Democratic Backsliding in Europe: Who is to Blame?

People participate in a demonstration to protest against legislation on higher education and to show support and solidarity with the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, April 2017. Courtesy of Xinhua/Sipa USA/Alamy

Rising nationalism and anti-EU sentiment, coupled with Russian and Chinese malign influence, erodes democracy in some European countries.

The latest Freedom House report is particularly damning. The proportion of countries deemed ‘not free’ is now the highest it has been in the past 15 years. The EU, once an oasis of democracy and human rights, is now facing serious challenges particularly in former communist states. There is a serious democratic backsliding in Poland, Hungary and Serbia, along with a steady erosion in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Freedom House uses a 1 to 7 ‘Democracy Score’ deduced from the average number of points of each country’s ratings on all of the indicators covered. Accordingly, Freedom House has defined the following regime types: consolidated democracy (1–2); semi-consolidated democracy (3); transitional government / hybrid regime (4); semi-consolidated authoritarian regime (5); and consolidated authoritarian regime (6–7).

The situation in Hungary is most alarming. The country has recorded the biggest decline ever measured in ‘nations in transit’ and plummeted to become a ‘transitional’ or ‘hybrid regime’. Likewise, neighboring Poland remains a ‘semi-consolidated democracy’ recording a steep decline over recent years, while Serbia exhibits very worrying signs of backsliding. The report further warns that the ruling parties in Budapest, Warsaw and Belgrade seem to be emulating one another in cracking down on judicial autonomy, independent media and the civic sector.

Though these illiberal governments essentially have democratic institutions in form, there is less democracy in substance. In most cases, the legislative and judicial powers, as well as media institutions are heavily skewed in favour of ruling political parties. Not only do these governments attack liberal principles that underpin every democracy, they actively engage in impairing good governance and disseminating anti-democratic standards. Their actions are more often than not purely opportunistic, but are often cloaked in an ideological or nationalistic agenda which appeals to the masses.

Rising illiberalism has hit the media sector, a key pillar of any democratic country, particularly hard. Making use of the media-capture model, illiberal governments in Central and Southeastern Europe increasingly employ legal and economic tools to squash critical media outlets or co-opt and harass their journalists. Such an anti-democratic approach is most visible in Poland, where the government used a state-owned energy giant to acquire four-fifths of the country’s regional media outlets and announced that it will impose an ‘advertising tax’ – modelled on Hungary’s 2014 version – that will essentially strip the ailing private media sectors of vital economic resources.

In Hungary, after clamping down on free media and expelling the liberal and pro-Western Central European University, Viktor Orbán’s government signed an agreement to open a Chinese university campus in Budapest by 2024. The deal would make the Shanghai-based Fudan University campus the first Chinese university campus in the EU. In Serbia, independent media outlets were already struggling before the pandemic, however, physical intimidation, threats and a disintegrating advertising model made matters worse. Lately, both the Slovenian and Serbian nationalist governments have been interrupting the public media’s funding stream in a way that seems essentially torn from the playbook of Hungary’s ruling party.

Who Should Take the Blame?

As alarming as the latest report may be, such an illiberal trend has been in the making for a number of years. Three reasons can be singled out which have cumulatively led to the present state of democracy in Central Europe and the Balkans.

First are failed transitionsNot long ago, conventional wisdom held that EU integration alone would lead automatically to the rule of law, respect for democratic institutions and civil rights in former communist countries. Yet, decades since the collapse of communism, and with a large number of East European countries firmly entrenched in the EU and NATO, it is these very countries that are now sliding back to their Cold War illiberalism and once again befriending Russia and China. This shows that – although they may have joined the EU – their political elites have not wholeheartedly accepted European norms and values. Additionally, the 2015 migrant crisis, and the subsequent rise of nationalism and Brexit, shook the very foundations of the EU. In the Balkans, the EU lost appetite for expansion and kept the region waiting at its doorstep. Without a viable EU perspective, existing internecine tensions simmered while the lack of development created a swathe of politically unstable and economically underperforming countries on the EU’s periphery. This gave rise to regimes which talked the talk of Brussels while walking the walk of Moscow. The West seemed willing to tolerate such illiberal governments as long as they contributed to ‘stabilitocracy’.

Second, a revanchist Russia and ambitious China have played a role. Through elaborate and complex disinformation campaigns targeting the EU and NATO, and by lionising Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Moscow managed to influence public opinion among many in Central Europe and the Balkans, thereby dampening enthusiasm for EU and NATO membership. Moscow has also reasserted its traditional role as the protector of Orthodox Christian populations, effectively turning the Balkans into a buffer zone to forestall further EU expansion or creating Trojan horses from countries already within the EU and NATO. By presenting the EU as weak and divided, demonising NATO and advertising Russian military might, Moscow has managed to stoke divisions in the region and shore up its strategic advantage over Western Europe. However, it is China that poses an even greater challenge to Western interests in the Balkans because of its immense economic might and its strategic vision for the Balkans through its Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese companies today take part in some of the biggest infrastructure projects in the region which will most likely lead to serious debt-trap repercussions in the coming years. An increasing number of Balkan leaders see Beijing as a political and economic model worth emulating.

Third is the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic proved to be a useful excuse for illiberal governments to strengthen their grip on power. In Hungary, for example, the parliament granted expansive emergency powers to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán ostensibly for him to better respond to the ongoing crisis. In Serbia, the opposition boycotted parliamentary elections in 2020 on the grounds of unfair conditions, thereby giving Aleksandar Vučić and his ruling party a two-thirds majority without opposition representatives. In Poland, the ruling party cited the pandemic as justification for an illegal, last-minute attempt to bypass the electoral commission regarding postal voting. In the Balkans, the pandemic exacerbated the existing mutual distrust between citizens and their governments, especially with the governments’ overemphasis on restrictive measures, instead of effective health measures. The inefficiency of the EU in dealing with the crisis, the unreliability of the COVAX mechanism and the ability of Balkan political elites to be vaccinated abroad further deteriorated the image of democracy among the masses. An increasing segment of the public now seem to favour a reorientation towards non-Western partners, and Russia and China are more than happy to fill the new role.

The Need for Western Support

In Central Europe and the Balkans, democracy has never been the only game in town. Nearly three decades after the collapse of communism and the devastating Balkan wars, the idea of democracy as an aspirational end point has started to lose currency in many capitals.

This is perhaps due to an uneasy transition marred by wars, economic decline, failed privatisation efforts and the inability to address pressing societal concerns. Such a combination of factors in turn fuelled uncertainty and anger, giving rise to populist nationalists who are more than happy to monger crowds by appealing to wartime nationalist sentiment. Although ethno-nationalist Balkan politicians continue paying lip service to democracy only to appease Brussels and Washington, they actively consolidate their grip on power on their home turf and demonise political opposition. They evoke ethno-nationalist arguments to obscure state capture while rhetorically remaining committed to ‘reform’ and EU integration.

Along with rising nationalism, tense state-society relations, tattered economies, underdeveloped healthcare systems and the mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic by many established Western democracies have provided additional fodder for foreign authoritarian influence emanating from Moscow and Beijing, which were only too happy to exploit existing disillusionment among the masses and promote their own models of governance.

Without anchors to Western institutions, illiberal democracies in the Balkans, and perhaps Eastern Europe as a whole, are likely to become the norm rather than an exception.

Harun Karčić is a journalist and political analyst based in Sarajevo covering foreign influences in the Balkans. He tweets @HarunKarcic

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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