A right-wing nationalist protestor walks with abolish flag during a far-right annual march that coincides with Poland's National Independence Day in Warsaw on 11th November 2014. ©Jane Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images

The new nationalism: Eastern Europe turns right

The young democracies of central Europe are threatened by their leaders
Read more: Niall Ferguson: The degeneration of Europe

One after another the narratives that prop up belief in western liberal democracy have fallen. Ideal financial system? Not after the 2008 crisis and the euro. Military superiority? Iraq and Afghanistan have put an end to that. Effective politics? See gridlock in Washington DC and arm-twisting in Brussels.

Now the final, perhaps most fundamental, narrative risks unravelling. The supremacy of liberal democracy is rooted in the triumph of 1989: the liberation of Central Europe from the Kremlin’s authoritarianism; Václav Havel emerging from prison to become President in Prague Castle; the successful transition to democracy via European Union membership and the security blanket of Nato. Central Europe is the beacon for aspiring reformers across the world. In 2008, the World Bank published a report, “Unleashing Prosperity,” which concluded that the “Visegrád Four”—Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic—had created “stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities,” “functioning market economies” and had “the ability to take on and implement effectively the obligations of (EU) membership.”

Yet today we are faced with a Hungary whose Prime Minister says he intends to build an “illiberal state,” a Czech President who attends anti-Muslim rallies with the far right and a Polish leadership that declares the media should do the government’s bidding. Throughout the region, the judiciary, media and civil society are under attack, while a newly belligerent Russia is looking to re-impose itself.

What has gone wrong? What does it mean for the future of the EU and the continent’s security? What can and should be done?

One sign of the extent of the reversal is that the country leading the rollback is Hungary, whose “goulash communism” was the most ideologically and economically lax in the Soviet bloc. Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister, was a high-profile, pro-western, pro-democracy dissident back in Soviet times. Some thought him another Havel, but since coming to power in 2010, Orbán has acted to ensure that he will always have it.

First, Orbán rushed through changes in the constitution enabling him to place loyalists in the Constitutional Court. Since then, 11 out of the 15 judges have been appointed by his party, Fidesz, without any consultation with the opposition, opening the way to place Fidesz members at all levels of the judiciary.

Then Orbán came for the media. Public service broadcasters were restructured under the control of a Fidesz-appointed head, who also chairs a Media Council with the power to fine television and radio stations for allegedly unbalanced coverage. In 2013, parliament adopted an amendment banning political adverts in commercial media during election campaigns. Parties are left to campaign through the public media—which, of course, is heavily influenced by Fidesz. The government stopped placing adverts in the independent media and private companies, fearing loss of government contracts, also decreased their advertising spend. Currently, 80 per cent of the population can only access Fidesz-dominated press and broadcasting.

Orbán’s policies led the NGO Freedom House to downgrade the country’s rating from “free” to “partly free” in 2012. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe criticised the 2014 parliamentary elections, arguing Fidesz enjoyed “an undue advantage because of biased media coverage and campaign activities that blurred the separation between political party and the State.” This “undue advantage” didn’t stop Fidesz’s vote declining. In response, Orbán added ideology to his institutional measures. Speaking at a party gathering in 2014, Orbán announced: “The new state that we are constructing in Hungary is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not reject the fundamental principles of liberalism such as freedom… but it does not make this ideology the central element of state organisation, but instead includes a different, special, national approach.” Russia and China are two of his models.

In practice, illiberal democracy has meant Orbán claiming that Hungary is threatened by enemies such as foreign NGOs and “national traitors.” In spring 2015, the government launched a national consultation on immigration, which included a questionnaire sent to eight million Hungarians. After raising concerns about terrorism, the questionnaire asked: “There are some who think that mismanagement of the immigration question by Brussels may have something to do with increased terrorism. Do you agree with this view?” Other questions canvassed support for “stricter immigration regulations,” and claimed that the number of economic immigrants had increased twentyfold. Meanwhile other policies have combined nationalist rhetoric with socialist economics: nationalising banks and raising corporate taxes.

What Orbán has achieved in half a decade, Poland’s new government is trying to pull off in months. In the October 2015 elections, the Law and Justice Party ran on a platform of economic redistribution, paranoia about non-existent immigration and Catholic conservatism. Despite presiding over the strongest economy in Europe, the incumbents were beset with problems—a scandal in which ministers were secretly recorded making damaging statements, allegations of petty corruption and internal divisions. Law and Justice managed to squeak a majority. Its campaign, however, made no mention of the undemocratic policies it has adopted since victory.

Poland’s new President Andrzej Duda refused to swear in five judges chosen by the previous parliament on to the 15-member Constitutional Tribunal. Five Law and Justice judges were sworn in instead and the government controversially reformed the court. Law and Justice also nullified civil service regulations that guaranteed competition for key posts, allowing them to appoint loyalists with no qualifications as CEOs of state companies. Media laws have been changed to put party loyalists in control of public broadcasting, prompting senior journalists to resign. The party’s leader Jarosaw Kaczyn´ski, a former Prime Minister, has no official government role but wields power behind the scenes. In Slovakia and the Czech Republic the changes are subtler. Political institutions have not been dismantled, but there has been an upswing in xenophobic rhetoric, and oligarchs are capturing politics and media.

Robert Fico, Slovakia’s Prime Minister, leads a social democratic party, but his first term (2006-10), saw him ally with Ján Slota’s far-right Slovak National Party. Slota has called Hungarians “a cancer in the body of the Slovak nation” and “ugly, bow-legged, Mongoloid characters on disgusting horses.” Since 2012, Fico’s second term has been marked by tactical resistance to reforms, such as the persistent reluctance to reform the judiciary. Fico simply refuses to talk to independent broadcasters and only communicates via government-friendly station TA3.

In the Czech Republic, Havel’s successors have not shared his dedication to liberal democracy. Václav Klaus, who replaced Havel as President in 2003, has been an outspoken, contentious figure. Just before the end of his second consecutive term in 2013, he granted amnesty to more than 6,000 prisoners, citing the slowness of the legal system. But as well as putting some petty criminals back on the streets, the amnesty stopped ongoing criminal proceedings against people associated with several notorious embezzlement cases. The Czech Senate impeached Klaus, but it was a symbolic gesture as he had already left office.

Klaus’s successor, Miloš Zeman, has turned up the nationalist rhetoric. During the 2015 refugee crisis, Zeman said: “Islamic refugees will not respect Czech laws and habits, they will apply sharia law so unfaithful women will be stoned to death and thieves will have their hands cut off.” In November 2015, President Zeman attended an anti-Muslim rally organised by the far-right Bloc Against Islam group, standing next to its leader, Martin Konvicka. Konvicka faces up to three years in prison for inciting hatred against Muslims by, among other things, writing on Facebook that Muslims should be put into concentration camps.
"There has been an explosion in far-right and far-left media. They regularly promote conspiracies and spread anti-muslim rhetoric"
Another eyebrow-raising development in Czech politics is the rise of Andrej Babiš, the second richest man in the country. He founded his own political party ANO in 2011, “to fight corruption and other ills in the country’s political system.” He is now Finance Minister in the coalition government. In 2013, Babiš’s company Agrofert bought the Mafra media group, giving him a significant percentage of Czech media—a development which led some observers to speak of the “Berlusconisation” of the Czech political space. The purchase of Mafra by Babiš prompted resignations from senior journalists. One of them, Daniel Kaiser, went to work for Echo24.cz, a new website which has been critical of Babiš. At one point, Babiš menacingly stated that he “hoped the investor of Echo24.cz had completed his tax returns.” Adam Cerný, president of the Czech journalists association, fears for the media’s independence: “The legal framework has not changed, but the system has. This will have an impact on press freedom.”

All over Central Europe, as the established independent media is squeezed, there has been an explosion in far-right and far-left media. These outlets regularly promote conspiracy theories, attack western liberal democracies, spread anti-Muslim rhetoric, and deplore the alleged loss of sovereignty to the EU. What makes the region susceptible to such illiberal or undemocratic tendencies? In some ways, it is unfair to single out Central Europe. Globalisation has produced both winners and losers, and nationalist and populist appeals to voters are being successfully made by Marine Le Pen in France and Donald Trump in the United States, for example. The fact that Babiš is compared to Silvio Berlusconi shows how much the Italian leader did to normalise conflicts of interest. And, when it comes to corruption, Greece is in another league.

There are worrying trends in Germany too. Launched at the end of 2014, the social movement “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West” (Pegida), quickly gained momentum, especially in its birthplace of Dresden and other east German cities such as Leipzig. Pegida’s demonstrations against the perceived Islamisation of Germany (and, more recently, a call for “peace with Russia”), have attracted tens of thousands of protestors. Pegida especially benefited from the refugee crisis, but wasn’t the only far-right movement to do so: the right-wing populist “Alternative for Germany” has now become the third most popular party in the country, and will likely enter the Bundestag after the federal elections in 2017.

A few features of Central Europe, however, are unique. Slovak dissident Milan Šimecka once described life under communism as “that comfortable unfreedom where those in power know how to stop time and maintain stasis.” Illiberalism, then, is merely a reversion to the recent past for these young democracies. The past hangs over the present in other ways. That Orbán was a Soviet dissident, as was Poland’s Kaczyn´ski, is less surprising when one considers that “freedom” and “rights” meant different things to different people: liberals like Havel were fighting for political freedom and human rights; others for national freedom and national rights. Thus Orbán can transmute “freedom” into xenophobia and authoritarianism.

Polish sociologist Sawomir Sierakowski offers another explanation. He argues that post 1989, when left-wing politics were considered discredited, “liberal” politics and the “open society” became the only viable political philosophy. When liberal parties slip up, as is inevitable, the alternative becomes “illiberal” forces who promote a “closed” society. “Instead of right and left we only have right and wrong,” quips Sierakowski.

The illiberal turn has a geopolitical angle too: Vladimir Putin has been working to influence both elites and anti-western movements in the region through money, energy and propaganda. Many of Orbán’s “illiberal” policies are echoes of “conservative” policies adopted by the Putin regime in Russia.

There are direct links between Russia and the main Hungarian opposition party, the ultra-right Jobbik. In 2008, Béla Kovács, a member of Jobbik who studied in Soviet Russia, arranged a trip for the party’s leader, Gábor Vona, to Moscow. Since then, Jobbik’s leaders have regularly attended events and conferences in Russia and promoted rapprochement between the two countries: several were observers in elections in Russian-occupied Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014. Currently, Kovács is being investigated in Hungary on charges of espionage for Russia against EU institutions.

So far, Orbán’s relationship with Moscow appears to be driven by pragmatism rather than ideology. In 2014, Hungary imported 89 per cent of its oil and 57 per cent of its gas from Russia. Orbán has promised voters that he will cut gas prices, for which he needs the help of Russian companies, in particular Gazprom.

Orbán also struck a nuclear energy deal with Russia that is cloaked in secrecy. In 2015, Orbán accepted the first tranche of €10bn loan from Moscow for the expansion of the Paks nuclear power plant. Fidesz kept the exact nature of the contract secret and has classified all material related to the deal for 30 years.

When Czech President Zeman established his Party of Civil Rights in 2009 he did so with Martin Nejedlý, managing director of Lukoil Aviation Czech—a subsidiary of the giant Russian Lukoil oil company. Riikka Nisonen, a researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute at the University of Helsinki, argued that Zeman’s presidential campaign “received money from the head of Lukoil’s Czech office,” though Zeman claimed that the money was “a personal donation.”

Once in office, President Zeman adopted vigorously anti-western, anti-European, and pro-Russian language policies. In 2014, he condemned the western sanctions imposed on Russia for the annexation of Crimea and its war against Ukraine, a position echoed by former President Klaus. A series of public protests followed, but they had little impact on the president.

In 2014, the Czech-language website AE News published a series of articles alleging that anti-Zeman protests earlier that year had been sponsored by the same American “puppet masters” who orchestrated the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine. AE News portrayed an epic struggle between foreign plotters and heroic, “lion-like” President Zeman, “the only European politician who defends the national interests of his country.” These articles caused a sensation in the Czech public sphere, and the Security Information Service (BIS) publicly stated that it considered AE News “a source of dangerous Russian propaganda.” Around 80 websites in Slovakia and the Czech Republic have sprung up over the last few years, peddling conspiracy theories that repeat Russian propaganda. When journalists look into their backers, the trail leads to opaque shell companies.

What are Putin’s ultimate aims in Central Europe? It’s hard to imagine Russian tanks on the streets of Prague. But Putin can undermine EU unity on a host of issues, from sanctions against Russia for its war in Ukraine, through to the EU’s joint energy package, which promises to wean Europe off Russian energy. From this point of view, the new Polish government, which is both anti-Brussels and anti-Russian, plays into the Kremlin’s hands. It was Poland who led the EU campaign to extend the Association Agreement to Ukraine. While Poland was a model European, other EU states went along. Now it is becoming a concern there is less of an imperative to listen to its calls to be tough on Russia.
"In a nightmare scenario, illiberal states could gang together, encouraging similar trends throughout Europe"
On the level of narrative, the more the idea of liberal democracy is undermined, the better it is for Putin. Domestically, Putin’s power rests on the idea that there is no alternative: he may be corrupt, but there is no viable European model for Russia. Thus the Kremlin’s domestic propaganda loves to show Central European leaders cosying up to Moscow and rejecting the west. The story of the “failure” of 1989 also adds to the argument of Putin’s regime that western-style democracy might not be compatible with political culture of non-western European societies, that the west has had its day, and that emerging countries should ally with Russia.

All this leaves the EU in a quandary.

While countries are seeking EU membership they have strong incentives to live up to its values. Once inside, it becomes harder to ensure good behaviour. The EU’s approach is to enshrine democracy in the minutiae of regulations. But countries such as Hungary have learned to game this system. “Illiberalism is like pornography,” says Jeremy Shapiro, director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations, “you know what it is when you see it, but it’s very hard to define. Hungary’s media law was definitely pornography in this sense: but every line was taken from some media law in another EU state.” Orbán has also learned to play a cat-and-mouse game with the EU: making bold moves to undermine democratic institutions, waiting for criticism, repealing a small number of measures, then moving forward again.

To stop another Hungarian-style reversal from happening the EU adopted a new mechanism in 2014 to tackle “systemic threats to the rule of law.” If a country is found guilty, it can be stripped of its voting rights in the EU. The first phase of this mechanism, collecting information on whether there is a systemic threat, has been launched against Poland. Law and Justice responded with a rash of anti-EU statements, including comparing German calls to place Warsaw under supervision to the Nazi occupation of Poland. This rhetoric may backfire for Law and Order: Poles trust EU institutions more than their own politicians. Hundreds of thousands have come out to protest against the ruling party, and its polls have sunk.

As the EU moves forward, however, it is essential to talk above the heads of the Polish government to its population, something it has always been reluctant to do. It needs to lose its image of a bureaucratic monster, and show it can genuinely respond to the needs of citizens. In the longer term, the EU needs to find a way to support independent, fact-based broadcasting in the region.  European leaders will have to show principled leadership too.

When it comes to the challenge of Russia the EU is more confounded. Lacking any common security or foreign policy on Russia it falls, for better or worse, to the US to help deal with the problem. In 2009, leading Central European leaders and intellectuals, including Havel, wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama thanking the US for its “support of liberal democracy and liberal values in the past,” but expressing their concern that the US thinks “our region is one part of the world that Americans have largely stopped worrying about… That view is premature. All is not well either in our region or in the transatlantic relationship.” They warned of “stormclouds” on the foreign policy horizon and called for a renaissance of Nato.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US has restated its commitment to supporting Nato and defending against Russian military aggression. But that does little for the postmodern warfare Russia now prefers. To undermine Nato’s credibility, Russia doesn’t need to invade, only to discredit confidence in the US. For Nato to be truly relevant, corruption and propaganda have to be seen as security issues. The US needs to engage in energy security too. One of Orbán’s arguments is that the US abandoned him when he tried to develop liquefied natural gas terminals that would make Hungary more energy independent, forcing him to search for an accommodation with Russia.

Action can’t come too soon. Kaczyn´ski’s first foreign visit after Law and Justice came to power in October 2015 was to meet with Orbán, pledging mutual support against EU measures. In a nightmare scenario, illiberal states could gang together, encouraging similar trends throughout Europe. For the past 20 years the Visegrád Four have been an example for transition to democracy across the world. They could become the example for a transition away from it.

Read the Legatum Institute report "Is Transition Reversible? The Case of Central Europe"