, i.e. George Soros being constantly portrayed at the origin of the refugee crisis ( it was recently revealed that American political consultants Arthur Finkelstein and George Birnbaum in 2009 provided the idea of a George Soros bashing, scapegoating campaign to Viktor Orban as a path to electoral success).

Much criticism has been addressed at the European Peoples Party (EPP) for not taking a much more determined stance within its family group to defend the principles of the rule of law in Poland and Hungary, and to more forcefully demand a reversal of the laws that infringe the independence of judicial and other institutions, i.e. to reinstall checks and balances.

Chancellor Angela Merkel met with the leaders on the Visegrad 4 group on 7 February to certainly discuss some of these issues. Probably as well the proximity that some have in their relations with Russia and Vladimir Putin. The energy dependence of Europe and of individual countries on Russian gas remains an ongoing challenge. The ways to respond to it by diversification of supply are all too slowly yielding results. The case of Nord Steam II and of an upcoming Turkish Stream pipeline both from Russia are a case in point.

Since the Visegrad 4 countries have towed the line on the key strategic issues within NATO and the EU such as keeping sanctions on Russia due to the lack of reaching a peace in Ukraine along the Mink I and II agreements, on supporting the strengthening of NATO presence in Poland and the Baltic countries – it seems that this has been of key importance, a sufficient condition not to disturb the peace within the EPP family, nor to expel or sanction anyone.

In the EU institutions responses to Hungary’s and Poland’s reversing of democratic principles have been two fold. It is the European Parliament that has engaged through the Sargentini report the procedure related to Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, condemning the breaching of fundamental values of democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights. It is the European Commission that engaged an Article 7 procedure against Poland’s infringement of the rule of law in December 2017.

It is as if the member states of the EU with their different approaches to the tumultuous internal and external challenges have chosen the minimalist response – “hoping-for-the-best”. Whether this is an optimistic view or one which can only lead to further muddling through or worse developments is difficult to assess.

We live in a “risk society” (Ulrich Beck, 1986), a “society of fear” (Heinz Bude 2014), in an “age of anger” (Pankraj Mishra 2017) due to the global processes enumerated earlier. When these prevailing social, political and economic dynamics meet the recently “opened” CEE societies, where democracy and democratic institutions have not been consolidated, where identity issues of the ethnic group and/or country’s survival have arisen, in which autocratic trends and autocratic ruling patterns of behavior which entail taking control of key media outlets, or even expelling a university (as Orban did in Hungary with the Central European University) – then the fragility of democracy and its institutions is exposed and by inference the capacity of the European Union to preserve itself. Much more effort needs to be put into bridging the East-West divide. An awareness of this need has grown but not yet enough has been done. Mainstream parties have been seriously undermined by a complacent attitude as the variety of internal and external challenges were growing.

Other actors have appeared, but also resistance through civic protests in all these countries should not be discounted. Some have been able to push back on certain decisions made by populist nationalist governments, others not. A transnational European public space is among other of the essence in addressing these challenges. Difficult compromises, through dialogue and tireless efforts, need to be found which firmly uphold and defend the fundamental principles of a democratic polity, the rule of law and human rights.


The article gives the views of the author, not the position of ‘Europe’s Futures
Ideas for Action’ project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).