On 31 January, during an evening session that was suspiciously secretive, the Romanian government adopted two ordinances changing the country’s penal code. The measures were immediately seen by many as a clumsy attempt to decriminalise certain corruption offences, with the main beneficiaries being the politicians of the ruling party. Street protests broke out during that night, culminating last Sunday in the biggest demonstration since the fall of communism.
These events bring into sharp relief the main features of a volatile situation in eastern Europe where three forces vie for dominance: disconnected and sometimes corrupt “traditional” politicians, increasingly impatient and angry publics and assertive demagogues.
The east central Europe that shed communism in 1989 is a convenient laboratory to observe the emergence of a new politics. It is not necessarily due to its politicians being more corrupt, its demagogues flashier (who can compete with Trump?) and its publics angrier. It is more because its democracies are still fresher, more “basic”, their institutions not yet wrapped in a resilient layer of protective pro-democratic cultures. The whole system is thus more exposed to pressure tests.
Such tests should be easier to withstand in countries ensconced in the EU’s legal and institutional structures. So that this volatility takes place within the EU provokes, in some, extra disquiet. The EU can and should act against leaders’ transgressions, for example in Hungary or Poland where the rules of constitutional checks and balances have been dangerously manipulated. But those in western Europe who look at these events with scorn and wonder why certain “western values” have not extend eastwards might be confounded by recent events, for instance, rising populism in Britain, France and the Netherlands.
The end of communism resulted in the emergence of nearly 30 countries seeking to rebuild their economies, redesign their political systems and reinvent their identities. In the early 1990s, there was no economic blueprint other than some version of what we today call neoliberalism. In politics, the imperative of building liberal democracy was accepted as a holy mantra, regardless of the actual intentions of the builders. In culture, it was “let a million flowers bloom” after the nightmarish years of censorship. Some countries in central Europe and the Baltic region have achieved remarkable successes on the path to this triple goal. For some time, east central Europeans, though struggling, sometimes suffering and making mistakes, were building solid democratic systems. Then something snapped. No doubt the economic crisis of 2008 played a role, yet that does not explain what happened. In Hungary, the “old” political systems went into a tailspin in 2006 when the then prime minister admitted his party won elections due to… lying. In Poland, the 2008 crisis was less severe than in almost any other country in Europe, yet in 2015 vocally anti-status quo parties won elections.
How to explain this? In east central Europe, as elsewhere, the rise of populism is often explained by a combination of economic and cultural factors. But in this region, economic discontent is frequently directed at the newly instituted neoliberalism, often regardless of its actual results.
According to research from Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, there is a “demand side” explanation, centring on cultural disorientation rather than economic deprivation. People are warming up to right-wing populist assurances that their “traditional” world is not totally lost to the post-materialist, cosmopolitan culture promoted by urban elites. In east central Europe, particularly in Poland, this dream of restoring the paradise lost, of the secure “home”, often takes strong nationalistic overtones, intertwined with a sense of religious superiority. Quite a few politicians on the right assert, sometimes openly: we carry the torch of pure Christianity already irreversibly corrupted in the west.
While these theories explain much, particularly about the “demand side” of politics, there is additional work to be done on the “supply side”. Why is there such discontent, for example, in Poland, where the economic situation is better than in many countries that did not acquire a populist government? It may be that the ideological “packaging” matters. If so, we need to pay more attention to the framing of problems, for example, by skilful demagogues.
The anger can be channelled in many ways. In the not so distant past, it used to be directed leftward, but the demise of communism, followed by the gradual decay of post-communist social democrats, created a severely truncated political field. It now ranges from the murky middle to the far right. The voices of the left are weak. A lack of supply (of political programmes and organisations) from the left swings the demand to the skilful suppliers of the day: rightwing populists. This is clearly visible in the post-communist world.
There is a danger that the anger channelled by populists may overcome weak institutions. That is why east central Europe is such a critical test area. While support for democracy as a desired system is not particularly weak, a set of democracy-sustaining cultural reflexes is not as developed as in elsewhere. A sizable portion of the populace can be convinced, it seems, that the protection of the rule of law and rule-bound governance are not as important as a system that allows unadulterated expression of people’s will. Such a trade-off is the hallmark of populism.
Social anger can be expressed more or less directly or through the medium of an imposing cultural frame. In Romania, where the struggle against corruption has been at the forefront of public life for some time, the anger has been vented directly against corrupt and scheming politicians. In Hungary and Poland (or Britain, France, the Netherlands and the US), it has been channelled through populist frames skilfully promoted by demagogues. This is much more dangerous for democracy. Populists cannot solve problems, but can instil in us that simple solutions exist. We are told such solutions are not hard to implement, but we first must “return” to our pure collective selves.
Once we swallow the bug of populism we are less likely to rekindle our faith in liberal democracy; it is also difficult to wake up from the somnambulic infatuation with an imagined polarised world where easy diagnoses and simple solutions work.
Professor Jan Kubik is director of the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.