Can Europe Make It?

Illiberalism in eastern Europe is a legacy of 1989

Liberal democracy in eastern Europe is not succumbing to a new challenge. It is confronted with a recurrent challenge that has been brewing, surfacing, and re-surfacing since 1989.

Tom Junes
20 November 2019
Viktor Orban in the Hungarian Parliament, 1997.
Viktor Orban in the Hungarian Parliament, 1997.
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Wikicommons/ Rita Molnár. Some rights reserved.

Thirty years ago, in 1989, communist regimes in Eastern Europe started imploding one after the other until the Soviet Union itself disappeared from the European map in 1991. It was a remarkable and unique series of events that spawned emphatic narratives like ‘the end of history’ or the ‘return to Europe’. More significantly, despite the hardships of what would be a historic transformation, the overarching hope for and in Eastern Europe was that the future would be brighter.

Yet, on the 30th anniversary of the demise of communism, not much is left of that past optimism. Nowadays, the narrative regarding the region focuses on the ‘rise of populism’ and ‘democratic backsliding’ and highlights the emergence of various illiberal and authoritarian tendencies. The leading question is ‘what went wrong?’ – a question that has especially resonated since late 2015 when Poland, the poster child of the transition, rapidly became the EU’s problem child.

Are these populist forces in the region a new challenge to the liberal order? Many political analysts and commentators seem to suggest so.

But are we truly seeing a reversal of history? Are these populist forces in the region a new challenge to the liberal order? Many political analysts and commentators seem to suggest so. However, from a historical perspective it is possible to see the illiberal and authoritarian tendencies of today less as constituting some rupture and more as a legacy of 1989, the roots of which can be traced to contemporary nationalism and anti-communism.

Malignant nationalism

The demise of communism had a palpable nationalist dimension, restoring sovereignty for the countries under Soviet domination and signalling the return or birth of national independence for the constituent Soviet republics. This was followed by some states further breaking up, peacefully as with Czechoslovakia, but violently as with Moldova or Yugoslavia. Nationalism was not a consequence of 1989, its rising influence in the region preceded the ‘revolutions’ and then contributed to how events unfolded.

In fact, the nationalist turn in Eastern Europe was fuelled by the late socialist regimes which had resorted to nationalism as a substitute for increasingly hollowed-out Marxist-Leninist phraseology. In light of that, the fledgling opposition movements that contested these regimes resorted to patriotic rhetoric and the abundant use of national flags. Understandable as it was at the time for many participants, it masked some uglier nationalist and nativist undercurrents that were present in Eastern Europe’s ‘civil society’.

To be fair, nationalism did not seem problematic for many observers back then. When Poland’s massive opposition movement coalesced around Solidarność [Solidarity], not much attention was paid to how this highly ‘Polonised’ movement was received among the country’s arguably small minorities (Poland had re-emerged from the Second World War as an ethnically near-homogenous country). More so, the anti-Soviet stance of the radical and oppositional youth movements of Poland and other countries did not ring any alarm bells either. For instance, Victor Orbán’s famous 1989 speech has generally not been seen as a precursor of his later nationalist and illiberal policies in Hungary.

Bulgaria’s emerging ‘democratic opposition’ ultimately failed to vocally condemn this racist campaign and its consequences.

Yet, there were enough warning signs about nationalism in the region in 1989 and the following years. Bulgaria’s communist regime had embarked on a forced assimilation campaign against its Turkish minority which culminated in de facto ethnic cleansing when over 300,000 Bulgarian Turks were driven out of the country in the summer of 1989. Despite it being a mobilising issue for human rights activists, Bulgaria’s emerging ‘democratic opposition’ ultimately failed to vocally condemn this racist campaign and its consequences. In former East Germany, the early 1990s saw pogroms against foreigners, while the nationalist incitement that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia led to war and genocide. Whether it is today’s anti-Semitic, anti-Roma, anti-refugee, or anti-Muslim political agitation in the region – none of it is a distinctly new phenomenon.

Deceptive anticommunism

One fallacy of the conventional narrative of 1989 is the apparent equation of anti-communism with liberalism. But liberalism was a creation of 1989 and not the other way around. The anti-communist opposition of the late 1980s was a melting pot of activists and movements adhering to diverse world views and ideologies in which liberals were a minority. Some of today’s most notorious far-right politicians like Janusz Korwin-Mikke in Poland or Volen Siderov in Bulgaria were also active in the anti-communist opposition and can thus legitimately claim an ‘oppositional pedigree’.

Anti-communist sentiments in the region have fed a populist disposition and opened the door to the far right, ‘organically’ from the bottom up. This was embodied by a resilient discourse of 1989 as a ‘communist conspiracy’ or a ‘stolen transition’ and popular resentment of perceived shady interest groups in league with post-communist ‘new elites’. In the past three decades, grassroots protest movements have seized upon this narrative in the name of anti-communism, often using it to target progressive or left-liberal positions as well.

In the past three decades, grassroots protest movements have seized upon this narrative in the name of anti-communism, often using it to target progressive or left-liberal positions as well.

Ultimately, it was the requirements of EU accession that made liberal democracy effectively the ‘only game in town’ in most countries. But the track records of some of the region’s politicians like Jarosław Kaczyński, Václav Klaus, Vladimír Mečiar, or Viktor Orbán serve as testimony that alternative paths could have been taken earlier. In the post-communist era it was the persistence of a ‘performative’ anti-communism and not liberal credentials that served to legitimise many politicians and political parties.

Anti-communism ensured that liberal-minded politicians emanating from the reformist wings of the erstwhile communist parties were stigmatised and their crucial role in the democratisation of the region not appreciated. The fate of the post-communist successor parties of the Left have taken different trajectories over the past three decades, but they have generally been in steady decline (as have most social democratic parties in the rest of Europe). But it was the collapse of Poland’s once powerful Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej [Union of the Democratic Left] that facilitated the right-wing hegemony of the past fifteen years which in turn enabled the rise of the populist radical Right.

The post-communist successor parties of the Left… have generally been in steady decline (as have most social democratic parties in the rest of Europe).

No end of history

The illiberalism and authoritarian tendencies we are seeing in the region today are offshoots of the nationalism and anti-communism (often having mutated into more general anti-left and anti-liberal sentiments) of 1989. This also explains how a young anti-communist firebrand in 1989 like Viktor Orbán in Hungary could be a nationalist and illiberal politician in 2019 or that an anti-communist trade union like Solidarność now actively supports a radical right populist party like Prawo i Sprawiedliwość [Law and Justice] or that the East German opposition’s slogan of ‘Wir sind das Volk’ [We are the people] could be appropriated by a xenophobic movement like Pegida and fuel the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland [Alternative for Germany].

Liberal democracy in eastern Europe is not succumbing to a new challenge. It is confronted with a recurrent challenge that has been brewing, surfacing, and re-surfacing since 1989. The reason why illiberal and authoritarian tendencies seem stronger today is that liberalism has lost steam – and perhaps even exhausted itself – mainly because most of its post-1989 goals have been achieved: a transition to capitalism and integration in the ‘western world’ (embodied by NATO and EU membership). Liberalism in the region is no longer offering ‘new ideas’: its positive achievements are taken for granted, but its failures contested.

Thirty years after 1989, those opposing illiberalism are taking to the streets – though not to demand change. They are protesting to hold on to a seemingly crumbling status quo. For better or for worse, on this 30th anniversary of 1989 it is useful to remember that there is no end to history. From a historical perspective, three decades is but a fraction of time. After all, assessing the French Revolution thirty years after 1789 would have been equally tedious. Though as with France, it is entirely imaginable that history in eastern Europe will take another series of turns. Meanwhile, the legacies of 1989, whether liberal or illiberal, democratic or authoritarian, will keep on reverberating.

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