Confronting Illiberalism by Nate Schenkkan

Contempt for independent institutions and open discussion has become entrenched from Central Europe to Eurasia. Time is running out for the EU and the United States to confront the antidemocratic backlash.

In 2017, illiberalism established itself as the new normal in the region that stretches from Central Europe through Eurasia. In Central Europe, governments that disdain independent institutions and seek to fuse the ruling party with the state are no longer exceptional. The bulldozing of the judiciary in Poland exposed how few safeguards there are, even in the heart of the European Union, against a determined government that disregards political and constitutional norms.

But illiberalism has spread far beyond Poland or Hungary. Members of government and presidents in almost every country in the Nations in Transit coverage area now regularly smear nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent media outlets as agents that serve foreign interests and harm the nation. Politicians’ attempts to delegitimize all critical voices presage legislative efforts to eliminate checks and balances.

“Illiberalism” is not a derogatory code word for “policies we disagree with.” It is an ideological stance that rejects the necessity of independent institutions as checks on the government and dismisses the idea of legitimate disagreement in the public sphere.

The version of illiberalism taking root in Central Europe is distinct from the violent authoritarianism that dominates the Eurasian half of the coverage area. In this new illiberal environment, citizens will be able to go to protests, establish NGOs, publish news articles, or make critical remarks on social media without risking physical assaults or long prison terms. But such activities will expose them to intrusive government inspections and vociferous attacks in state-owned and government-aligned media, and even discrimination in employment in countries where ties to the ruling party are becoming an economic necessity. What Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary famously hailed in 2014 as “illiberal democracy” is essentially a return to the political practices of goulash communism, in which individual persecution may be relatively rare, but independent institutions are nonexistent and the party and the state are one.

The entrenchment of this system matters because it comes from within the EU and thrives on the bloc’s contradictions. Its leading proponent is a European prime minister, Orbán, whose Fidesz party remains in good standing in the largest political grouping in the European Parliament. Its defenders enjoy the privileges of EU and NATO membership, including hundreds of millions of dollars in cohesion funds, with minimal accountability. If illiberalism continues to thrive within the EU, it will bolster illiberal leaders and parties in the countries seeking to attain membership in the next wave of accession, and over time it will remake the EU in its own image.

Developments outside the Nations in Transit area continued to bolster this European trend in 2017. The U.S. administration’s ongoing denigration of the media has reinforced the sense in Europe that politicians no longer need to treat journalists with respect. “Fake news” has become a common shorthand among leaders who want to dismiss unfavorable reporting. The National Front’s Marine Le Pen failed to win the presidency in France, but she advanced to the second round. A new government in Austria included the far-right Freedom Party, and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland made major gains in the German parliamentary elections. Such parties have helped to normalize apocalyptic “civilizational” rhetoric, and formerly center-right politicians now portray themselves as defending “Christian Europe” against Muslim migrants. Russian proxies and propaganda outlets have exploited the situation, stoking grievances and encouraging division within and among democratic countries.

Faced with this rising tide, American and European policymakers have a choice: They can resign themselves to the new normal, or they can confront and overcome illiberalism by exposing the corruption, inequality, and hypocrisy that sustains it in power.

Backsliding across the region

The consolidation of democratic institutions in the postcommunist countries of Europe that occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s has stalled, and in important cases, been reversed. The Democracy Score of every country in Central Europe has declined since 2008, with the biggest setbacks in the media, the judiciary, and the functioning of national democratic institutions like parliaments and presidencies. Hungary and Bulgaria are no longer considered “Consolidated Democracies,” and Poland is near the threshold for leaving the category, having suffered the largest category score declines in the history of the survey. This year, 19 of the 29 countries in the report recorded declines in their Democracy Scores—more than in any previous edition of Nations in Transit.

The fragile postwar status quo established in the Balkans is also fraying. Dysfunctional institutional arrangements in Bosnia have left it unable to move forward on joining the EU. Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia and Milo Đukanović in Montenegro have captured their respective states, turning them into mechanisms for distributing patronage that in turn strengthen their parties’ grip on power. Meanwhile, the nationalist incitement that drove the Yugoslav conflicts has again become the preferred vocabulary of politicians. Democracy improved across the Balkans from 2005 to 2010, but it is now in decline, with the sole exception of Macedonia after its promising change in government.

With these deepening setbacks in the European half of the Nations in Transit region, it is no surprise that the countries in Eurasia most at risk of falling into authoritarianism—Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan—are also moving in a negative direction. The window for fundamental reforms may not have closed in Ukraine, but it has narrowed considerably amid political resistance to anticorruption reforms and a series of attacks on civil society and the media. For the first time since the 2014 revolution, Ukraine’s Democracy Score declined this year. In the other four countries, informal leaders operating outside of or on the edges of accountable institutions increasingly dominate their underdeveloped political systems.

In Eurasia’s entrenched autocracies—Belarus, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan—personalized regimes keep a tight grip on power, suppressing political competition and targeting independent activists and journalists who dare to speak out.

The authoritarian regimes of Eurasia are hardly successful. The economic crises of 2008 and 2014, and the collapse of the global commodity boom, left the region with anemic growth and added another decade to the post-Soviet legacy of poor investment in physical infrastructure and human capital. While the death of President Islam Karimov in late 2016 has resulted in a small opening in Uzbekistan, the new leadership appears hesitant to fully dismantle the system it inherited after decades of rule centered on a single person.

Standing up for what counts

The paradox of the new normal is that illiberal leaders benefit from their states’ membership in supranational bodies, even as they rail against outside meddling. The security umbrella of NATO gives populist politicians the room to uproot state institutions, stoke bitter societal divisions, and goad neighboring states without fear of armed conflict or direct intervention by a hostile power. The EU’s funds can be used to sustain patronage networks without risking financial collapse. In the long term, the United States and the EU will have to confront these paradoxes if democracy in Europe is to be truly consolidated. In the short term, they must be willing to counter antidemocratic behavior with deeds as well as words.

Certain successes in the Western Balkans during 2017 showed that this is possible. In Macedonia, the United States supported the EU in applying pressure to the outgoing ruling party, VMRO-DPMNE, which had used violence and intimidation in an effort to block a new government from forming. Faced with a united front, VMRO-DPMNE was eventually forced to cede power to a new coalition, which now has a historic opportunity to reverse state capture and reconcile with its neighbors. In Albania, a preelection deal between the government and opposition, brokered with international assistance, allowed voting to go ahead without violence.

These are relatively simple cases, however. To directly combat illiberalism within Europe, the United States and the EU must take on the challenges emanating from Poland, and especially from Hungary, which in many ways is the standard-bearer of this new normal on the continent.

The European Union—and the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament—must take responsibility for confronting the illiberalism of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government. Hopes that Orbán and his party will turn away from illiberal tactics on their own have proven to be foolhardy. With Poland now moving down the same path that Hungary has trod, the EU must urgently take coordinated action on both countries. First, it should build on its Article 7 sanctions process against Poland by also opening one against Hungary. Second, for both countries the EU needs to follow through on anticorruption investigations involving the misuse of EU funds, and should make access to EU funds conditional on meeting strict rule-of-law criteria. By the same token, the EU must take seriously the illiberal behavior of potential member states in the Western Balkans, including the so-called frontrunners, Serbia and Montenegro. The desire for a superficial “stability” in the Balkans must not overwhelm the need to use the EU’s considerable leverage to improve the rule of law.

For the United States, the decades-old strategic goal of a “Europe whole, free, and at peace” has meant supporting democratization, including the promotion of civil society, independent media, and effective governing institutions. It has also meant backing a strong role for the EU in securing democratic progress and prosperity across the continent. The alternative vision of the new illiberal normal is one of inevitable civilizational conflict, demanding that countries barricade themselves against the world, which in turn becomes an excuse for intolerance, exclusion, and demagoguery. Rather than turning away from its long-standing commitment to democracy, the United States should embrace it and invest in it even more. The answer to the illiberal challenge must not be to walk away, but to step up.

Source: Freedom House

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