1 – Illiberal winds from the East
We have recently witnessed a number of spectacular electoral victories of illiberal parties, especially in Central Europe. Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Robert Fico in Slovakia, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland and Miloš Zeman in the Czech Republic are all sceptical of liberal democracy and its rules. Similar tendencies are seen in other parts of Europe. For example, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Freedom Party of Austria, France’s Front National and the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland – AfD) are all examples of illiberal movements that have gained popularity in the West. Clearly, the recent victory of Donald Trump in the United States and the early executive orders of his administration provide further evidence that we indeed have a problem with democracy worldwide.
The original sin
An analysis of the rise of populism in the countries of the former Eastern bloc should include the context in which liberal democracy and free market economy were introduced into the region. The consequences of the democratic revolutions in Central Europe during the 1989-1990 Fall of Nations were not only the collapse of authoritarian regimes but also their social welfare.
Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and East Germans did not want to be ruled by the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, of course, but they also did not dream of an unregulated free market economy as a desirable alternative. Thus, it is the neoliberal transformation that, in my view, can be called the source of today’s illiberal tendencies.
Economic liberalisation certainly made many people rich and it has helped to improve standards of living for millions. Nevertheless there were also millions who lost the chance for a better life. That is why, sooner or later, crony privatisation, the collapse of industry and a lack of empathy among the liberal elite in the newly democratising states produced a counter-reaction.
- However, it would be incorrect to state that the transformation was not discontented earlier. In Poland already in the 1990s, the Solidarność trade union accused its former leaders of being traitors of the workers’ cause. Mass strikes, vociferous opposition towards the so-called “Balcerowicz Plan” (named after the then Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz) and over three million unemployed were factors explaining the return to power of the post-communist social democrats.
- However this force (today called the Democratic Left Alliance – SLD), despite its initial promises of progressive policies, eventually embraced neoliberalism, which was one of the effects of the association process with the European Union and the popularity of Tony Blair’s third way at the turn of the millennium. Unsurprisingly, the departure from campaign promises by the left gave an upper hand to the populist parties growing in popularity. Some of the early ones included Samoobrona (Self-Defence), the League of Polish Families and later on the now ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).
All of these examples suggest that there was a social hiccup and the transformation, which, despite its liberal promises, did not progress in the most democratic way. It is no secret that the Solidarity elite, the pioneers of the political and economic reforms, did not consult with the public. Many voices of discontent were hushed down while the liberal elite called on the public to endure the painful reforms. Despite joining the EU in 2004, the legacy of the wild capitalist of the 1990s continued, which was especially felt in the workforce. Short-term contracts and a lack of stability became a norm, yet no government responded adequately to these problems.
Similar phenomena occurred in other countries of the former communist bloc. In Hungary the twin-like problems of the post-transformation period help explain Orbán’s high level of support today. In Slovakia, first Vladimír Mečiar and later on Robert Fico took advantage of social discontent. There is also increased popularity of illiberal groups in Germany’s eastern regions: the National Democratic Party of Germany, the Left (Die Linke) and the Alternative for Germany.
The sources of their success are the same everywhere. The existence of a weak social welfare system, selective social policies, mass emigration, a lack of hope for those who want to improve their standard of living and economic inequality. A sum of these factors has resulted in an explosive illiberal mix. As indeed, while democracy and liberalism offer a sense of a political liberty, they do not guarantee economic freedom. And this is the main problem being experienced in the region.
A post-Soviet laboratory
To the east of Central Europe, in the countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, liberalism has lost its reputation even more, and in a much shorter period of time. Even though the early stages of democratic reforms were greeted with enthusiasm, Russians quickly changed their minds.
When asked about the 1990s, most Russians today refer to it as a decade of incredible chaos. In their view the political anarchy coupled with an uncontrollable liberalisation of Russian markets and currency all led to pathologies that still haunt the Russian Federation today. This includes the oligarchisation of the economy and politics, a lost faith in the sense of democratic reforms and a takeover of power by security services, to name just a few.
- The West and its international financial organisations have, in a sense, pushed the post-Soviet world in this direction.
- Throughout the 1990s the former Soviet republics, then newly independent states, were very weak – economically, politically and morally. It was proof that Lenin’s empire lost on all fronts.
However, the winners of the Cold War, instead of helping the former republics move towards liberal democracy, opted for “shock therapy”. Not surprisingly, the reaction of millions of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians was contempt towards liberalism. For many living in the post-Soviet space the “kingdom of freedom” proved to be more brutal than the previous system.
Additionally, the post-Soviet states that have undergone a hasty and thoughtless implementation of “shock therapy” – which included deregulation, privatisation and uncontrollable market liberalisation – began to experience the double standards of western liberalism. Specifically, it became quite clear that for western economic architects maintaining the social achievements of the socialist period was much less important than the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund. As a result, the political freedoms, which are so deeply engraved in liberalism’s banners, turned out to be empty slogans for many post-Soviet states. In Russia, for example, President Boris Yeltsin did not hesitate to order in tanks to fire on the parliament, and until today, the country has its political process controlled by oligarchs. Belarus, in turn, opted for a dictatorship that guarantees its citizens peace and stability at the expense of personal freedom.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
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