Populism in Central and Eastern Europe: a backlash against the post-1989 order?
Illustration credit: Rosie Bromiley

1989 was a truly historic year in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE): as Poland led the way in holding (generally) free elections in June, and the Berlin Wall was torn asunder in November, millions of citizens were suddenly liberated from the rule of sclerotic Soviet-style regimes. The largely peaceful revolutions (Romania aside) across CEE were, as Betts (2019) reflected, ‘routinely celebrated as the grand victory of liberal democracy’.

That legacy today, however, particularly in Poland and Hungary, is under fire as governments denounce the liberal orthodoxy that swept across the region after the fall of communism.

Initially, the 1989 revolutions initiated a reversion to ‘normality’ – defined, in effect, as a move toward a Western European style of living and governance. The nations of the EU were perceived to be the ideal future for CEE. Nine nations there, Hungary and Poland included, joined NATO and the EU between 1999 and 2007 as the region enjoyed astonishing growth.

Despite its initial successes, though, one can trace some of the most worrying aspects of rule in modern Poland and Hungary to the ascendancy of liberalism over the past three decades or so. Even the astonishing economic success of Poland – the only country not to experience a recession in the 2008-09 financial crisis – has not immunised the country from populism.

As EU membership mandates a minimum degree of tolerance and openness, perhaps the most pertinent issue in Poland and Hungary over recent years has become the refugee crisis; indeed, immigration has been posited as the key factor behind the rise of populism. The reaction of the two governments has been vitriolic.

In 2015, Jarosław Kaczynski, leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland, warned that migrants carried ‘very dangerous diseases long absent from Europe’, and that they would use churches as toilets. Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, and leader of the ruling Fidesz party, meanwhile, decried immigration as a process that brings crime and terrorism, and ‘endangers our way of life, our culture, our customs and our Christian tradition’.

At the time, just 23% of Poles and 15% of Hungarians approved of how the EU was handling the refugee crisis. Hungary was the nation that most vehemently opposed taking in refugees, as 66% of people there, and 52% in Poland, believed that immigrants increased the risk of terrorism.

The real threat, however, is not immigration, but emigration – another by-product of EU membership. After all, the 2015 refugee wave hardly touched Poland. Post-1989 governments could offer no legitimate objections to Westward emigration since the revolutions that brought them to power represented an attempt to ‘imitate’ the West. Inevitably, EU accession prompted an outflow of the educated and young: why, after all, would one wait a decade or more for their country to develop when they could enjoy the lifestyle they desired the next day or week?

The figures support this proposition: 80% of Hungarians and 68% of Poles view emigration as a problem. The real fear, then, is clearly dual-pronged: the impact of a small number of immigrants is amplified by fretting over a ‘national disappearance’. For instance, Krastev and Holmes (2020) have estimated that half a million Hungarians have found employment abroad since 2015. Such developments have prompted Orbán’s pro-procreation policy, as well as wider attempts to dissuade people from leaving by portraying the West as undesirable.

Orbán’s brand of illiberalism is now seen as the major alternative to the once ascendant Western-style liberalism in Europe. In May 2018 the populist firebrand crowed: “We have replaced a shipwrecked liberal democracy with a 21st-century Christian democracy.” In Poland, PiS claims to be correcting the media’s historically liberal bias. In both countries, cornerstones of liberal democracy are under fire.

In 2011, Orbán’s Fidesz party introduced a new Hungarian constitution, under which Constitutional Court justices would be selected directly through parliament – at a time when the party enjoyed a 2/3 majority. Six years later, President Duda of Poland signed into law two bills which would establish PiS control over the National Council of the Judiciary and the Supreme Court.

Hungary’s Freedom House rating has dropped from 76/100 in 2017 to 70/100; Poland has dropped five points to 84/100 over the past three years. The latter’s judicial independence is rated just 1/4. Hungary’s latest press freedom ratings place it 89th out of 180 countries – down from 56 in 2013. That puts it below Haiti and Kyrgyzstan. Poland, meanwhile, has dropped from 18th place in 2015 to 62nd this year.

This backlash against European norms is a result of the ‘psychology of imitation’, whereby, despite their best efforts, CEE nations could never quite match the standards of Western Europe. Their progress was continually checked upon, and their failures criticised. This fostered resentment, enunciated today in the rule of Fidesz and PiS.

While 1989 initially represented liberation from Soviet communism, this was quickly replaced by a period of humiliating domination by the EU. As Krastev and Holmes (2020) note, President Duda has compared EU membership to previous periods of foreign occupation, while the EU and Soviet Union are discussed interchangeably.

Open borders and the prying eye of the EU – both indirect results of the 1989 revolutions – have thus contributed to the populism one witnesses in Hungary and Poland today. Other nations – particularly the Baltics – it must be noted, have continued to perform well in their transition to democracy: purported reasons for this include their experience as constituent Republics of the USSR and their fervour for Westernisation; they were also, at least up until the financial crisis of 2008-09, three of the most successful economies in the region. Additionally, one might posit that, due to their geographic location, size, and lack of generous provisions for migrants, that they were less impacted by the refugee crisis. While all is not bleak, then – as evidenced too by the fact that 72% of Poles and 57% of Hungarians still view the EU favourably – there are ominous signs for democracy in the region.

Orbán’s rule by decree during the coronavirus crisis, as well as the lack of EU denunciation and continued financial support bode ill for the prospects of liberalism. Brexit, as well as political developments in Russia and the U.S. – whose Presidents have openly supported Orbán – may well embolden populists in CEE. For now, Polish and Hungarian leaders continue to reject their nations’ accession to liberalism and its various institutions. The ‘grand victory’ of liberalism was transient. The West their nations set out to emulate is no more. Now, it is they whom are the future.