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An election poster for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is displayed on a roadside next to an official government anti-immigrant banner, Miskolc, Hungary, March 31, 2018 (Sipa photo by Michal Fludra via AP Images).

The Battle for Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Democracy is fragile in the post-communist countries of Central Eastern Europe, where the specter of authoritarianism and corruption is rising. Find out how some CEE countries are enjoying the fruits of democracy while others are struggling —when you subscribe to World Politics Review

Even under the best of conditions, democracy-building is difficult and uncertain. Historical experience shows that failure is more common than success, even in periods when liberal democracy has few rivals. But the post-1989 transformations of Central and Eastern European countries (CEE countries) from communism to democracy are often held up as a model of successful democratization. Despite initial pessimism about the prospect of establishing liberal democracy, several CEE countries have developed consolidated democratic systems, functioning market economies and efficient democratic states with extensive welfare policies and relatively low inequality.

Yet, these countries’ political and economic achievements have been in stark contrast to the failures seen in other post-communist countries. Despite initial hopes and real political gains, a majority of these countries have either returned to authoritarianism, or have persisted in a semi-reformed and unconsolidated state. What are the sources of such divergent paths, and why have some CEE countries succeeded while others embody the failures of Eastern European economics and politics?

To learn more, read Eastern Europe's Post-Communist Transformations for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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How Authoritarianism and Nationalism Are Creeping Back Into CEE Countries

Despite the successes of the postcommunist transition, the CEE countries are now a central theater in the global battle between liberal democracy and autocracy, and few countries have seen democracy lose ground more steadily than Hungary. It is there that hopes for the unstoppable expansion of democracy in post-communist countries have been most decisively dashed by the rise of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his populist party, Fidesz. Orban has built support for his nationalist policies by highlighting identity issues and stoking fear of outsiders. But nothing has fortified the prime minister’s nationalist credentials more than his virulently anti-immigrant tirades and policies in response to the wave of largely Muslim refugees coming to Europe in the wake of the civil war in Syria, whom Orban calls “Muslim invaders.”

To learn more, read Another Orban Victory Will Entrench Authoritarian Drift, in Hungary and Beyond for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Countering Democratic Backsliding in Poland

In addition to Hungary, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, or PiS, has also recently been accused of using judicial reforms and state media regulations to infringe on the principles of liberal democracy. But the outcome of regional elections in early November showed that, at the very least, the battle against the nationalist, populist PiS has been joined. The opposition scored strong results, giving itself a new burst of optimism before a pivotal series of looming elections. The results in Poland also offer a welcome dose of encouragement for struggling liberal opposition parties in other parts of Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe, where nationalist groups have seemed unstoppable. The PiS goverment has become a forceful promoter of illiberal policies both at home, where it has been busy dismantling the impartiality of the judiciary and, with it, the rule of law, and in the European Union. To be sure, Poland’s regional elections were nowhere near an outright victory for the opposition. In fact, the PiS publicly declared itself the winner. Its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s de facto ruler, noted correctly that his party won more votes than any other. But a closer look shows why the PiS has reason to worry.

To learn more, read In Poland’s Local Elections, Voters Give Some Hope to Liberals Across Europe for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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Does the EU Still Care About Democracy in the Balkans?

The EU’s efforts to counter the slide toward illiberalism within the union have been criticized as too little, too late. When it comes to countering democratic backsliding among aspiring members in the Balkans, some question whether Brussels is even paying attention. In Serbia, for instance, anti-government protests that brought tens of thousands of people into the streets—decrying what they see as increasingly authoritarian rule—entered their third month in March. But there was little sign that the demonstrators’ demands will be heeded. On Feb. 25, an EU spokeswoman told reporters that there would be no “Balkan spring,” referring to widening protests in Serbia, Montenegro and Albania—all countries that are hoping to join the EU. The statement, which riled protesters in all three countries, seemed to confirm for them what has been increasingly evident in recent years: The EU prefers to stick with the devil it knows in the Balkans, backing autocratically minded governments that have failed to root out corruption and crime—the very benchmarks to join the EU—in order to preserve what it considers regional stability in the face of geopolitical rivalry.

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Editor's Note: This article was first published in July 2018 and is regularly updated.