09 July 2019

Can EU stop East-European iliberalism’s rise?

Sergiu Medar

Within the past 1 or 2 years, undemocratic illiberal manifestations, which were increasing in Europe’s East and South-East states, became a phenomenon whose causes and demonstrations can be questioned. Starting with Hungary, which claims to be an illiberal state, up to the Czech Republic, which only possesses illiberal manifestations, states’ leadership modifications, as well as their international relations, shall be discussed with EU’s representatives, in order to set the proper methods to return to liberal democracy, which is, in fact, European organization’s basis.

Image source: Mediafax

Over the past 100 years, liberal democracy has been spread and strengthened, initially in Western European states and, in the last 30 years, in Eastern Europe as well. Hereof, it is getting closer to the Russian space, wherefore it can be seen as a fundamental threat. Liberal democracy’s fundamental principles are: guaranteed individual freedoms, minorities’ rights are protected and separation of powers gets promoted as governing model. After many years of enlarging a liberal democracy, in a fierce ideas and principles competition with the Russian or Chinese authority, the illiberal gaps have started to show up. These were initially seen as "semi-democratic" because they are accessing, however, the power, through free elections. Illiberal states’ post-election evolutions have nothing to do with democracy, hence, we are not wrong when considering them undemocratic.

In April and May 2018, the Defense and Security Monitor published two articles focusing on illiberal phenomena’s emergence in Eastern Europe. "Illiberal democracy involves democratic liberties’ restriction. The government, more or less freely elected, takes a number of hidden measures that are often not even assumed by parliament", mentions one of these articles.

Democracy’s expansion in Eastern Europe, in 1989-2000, followed Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary or Slovakia’s model. Many were seeing Turkey's evolution as an example of a Muslim state’s democratic evolution. These are also the states that British think-tank Brooking Institution’s  studies give as examples of evolution towards illiberalism, marked, first of all, by authoritarian manifestations’ growth that starts immediately after free, but not fair, elections.

In order to break states’ democracy level down, the above-mentioned think-tank introduced the Varieties of Democracies Project (or V-Dem), Liberal Democracy index. It makes a complex assessment of the factors defining one state’s liberal democratic evolution. According to this index, starting in 2013, Czech Republic and Slovakia’s democracy is going down, in Hungary and Poland is definitely falling, and in Turkey is in collapse.

Analyzing the 34 EU and NATO member states, following the same index, we find Czech Republic on the 15th position, Slovakia the 22th, Poland 26th, Hungary the 29th and Turkey the last. There are states, such as: Croatia, 29th place, Romania, 31th t place, Albania, 32th place or Montenegro, 33th place, whose index has low values, but which are not considered authoritarian or illiberal.

When studying the reasons behind Eastern European states ascension towards illiberalism, we can blame it on public’s lack of confidence. They are fighting state’s institutions, the political class, officials, experts or the media, which are, in fact, liberal democracy’s main manifestation mechanisms. People’s lack of confidence against their leaders emerged due to globalization, as well as new technologies’ accelerated development, which led to economic and developmental disparities’ increase and, consequently, the poverty of already poor states. This phenomenon has also increased due to 2008-2009’s economic crisis, which led to increased migration from Eastern European countries to West of the continent. This includes Eastern Europe states. Plus, there was also Germany's decision to receive immigrants from Asian and African conflict areas. States which were not even targets of migration have reacted firmly negative (Hungary, Czech Republic or Poland).

With all this uncertainty, demographic changes, and even individual insecurity’s growth, there were emerging political reactions against Western European liberalism, through the emergence of populist, and even radical, left or right parties. Highlighting the national re-identification process by getting back the national sovereignty, supposedly lost after joining European Union’s political and economic organizations, new political parties, such as Fidesz in Hungary or Poland’s Law and Justice, that are leading their states, have directed the governmental policy towards illiberal directions. These involve directing government efforts to people's identity demands. The main goal is keeping the Christian identity and refusing any compromises regarding pro-Islamic events’ presence on the national territory, which could support Muslim immigrants’ possible presence. Both countries’ governments said they were determined to take control of their own states from Brussels’ bureaucrats.

Turkey’s President, Erdogan, is mainly supported by the rural population, considered to be economically and culturally inferior compared to the urban people in West of the country.

Hence, illiberal governments and parties in Eastern and Southeastern Europe are trying to make the most of globalization’s opposition and population’s economic and social frustrations to achieve their national goals. Their objectives were easing the main democratic institutions’ action ability:

- Justice;

- Pluralistic political structures, freely and fairly elected;

- Free and independent media;

- An opened and transparent civil society;

Illiberal authoritarian governments’ goal, in terms of justice, is controlling it by appointing, even though referendums, High Court of Justice’s presidents and judges, as well as other important positions within the judicial body.

Illiberal governments seek to diminish opposition’s ability to express themselves, by using governmental ways to favor supportive parties and persecute opposition’s ones, including through the abusive and biased use of corruption combat’s methods. Governmental party acolytes’ appointment for states’ official positions became a usual procedure.

In order to diminish civil society representatives’ freedom of expression, illiberal administrations, directly or through their parties, are buying expensive and powerful communications platforms, are using the national security legislation to censor liberal democracy’s representatives’ messages and are selectively applying tax legislation. They are carefully monitoring non-governmental organizations’ position towards illiberal political spectrum, using their accusation as following foreign interests, which are hostile for the nation. Illiberal governments seek support from domestic and foreign oligarchs and successful business people who, to get this support, are being offered legislative and economic benefits.

A government cannot be called illiberal for simply having one of the phenomena presented above. Only all these leadership manners, gathered together, can put such a label on a government.

Erdogan, Orban, and Kaczynski, leaders of states that the Brooking Institution called as Eastern and Southeastern Europe’s illiberal states, have restricted, within their political statements, the concept of people to that part of the population that supports power authoritarian. Hence, the anti-pluralism phenomenon gets spread by attracting nationalist forces, based on ethnic nationalism to the detriment of civic nationalism. Illiberal leaders’ opponents are simply seen as going against state’s interests, hereof as illegitimate.

A series of liberal concepts are taken over by illiberal leaders to justify their post-electoral actions. For example, the liberal democratic principle of separation of powers is used as a circumventing promises responsibility method, made during the electoral campaign, by transferring its accomplishment to other state institutions.  

Illiberalism’s transfer to populism is quite simple, as it is considered "liberals" democrats’ answer to "undemocratic anti-national" liberalism. Arguing on illiberal democracy, Viktor Orban believes that he protects his country’s democracy against national and international liberal elites’ interests.

When looking at Europe’s map, one can easily see that illiberal states, or that simply have illiberal demonstrations, are mostly located in Eastern Europe, meaning the former European communist countries. These states had bigger expectations from the democracy they have built, supported by strong democratic states. This support has not always been disinterested. Western states’ orientation towards achieving economic and financial goals, defining for a capitalist thinking, created frustrations and hostility feelings for new democracies that were not used with Westerns’ specific transactional approach. This is how the illiberal tendencies emerged, the rise of leaders who, through authoritarian procedures, are opposing these manifestations.

Also, within the European Union, organization’s new leaders cannot give up the advantages they already gave the Western states they represent and, instead of encouraging East European states for the achieved achievements, they prefer criticizing their evolutions when not matching with West’s interests. If these aspects were isolated 3 or four years 4, they are now becoming more and more frequent, and, hereof Eastern European states’ illiberal reactions or tendencies.

Indeed, illiberalism’s undemocratic phenomenon can be stopped. The most effective solution is patience and direct dialogue, argued by EU leaders and undemocratic states’ representatives. Permanent blame and allegations transmitted through media cannot but worsen the tensions.

Dialogue can prove that EU truly is an organization that promoted European states’ political and economic interests, wherein unity and cohesion are both a real and permanent objective.