The Alluring Growth of Illiberal Democracies in Eastern Europe

Adriana Castagnoli 
Historian and economist, is a columnist for "Il Sole 24 Ore". She investigates geopolitical and economic relations at a global level. She has taught Contemporary and Economic History at the University of Turin. Her most recent publications include Il lungo addio.

Ulrich Beck and Edgard Grande, when reflecting on society and politics in Europe, observed that European integration has, on the one hand, been too uncritically accepted in a certain academic and research milieu; on the other hand, it has been criticised by “wrong detractors with (mostly) wrong arguments”.

 Namely, the populists from both left and right, especially the communist parties, who viewed the integration project with scepticism and opposition from the very beginning.

The accession of several former communist countries to the EU between 2004 and 2007 has had conflicting effects: retrospective phenomena such as the re-emergence of regional identities and regionalisms; but also, economic processes of intense catch-up with the average incomes of European partners.

The tough relationship with Brussels

In Poland and Hungary, part of this success can be attributed to unconventional social and economic policies. In Warsaw, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has been generous with subsidies to the poor and rural families with children that are its core voters.

Budapest, on the other hand, has conducted a policy of general increase in minimum wages, combined with tax cuts on social security and betting on productivity improvement.

But the EU transfers have been so large (about 4% of Polish GDP and about 5% of Hungarian GDP in 2020) that if Brussels decided to suspend them, the effect could hardly be minimised.

Therefore, the so-called conditionality mechanism aimed to freeze transfers to governments that manifest hostility to the supremacy of European law or violate the rule of law - as in the recent Warsaw-Brussels dispute with current Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki - could have serious political consequences for some national leaders, whose support from citizens also depends on economic performance.

Conflicts over values

Although the EU membership has served Warsaw well with an economic boom since the national-conservative party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski got back into power in 2015, many Poles have perceived the EU's liberal values as a threat to their conservative social traditions.

In their important publication Cultural Backlash (2019), political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart have shown that conflicts over values in recent years appear crucial in explaining popular support for right-wing populist parties. Cultural factors such as the behaviour towards immigrants, the mistrust of national and global governance, and the support for authoritarian values, have proved to be crucial in determining political choices.

The mix of economics, politics and technology

According to Agnieszka Graff and Eidbieta Korolczuk, who analysed in particular the Polish situation and the restriction of women's rights, the factors that have contributed most to this regressive devolutionary process of the populist right are both socio-economic, like the global financial crisis of 2008, which led to the dismantling of the welfare state in many countries, thereby increasing precarity and the crisis of the healthcare systems; and political factors, such as the crisis of the left, linked to so-called 'refugee crisis' of 2015 and to Islam, seen as a potential threat to Europe; as well as to technological factors, such as social media and online petitions, that have enabled an unprecedented collaboration between ultra-conservative groups and networks at the international level.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the European conservative parties supported free enterprise and economic orthodoxy. Conversely, post-communist populism, rejecting both socialism and neo-liberalism, combines social policies with a jarring form of neo-nationalism.

See, for instance, Hungary, which, after rejecting Soviet communism, has also repudiated Western democracy. Viktor Orbán, founder of Fidesz and prime minister from 1998 to 2002, and back in office since 2010, has moved towards an authoritarian regime, the 'illiberal democracy', supported by a crony capitalism.

Fundamentalist Catholicism

The Polish PiS government also displays a similar distinctive feature: a regime that invokes the values of the most fundamentalist Catholicism, and of an anti-globalisation, anti-immigration, anti-abortion and anti-LGBT ethnic nationalism.

But this regime offers attractive social policies that support families with children and therefore has many supporters in the small towns and the eastern countryside of the country.

The leader and co-founder of PiS, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has identified the EU as the main political target for Brussels' insistence on gender equality, women's rights and LGBT rights which are values rejected by the most traditionalist Poles.

The peaceful revolutions of 1989-90 in Eastern Europe were the benign result of grassroots contestation. However, the historian Anton Weiss-Wendt observes that, in weak democracies, populism can accelerate the erosion of self-government by reducing civil rights and representative institutions, eventually emptying democracies from within.

The neo-liberal economic transition has re-structured societies in the East, creating new winners and leaving many vulnerable people behind. Especially women, who had jobs under the socialist regime, and retired elders, with pensions that do not keep pace with inflation. Therefore, many have lost faith in self-government and have turned to illiberal democracy.

The nationalist regimes of Eastern Europe, which have grown out of disenchantment with western democracy, are an example of the dangers or risks caused by the degeneration of populism, dramatised by the insurrectionary demonstration in Washington in January 2021.

The return of the East into Europe, however, has inspired a certain convergence of values across the Continent, as argued by Weiss-Wendt, a readiness for democratic rights, including an impartial justice system, gender equality and freedom of speech. On these issues the leaders who came to power thanks to the wave of anti-elitist anger are facing a growing dissent.


Translated by Grégoire Kinossian

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