After 1989, Eastern Europe became the poster child for liberal democracy. One after another, the countries in the region replaced their Communist systems with new market economies, alongside democratic structures. After many years of difficult “transition”—high unemployment, industrial collapse, rural dislocation—the countries in the region all began to stabilize as they approached the close of the twentieth century. By the 2000s, they were joining the European Union, and even former Yugoslavia was putting the wars of the 1990s behind it. Compared to the ensuing “color revolutions” to the east and the Arab Spring to the south, which quite quickly failed to live up to their initial promise, the triumph of liberalism in Eastern Europe had at first seemed hard for most to dispute.
Today, throughout the region, liberalism has gone into a spectacular tailspin. This seeming reversal at the polls has had many outside observers scratching their heads, just as they did after the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the last presidential election in the United States. In all three cases, voters seemed to have bitten the hand that once fed them so liberally.
The victory of a Trump-like billionaire in the recent Czech elections is particularly mystifying. Here was the only country in the region with a pre-World War II history of democratic culture. Moreover, the Czechs have been doing reasonably well economically. Their country vies with Slovenia for the highest per capita GDP in the region. The Czech Republic’s unemployment rate is the lowest in the EU at 2.9 percent. On the face of it, it would seem that liberalism has been very good for the Czech Republic.
And yet, in the parliamentary elections in October, the distinctly illiberal Andrej Babis came out on top with 30 percent of the vote, despite a corruption charge for improperly receiving a $2 million EU subsidy for his business. Babis has made a political reputation by railing against “the system,” although he served as a finance minister in the previous government for three years, owns several media outlets, and made billions by taking over state assets from the Communist era. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone who has benefited more handsomely from the system in the Czech Republic. Babis is no fan of political checks and balances and maintains a modest hostility toward the EU. But he didn’t truly gain ground politically until he started going after immigrants. “I have stopped believing in successful integration and multiculturalism,” he wrote in 2016, declaring that he wouldn’t accept an EU-imposed quota of immigrants, even at the risk of sanctions.
Yet Babis isn’t even a political outlier in the Czech Republic. An even more stridently anti-immigrant party, led, ironically, by immigrant Tomio Okamura, who came to the country from Japan at the age of six, picked up another 10 percent in the Czech elections, while the Euroskeptic Communist Party captured nearly 8 percent. The second-place finisher, the more conventional center-right Civic Democratic Party, is also generally Euroskeptic and anti-immigrant. In the Czech Republic, as in many other European countries these days, “anti-immigrant” is really just another way of saying “anti-Muslim.” The country has about 11,000 Muslims, around 0.1 percent of the population, so the country’s Islamophobia is fueled chiefly by ignorance and a lack of any real engagement with Muslims, most of whom came to the country from Bosnia or the Caucasus prior to the most recent wave of immigration to Europe. Whether it’s disgust with the corruption of the political elite, a negative association of an integrated Europe, or the large number of people struggling to survive on or just above the poverty line, right-wing populism continues to attract supporters—even in a country that, in aggregate, is doing so well compared to its neighbors.
Of course it’s not just the Czech Republic. Right-wing populist movements have taken over in Poland and Hungary. The law-and-order populist Boyko Borisov continues to dominate Bulgarian politics. In Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic won the 2017 presidential race and, despite his commitment to bringing his country into the EU, has been concentrating power in the hands of himself and his closest associates. The nationalist-inflected Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) made a surprise return to government in 2016 in Croatia. Even neighboring Austria has veered toward illiberalism with the electoral success of the People’s Party and the even further right-wing Freedom Party.
It would be easy to say that Eastern Europe is simply following a pattern set by the Brexit vote and Donald Trump. Or to chalk it up to the recent influx of immigrants from Syria and North Africa.
But the crisis in liberalism, as I explain in my book Aftershock, actually began at the very outset of the 1990s. In other words, for those who were truly watching closely, the cracks were there from the start.
Outside a small circle of dissidents, liberalism was not actually widely popular in the region during the Cold War era. As it exited communism, much of the region remained deeply skeptical of the promises of liberal politicians, fearing that economic reforms would lead to upheaval in the countryside and the widespread loss of factory jobs. Those fears translated into the victory of the former Bulgarian Communist Party—renamed “Socialist Party”—in the first free elections in 1990. The National Salvation Front in Romania, a vehicle for many who had previously served in that country’s Communist Party, similarly won the first free elections that year.
Yet many observers both inside and outside the region dismissed these electoral results as the consequences of corruption, manipulation, or simply Balkan backwardness. But the worst fears of voters in the region were soon realized as unemployment surged in the wake of “shock therapy” economic programs implemented by a liberal government. Poland’s national income dropped by over 11 percent in the first year of reform (in Hungary, which implemented similar reforms a little later, the national income dropped by over 13 percent in 1991). Later, renamed Communist Parties would win elections in Poland and Hungary as well. Notably, the former Communist parties, in the Balkans, as well as in the northern tier of the region, also implemented economic reforms virtually indistinguishable from the laissez-faire approaches of the liberals. Because of the pressures exerted by the global economy and European integration, these liberal economic reforms became a trans-partisan project in the region in the 1990s.
In Slovakia, following its “velvet divorce” from the Czech Republic in 1993, Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, a former Communist, consolidated power at the expense of democratic institutions, prompting the EU to send the country to the back of the line for accession. When a revivified civil society eventually sent Meciar packing at the end of the 1990s, analysts again dismissed the populist’s initial electoral success as a form of temporary insanity on the part of Slovaks.
By 2006, however, it was clear that the victory of the renamed Communist parties and the success of the autocratic Meciar were not momentary glitches. Liberalism’s reign in the 1990s, measured by the victory of a few parties and the implementation of these “shock therapy” economic reforms, was remarkably brief. “The liberal era that began in Central Europe in 1989 has come to an end,” wrote Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev in 2007. “Populism and illiberalism are tearing the region apart.” Here, he was expressing concern about the rise of nationalism, the replacement of Meciar with the more internationally palatable populism of Robert Fico, and the emergence of a new xenophobic and chauvinistic party in Poland, the Law and Justice Party (PiS).
More than a decade later, these trends have only intensified. PiS has returned to power in Poland. Fico is still on top in Slovakia. Since their victory at the polls in 2010, Viktor Orban and his ruling Fidesz party have deliberately pushed Hungary in the direction of Russian-style oligarchy. Bulgaria is still in the grips of nationalism. And now the Czech Republic, Croatia, Serbia, and Austria are flirting with right-wing populism as well.
This crisis of liberalism is not the result of one single issue. Anti-immigrant sentiment and Euroskepticism have become rampant throughout the region. Large swathes of the population believe that the market has failed them, and they’ve aimed their wrath at foreign corporations and other institutions of economic globalization. If the left hadn’t been discredited by its association with the Communist era, followed by the initial austerity programs of the post-Communist parties, voters might have veered away from liberalism and toward more progressive versions of populism. Instead, with electoral turnout falling steadily since the early 1990s, voters have embraced illiberal governments of the right. These parties have attempted to undermine key elements of the democratic system, such as freedom of the press and an independent judiciary.
Most recently, the European Union has voted to censure the PiS government in Poland for violating its standards of democracy and human rights in efforts to replace judges it doesn’t like with those who will do its bidding. Brussels has also taken aim at the Fidesz government in Hungary for its restrictive policies on immigration and NGOs. Although large numbers of demonstrators have taken to the streets against the right-wing governments and their policies, the ruling populists have also used the EU actions to re-energize their base of support against “foreign interference.” Fidesz continues to lead the polls in Hungary ahead of elections in 2018. Law and Justice, in Poland, is even more popular today than when it won elections two years ago.
Although the cities of Eastern and Central Europe—Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Zagreb—are prospering at the level of their Western European counterparts, the countryside remains disadvantaged, even in the relatively well-off Czech Republic. It is these voters, as in the UK and the United States, who have most decisively repudiated liberalism at the polls. True, liberal politics are also associated with more tolerant immigration laws and policies on multicultural education. But at the heart of the problem in Eastern Europe lies the implicit promise, back in 1989, that liberalism would be the way by which Eastern Europe achieved parity with Western Europe. Most of the region has gotten only half the way there.
Perhaps illiberalism is reaching its high-water mark in Eastern Europe today, but it may also be just a beginning. Absent an effort to reach out to the “losers of reform,” liberals in Eastern Europe will find that their rise and fall will have been even more precipitous than the one experienced by the Communists they were supposed to have replaced.