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Illiberal winds from the East

This piece originally appeared in Issue 2/2017 of New Eastern Europe. Subscribe now.

March 17, 2017 - Bartosz Rydliński - Articles and Commentary


We have recently witnessed a number of spectacular electoral victories of illiberal parties, especially in Central Europe. Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Robert Fico in Slovakia, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland and Miloš Zeman in the Czech Republic are all sceptical of liberal democracy and its rules. Similar tendencies are seen in other parts of Europe. For example, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Freedom Party of Austria, France’s Front National and the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland – AfD) are all examples of illiberal movements that have gained popularity in the West. Clearly, the recent victory of Donald Trump in the United States and the early executive orders of his administration provide further evidence that we indeed have a problem with democracy worldwide.

The original sin

An analysis of the rise of populism in the countries of the former Eastern bloc should include the context in which liberal democracy and free market economy were introduced into the region. The consequences of the democratic revolutions in Central Europe during the 1989-1990 Fall of Nations were not only the collapse of authoritarian regimes but also their social welfare. Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and East Germans did not want to be ruled by the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, of course, but they also did not dream of an unregulated free market economy as a desirable alternative. Thus, it is the neoliberal transformation that, in my view, can be called the source of today’s illiberal tendencies. Economic liberalisation certainly made many people rich and it has helped to improve standards of living for millions. Nevertheless there were also millions who lost the chance for a better life. That is why, sooner or later, crony privatisation, the collapse of industry and a lack of empathy among the liberal elite in the newly democratising states produced a counter-reaction.

However, it would be incorrect to state that the transformation was not discontented earlier. In Poland already in the 1990s, the Solidarność trade union accused its former leaders of being traitors of the workers’ cause. Mass strikes, vociferous opposition towards the so-called “Balcerowicz Plan” (named after the then Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz) and over three million unemployed were factors explaining the return to power of the post-communist social democrats. However this force (today called the Democratic Left Alliance – SLD), despite its initial promises of progressive policies, eventually embraced neoliberalism, which was one of the effects of the association process with the European Union and the popularity of Tony Blair’s third way at the turn of the millennium. Unsurprisingly, the departure from campaign promises by the left gave an upper hand to the populist parties growing in popularity. Some of the early ones included Samoobrona (Self-Defence), the League of Polish Families and later on the now ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).

All of these examples suggest that there was a social hiccup and the transformation, which, despite its liberal promises, did not progress in the most democratic way. It is no secret that the Solidarity elite, the pioneers of the political and economic reforms, did not consult with the public. Many voices of discontent were hushed down while the liberal elite called on the public to endure the painful reforms. Despite joining the EU in 2004, the legacy of the wild capitalist of the 1990s continued, which was especially felt in the workforce. Short-term contracts and a lack of stability became a norm, yet no government responded adequately to these problems.

Similar phenomena occurred in other countries of the former communist bloc. In Hungary the twin-like problems of the post-transformation period help explain Orbán’s high level of support today. In Slovakia, first Vladimír Mečiar and later on Robert Fico took advantage of social discontent. There is also increased popularity of illiberal groups in Germany’s eastern regions: the National Democratic Party of Germany, the Left (Die Linke) and the Alternative for Germany. The sources of their success are the same everywhere. The existence of a weak social welfare system, selective social policies, mass emigration, a lack of hope for those who want to improve their standard of living and economic inequality. A sum of these factors has resulted in an explosive illiberal mix. As indeed, while democracy and liberalism offer a sense of a political liberty, they do not guarantee economic freedom. And this is the main problem being experienced in the region.

A post-Soviet laboratory

To the east of Central Europe, in the countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, liberalism has lost its reputation even more, and in a much shorter period of time. Even though the early stages of democratic reforms were greeted with enthusiasm, Russians quickly changed their minds. When asked about the 1990s, most Russians today refer to it as a decade of incredible chaos. In their view the political anarchy coupled with an uncontrollable liberalisation of Russian markets and currency all led to pathologies that still haunt the Russian Federation today. This includes the oligarchisation of the economy and politics, a lost faith in the sense of democratic reforms and a takeover of power by security services, to name just a few.  

The West and its international financial organisations have, in a sense, pushed the post-Soviet world in this direction. Throughout the 1990s the former Soviet republics, then newly independent states, were very weak – economically, politically and morally. It was proof that Lenin’s empire lost on all fronts. However, the winners of the Cold War, instead of helping the former republics move towards liberal democracy, opted for “shock therapy”. Not surprisingly, the reaction of millions of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians was contempt towards liberalism. For many living in the post-Soviet space the “kingdom of freedom” proved to be more brutal than the previous system. 

Additionally, the post-Soviet states that have undergone a hasty and thoughtless implementation of “shock therapy” – which included deregulation, privatisation and uncontrollable market liberalisation – began to experience the double standards of western liberalism. Specifically, it became quite clear that for western economic architects maintaining the social achievements of the socialist period was much less important than the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund. As a result, the political freedoms, which are so deeply engraved in liberalism’s banners, turned out to be empty slogans for many post-Soviet states. In Russia, for example, President Boris Yeltsin did not hesitate to order in tanks to fire on the parliament, and until today, the country has its political process controlled by oligarchs. Belarus, in turn, opted for a dictatorship that guarantees its citizens peace and stability at the expense of personal freedom.

Wind from the East

The more we hear about the weakness of the western liberalism-democracy-free market tirade in the East, the more we see the increasing number of disputes between Russia and the West. The illegal annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation symbolically sealed the end of the post-Cold War order. It also freed up more illiberal spirits. On many occasions Russia has illustrated that it wants to return to the idea of a Concert of Europe, i.e. the system created after the 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna, which allowed the biggest geopolitical players to divide shares of influence between themselves. This idea is deeply illiberal, as it assumes that those who are the strongest and the biggest make the decisions, while those who are less powerful have to subordinate to the will of the regional hegemon; otherwise, they risk facing invasion, sanctions or other methods of coercion. This is exactly what happened to Ukraine in 2014 when it decided to divorce itself from the post-Soviet world.

The project of Russian conservatism is not as much an empty ideological slogan used by the Kremlin as it is a vision of a civilisational project, offering an alternative to the western liberalism. This form of conservatism is increasingly exported to Europe, and not to the continent’s peripheries but its centre. For Vladimir Putin, as well as Eurosceptic members of the European Parliament, liberal democracy is morally rotten and corrupt. In lieu of liberal “exhibitionism” they propose a conservative order that opposes multiculturalism and secularism but embraces Russian traditional values.

The democratic “chaos” is presented as the opposite of the strong-fist rule that guarantees harmony and order. All these ideas make up the Kremlin’s populist illiberalism, a challenge faced by today’s EU and European leaders. Tackling this challenge is hindered by Russia’s massive propaganda machine: be it the one that is sponsored by the Kremlin or the one that has been created by numerous populist movements throughout Europe. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump testifies to the fact that post-truth is thriving in countries with long democratic traditions, and its language appeals to the most basic emotions (especially fear).  It has been used as a very effective fuel for the most destructive movements. And most importantly, it is the destructive potential of illiberalism that is the biggest danger for western democracy.

Cure vs the disease   

An analysis of the popularity of illiberal movements in Central and Eastern Europe, if it aspires to be called objective, needs to include arguments that are used against liberal democracy and which – whether we like it or not – find logical justification. Seemingly, drawing conclusions from illiberal criticism will allow us to make the necessary reforms to the “government of the people, by the people and for the people” so that it continues to serve the majority of its citizens, while respecting the rights of the minority.

It is for this reason that we should take a closer look at Viktor Orbán’s speech where he comprehensively presented the concept of illiberal democracy. It was delivered in July 2014 in the Romanian town of Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő) and reads as follows: “We needed to state that a democracy is not necessarily liberal. Just because something is not liberal, it still can be a democracy.” Per this analogy, it can also be said that if something is an illiberal democracy it is not tantamount to conservative democracy, meaning one that stresses the role of a nation. We can point out to other illiberal concepts of democracy, which include the progressive ideas of grassroots deliberative democracy as well as direct democracy which assumes equality among all voters and participants of the political decision-making process.

Returning to the criticism of liberal democracy it is worth mentioning one more argument put forward by some politicians, intellectuals, even popes (such as Benedict XVI and Francis) who link today’s economic hardships with the 2008 financial crisis. In their view the impact of this downfall has been affecting the sense of many people’s stability until today. Illiberal politicians, like Orbán, skilfully use this argument to present their illiberal ideas as an intellectual response to the economic challenges that began nine years ago. In so doing, they actually go beyond the traditional right-left division.

As a matter of fact, Orbán’s argumentation, even though seen as the basis of Hungary’s “conservative revolution”, fits into the universal critique that notes a lack of consent to the nature of liberal democracy that does not allow for alternatives, and the way it is presented as the best possible system. Disagreeing with these characteristics is not bad in itself. Clearly, an ability to seek new solutions for the functioning of a political system speaks well of those who are trying to do that. The question is: isn’t their illiberal cure worse than the disease?

Saving democracy

The phenomenon we are now observing in many countries around the globe, which we like to call an illiberal shift, is clearly related to the crisis of liberalism, both politically and economically. The liberal idea which was exported to Central and Eastern Europe as an attempt to “enlighten” the post-communist societies was indigenous to the western world. This fact also explains liberalism’s gradation, which is best seen on three axes: peripheries, semi-peripheries and centre. In other words, we can describe Putin’s regime as autocracy (periphery), Orbán’s as illiberal democracy (semi-periphery) and Trump’s as illiberal populism (centre).

Consequently, Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory (1974), which assumes the existence of a power hierarchy between core and periphery in transnational inter-regional division of labour, is now applicable not only in discussions on global trade and development of capitalism, but can also be used in discussions on democracy. For many years we have been observing the changes taking place in the peripheries heading towards the centre. The illiberal rhetoric as well as the repressive laws that have been passed by the Kremlin are making their way to Central Europe, even if in a modified form. They are also making their way throughout Western Europe, and the United States where Donald Trump (a candidate the liberal establishment did not even treat seriously) became president. In one of Trump’s first executive orders (and definitely the most scandalous thus far), he imposed a suspension on travellers from seven Muslim majority countries entering the United States. It reflects an illiberal, xenophobic attitude similar to the case in Russia where numerous groups who disagree with Kremlin policies are repressed. Naturally, the mass protests that took place in the US, as well as in Poland and Romania, indicate that the West still allows for legal ways to disapprove of government decisions. This raises an important question, however: how long will they be able to maintain effective in the fight for liberal democracy?

Unfortunately, we have no answer on how to handle the threat of democracy’s atrophy. There is no comprehensive political project that we know of as a remedy to the current crisis. Nonetheless, it is certain that we should finally break away from the façade of liberal democracy, as indeed there are reasons why the lack of creativity and heated discussions in the European Parliament are named among the biggest sins of today’s politics; just as much as the lack of emotions and divisions in discussions on the most important topics have been effectively pushing those who want to do politics into the arms of demagogues.

To save democracy from its further degradation, a radical shift needs to take place, one that would allow us to eliminate the dry technocratic procedures of establishing grand central-left/central-right coalitions. Instead large masses should be included in the policy-making process. As a result, the political elite would cease to be a “cast” and turn into real representatives of their voters. All this would inevitably bring back key components of political life, such as class divisions and interest-driven conflicts. If it is to survive, democracy needs to, once again, inflame passions among people and force them to become active participants in discussions about the world in which they want to live. Without this change democratic states with the rule of law, as we know it, may cease to exist, giving way to other political projects – including those coming from the further East.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt       

Bartosz Rydliński is an assistant professor at Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw. 

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