Eastern Europe is shunning liberal democracy – but it’ll come back in the end

Hungary isn’t in a welcoming mood. EPA/Balazs Mohai

What’s happening to democracy in Central and Eastern Europe? A new authoritarianism, what one leader has called “illiberal democracy”, has taken over in Hungary and Poland. Propelled in part by the Paris and Brussels attacks and the fear of terrorism, parts of Europe are drifting away from democratic pluralism.

There’s a growing sense that the world is spinning out of control, and that liberal democracy is only making matters worse.

This turn to the illiberal has been coming for a long time. After 1989, the people of Central and Eastern Europe hoped that democracy would bring immediate economic benefits. These hopes went largely unfulfilled. Standards of living failed to keep pace with popular expectations, especially after the global financial crisis of the late 2000s. In this grim climate, Eastern Europeans were attracted to political leaders who claimed they could defend them against outsiders – including the foreign banks who called in their mortgages when the financial markets collapsed.

These festering resentments were the building blocks of a new nationalism, one founded on both the politics of national identity and the politics of fear.

In Hungary, the nationalist narrative based on partial truths depicted Hungarians as victims, stripped of two thirds of their lands after World War I, then occupied by Nazi Germany towards the end of World War II, and after the war by the Soviets. Stoking fear, the governing parties in Hungary, Slovakia and Poland have called Muslim refugees “a threat to Christian civilisation”. The Hungarian government has warned that all the terrorists in Europe are refugees, and it is now preparing to enact an anti-terror law to give the government emergency powers to declare “a state of terror threat” and suspend the constitution.

In July 2014, Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared that the Hungarian government is an illiberal democracy. He asserted that Hungary and its neighbours were rejecting the liberal values of individual rights, and declared that “the Hungarian nation is not a pile of individuals” like people in the West.

Surviving illiberal nationalism

On the face of it, the risk these regimes pose to Europe seems dire. On one hand, the EU is vulnerable. Without major structural reforms, its institutions make easy targets for nationalist movements, and so far, other states’ leaders have shown little inclination to discipline member states who defy EU rules and principles – probably because they want to reserve the right to do so themselves.

But Eastern Europe’s illiberal governments may not be as big a threat to the EU as they now appear.

The benefits these countries receive far outweigh the costs of staying in. The money is plentiful, and flows freely in the form of structural funds with few strings attached. Hungary is currently guaranteed to receive €22 billion in economic assistance from the EU. Many of the country’s major capital projects, public investment opportunities and employment strategies depend on this beneficent and benign funding.

The EU is also a useful political target for Eastern European nationalists, who need it as a bogeyman. They gain popularity precisely by biting the hand that feeds them, with the rallying cry that “Brussels is the new Moscow”. Leaving it, or diminishing its influence, would rob them of their main political platform.

And despite their assault on the EU’s liberal values, Eastern European governments benefit substantially from the EU’s guarantee of employment mobility for their citizens.

Without the EU, Hungary and its neighbours would be cast adrift in a chaotic world. They have few to no natural resources to speak of, and would likely become economic vassals of the two big illiberal states to the east, Russia and Turkey, whose economic and security situation is far more uncertain than the EU’s. This is why Hungary’s prime minister is trying to stop the EU from detaching Eastern Europe from the Schengen zone, and also why he is seeking to maintain social benefits for Hungarian workers in the UK.

These may be losing battles, especially if Hungary continues to resist the EU quota rules on accepting refugees, but they show how much Orban and his neighbors need the EU.

Doomed to fail?

And so the EU looks likely to survive the challenge from the East. But we should not underestimate the forces that have been unleashed by this lurch towards illiberalism – or how unstable these countries may yet become.

If an illiberal government can be changed by democratic means, then the system may be sustainable. But if power becomes so centralised that the government can fend off any democratic challenge, the system may become unsustainable in the long run.

It can be very difficult for centralised illiberal regimes to deliver economic benefits to their citizens without liberalising their political institutions. Russia and China, the two main countries cited by Viktor Orban as models of illiberal governance, are both facing economic challenges traceable to the way they are governed.

Illiberal governance also tends to incubate corruption, which is a drag on economic growth and a source of instability, as the situation in Russia demonstrates. Eastern European countries have unfavourable ratings compared to other EU member states on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Another problem for these regimes is that while the traditional media may have fallen under the control of illiberal governments, online media generally have not. Countries that rein in freedoms are vulnerable to the digital revolution, which both promotes increased peer-to-peer flows of information and creates horizontal pressures for change. In Hungary, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in 2014 when the government threatened to tax the use of the internet, and the government had to back down.

Most unsustainably of all, illiberal regimes offer few safety valves for citizen discontent. When popular pressures build, they must either back down or resort to coercion. The Euromaidan protests in Ukraine showed that physical coercion can lead to greater popular discontent and pressure for more radical change, and can even spill over into serious conflict.

If it continues down this road, Eastern Europe’s turn to illiberal democracy is a serious challenge to the European order, and it carries serious risks – both for Europe at large and for the people living under the governments concerned.