What Went Wrong With Democratization In The Visegrad Countries?

Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have all shown signs of populism taking a stronghold. Mira Sawiris examines the events and factors leading to the V4's shift away from democracy towards populism.


Hungarian Prime Minister Orban openly strives to build an illiberal state, in Poland the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) Party undermines judicial independence, Czech Republic’s President Zeman jokes about murdering journalists, while former Communist Informant Andrej Babiš is elected as Prime Minister in the Czech Republic. In Slovakia, a journalist investigating links between organised crime and politics has been murdered along with his fiancé. This is hardly the scenario that Visegrad Four (V4) countries envisioned for themselves after the revolutions of 1989. What went wrong? Almost 30 years after democratization took place, the political and social landscape of V4 countries looks worse than ever.

If democracy consists of civil society, autonomous political society, the rule of law, a functional state bureaucracy and an economic society, it becomes clear that V4 states were never full-fledged democratic regimes. Some of these essential pillars –namely autonomous political society, rule of law, and to some extent the vibrant civil society, are clearly dysfunctional in all the V4 countries, calling their categorisation as democratic states into question.

Totalitarian heritage

The kind of regimes that preceded the present one and their transitions had a profound impact on the shape of the current political system. In these cases, legacies matter. Often the negotiated transitions to democracy are lauded as the ‘ideal’ transition type given its non-violent nature and relative stability. However, some have pointed out that this type of transition has an ‘unforeseen harmful effect on … efforts to create political institutions necessary for democratic consolidation’. Velvet revolutions might have ensured smooth transitions without bloodshed, but failing to hold former communist leaders accountable, and giving them the opportunity to partake in the political process following the regime change enables the former power structures to remain in place, despite their new ‘democratic’ image.

The exposure of a state to decades of Soviet totalitarianism has the propensity to cause deep-seated mistrust of association and political activism. Legacies of Soviet totalitarianism cripple political and civil society for decades like no other political regime. This is because the Soviet regime has shaped the political culture of V4 countries with its network of secret police informants operating with absolute control of the masses that permeate each facet of life.

It would be naïve to assume that these challenges suddenly disappeared after the revolutions in 1989 or with membership to the European Union. Optimists claim that change occurs once the first post-communist generation comes to exert real influence. However, this might not be reliable or fast enough as large numbers of young people in the V4 are prone to vote for populist or even neo-fascist parties. This was aptly demonstrated in the recent Slovak parliamentary elections of 2016 when 22 percent of first time voters ‘chose’ People’s Party Our Slovakia (ĽSNS), a neo-fascist party.

The picture is even bleaker in the remaining V4 countries, with Freedom House asserting that in Hungary, since Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Alliance of Young Democrats–Hungarian Civic Union (Fidesz) took power in 2010, it has pushed through constitutional and legal changes that have allowed the party and PM Orbán to consolidate control over the country’s independent institutions. In Poland, the conservative PiS party enacted measures that will increase political influence over state institutions, also raising concerns about Poland’s democratic trajectory.

In the October 2017 parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic, billionaire and media mogul Andrej Babiš, who is the prime example of the unchecked intermingling of elite economic and political interests, came out on top with a decisive victory. Wide inconsistencies in his tax record, his membership in the Communist Party between 1980-1989, as well as his activities of an Informant for the State Security Services, did not hinder his populist party ANO’s success in the elections, gaining 29.7 percent of votes. At the same time, it is extremely ironic that Czech voters perceive Babiš to be an anti-establishment figure.

Democracy as a cash cow for private gain

What we are witnessing in the V4 countries is not only weak institution building, but something much more sinister – ‘corporate state capture in which public power is exercised primarily for private gain’. Under such conditions of institutionalised systemic corruption, the democratic state only exists as a means to an end- for private economic profit. This became painfully obvious in the last few days in Slovakia, after the brutal murder of a journalist, Jan Kuciak, and his fiancé Martina Kusnirova. Before his murder, Kuciak was working on a story uncovering the extent of corruption reaching the highest echelons of power in Slovakia.

A large number of prominent politicians in V4 countries were members of the Communist Party, including Babiš, Czech President Miloš Zeman and the current Prime Minister of Slovakia, Robert Fico. This begs the question whether the political regime in these countries have really changed given that former members of the Communist Party still occupy positions of power.

Wake-up call for the EU

Two main regional factors that influence the state of democracy within the V4 countries are their membership in the EU, and the influence of Putin’s Russia. The EU’s influence on the regimes in the V4 nations is far from ideal for Russia, because the integration of the EU has strengthened democratic tendencies within these countries.

Less clear are the mechanisms the EU has or indeed, needs to develop quickly, to prevent its member states from backsliding into non-democratic regimes led by charismatic populists like Orbán and Babiš. The difficulty arises from the fact that the threat of populism and nationalism within the EU is unprecedented. Academics and politicians did not think that the trajectory of Central and Eastern European states to democracy, and by extension, the EU, might be something other than linear with the final destination of a consolidated modern democracy. Countries that experienced decades of totalitarian rule should not take the mass support for democratic ideals for granted.

As Putin laments the dissolution of the USSR while conducting military interventions in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere, many political leaders, as well as citizens of the V4 countries, look to Putin’s illiberal regime with a sense of admiration and nostalgia.

The power struggle between the two have resulted in increased EU efforts to keep the former Soviet satellites democratic to prevent its own further disintegration following Brexit. Additionally, Putin’s efforts to re-assert Russia as a regional and global realpolitik player by pulling former Soviet states into its renewed sphere of influence, is Orwellian doublethink with the V4 countries looking both East and West for leadership in this ideological Second Cold War. This curious attitude recently manifested itself when Slovak President Kiska delivered a pro-European, pro-democratic speech in the EU parliament, while simultaneously, the speaker of Slovak parliament, Andrej Danko, spoke in the Russian State Duma, calling for a ‘strong Russia’ to guarantee regional security.

The EU and Russia hinder democratisation in the region further through the refugee crisis. The EU’s inability to deal with the crisis in a fair and efficient way (not least because of V4 countries refusing to share the responsibility for refugee quotas) has fueled the resurgence of far right-wing politics and populism. The shift from dealing with the crisis as a humanitarian issue towards framing it as a security matter not only costs lives of asylum seekers, but it also undermines democratic and humanitarian credentials of the EU internationally.

Russia’s role in the refugee crisis is active. Kelly M. Greenhill in Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion and Foreign Policy demonstrates how forced migration is often used as an asymmetric foreign policy tactic, with liberal democratic states, in this case, the EU, often being the target. Putin’s long-standing military involvement in Syria serves at least two purposes. Russia has managed to carve out an influence for itself in the Middle East as the US influence has diminished, while the conflict in Syria causes a mass exodus of civilians destabilising the EU through the lack of resources to address the refugee crisis along with the growing popularity of nationalist and far right-wing movements.

The EU must develop an efficient, and enforceable policy to address the refugee crisis. The policy would de-escalate the polarisation of opinions on refugees and would limit the scope for exploitation of this issue by populists. Similarly, the EU must deploy efficient mechanisms for member states that fail to comply with its democratic principles. Most importantly, the EU needs to work with and support democratically-oriented civil organisations and citizens in individual member states to strengthen their voices in a struggle that will determine the future social and political make-up of V4 countries, and Europe more broadly.

Mira Sawiris is an experienced Communications Coordinator and Data Analyst with a demonstrated history of working in research as well as higher education industry. She has a BA in Arabic and Russian Civilisation from University of Leeds, and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in International Relations at the University of York.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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