Democracy on the decline in CEE

January 9, 2017

A new report points to danger, even in EU member states

Twenty years ago, many were enthralled by the exhilarating and seemingly inevitable sweep of history moving across the countries of the former Soviet bloc. From Vilnius to Almaty, it was thought the final victory of liberal democracy and capitalism was at hand in lands previously dominated by communist ideology and its attendant authoritarianism and bankrupt, centrally planned economic model. Now, it is clear the road leading from communist authoritarianism to fully fledged pluralist democracy is a long one, and any progress achieved is far from irreversible.

The 2009 edition of Nations in Transit (NIT), Freedom House’s annual survey of democratization in the 29 countries of the former Soviet bloc, highlights exceedingly divergent paths of countries once united under the same umbrella. The survey shows remarkable differences in both the pace and direction of the various democratization processes. And, while it highlights the comparative success of Central European countries, it also offers clear warning to the complacent not to delude themselves about the irrevocable nature of democracy.

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Baltics embarked on successful, albeit sometimes painful and still incomplete, political democratization and economic transformation, eventually joining the European Union. In contrast, the successor states of the former Soviet Union, including Russia, after briefly trying to create democratic systems and functioning market economies, have succumbed to growing authoritarianism and curbed many of the hard-won freedoms brought by Soviet collapse, while maintaining a robber-baron-type system of capitalism. Meanwhile, the countries of the Western Balkans initially descended into a series of bloody wars and then, with differing degrees of success, re-committed themselves to a path of sustainable democratization and European integration, with the countries of Central Europe and the Baltics as role models.

In this reading, Central Europe and the Baltics stand out as nearly unqualified success stories.

In another reading, however, the 10 countries of CEE and the Baltics do not look so impressive. In fact, this year’s edition of NIT registered declines in seven countries and stagnation in two, with only Poland registering improvement in its overall rating. Previous editions of NIT have already registered slight, but noticeable, declines in some of these countries in many of the seven areas of democratic governance the survey assesses (National governance, local governance, civil society, corruption, independent media, judicial framework and independence, and electoral process).

It seemed as though the exuberance of EU accession quickly gave way to “reform fatigue.” Unfortunately, the onset of the global economic crisis found most of these countries unprepared, some of them dangerously weakened. Countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary and Latvia have been hit especially hard, and the impact spilled over into the political arena. The trend of slow but steady democratic backsliding observed in most of these countries has continued and was only further abetted by the weakening economic environment.

One particular area of concern in the new EU members examined in NIT is the state of civil society. The rise in political radicalism in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic signals a potentially dangerous trend, especially in light of the impending, and by all expectations serious, social impact of the global economic crisis. The sizeable, and marginalized, Roma communities are often targets of intensifying racist violence, raising the ugly specter of ethnic tensions between the majority and minority populations, with the accompanying rise in popularity of extreme-rightwing political outfits.

Yet another area where the previous A-students of democratization from CEE showed particular tendency to backsliding is corruption. Bulgaria, Hungary and Latvia have all registered declines. Only Poland managed to improve its score, in all other countries stagnation was the norm. Continuing clientelism, lack of transparency in public procurement, party financing irregularities and the proximity of organized crime and politics continue to hamper efforts to combat corruption.

The 2009 findings of NIT should be a warning for anyone interested in protecting and strengthening democratic gains of the past 20 years in CEE. These countries have done well and serve as models for others in the former communist block. Their tendency in recent years to slow reforms and to tolerate and indulge questionable practices in domestic politics now combines with a highly unpredictable economic environment, threatening to turn minor negative trends into a more costly and systemic crisis.

– The author is deputy director of Freedom House Europe, based in Budapest.

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