Has liberalism gone missing in East Central Europe, or has it always been absent?

fenceThe refugee crisis highlights that it is time to reassess the contribution of East Central Europe’s mainstream parties of ‘liberals’ who are better at winning elections than at being liberal. James Dawson and Seán Hanley, experts in Central and East European politics at UCL, investigate.

Images from Hungary showing security forces turning tear gas and water cannon on refugees from behind a newly fortified border will come as little surprise to many observers of East Central Europe.

The government of Victor Orbán has systematically exploited the refugee crisis to ramp up a long-standing rhetoric of nationalist intolerance and consolidate its grip on power by passing a raft of emergency powers, further eroding Hungary’s once robust legal checks and balances. Such actions have drawn a storm of international opprobrium – including harsh criticism from the governments of Austria, Croatia and Serbia, all of which have taken a more humane and pragmatic approach to managing the influx of refugees.

Few criticisms of Hungary’s actions have come from neighbouring EU states in East Central Europe, still widely seen as front runners in liberal political and economic reform. Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic initially opted instead to close ranks with Orbán to head off the European Commission’s proposals for compulsory quotas.

Wrong-footed and exasperated by the sudden re-discovery of liberal compassion on the part on Germany and other west European governments, leaders ranging from Slovakia’s social democratic prime minister Robert Fico to Poland’s newly elected conservative president Andrzej Duda provoked astonishment in western European capitals by conceding that they might take a handful of those fleeing the war in Syria. These would be hand-picked on the basis of their religion.

Poland has lately broken ranks by responding to pressure from Berlin, Paris and Brussels to sign up to quotas, yet even the deal’s supporters doubt it will ever be implemented against a backdrop of consistently hostile public attitudes towards refugees in the region. As one social media visualisation graphically showed, widespread use of #refugeeswelcome stopped abruptly at the old Iron Curtain. Such stances have been widely lambasted as hypocritical, ungenerous, lacking in compassion, and contradicting the long-term interests of East Central European states themselves.

Yet just a decade ago these same former Eastern bloc countries acceded smoothly to the EU on the basis that they had fulfilled the Copenhagen Criteria as ‘functioning liberal democracies’. Why has liberalism, once a rallying cry for pro-European leaders from Warsaw to Sofia and a condition built into the EU’s demanding pre-accession acquis, suddenly gone missing when it is needed most?

The answer is that the much-vaunted ‘liberal consensus’ that united politicians across the spectrum and propelled these nations towards EU membership in the early-2000s was never really aimed at building liberal political cultures at all.

In the late 1990s the liberal elites from Warsaw to Sofia did formally buy into the full package of liberal and human rights and created the laws and institutions to match. In hindsight, however, it seems that the only clear philosophical threads that linked the projects of these liberal elites were Euro-Atlantic foreign policy orientations and conformity with the liberal economic recipes of the World Bank and the IMF, which dovetailed nicely with EU conditionalities

A closer look suggests that prevailing economistic and technocratic variants of liberalism tended to accommodate rather than oppose existing forms of national and social conservatism. For every EU condition met by governments, there was typically very clear signaling to domestic audiences that states would continue to represent the interests of titular national majorities. These interests would be represented above those of marginalised groups such as the Roma, other national minorities and LGBT communities.

This was most visible through cases such as the decision of Orbán’s first administration (1998-2002) to grant full Hungarian citizenship to several million ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries. It could also be observed in scores of more mundane cases. For example: in 2001 Bulgaria’s then pro-European center-right President Petar Stoyanov conferred the country’s highest civic honor on Anton Donchev, an author best-known for popularising the disputed narrative of the forced Islamisation of Bulgarians under Ottoman-Turkish rule.

This is not to say, of course, that the region is simply ‘Hungary writ small’, as some have suggested. Hungary’s right-wing FIDESZ under Orbán is quite unique among erstwhile mainstream parties in ‘breaking bad’ by nakedly pursuing a policy of illiberal nationalism since EU entry. The problem everywhere else has been sins of omission rather than commission. In contexts defined by legacies of authoritarian communism and Christian conservatism, no pro-European party has ever tried to lead public opinion – or foster new, more liberal national identities – by consistently embracing liberal norms such as civic tolerance and pluralism.

Instead liberal elites, preoccupied with building the institutions to meet EU entry criteria and attracting Foreign Direct Investment, rarely mustered the will to challenge powerful illiberal constituencies. Nomenklatura-derived economic elites (often party backers or media owners), nationalist historical lobbies and powerful factions in churches and security apparatuses have met little resistance even from self-styled reforming liberals.

The EU’s technocratic and formalised ‘functioning liberal democracy’ was conferred on societies characterised by a revealing lack of public discussion and civic activism around touchstone social issues such as the condition of the Roma, LGBT rights, or the political power of economic elites.

In short, the liberalism of East Central European political mainstream has been an ersatz product. It has failed, when tested, to stand up for ideals of an inclusive plural society now because it never really stood for them in the first place – unless directly mandated by EU conditionalities.

East Central Europe’s lukewarm and evasive responses to the tragedy of refugees has the same roots as the unresolved plight of the region’s Roma and the patchy treatment of sexual minorities. These roots are not in the triumph of confrontational nationalist strongmen like Orbán or the rise of the extreme right, which has remained on the electoral margins in most countries, but in the persistence of illiberal norms in the political mainstream.

The refugee crisis highlights that it is time to reassess the contribution of East Central Europe’s mainstream parties of ‘liberals’ who are better at winning elections than at being liberal. In the place of the ersatz liberalism of the party-political, we should look to emerging civic movements, such as the pro-refugee activists in Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, whose attempts to publicly shame their leaders have at least shown up the political mainstream for what it is.

If such grassroots liberal activism gains traction among broader sections of the public, then liberal political cultures may emerge in the medium-term future. In the short term, nationalists and Islamophobic populists, church figures and even conservative intellectuals are likely to push back strongly, initially supported by mainstream public opinion.

The road to fully liberal democracy in East Central Europe is unlikely to be negotiated without conflict. Indeed, it may be a necessary spur to social change that top-down technocratic integration has failed to bring about.


Dr James Dawson is a Teaching Fellow in the School of Public Policy at UCL.

Dr Seán Hanley is a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Central and East European Politics at UCL.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.


This post was originally published on Open Democracy.

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