If you want to understand what is going on in Central Europe right now and why thousands of young people are on the streets of Budapest, Bucharest, Bratislava or Warsaw, the only thing you have to do is watch Kristof Deak’s 25-minute movie “Sing,” the winner of this year’s Academy Award for best live-action short film.
The story takes place in Budapest in the early 1990s. Zsofi, a young girl, has just arrived in a new school, and she is excited by the opportunity to sing in its award-winning school choir. Erika, the music teacher, permits Zsofi to join but asks her to open her mouth without singing because she is not yet sufficiently skilled.
Zsofi agrees. But when her best friend learns of this deal, she confronts the teacher, who says that it was in everybody’s interest that only the best sing; the choir is competing for a trip to Sweden. As it turns out, Zsofi is not the only choir member Erika has silenced. Allowing only a few, talented students to sing is the teacher’s winning strategy. However, Zsofi and her friends are not willing to be party to it. The day of the competition, all the students open their mouths without singing a note. They begin singing in earnest only when an ashamed Erika bolts from the stage.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Victor Orban’s managed illiberal democracy, a style of governance that is increasingly popular throughout Central Europe, resembles Erika’s school choir. Under these regimes, citizens regularly go to the ballot boxes, and the elections are free if not always fair, but it is the government that decides who has a right to voice his concerns. In the 1990s getting re-elected in the region was a rarity; in recent years governments rarely lose elections even as most citizens openly express dissatisfaction with the way they are ruled.
The 2008 financial crisis partly explains the spread of illiberal democracies in Central Europe. Economically damaged by the crisis and restrained by European Union strictures from financing efforts to jump-start their struggling national economies, ruling parties have focused on controlling the news media as a way to shore up power. If Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi was a model of using a media empire to build political power, in Central Europe governing parties use political power to build media empires.
The model has been quite simple: The government concocts schemes to channel public or European Union money to the owners of the “friendly” media groups that side with the government and attack its critics. Those media organizations that are critical of the government don’t get its money.
To avoid the risks of being assailed with charges of corruption (or at least mismanagement), ruling parties take control of the judiciary and declare anti-corruption nongovernmental organizations enemies of the people. As one Hungarian recently told David Frum of The Atlantic, “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”
But the model of a corruption-managed democracy creates problems of its own.
In societies where political leaders fear that losing elections could result in jail time, any expression of weakness is noticedand any public initiative is viewed suspiciously. So the only outlet for citizens’ voices is taking to the streets. That is why all over Central Europe, the young are loudly protesting.
Earlier this month in Hungary, the largest public protests since Mr. Orban’s Fidesz party came to power seven years ago took place in response to legislation aimed at closing the Central European University, founded by George Soros. Thousands of people joined a “peace march for the government, for Russia and against everything else” organized by the satirical Two-Tailed Dog Party. The demonstrators mockingly demanded “more Russia” and “two Orbans.”
In Slovakia, young protesters have demanded the resignation of a interior minister they accuse of corruption. In Romania, huge demonstrations effectively blocked the government’s plan earlier this year to secure amnesty for politicians sentenced for corruption. Meanwhile in Poland, opponents of the ruling Law and Justice party have been on the streets ever since the government tried to exert its control over the country’s highest court and declared war on the independent news media.
Most of these protesters are young — some quite so. They have no common ideology, only frustration and anger. It would be wrong to romanticize them too much, but it’s safe to say that unlike older generations, they are dead-set against standing onstage and opening their mouths in some vain hope of winning modest social benefits. They want to sing. (What they want to sing we cannot exactly be sure.)
Ruling parties can certainly decide to ignore the protests of the young. The reality in Central Europe is that, thanks to low birthrates and emigration, young people are a small and shrinking minority. According to 2016 government-sponsored report, one-third of Hungarians between 18 and 29 would consider moving away. Around 500,000 Hungarians have already left the country since Mr. Orban came to power.
But while ignoring the demands of the youth appears to be a promising electoral stratagem — it is easier to play on the fears of the old generations than to satisfy the hopes of the younger ones — it is ultimately self-defeating both socially and economically. The young people will find a way to sing.
Ivan Krastev, the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and a contributing opinion writer, is the author of the forthcoming After Europe.