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Eastern Europe: Democratic principles on the edge

Thomas Roser
December 29, 2017

Almost three decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, constitutional democracy is increasingly coming under pressure in the former socialist states of Eastern and Southern Europe. What are the reasons for this?

People hold signs that read "All for Justice" during a protest outside the government headquarters in Bucharest, Romania
Protesters in Bucharest insist they are "All for Justice" during a November protest outside government headquartersImage: picture-alliance/AP/V. Ghirda

The EU is initiating penal proceedings against Poland. In Romania, tens of thousands are demonstrating against the undermining of the constitutional state. In Budapest, Bucharest and Warsaw, governments are ignoring popular protest and taking steps to bring the judiciary under their control, thereby weakening the separation of powers. In Eastern Europe, almost three decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, fundamental democratic principles once again seem to be hanging in the balance.

How is constitutional democracy coming under pressure in former socialist states?

Mateusz Morawiecki on Conflict Zone

In Poland, Hungary, and now Romania, governments are seeking to gain control of the judiciary. They have already partially succeeded in doing so. This undermines the independence of the judicial system, threatening both the separation of powers and the balance of power in the country.

Those in power want the judiciary to be tailored according to their needs. In Romania, the government wants more influence over the public prosecutor's office so it can block troublesome corruption investigations. In Poland, the justice ministry wants to be able to dismiss presiding judges whenever it chooses. In Hungary, the rights of the constitutional court have been heavily curtailed since the new constitution was approved in 2011. At the same time, lowering the retirement age for judges and public prosecutors has made it easier to get rid of unpopular public servants.

Protests in Gdansk, Poland against judicial reform
Protests in Poland, like this rally in Gdansk in early December, have been fierce and ongoing in the face of the government's judicial reformImage: Reuters/Agencja Gazeta/J. Rusek

What are the difficulties for the opposition and independent supervisory bodies?

"The winner takes it all." Or, to put it another way: The fundamental principle of many of those in power seems to be that the majority can do whatever it likes. Tiresome control apparatuses like ombudsmen, data protection agencies or broadcasting company watchdogs are either rejected or filled with submissive minions. If necessary, the opposition's microphones are turned off, and their access to state-controlled media is limited, or committees of enquiry rejected.

Zoltan Kovacs on Conflict Zone

What's the situation concerning freedom of the press and expression?

Not good. In both EU candidate countries such as Montenegro and Serbia, and in EU member countries like Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary, the powers that be are demonstrating a lust for control that goes far beyond forcing the public-service TV stations or state news agencies to conform. An already enfeebled press is rendered compliant by the cancellation of state advertising contracts; even opposition broadcasters are brought into line through the granting of licenses, and takeovers by pro-government investors. Disrespectful cartoonists disappear from the front pages; quality newspapers are no longer found in the kiosks; critical reporters vanish from the TV screens, inconvenient programs from the ether.

What about the protection of minorities?

The situation is very difficult for both refugees and national minorities in the countries of Eastern Europe. The Hungarian government even initiates regular, targeted PR campaigns against the unpopular immigrants in order to boost its own ratings.

As the biggest minority, Roma are discriminated against throughout the region. The fallout from the Yugoslavian wars is felt most keenly by minorities from the countries bordering former Yugoslavia: Albanians or Muslim Bosniaks say they experience hostility in Serbia, while Serbs make the same complaint in Croatia and Kosovo. Meanwhile, Hungary's very aggressive interventions on behalf of diaspora Hungarians mean the Hungarian government is often at loggerheads with neighboring Romania and Slovakia.

Is the trend we're seeing in the former socialist states an exception in Europe?

Yes and no. As the Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic said, "Everyone has their [Geert] Wilders.” And it's true that populist parties are on the rise all over Europe – and are increasingly finding their way into government, most recently in Austria.

However, characteristics peculiar to the East are very strong governing parties and very weak public institutions. The awarding of jobs and leadership positions often depends solely on the candidate's political affiliation and has little to do with their qualifications. A number of political leaders seem to do little more than pay lip service to fundamental democratic values. Some even seem to have a Bolshevist drive towards securing an absolute monopoly on power.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the EU summit meeting in Brussels
Orban's rule has been decried by many observers as authoritarianImage: Reuters/D. Pignatelli

What motivates the post-socialist governing elites?

This picture is not a homogeneous one. However, from right-wing populist former dissidents like the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, to the post-communist heirs of Romania's autocratic leader Nicolae Ceausescu, the strong desire for absolute power seems – subconsciously, at least – to have been fed by political socialization within a one-party state.

Some of the freedom fighters who have since mutated into EU skeptics have even started casting respectful sideways looks at the big brother in the Kremlin once more.

How has the EU reacted?

Brussels has reacted to Budapest's and Warsaw's repeated violations of EU principles like an offended, worried head teacher who's getting out of his depth. Outraged warnings have been followed up with criminal proceedings, but these will drag on for years, and therefore appear to be a rather impotent response. Poland is being threatened with the most serious form of punishment: being expelled from school, i.e. losing its EU voting rights. However, Brussels is very unlikely to make good on its threat. For one, the two EU troublemakers can rely on each other to veto any such proposal. Furthermore, Orban is still able to build on support from conservative sister parties in the ranks of the EPP.

Warsaw and Budapest have correctly gauged that once a country has made it into the EU club it has little to fear. The EU exerts more pressure on candidates in its waiting room, but even there it is not entirely consistent. The EU's dealings with the candidate countries seem to be characterized principally by power political considerations, like the question of how to limit Moscow's influence, rather than the European values it likes to preach.

How are ordinary people reacting?

Eastern and southeastern Europe still have a deep-seated preference for a strong leader and an understanding of politics that leans towards the authoritarian. The potential engine of social change – urban intellectuals and young, well-educated professionals – is also being weakened by emigration: The number of young Bulgarians, Croatians and Hungarians heading westwards in search of work seems to be growing rather than decreasing.

Is there still hope that these developments can be reversed?

The democratic optimism of 1989 has now vanished completely in central and Eastern Europe – even though Poland and Slovakia, for example, now enjoy a developmental status that scarcely seemed possible as recently as 2004, when they joined the EU. However, the fierce tug of war over the proposals to curb the independence of the Romanian judiciary, and the mass demonstrations at the start of the year, are an indication that many Romanians are determined that the country should not return to the political cronyism and corruption of the 1990s and 2000s.