According to the European Commission, the COVID-19 crisis has been a “stress test” for the respect of rule of law in the European Union (EU). Indeed, the global pandemic seems to have aggravated already existing trends in terms of disrespect of the rule of law and flouting of democratic principles.
However, the report of the European Commission on the rule of law as well as the report recently published by Transparency International on corruption indicate that some EU members—in Eastern and Central Europe—were more prone to democratic backsliding than others. Indeed, it appears that they are more vulnerable to breaching of the rule of law, with associated corruption and erosion of democracy than the other member states. Notably, Hungary and Poland are performing worst in terms of the respect of the rule of law. Even though Andrej Babiš has not taken a major illiberal turn, the corruption associated to the Czech government and public administration remains a strong source of concern.
Thus, looking beyond the generic explanation that Central and Eastern Europe’s political cultures are still affected by their authoritarian past, this article aims to determine why is there such a contrast between them and the rest of the EU. Asking this question amidst an international crisis makes it even more acute, as the health crisis offers a frame for a deeper reflection on the resilience of European political systems to a critical situation. One can only hope the democratic cracks and shortcomings highlighted by this crisis will be mended in the aftermath of the pandemic, to ensure our political systems will be more resilient during the impending environmental crisis.
The window of opportunity for authoritarian leaning populists: CEE going down the illiberal road
When trying to understand the democratic backsliding in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the most prominent factor to consider is the populist takeover in the region. Indeed, elected populist leaders are the ones initiating democratic backsliding and undermining of the rule of law. Therefore, it would be the CEE’s sensibility to the populist discourse that led the region onto the illiberal route. Hence, to understand the current difference between CEE member-states and the rest of the EU in terms of the respect of democracy and the rule of law, one needs to grasp why CEE countries are more likely to be swayed by populist narratives.
Generally, the rise of populism is analyzed through two major lenses: an economic explanation, and a cultural interpretation. As the populist spike mostly took off after the 2008 financial crisis rather than in the rear of the 2015 crisis, it has been advanced that the populist outbreak stems from the burgeoning inequalities. And, indeed, in CEE more than in the rest of the EU, top earners gained a much larger part of the income growth than the rest of the population, as “the average income of the top 0.001% rose on average more than ten times faster than that of the bottom 50%”. As growth becomes more disproportionate, the “elite versus people” populist paradigm becomes more attractive and engaging.
However, the Gini coefficient of CEE does not indicate strong income inequalities. Hence, it seems a bit far-fetched to state that populism largely stems from economic inequality, especially knowing that no evidence-based study establishes a link between the rise of inequalities and populism in Europe. Still, it seems that the rise of populism is partly explained by economic factors. Indeed, the 2008 financial crisis resulted in a long period of austerity that was largely unpopular with the European population and eroded public trust. This austerity wave offered a robust “opportunity for political realignment” largely benefiting CEE populist and far-right leaders as their discourse is steeped in an anti-establishment narrative.
Moreover, as already stated, there seem to be other factors at play. Indeed, even though Poland did not particularly suffer from the 2008 crisis, the country has been ruled by the populist Law and Justice party since 2015. The rise of populism can also be explained through cultural considerations. It has been argued that populism stems from a “cultural backlash”, product of a major shift to post-materialistic values to which more traditionalist citizens do not identify. Populist leaders able to ride the wave of identity politics could therefore be brought to power.
Furthermore, populist-leaning politicians are deemed to “understand better” CEE than liberal politicians as they root their political discourse in traditionalist rather than post-materialistic values and concerns. The populist upsurge has reached the whole European continent. However, as opposed to the rest of the EU, in CEE the liberal politicians did not provide a credible alternative to the “cultural backlash” narrative constructed by populists. This could explain why the populist takeover was much more successful in CEE than in other parts of the Union.
This argument offers a silver lining. Indeed, as argued by J. Kuisz and K. Wigura, it is by “understanding the feeling of loss that underlies populism’s effectiveness » that the liberal Zuzana Caputova won the 2019 Slovak presidential election. Thus, it is still within the liberals’ reach to close the window of opportunity exploited by the authoritarian-leaning populist leaders responsible for the undermining of the rule of law and the subsequent democratic backslide.
Putting in perspective the CEE’s democratic culture’s liability in democratic backsliding
Beside CEE’s populist leaders’ responsibility in the current democratic backsliding, the democratic culture of CEE has also been pointed at as the cause of this regression. Indeed, it has been argued that the robustness of the post-communist countries’ democratic culture might have been overrated. In 2002, Thomas Carothers already asserted that the “transition paradigm”—according to which CEE had finished transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy—should be questioned as some democratic deficits such as “the frequent abuse of law by government officials” or “poor institutional performances” were still widespread. Consequently, the recent democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary can be understood as proof that the transition to democratic values in CEE is still frail.
Still, it must not be forgotten that CEE having a more pronounced vulnerability to democratic backsliding does not mean that the whole region is inevitably destined to such a reversion. Indeed, the gloomy review of the state of the rule of law and democracy made in Poland and Hungary must not mistake observers into believing that this whole European region is going down the illiberal road. Therefore, as pleaded by Cianetti and Hanley, the “backsliding paradigm” should not be systemically applied to CEE as the state of democracy in CEE cannot be generalized to an authoritarian relapse.
Moreover, this reasoning is dangerous insofar as it could serve a self-fulfilling prophecy that all former satellite states of the USSR would inevitably go back on their previous democratic achievements. Furthermore, the democratic backsliding narrative could further stress the wronged perception that there are fundamental differences in the democratic cultures in Western and Eastern Europe.
Yet, the frailty of certain aspects of democratic systems in Central and Eastern Europe should not be underestimated either. Indeed, a few features of the democratic culture heavily attacked in Hungary or Poland—notably the independence of the media—are also at risk in other states across the region. One example is the Czech Republic, where Prime Minister Babiš’ heavy hand on the media remains a matter of concern. Thus, while avoiding a generalisation of the political situation in all the CEE, it is nevertheless advisable to remain vigilant in the face of potential illiberal developments.
 Hanley, S. and Vachudova, M., 2018. Understanding the illiberal turn: democratic backsliding in the Czech Republic. East European Politics, 34(3), pp.276-296.
 Orenstein, M. and Bugarič, B., 2018. Economic Causes of Populism in Central and Eastern Europe. [online] Ecpr.eu. Available at: <https://ecpr.eu/Events/PaperDetails.aspx?PaperID=41775&EventID=115> [Accessed 10 February 2021].
 O’Connor, N., 2017. Three Connections between Rising Economic Inequality and the Rise of Populism. Irish Studies in International Affairs, 28, p.29.
 Inglehart, F. and Norris, P., 2016. Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash. HKS Working Paper No. RWP16-026, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2818659or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2818659
 Carothers, T., 2002. The End of the Transition Paradigm. Journal of Democracy, 13(1), pp.5-21.
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 Cianetti, L. and Hanley, S., 2020. We must go beyond the ‘backsliding paradigm’ to understand what’s happening to democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. [online] LSE. Available at: <https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2020/04/17/we-must-go-beyond-the-backsliding-paradigm-to-understand-whats-happening-to-democracy-in-central-and-eastern-europe/> [Accessed 10 February 2021].
Author : EUROPEUM