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Popular Front

Eastern Europe's turn right.

EVER SINCE THE collapse of communism in 1989, Central and Eastern Europe was supposed to be a success story for liberalism. As Russia was backsliding from democracy in the late ’90s, a liberal political culture appeared to be developing in the polities of its neighbors to the west. From the Baltic to Hungary, elections were held, parties were formed, and the "spirit of capitalism"—famously linked by Max Weber to Protestant ethics—seemed to take root, even in countries like Poland, where the traditional strength of theCatholic Church and nationalist sentiment might have suggested that market liberalism would prove an awkward fit. In short, here was one corner of the world where liberal democracy really did seem to be on the march.

Unfortunately, recent developments complicate this picture considerably. Right-wing populists in Poland and left-wing populists in Slovakia govern with extremist parties as part of their coalitions. In Hungary, the main opposition party, Fidesz, threatened last October to bring down the country’s democratically elected government through a wave of street demonstrations. Bulgaria’s recent presidential election pitted an ex-communist against a protofascist who says he hates Turks, Gypsies, and Jews. (The excommunist won.) The problems of the Czech Republic, perhaps the most Western of the former communist countries, seem relatively benign by comparison: There, postelection bickering recently prevented the formation of a government coalition for seven months.

Meanwhile, according to a recent Gallup International poll, only one-third of Central and Eastern European citizens say they trust democracy. What’s more, just 22 percent of those polled responded affirmatively to the question, "Do you think your voice matters?" In a region where Western values were once thought to be triumphant, liberal democracy is now experiencing its first major test: the rise of populism.

OBVIOUSLY, THE SITUATIONS vary from country to country. Still, broad trends can be discerned, and each one has something to do with resurgent populist movements. These movements are not exactly anti-democratic—indeed, they claim to represent the true voice of the people and frequently demand new elections or referenda—but, rather, anti-liberal. If democracy means popular legitimacy and constitutionalism, then the populists accept the former and reject the latter—that is, they distrust the idea that constitutional norms should trump traditional values and majority sentiment.

Poland has been a trendsetter for the region since the conservative Kaczynski twins assumed power—one as president, the other as prime minister— in 2005 and 2006. Their association in government with the extremist League of Polish Families produced a political program based on the assumption that Catholic and national values should prevail over permissive liberalism on issues like abortion and gay rights. In Slovakia, the extremist Slovak National Partyhas joined the governing coalition, raising concerns about thefuture of ethnic pluralism in that country. The party’s leader, JAnSlota, has said he would not mind sending the leader of theHungarian minority to Mars "with a one- way ticket." The common pattern here is one of acute polarization: Eastern Europe’s populists do not act as if they face a political opponent (or ethnic, religious, or sexual minority) with whom they can negotiate but rather an enemy whom they must destroy.

There is an economic component to this anti-liberal sentiment as well. After 15 years of unabashed free-market policies, the populists want to reassert the power of the state. It is easy to see the appeal of this position: In Poland, where the unemployment rate is approximately 15 percent, there have been plenty of losers in the new liberal order. Since it was often socialist parties inEastern Europe that implemented free-market politics over the past15 years, it is not surprising that qualms about the new economic order have come from the right. Hence, the populists have married cultural conservatism to economic nationalism.

Another common feature of the populist tide is anti elitism. Governments in this region have come and gone over the last 15 years, but all have more or less followed an elite consensus on key issues. Now, the populist challenge to the technocratic elites who pushed through the reforms of the ’90s comes in two guises: an anti-corruption drive on the one hand and "decommunisation" on the other. Poland has seen an interesting combination of the two: Populists have denounced the 1989 compromise between moderate dissident elites and moderate communist elites, which made possible a peaceful end to communism. This agreement, populists allege, allowed former communists to convert their political power into economic power and caused widespread corruption during the privatization process. The Kaczynski twins—as well as the leaders of Fidesz in Budapest—have argued for banning from public office anyone who collaborated with the communist-era secret police. It is ironic that the first major casualty of this atmosphere in Poland was the Archbishop of Warsaw—a representative of the very institution the populists venerate for both its moral rigor and its role in defeating communism.

The final key feature of the new populism is a wariness of European integration. The pro-European coalitions that dominated the politicsof the previous decade disintegrated after most countries in the region joined the European Union in May 2004. (The Polish, Czech,and Hungarian prime ministers all resigned within six months of fulfilling this goal.) Today, the populists present themselves asthe only defenders of national sovereignty against "external threats," as one of the Kaczynski twins put it. The European Union is the perfect bete noire for the populists, since—as an economically liberal, socially tolerant, elitist venture—it combines many of their targets under one umbrella.

And so the assumption—widely held in the West—that joining theEuropean Union would cause Eastern European countries toconsolidate their new democracies now seems to have been overlyoptimistic. Before becoming EU members, many countries appeared tobe moving toward liberalism. But their current message to Western Europe seems to be, "Now we can show you who we really are."Indeed, one senses a curious satisfaction in the capitals of former Warsaw Pact countries at joining Europe in order to oppose those who, for half a century, built a European identity withoutthem—those who long spoke on behalf of Europe without taking Eastern Europe into account. Tired of being pupils, the populistnationalists seem to be longing to explain the kind of Europe theyhave in mind: a Christian Europe composed of nation-states, not amaterialist, decadent, supranational project.

AS A RESULT, the rise of the populists has a number of implications for the future of the European Union. The most obvious is that further enlargements of the organization seem unlikely in the nearfuture. You cannot describe the European Union as a menace and, at the same time, demand that the benefits of membership be extended farther east to a long list of candidates. In addition, the populists could weaken the bond that ties member countries together.This could lead to the renationalization of economic policy in EUstates.

At the same time, the European Union may also work as a check on the populists. There is precedent for this: European outrage helped to marginalize far-right leader Jorg Haider, who became part of Austria’s coalition government in 2000 but has since seen his political fortunes decline. In recent years, populist nationalists have joined and left government coalitions in Italy, the Netherlands, and Denmark. The lesson for Eastern European newcomers is that the influence of nationalist populism can be diluted bymembership in a shared European polity. Indeed, it is worth noting that 72 percent of Poles say they are satisfied with their EUmembership, and most express greater trust in European institutions than in their own government.

Moreover, time may be working against the populists. Throughout history, populists have often won elections by railing against elites, only to be thrown out of office after becoming identified with the power structure they once denounced. In other words, while the rise of Eastern European populism and nationalism is cause for concern, this is no return to the 1930s. Liberalism faces populist challenges almost everywhere in Europe. Now Eastern Europe has simply joined the club.

Jacques Rupnik is a professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques inParis, France. This article is adapted from an essay that wasoriginally published by the Institut fur die Wissenschaften vomMenschen in Vienna, Austria. This article appeared in the February 19-16, 2007 issue of the magazine.