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Ten Years After EU Enlargement, Is East-Central Europe Fully Democratic?

Strictly political democratisation (free elections and the establishment of a multi-party system) was the fastest process to take shape in East-Central Europe, with the most visible effects; however, it was not without obstacles. For Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, in the spring and summer of 1990 the free parliamentary elections established a new political setting and the same happened in the Baltic states, after the fall of the USSR.

April 30, 2014 - Heloisa Rojas Gomez - Articles and Commentary

Certainly authoritarian or strongly statist governments did alternate in Central and Eastern Europe, like in Slovakia’s case, with Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar between 1994 and 1998. As Charles King puts it back in the year 2000, while advancing in the path of democratization, some CEE countries “did little more than exchange the mantras of international socialism for those of national authoritarianism”. According to I. T. Berend three distinct political arrangements characterized the region in their initial stage of democratisation after the fall of communism, to then steadily change across successive stages. The first political arrangement consisted in a well-structured political texture, offering representation for most political and social groupings, with all the main characteristics of western European democracies (only Hungary maintained this model after 1990).

The second type, attributed to Poland and Czechoslovakia, is defined as the result of a monolithic opposition’s victory, with different political view condensed in one single party (applicable to the Balkans’ case). The first reached political setting of the first free elections round did not last for long: soon after, political opposition groups re-organized in each CEE country, often making use of the growing dissatisfaction among the people, and internal re-arrangements began. The general political development and the emergence of a better-structured political system created early political crises in all of the countries. According to this picture, which only Hungary was not part of, a better structured political system goes in pair with political instability and crisis, which shows how fragile the system still was in the 1990s. It is the impact of the European Union which eventually enabled the completion of political processes, initiated with the 1989: it led to political stabilization and democratic consolidation, even before accession, through the policy of conditionality. The EU used the strong incentive of membership with the system of democratic conditionalityto encourage political changes including the isolation of populist, nationalist, and other anti-democratic forces.

As I. T. Berend argues, a multi-party parliamentary system was clearly in the making beginning from year 1990. The first four to five years of tempestuous transition actually represented a consistent approach towards institutionalised democracy. Nevertheless, the EU represents a much more developed, complex but more reliable body of institutions, which certainly enhanced what is called the solidification of democracy. The EU, with institutions like the European Court of Justice on the top, is able to provide wider agency perspectives since the very process of Europeanization, according to Kohler-Koch definition, is itself a process within which social actors are pushed beyond national borders to find agency. From this, it follows that the sole involvement in the EU gives the opportunity to rely on a much bigger spectrum of “guardians” of the democratic system and thus becoming EU members does complete the “democracy dream” of CEE people. According to the results of Polity IV Project, countries of CEE region figure today among the fully institutionalized democracies, by contrast with CIS countries, for example, which are listed as mixed or incoherent authority regimes. Today no government in CEE has officially returned to “authoritarian” regimes or single-party systems. There are between seven and ten parliamentary political parties present in each CEE country (with the substantially insignificant exception of Estonia, which has four), with a large number of extra-parliamentary ones representing different fragments of society. The rule of law has been incorporated (and diluted?) in the body of shared believes and norms, of “ways of doing” of CEE countries. However, to consolidate democracy does not mean to petrify it, in my view. There still are shadows, in fact. The recent question of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s policy undermining press freedom re-opens the discussion: it might in fact tackle the idea of a completed process of political democratization of CEE and shade light on a potential instability of democracy in the region.

However, as Charles Moore shows in a rather provoking article, there are certainly various points that CEE leader Orban shares with the present Prime Minister of an advanced democratic country such as Great Britain, for example the campaign against the “creeping” power of Brussels. Not all the shift towards “bad practice” is CEE stuff. If we were to speak of behaviours undermining democratic principles in the EU, we would look certainly beyond CEE region, with the UK not being alone.

Democratisation is a broad, polychromic process which embraces both the strictly political/institutional aspect, discussed above, as well as many societal aspects. Those are human rights, among which ethnic minority rights, gender equality and LGBT rights, that are at the core of today’s democracies’ debate. Ethnic minority rights are, in my opinion, the most contingent and delicate issue in CEE even today: they have never been fully addressed neither solved, but often tackled and temporarily locked in fake resolutions throughout 20th-century history. After 1945, those issues got once again frozen by the communist regimes, which led to their particularly powerful outburst in the years 1990s, right after the various “smooth” revolutions. Ethnic minority problems concerned many CEE countries, like Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Lithuania. They did not concern so much Poland and Czech Republic since they are predominantly homogeneous (especially post-Yalta Poland).

However, Latvia and Estonia presented a very tense situation in this respect, with a new strongly marginalised minority, which appeared after the fall of the USSR: the Russians. Tens of thousands of them departed immediately after Baltic independence, but not as many as some Latvian and Estonian nationalists had hoped. This is how these people suddenly found themselves deprived of the right to citizenship, only on the base of their nationality. The only way for them to acquire it was through naturalisation. As a precondition for naturalisation, in Estonia’s case, the applicant had to have his or her permanent place of residence in the Estonian territory for at least two years before and one year after the application date (residence census “two plus one”) and had to prove their knowledge of the Estonian language, which was an extremely discriminatory measure specially towards non-Estonian speakers among elderly people and middle class workers, who physically had not the chance to re-adjust to the situation. It worked similarly for Latvia, where further restrictions limited access to naturalisation application according to age criteria as well as access to certain professions to non-Latvian citizens. What was the impact of EU membership prospect and then, of effective EU membership on this policy? Certainly, it was very controversial. Whereas certain observers subscribe to the official stance that the prospect of accession contributed to significant improvements concerning the naturalisation procedure and the legislation on the use of minority languages in official procedures, others have criticised the European Commission’s flexible and favourable approach towards the restrictive policies of the Estonian and Latvian governments. In this respect, the Commission is often accused of favouring policies leading to minority assimilation and not integration (such as making Estonian and Latvian language courses more widely available.)

In the light of this instance of weak democratic practices, such as the issue of minority rights in Estonia and Latvia, we can once again the question: are the processes initiated in 1989 in CEE completed today, after having entered the “European Home”? Since it was established that democratisation certainly was among these processes, we can conclude that it is still not a completed process within the social dimension, since democratic practice is not yet well spread and consolidated, as Latvia’s and Estonian’s cases show. Nevertheless, I find it important to stress the difference between political/institutional and societal democratisation because if the first one can be easily promoted through “paper” (legislation) and money-based actions, the second one is not: it requires the more long-run action of soft power (tackling norms, values, ways of doing), which still the EU provides.

Minority issues and the process of democratisation in CEE is a particular instance also from another perspective: it shades light on “the” process, which also got initiated with 1989 revolutions, but which was not and cannot be completed with EU membership: nationalisation. The concept of the “nation-state” is very old (its origins being sometimes placed in the 15th century with the development of map-making technologies); it was fully “concretised” eventually in the 19th century.

However, because of the specific historical fate of CEE which got “trapped” in socialist internationalism since 1945, this concept was re-born in 1989 and its realization became a top agenda matter for all the former soviet satellite states, now independent and sovereign. Latvia’s and Estonia’s minority issues are to be explained exactly through these lenses: it was dictated by state’s priority of building (or actually, of re-building) the nation, by getting rid of any possible non-nationally fitting object. For this reason, the major decisions on the fundamental orientation of foreign (and domestic) policy [in CEE] were, for the first time after the long communist period, based on the national interest. However, Europeanisation and nationalisation do apparently clash, therefore CEE countries have soon understood they needed to re-orient their policy and redefine their priorities. Nevertheless, the national idea of post-1989 states is not abandoned at all, is too strong of a “dream”.

According to the British historian Tony Judt, nationalism is exactly among the factors undermining the very project of “European home”. Although in the imaginary of the most known CEE dissidents, “Europeaness” – the moral capital of those who opposed communism – represents something totally contrary communist internationalism, for CEE nationally-oriented intellectuals and politicians, the idea of Europe is now equal to the supranational universalism of the EU structure. “Return to Europe” has, in this sense, very little of a return: it rather looks like a journey towards the unknown post-national (maybe supranational) dimension.

Heloisa Rojas Gomez holds a BA in Russian Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and currently participates in an MA programme in Central and Eastern European Studies as well as Russian Studies at the same university. She is also a member of the selection committee for the United World Colleges in Armenia.

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