Unaltered dilemmas and novel challenges

In eastern Europe, neoliberalism’s loss of legitimacy after 2008 benefits coalitions of rightwing populists, whose promise of stability addresses the psychological impact of the crisis on younger voters. These are citizens who have never experienced a shortage economy and who still aspire to a western quality of life.

Since 1989, eastern European countries have made enormous efforts to adopt political, economic, and cultural models from Western free-market liberal democracies. They mostly pursued this by imitating patterns alien to their historical legacies and dominant social mindset. The most important challenge after 1989 was how to build (or rebuild) nation states in a rapidly evolving globalized world. Post-communist eastern Europe thus emerged as a dynamic region in which the (re)construction and delayed nationalization of the social body soon became closely entwined with the process of European integration.

As Timothy Snyder has claimed, the European Union can be best understood as a post-imperial economic project led by a democratic, multicultural Germany; a country that, after dramatically losing its own empire in 1945, was more prepared than any other European power to undertake a paradigm shift. This deeply emotional factor destined the EU to become an ‘empire by invitation’, reluctant to grow but continuously forced to by external events.1

Soft power and ‘non-imperial’ expansionism make the European Union attractive to candidate countries, despite negative news stories about its internal life. On this charitable view, the EU represents a solution to two major problems: firstly, those underlying the wars of the last century, and secondly the ‘decolonization problem’ of massive, persistent social inequalities between Europe’s various macroregions. However, the idea that EU membership is not only desirable but inevitably destroys the nation-state touches on a sore point in countries eager to develop after the fall of Soviet communism.

For nearly two decades, citizens from Europe’s peripheries shared the view that the end of Soviet-type communism paved the way for what Francis Fukuyama called ‘the end of history’: the unchallenged worldwide diffusion of Western-style liberal democracy and free markets. Despite getting through grave difficulties and painful setbacks, most citizens of semi-peripheral countries trusted in the West as the only viable path out of economic underdevelopment and the security threats posed by Russia. However, the legal standardization and highly bureaucratized state mechanisms resulting from EU enlargement may test citizens’ capacity to adapt to this new scenario, even though they do not present an exciting challenge for intellectuals, and cannot become objects of widespread emotional identification for members of society.

Protests again corruption in Kosovo
Photo via Friends of Kosovo

Two variants of the ‘illiberal turn’

The global financial crisis has left a long-lasting impression on the eastern half of the continent, reshaping peoples’ attitudes toward the state, capitalism, and liberal democracy as such. Eastern Europeans were forced to realize that economic development in capitalist systems is not predictable and might not become more equitable over time.2 Paradoxically, the crisis that began in 2008 after nearly fifteen years of uneven but robust growth and increasing living standards exercised a greater psychological impact on younger generations, who had never experienced the hardship of living in a shortage economy. The impact of the crisis also revived a transition-era debate about the government’s role in regulating the economy.

During the 1980s, democratic intellectuals regarded the Soviet-type state agencies as an objectified enemy. Post-communist countries inherited bureaucracies with a ‘legitimacy gap’ (corruption in the police, secret services, financial organizations, and judiciary was well known) while privatizing almost all strategic sectors, selling them to foreign companies or local oligarchs. Since the crisis, however, growing numbers have come to support the necessity of state-imposed regulatory mechanisms to ensure that market-based economies function properly. Eastern Europe has witnessed a crisis of the sources of (neo)liberal democratic legitimation, whose main beneficiaries are not the pro-European social democratic parties but a heterogeneous coalition of mostly right-wing forces.

Until recently, most analysts were convinced that central and eastern Europe would not face the kind of democratic setbacks that occurred in Russia, where the population asked for the end of savage capitalism but ultimately got from Putin a more predictable – albeit repressive and illiberal – state. The picture has significantly changed in recent years: we are witnessing the rise of new, hybrid situations all over the region. Several Balkan states have seen the rise of budding autocracies governed by non-ideological parties or coalitions. Their only stable predicament appears to be keeping power and draining public resources to secure the support of local oligarchs. According to Besnik Pula, a strong critic of neoliberalism, these new autocrats

operate under a different, savvier playbook than those of the 1990s: internationally, they enthusiastically embrace the EU in their foreign policy. With the exception of Serbia, they express the same fervor for NATO. They are well-coached in telling Western diplomats what they want to hear, while blatantly undermining democratic principles and the rule of law at home.3

This region plays a marginal role in the international chessboard, just as it did in the past, and Western policy makers prefer to turn a blind eye to corruption and informal power techniques in exchange for unconditional geopolitical loyalty.

In the case of Romania, its pivotal role in US security policy ensures closer Western attention and prevents organized crime from fully capturing the political structures. The price for relative macrostability is a lack of democratic governance based on competitive visions of the future – not least because none of the elected officials seems to have any. The weak legitimacy of the political class has made possible a ‘silent counterrevolution’ carried out by the many – and mutually antagonistic – security services representing the bulk of the Romanian power structure. In 2013, the public budget allocated to these security agencies was reportedly twice as large as that granted to the Ministry of Health, and their operations staff totalled 15,000 people – by far the highest density in democratic Europe.4

The wave of spontaneous mass protests in Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina (2015-16), Romania (2017), and Serbia (2018-19) have revealed widespread popular discontent with corrupt states that fail to provide their citizens with job opportunities and the most basic services like health care and education. This renewed commitment to public affairs might be interpreted as a sign that parts of the society are in desperate need and require qualitative changes. The protests have, nevertheless, largely remained a testimony to civil courage, given the near total absence of alternative elites with the necessary administrative skill and financial resources to introduce such changes.

The second variant of the new illiberal trend might be described as local contestation of the post-Cold War global order. After the economic crisis, several central European political forces have begun to challenge the West’s discursive monopoly over modernization and social security on more ideological grounds. Mainstream democratic parties like Fidesz (Hungary) and Law and Justice (Poland) have implemented a series of highly controversial constitutional, economic, and cultural measures.

How could a small, strategically unimportant country like Hungary become the ‘black sheep’ of public opinion in western European liberal democracies? Hungary emerged from the first years of EU membership as the least successful central European country, plagued by recession, corruption, high unemployment, crime, and poverty. The success of Fidesz rested on the pragmatic capacity of its uncontested leader, Viktor Orbán, to govern the country out of the economic crisis and, more importantly, by appearing to increase the accountability of a ruling system by devouring his own cadres while selecting new ones who guarantee absolute loyalty.

Orbán’s rule has resulted in a regime change that overwrote the consensual end of Soviet-type communism: the democratic principle of majoritary rule is not denied but strongly managed and sometimes arranged. Orbán has succeeded at setting up a state-driven capitalist system based on what Péter Tölgyessyhas called ‘distributive neo-patrimonialism’5but the content of his governance is little more than improvisational crisis management. This appears to absorb most of the energy of the state apparatus, preventing it from achieving the internal stability that ensured long term survival to Kádár’s regime before 1989.

‘Orbánomics’ can be described as an eccentric mix of selective protectionism (to create a national capitalism in the public utilities and agrarian sectors), neoconservative economic policy (through the support offered to multinational companies that invest in Hungary), and sustained fiscal consolidation. Scholars investigating the political economy of Hungary since Orbán’s rise to power, such as Zoltán Pogátsa and Erzsébet Szalai, cautioned against overestimating the social impact of the political turn toward a different form of capitalism: unorthodox economic policies might have improved Hungary’s capacity to resist external financial shocks, but they severely hit the poorest segments of the society through cuts to social assistance and public services.6

Masses during Viktor Orbán’s speech on March 15, 2012
Photo by Derzsi Elekes Andor from Wikimedia Commons

Mimicry and national egoism

After the global financial crisis, and as a result of their subordinate position in the new globalized society, a palpable but mostly weakly articulated reflection has started about how to catch up with the West without having to renounce the fundamental attributes of the nation-state and sovereignty over sensitive public issues. After posing as ‘model pupils’ eager to learn about democracy and the market economy, many educated east Europeans, and some of their governments, changed their mind about their countries’ future, becoming disenchanted and expressing national biases – even if this does not alter their ultimate goal of reaching the Western quality of life. There is, admittedly, a contradiction in how east European citizens, encouraged by nationalist public discourses, criticize everything Brussels, Berlin, and Washington does while at the same time sustaining the hope of living like ‘ordinary people’ in a small, quiet Alpine town in the future. However, their frustrations stem from an implicit awareness that the ‘golden era’ of the European welfare state and social inclusion has ended without them ever having enjoyed its benefits.

Young liberal intellectuals might have a point when they see the very idea of ‘eastern Europe’ vanish. This was once an expression of the shared experience of occupation, exclusion, and economic backwardness, combined with treasured memories of earlier defeats, but is no longer available to the younger generation. Urban landscapes have, certainly, gone through tremendous changes over the past decades; the capital cities of eastern Europe are becoming increasingly attractive for professionals, students, and ‘hipsters’ from across Europe. But one only has to go a few miles from vibrant city centers to desolate urban peripheries or depopulated rural areas to experience a largely unaltered landscape.

Since 1989, the proliferation of what Titu Maiorescu, in a different context, called Western ‘forms without substance’ has clearly increased the gap between the post-communist elites and their fellow citizens.7

Depressing as it may sound, the challenge eastern Europe must face over the coming years resembles the old intellectual debate among Romanian intellectuals of the nineteenth century between ‘Westernizers’ and ‘traditionalists’ who criticised the rushed reception of Western attitudes from a more gradualist standpoint.

At the end of its long post-socialist journey towards the West, eastern Europe has found itself once again on the fringes of the Western productive and cultural core, just as it did in the interwar period. Hybrid political cultures and peculiar power structures that are neither fully ‘Western’ nor ‘eastern’ have taken root in the semi-peripheries. This is the case not only in the post-communist space, but also in the seemingly more consolidated democracies of southern Europe. The dilemma is whether to come to terms with this, acknowledging the right of certain countries either to enact a ‘discount’ version of liberal democracy or to stick to the original plan and feign full-hearted integration into the West. At stake is whether to include or exclude central and eastern Europe from the strengthened cooperation of the European core countries within a reformed European Union that would likely represent the initial step toward a United States of Europe (a European quasi-empire).

The challenge to integrate central and eastern Europe into a globalized West, while avoiding transforming it into a buffer zone, is thus back with a vengeance. The project has suffered serious setbacks in recent years and the current trends are not encouraging either: illiberal experiments are replacing liberal ‘success stories’, and sovereignism seems to have become a new common code throughout the region. When we reflect on this present challenge, we must bear in mind that the failure of European integration would condemn Europe’s semi-peripheries to another unsuccessful epoch after those experienced by recent generations and might even inaugurate a new era of catastrophe.

Timothy Snyder, ‘Integration and Disintegration: Europe, Ukraine, and the World’, in Slavic Review 4/2015, 695- 707.

Adam Tooze, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. Viking, 2018.

Besnik Pula, ‘The Budding Autocrats of the Balkans’, Foreign Policy, April 15 2016. http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/04/15/the-budding-autocrats-of-the-balkans-serbiamacedonia-montenegro/.

More details in István Bandi, Stefano Bottoni, ‘Dismantling the state security apparatus: The Romanian Secret Services from 1948 to 2016: Performance, Legality, Transparency’, in Memory of Nations: Democratic Transition Guide. CEVRO-National Endowment for Democracy, 2017, 12–17.

 Péter Tölgyessy, public lecture at Kossuth Club, Budapest, April 11 2018.

Zoltán Pogátsa, Magyarország politikai közgazdaságtana és az északi modell esélyei, Osiris, 2016. On the successful conversion of political power into economic and cultural supremacy, Erzsébet Szalai, https://hvg.hu/itthon/20190322_szalai_erzsebet_fidesz_es_hatalom_konvertalasa?fbclid=IwAR13dyDvgMT5gA0dGsW3HKmelJL6IZcTq8wikN40pSj5AUQk2R4i7ZyNzOU (last access March 28, 2019).

Balázs Trencsényi, A nép lelke. Nemzetkarakterológiai viták Kelet-Európában. Argumentum–Bibó István Szellemi Műhely, 2011, 107.

Published 6 December 2019
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Stefano Bottoni / Eurozine


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