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Democracy field notes

Europe: the Devil’s New Playground

Shortly after touching down in Berlin last week, I contact a friend who says she’s on her way home to Athens, to vote in this weekend’s cliff-hanger election, the most desperate since the defeat of military dictatorship four decades ago. ‘Somehow I doubt that whoever gets elected will be able to change anything’, she tells me. ‘We’re trapped in a tragic situation. Our economy has collapsed. So has our political system. But I’m hoping to regain my optimism’. I chuckle. ‘OK’, my friend replies. ‘Let’s say I’m on a short holiday to fight fascism.’ She isn’t joking.

Nicholas Michaloliakis, leader of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn, with supporters. flickr

Welcome to Europe, the devil’s new playground, a continent where dark political forces are sweeping not just through Greece but a wide region suffering compulsory government austerity, stagnation and capital flight, unemployment and poverty. From Riga and Dublin to Kiev and Almaty, several hundred million people now find themselves trapped in swamps of economic and political stagnation. Arbitrary rule and political disaffection are flourishing. The spirit and substance of democracy are struggling to survive. In some places, democracy’s already a thing of the past.

When first writing about the probable shock-wave effects of the present economic collapse, I confess to having sharply underestimated its political destructiveness. Five years into the crisis, a new spectre is haunting Europe and its Eurasian hinterlands. Let’s call it Putinism. It’s not the old fascism (though I agree with my friend that New Dawn fascism in Greece is a serious menace), but a new political force that favours top-down destruction by governments of the democratic principle that arbitrary power is illegitimate and dangerous.

Putinism is not just a Russian phenomenon. It’s much more than a powerful trend in post-Soviet states such as as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Belarus. It’s a political disease spreading through various parts of the European and Eurasian regions, a type of post-democracy in which incumbent governments, wrapped in populist rhetoric, expand their executive powers by means of media controls, strangled judiciaries, hidden corruption and armed crackdowns on opponents, backed by shadowy secret forces.

Viktor Orbán in the European Parliament, January 2012 flickr

Look at the trends, beginning with the best-known case of Hungary. It’s the country that led the exit from the Soviet empire, to embrace what came to be called, from the early 1990s, the Copenhagen criteria, a bundle of values that included the rule of law, periodic elections and public freedoms to monitor and restrain arbitrary exercises of power. Hungary’s now sinking a boot into this bundle. On the banks of the Danube, with each passing day, the government of Viktor Orbán is building a xenophobic dictatorship. I met him several times before 1989, when he fancied himself a ‘dissident’, and each time was struck by his consummate opportunism. Blessed since 2010 by a two-thirds parliamentary supermajority, he’s wielded that vice as a weapon by re-writing the constitution and muzzling the courts and the media. He’s also gerrymandered constituencies and transformed his Fidesz party into a gloves-off ‘Fuehrer party’ that enjoys formidable support among conservative, clerical, nationalist Hungarians suffering allergic reactions to Jews, Romany and other ‘foreigners’.

The end result might well be a durable form of Putinism located right in the heart of middle Europe, a one-party state led by a charismatic leader who wins elections by stirring up conflict, playing off social divisions, pandering to the rich, protecting state property, fiddling laws, all in the name of a fictitious ‘People’ happy to see its rulers crack the skulls of their opponents.

What I’m calling Putinism is described by a recent Freedom House report as ‘stagnation and backsliding’. That’s misleading. It’s in fact a uniquely 21st-century phenomenon, a political mutation, a parasite that feeds on the dysfunctions of parliamentary democracy triggered by burst market bubbles, compulsory austerity and chronic stagnation. That’s why, with no solutions to the economic crisis in sight, it’s making substantial gains, not only in Hungary and Greece (remember that only one-fifth of its citizens voted for New Democracy) but throughout a much wider region.

Consider Estonia, where new ‘oligarchs’, big money and government manipulation are poisoning the institutions of free media and parliament. Or ponder last year’s decision by Latvian president Valdis Zatlers to dissolve parliament by means of a referendum, or that country’s harsh government austerity measures, which have realised a Putinist dream: a forced mass emigration of one-sixth of the disgruntled citizenry, so that in the space of just a few years the country’s population has shrunk from 2.4 million to just under 2 million.

Viktor Yanukovych, Prime Minister of Ukraine. cvrcaki/flickr

Elsewhere in the EU, for instance in Romania, an austerity coalition government, keen to prolong its power, has postponed local elections scheduled for this month. Then there’s neighbouring Ukraine, the vital buffer zone linking the EU and Russia, a country where the administration of President Viktor Yanukovych is busily remoulding state power, building up a system of permanent emergency rule designed to bring to an end the Orange Revolution. Judges, academics, journalists and editors who dare speak out are intimidated and punished. And a few months ago, parliament passed legislation granting sweeping powers to the internal security forces (SBU) to round on public protesters, whose actions now fall within the criminal category of ‘mass riots’.

Analogous trends are found throughout the Balkans, where parliamentary democracy is imploding, or heading towards Putinism. Kosovo is racked by fraudulent elections and voter boycotts. Bosnia and Herzegovina doesn’t have a functioning government. Macedonia doesn’t even have an agreed country name; but its coalition government, led by Nikola Gruevski, recently seized the opportunity provided by an opposition parliamentary boycott to pass laws that give greater electoral representation to Macedonians living abroad, a diaspora that typically votes for the ruling coalition. Albania’s EU candidacy meanwhile looks improbable following big-time corruption scandals, disputed elections, the shooting of anti-government protesters and the assassination of a judge - the first time that has happened in the country’s history,

The dark list lengthens, so prompting the parting questions: what’s the long-term significance of this trend towards Putinism? Is it proof that ‘end of history’ (Fukuyama) and ‘third wave’ (Huntington) interpretations of the triumph of ‘liberal democracy’ were always pipe dreams? Yes. Further proof of an old ‘law’ in the history of democracy: that democratic ways of handling power have no historical guarantees of success or survival, and that they’re much easier to destroy than to build? No doubt. Doesn’t the rise of Putinism show that contemporary democracies, especially when their market foundations collapse, are quite easily tempted to commit ‘democide’? Certainly.

More questions and answers should follow, but just these few imply that the current ‘crisis of Europe’ is arguably not just a Eurozone problem. Something much bigger and more consequential and sinister is unfolding: a threat to cherished democratic values and institutions incomparably more precious than the current preoccupation with sovereign debt, credit ratings, government bonds and bailout packages.

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