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What went wrong in eastern Europe?

A new book sheds light on the early warning signs of illiberalism – and gives some modest hope for the future. 

25 November 1989: people walk from Prague cathedral to Letná Plain. Photo CC BY-SA 3.0: Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.

A review of John Feffer’s Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe’s Broken Dreams.

On the eve of the 30th anniversary of 1989, one could be forgiven succumbing to pessimism following the news coming out of Eastern Europe. Apart from the alarmism about a resurgent and aggressive Russia, it is the “rise of illiberalism”, for instance, in Hungary and Poland, or instability in the Balkans that has captured the imagination of media commentators and political scientists.

Students of the region’s history can read about that “we-the-people” moment in which the nations of eastern Europe took to the streets demanding freedom and democracy. In a seemingly ironic twist of history, merely a generation later, conservative, populist and far-right parties are capitalising on the same “we-the-people” slogan to advance nativist and xenophobic policies. “What has gone wrong?” is the question now asked about a region once thought by some to have heralded “the end of history”.

John Feffer’s Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe’s Broken Dreams is a book that ventures into this question from a unique perspective. Based on an impressive number of in-depth interviews collected over nearly a quarter century and spanning a geographical scope from the Baltic coast to the Balkans, Aftershock unlocks a plethora of personal stories and experiences from the region, showing the complexity of the post-1989 transition and political trajectory of eastern Europe.

Illiberalism as a transnational phenomenon

The book’s main premise is to trace the causal processes that precipitated the rise of illiberalism in eastern Europe by re-assessing the hopes and fears of 1989. Writing from the vantage point of an American observer (who also aims to draw lessons for western societies), Feffer relies on an analytical framework grounded in the work of political scientists such as Yascha Mounk and Jan-Werner Müller. This framework leads Feffer to conclude that illiberalism owes its appeal to three overlapping “anti-internationalist” backlashes that have materialised over the past decades: resentment against “multiculturalism”, anger with the negative effects of economic globalisation, and mistrust in the functioning of liberal democracy.

Editions of Polish newspaper Wieczór Wrocławia for 20-22 March 1981. Censors removed texts concerning the violent suppression of trade unionists at Bydgoszcz. CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.Feffer’s approach provides a useful integrative plain through which to look at the countries in eastern Europe given some apparently similar developments in the west: the victory of the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, and the relative success of populist and far right parties in western Europe. However, such an approach also obscures part of the longer historical process that is idiosyncratic to the region. No western state has seen a simultaneous political, social and economic transformation take place on a similar scale and depth.

None of the Eastern European countries tackled in the book are close to resembling the multicultural societies of the west. Eastern Europe did not experience similar levels of immigration for a variety of reasons, while the treatment of the region’s national minorities has been left wanting for decades. In addition, the region’s communist regimes were decisively conservative when it came to social and cultural rights – a trend that was perpetuated after 1989 despite the political changes that took place, for instance, in the sphere of women’s and LGBT rights.

The post-1989 transition dismantled what was left of the imperfect welfare provisions of state socialism in eastern Europe

After the experience of fascism and the Second World War, liberal democracy became widely accepted in western Europe as it was simultaneously entrenched in a social-democratic welfare state. Eastern Europe was subject to a Soviet-style modernisation project of state socialism which, though combining state-led industrialisation and a paternalistic form of welfare state, was based on non-democratic authoritarian rule.

The post-1989 transition dismantled what was left of the imperfect welfare provisions of state socialism in eastern Europe just at a time when the social-democratic achievements were being rolled back in western Europe under the banner of neoliberalism. But in eastern Europe, the weakening of the state was a far more pervasive process leaving its institutions vulnerable.

There are still significant portions of the region’s population who have first-hand memory and experience of authoritarian and thus “illiberal” rule. Given the shortcomings or deficiencies of the transition, one cannot exclude a certain persistence of nostalgia, be it for the welfare state or the efficacy of a “strong state”. Given the region’s relatively short experience with liberal democracy, it might not be so surprising that it is seemingly coming undone more rapidly than expected.

The end of a utopia

Nevertheless, it is the hopes of 1989 that make Eastern Europe stand out. With the people’s revolutions and demise of communist rule came a utopian moment, one embodied by a desire to catch up with the west. But utopian feelings soon gave way to the realities of the transition. Issues that represented the promise of a bright future for the peoples of eastern Europe like German unification or integration into the European Union, a “membership in an idealised West” as Feffer calls it, have lost their appeal. The fall-out from the financial crisis and then the refugee crisis have served to bolster populist rhetoric blaming Brussels for the weakening of the nation-state.

Kelebija, a recently constructed detention camp for migrants at the Serbian-Hungarian border. (c) Krystian Maj/Zuma Press/PA Images.Feffer identifies the urban-rural divide as perhaps the most important issue on which eastern Europe’s populists have managed to capitalise politically. The regions felt the brunt of the negative impact of the shock therapies of the transition, while a fledgling middle class in the cities at least managed to grasp some opportunities ushered in by the economic transformation. This experience of differing economic fortunes resulted in a societal divide that Feffer somewhat problematically labels an “Eastern Europe A” and an “Eastern Europe B”.

At the root of this divide, according to Feffer, lies the fact that the post-1989 transformation reflected the concerns of urban intellectuals whose biographies reflected their struggle against communism and who then arguably stood closer to the liberal values of the west. The overall majority of the countryside’s populace did not share such a worldview, adhering rather to traditional conservative and nationalist values.

Many of the liberal and cultural freedoms that are under assault in eastern Europe are, in fact, the result of hard-fought struggles that only came to fruition in western Europe in the 1990s and later

In addition, the reforms of the 1990s were macro-economic, focusing on the financial sector and dealing with the major factories bestowed by state socialist regimes. Though most of the countries were still predominantly agricultural societies, less attention was paid to agriculture. A miscalculation, Feffer underlines, that has come with a high political cost. The illiberal challenge that has emerged essentially started as a reaction of “the people” in the provinces against the “cosmopolitan elites” of the cities.

What Feffer omits is that many of the liberal and cultural freedoms that are under assault in eastern Europe are, in fact, the result of hard-fought struggles that only came to fruition in western Europe in the 1990s and later – that is when eastern Europe was “catching up” during the transition. Given the fact that a large part of Eastern Europe’s urban dwellers also vote for populist parties, and that the region’s urban elites’ support for liberal values (such as women’s and LGBT rights) remains in doubt, it is questionable whether a breakdown between an Eastern Europe A and an Eastern Europe B captures the problem. The idealised west of eastern Europe was and still is the pre-1989 west, a beacon of desired prosperity and consumerism, but significantly more conservative than today. Perhaps the real issue stems from the fact that eastern Europe didn’t “catch up”, and might not do so in the foreseeable future.

The legacy of the past

Taken at face value, the illiberal challenge in Eastern Europe can be seen as a rhetorical proclamation of a verdict or condemnation of the transition in name of “the people”. Populists everywhere make promises about correcting erroneous ways of the past as they attack corruption or feed on economic resentment. In eastern Europe, however, there is an additional specific problem that relates to dealing with the communist past and in particular the approach to those who had been targeted by or collaborated with the former regimes’ security apparatuses. Anti-communism is a common branding adopted by today’s populists in the region.

The exposure and sometimes prosecution of communist crimes was part of a legitimate campaign for transitional justice, but the various attempts at lustration ended up being a botched process practically everywhere, often victimising those who had actively contested the communist regime. As Feffer convincingly demonstrates in the book, the issue of haphazard lustration mixed with the wild capitalism and corruption of the 1990s helped create a culture of suspicion that was ultimately easy manipulated by populists to undermine trust in the institutions of liberal democracy.

Nationalism, often under the banner of patriotism, was an integral part of the events of 1989 and the democratisation that followed

But populism and illiberalism are not recent or new phenomena in the region. As Feffer poignantly observes, some warning signs were already visible in the 1990s. Shortly after 1989, Poland’s first presidential election was unexpectedly contested in a second-round run-off by Lech Wałęsa, Solidarity’s legendary leader, and Stanisław Tymiński, an obscure émigré businessman promising an easy fix to the country’s problems and prosperity for all. Tymiński’s proclamations, as Feffer duly notes, uncannily resembled the soundbites of Donald Trump’s populist campaign more than a quarter century later.

In Slovakia, the 1990s were dominated politically by Vladimír Mečiar, a former dissident, whose brand of policies included playing on economic resentment, espousing nationalism and anti-Roma sentiments. Mečiar was ultimately defeated at the polls in 1998 thanks to an internationally supported grassroots campaign, which as Feffer aptly notes, relied on the legacy of the Velvet Revolution but also served as a precursor to the Colour Revolutions of the 21st century. Indeed, Mečiar’s politics could be seen as a forbearer of the illiberal and authoritarian tendencies we see today. While these tendencies ultimately did not manage to break through in the 1990s, from today’s perspective they should be interpreted as a warning not heeded. Populism is a symptom of our times, but illiberal ideas are not new.

Feffer rightly points out how nationalism has fuelled the rise of illiberalism in eastern Europe. The regions’ communist parties were already decisively playing the nationalist card in the 1980s and their opponents were often conservatives and nationalists rather than liberals. Nationalism, often under the banner of patriotism, was an integral part of the events of 1989 and the democratisation that followed. In the decades after 1989, mass protests throughout eastern Europe have more often than not been characterised by the use of national flags; conservatives and liberals have found it difficult to criticise such expressions of “patriotism”. Meanwhile non-nationalist liberal or left-wing parties have floundered, and ultra-nationalist and far right parties have flourished, leading the region’s political centre to have decisively shifted to the right, thereby embracing nationalist and illiberal positions.

What can the future bring?

Aftershock not only explores the failures of the transition. It also highlights positive developments and offers hopeful alternatives. Some of Feffer’s respondents recount their personal success stories allowing for a more nuanced understanding of people’s diverging trajectories since 1989. The plight of national and sexual minorities, or the transnational predicament of the region’s Roma communities are reason for grave concern, but Feffer’s book engages with local activists who have taken up these causes showing that there is also some cause for hope. In addition, the EU has managed to play a positive role in part by empowering aiding human rights campaigners over the years.

Feffer introduces an array of political and cultural activist milieux, dubbing them “the new dissidents” creating “islands of hope” or even “new worlds”. He also points to a generational element at work. The young generation has grown up with all the benefits of EU membership, but rejects the orthodox liberalism of those who constructed the post-1989 order. This generation also believes its voice must be heard, leading Feffer to conclude that in future the members of this generation could hold the key to decisions whether the old order will be reformed or a new world would be created.

At this point though, it is hard to share Feffer’s moderate optimism. His new dissidents, ranging from the milieu of Krytyka Polityczna in Poland to that of New Left Perspectives in Bulgaria, do not have much impact on the political process in the region. Polls and surveys show that many among the younger generation are critical of the old order, but in fact support the far right. Yet, the question about the future of Eastern Europe that Feffer puts forward in his book through its plethora of elucidating personal testimonies is a crucial one: what can we expect for the future in eastern Europe? Will we see more nationalism, more populism and possibly the rise of a new political order? Or will we see a reformed EU that could mitigate the negative consequences of economic liberalisation and restore faith in liberal democracy?

Illiberalism in Eastern Europe is certainly not a predetermined outcome just as the acceptance of liberalism did not hail the end of history. In the past decade, the region has both witnessed the rise of populist politics and mass grassroots protest movements challenging the status quo. There is cause for pessimism, but also for optimism. If the history of the region teaches us something, then it is that it never ends and it can be unexpected and surprising. After all, to many at the time the events of 1989 seemed unexpected and surprising.

 


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