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Seán Hanley

Licia Cianetti

July 3rd, 2024

What Eastern Europe can teach us about threats to democracy

0 comments | 11 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Seán Hanley

Licia Cianetti

July 3rd, 2024

What Eastern Europe can teach us about threats to democracy

0 comments | 11 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

The democratic transition of countries in Eastern Europe during the 1990s, the EU’s eastern enlargement that began in 2004, and more recent concerns about democratic backsliding in the region have been the subject of countless academic studies. But what have we learned from these analyses? Seán Hanley and Licia Cianetti write that one of the key lessons from this work is that autocratic threats are often misread, diagnosed only belatedly, and overlooked until they are deeply entrenched.


Despite being a collection of relatively small states, Eastern Europe has often been seen as a barometer of global political trends. In the 1990s, the sudden and unexpected collapse of communist regimes put the region at the epicentre of a new wave of democratisation, creating new templates for peaceful democratic revolutions. In the 2000s, its integration into the EU demonstrated the transformative power of international organisations.

Fast forward another decade and, with the rise of politicians like Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Eastern Europe has become a testing ground for another unexpected phenomenon: the unravelling of seemingly secure democracies. In our contribution to the new Routledge Handbook of Autocratisation, we suggest that the region also has something else to teach us. Autocratic threats are often misread, diagnosed only belatedly, and overlooked until they are deeply entrenched. Academic analysis needs to evolve more rapidly to keep pace with these shifting dynamics.

Not going the Latin American way

Recent analyses of waning democracy in Eastern Europe have bemoaned an overly optimistic belief in the transferability of West European models to the region. However, in the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism, many specialists were deeply pessimistic about the region’s democratic prospects and foresaw rapid democratic breakdown. They anticipated that illiberal traditions from the pre-communist period, exacerbated by communism, would push it towards Latin American-style authoritarianism.

The expectation, in Adam Przeworski’s words, was that “the East has become the South”, stuck in dependent capitalism, aggravated by the social dislocations of market reform, and beset by post-communist dilemmas. The perceived threat was a “red-brown” cocktail of extreme right-wing nationalism and social populism profiting from the anger of “losers” in economic transition backed by revanchist ex-communists and conservative institutions like the Church and the army.

But it soon became clear that the nightmare vision of endemic democratic failure for Eastern Europe was not materialising. The far right was marginal and out of ideas. Ex-communists reinvented themselves as social democrats, entrepreneurs, or industry leaders. Transition “losers” protested at the ballot box, not on the street, while in some countries communist-era welfare states were repurposed to buy off key “loser” groups. Growth restarted, bolstered by a buoyant global economy and the prospect of joining the European Union. EU conditionalities forced some institutional reforms and tilted the political balance in “laggard” states like Slovakia, where liberal forces were weaker and nationalists stronger.

Danger on the right

Academic agendas increasingly viewed democracy in Eastern Europe as consolidated and safe, albeit flawed and poor quality, shaped by an uneasy combination of Europeanisation and communist legacies. However, just as regime change seemed complete with EU accession, new concerns about threats to democracy emerged in the mid-2000s. Initially seen as post-transition fatigue, it gradually became clear that the autocratic threat of illiberal populism feared in the 1990s was emerging late and in a slightly unanticipated form.

The main architects of this belated assault on post-communist democracies were not nostalgic ex-communists but radicalised mainstream right parties, such as Hungary’s Fidesz or Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS). Their leaders had their political origins in anti-communist opposition movements and fed on resentments from the post-1989 transition. These were not holdovers from the past. Unlike 1990s populists, these new challengers had intellectual support from a renewed conservative and nationalist intelligentsia. Politicians of the left like Slovakia’s Robert Fico or Czechia’s Miloš Zeman later realised that nationalism and populism could benefit them electorally and in office.

The landslide election victory of Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party in Hungary in 2010 opened up a pattern of autocratisation known as “democratic backsliding”. Legitimately elected, Orbán used his supermajority to remodel Hungarian democracy, placing it under the tight grip of his party and cronies. Over successive terms, he changed the constitution, revised electoral law, cut back judicial independence, took control over media, extended party control over the state, and shifted the economy towards a mix of etatism and crony capitalism.

A decade after Orbán’s return to power, Hungary, once a star democratiser, had devolved into an authoritarian regime, creating a playbook for would be autocrats in Eastern Europe and beyond, most closely emulated by Poland’s Law and Justice government elected in 2015, and echoed by populists elsewhere in the region. His success put him and his regional emulators in the orbit of a growing transnational network of hyper-conservative, nativist, “anti-gender” leaders and groups, once again placing the region at the centre of global political trends.

Resilience and learning

The realisation that new forms of autocratisation could reverse the political direction in a region once considered the success story of the post-communist world upended notions that the EU could or would have deep and lasting transformative power. Instead of European integration democratising Eastern Europe, it seemed possible that Eastern Europe might trigger a chain reaction autocratising the EU. Learning, it seems, does not necessarily move from West to East.

The democratic arc of the region also taught us that political choices, realignment and rethinking matters as much as structural factors like communist legacies or Europeanisation. In the shifting landscape of mainstream identities and populist rhetoric, no neat division between “pro-democracy” and “pro-autocracy” forces could be easily drawn. Some initially “pro-democracy” actors turned out to be anything but. Many other actors, especially in the economic, non-governmental and civic sphere fit ambiguously in that distinction. And anti-liberalism has sometimes talked the language of democracy, dignity, social justice and even decolonisation rather than overtly rejecting democracy. It can also sometimes command a large social base.

Contingency has also been crucial. Shocks from the wider international system created opportunities for the autocrats that could catch them. The Great Recession of 2008-9 boosted populists, the European “migration crisis” of 2014-5 allowed them to conjure a phantom menace of mass immigration. The COVID-19 pandemic turbocharged autocratisation in parts of the region but proved a stress test for institutions and civil society elsewhere. Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine initially divided populists but later offered political opportunities.

Reading the whole region through a “backsliding paradigm” has proved an oversimplification. Many populist governments lacked the votes for strong-arm Hungarian-style constitutional change or faced pushback from courts, protests or opposition alliances, as seen in Czechia in 2021 or Poland in 2023. Others lacked the will or vision for Hungarian-style transformation, opting to build corrupt informal power networks instead. The limits to autocratisation in the region have seeded new research on “democratic resilience” – understood in terms of strong institutions, civic mobilisation and well-made opposition alliances.

But any simple narrative of “turning the tide of populism” or democracies surviving “near misses” and pressing on with normal politics would be misplaced. Illiberal populists lose some elections and win others. The return to power of Robert Fico in Slovakia in 2023, after an ignominious exit from office in 2018 and decisive electoral defeat in 2020, shows that they are resilient and can bounce back in radicalised form.

They can also learn, as Fico has done, pushing hard and fast against judicial institutions, public media and civil society, that autocratic half-measures may not be enough. The recent assassination attempt on Fico – immediately weaponised by some of his supporters to demonise the opposition – again underlines how unpredictable events can raise or lower the stakes.

Keeping pace with autocratisation

Recent developments across Eastern Europe highlight that autocratisation is a process, not an event. It’s not a neatly contained “episode”, and – even within the same region – it takes different forms. Most crucially, Eastern Europe demonstrates that thinking of countries as either “backsliding” or “resilient” is unhelpful, as politics is unlikely to transform following a linear path. Theories that see democracies as “swerving” or “careening” best capture the region’s autocratisation trends.

But what can we learn from the mixed record of academic paradigms in tracking democratisation and autocratisation in Eastern Europe? Academics are not, of course, fortune tellers, but they can – and should – retrospectively assess how their theories matched with reality and identify cognitive and intellectual biases. Looking back over research on real and potential autocratisation in post-communist Eastern Europe, we see four key lessons that may help researchers be more agile in future.

First, the direct legacies of the past weigh less heavily than is often assumed. The ability of political actors to reframe those legacies, reinvent themselves and change the game is crucial.

Second, a fixed delineation of political actors as, in essence, either liberal, pro-democratic good guys or illiberal, populist, autocratic bad guys has proved misleading in the past and is unlikely to capture the dynamics of autocratisation in Eastern Europe (or elsewhere) now.

Third, focusing heavily on parties, elections and formal institutions may underestimate the origins and stability of democratisation and autocratisation, missing the bigger picture of elite recomposition, the construction and erosion of the social bases for alternative political projects, the role of informal power networks, and the “patronal” capture of economies, states and societies from above and below (and resistance to that capture).

Finally, above all, researchers should in future avoid the temptation to prematurely “call” the region’s story, whether as a democratic success story or a case study in creeping autocratic failure, and instead focus on shifting trajectories and unexpected sources of political change.

We are better off not trying to guess (or presuppose) the ultimate outcome of the process and instead focus on understanding the underlying logics that drive political change in the region. If we once again fall for the temptation of telling a story with unambiguous heroes and villains and a clear end, we are sure to get it wrong again.


Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Cristi Dangeorge / Shutterstock.com


About the author

Seán Hanley

Seán Hanley

Seán Hanley is an Associate Professor in Comparative Central and East European Politics at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

Licia Cianetti

Licia Cianetti is a Lecturer in Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK, where she is also deputy director of the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation (CEDAR).

Posted In: Latest Research | Politics

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