Freedom House’s Nations in Transit 2016 report highlights the decline of liberal democracy in both Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and Eurasia. But the bad news is not necessarily in the numbers, although the report notes worrisome setbacks. Rather, it’s the gradual erosion of the structure of liberal democracy that has seemingly spread across the region. For CEE in particular, this erosion strikes at the core of the post-Cold War liberal democratic order. Historically, this region has been crucial for European security and stability—an area of geostrategic confrontation and a testing ground for state-building and political experimentation. The same is still true today.
The problem child remains Hungary, which has seen a spectacular decline since 2006. But this year, domestic governance in Poland is following suit. The rest of the region, to some degree, also fits this pattern: a sweeping majority brings a political force to power, which then proceeds to subvert fundamental institutions like the Constitutional Court (or the constitution itself), the national bank or the judiciary. The same goes for fundamental liberties—like freedom of expression—or electoral laws, through gerrymandering, co-opting or changing the rules to make it easier for the ruling party to win in subsequent elections.
Add into the mix corruption or rent-seeking, the decline of citizens’ trust in democratic institutions and the increasingly loud voices of populist parties and politicians, and the picture becomes rather grim. Still, the warning signs that CEE is backsliding on democracy are concealed in majorities legitimatized by popular vote. But mere selection procedures should not erase concern for constitutional liberalism defined as a preoccupation for the goals of the government, and thus a regime founded on the scope of governmental authority and the limitation of power through effective rule of law and functioning checks and balances.
Three factors make deciphering the elements of democratic deconsolidation in CEE a matter of urgency—not only for scholars, but also for policymakers in the transatlantic community.
First, liberal values have become a central part of the strategic competition between the West and Russia. Aside from hard-power projection, the two years of confrontation since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea have been about two models of world dominance based on two very different models of domestic governance. Also, as the recent past demonstrates, the Kremlin has never hesitated to exploit weaknesses in the structure or processes of European democracies— from Greece to France, or from Hungary to Bulgaria.
Russia’s rise as a strong geopolitical contender creates a military as well as political burden for CEE states. From a security point of view, it amplifies the threat perception differential between CEE and Western Europe and pressures CEE to keep Europe’s fringes safe, peaceful and friendly, if not Europe-like. Beyond hard security, these nations also risk a spillover of political instability while having to exemplify the expansion of Western liberal democracy. CEE governments, now expected to export their democratization expertise beyond the EU, risk losing the moral authority to promote reforms in Ukraine, Moldova and the western Balkans, where people still view integration into the Euro-Atlantic community as the ultimate solution to their domestic governance and geopolitical challenges. The security crisis looming in their vicinity gives CEE states an opportunity to remove concerns about their domestic system of governance from political negotiations within the transatlantic community.
Second, since the Cold War’s end, CEE societies have adopted democratic procedures despite having no recent liberal traditions. During the 21 years between the two world wars (1918-39), most CEE countries engaged in nation-building; in fact, most of them had just recently become states within Europe’s present borders, struggling to create new liberal-democratic constitutions. The process came to a halt with the onset of World War II, and later with Soviet occupation and the rise of Soviet-style communist regimes. Studies show that transitioning to pure procedural democracy without a liberal tradition (which is the opposite of how Western nations developed) increases the likelihood of backsliding or deconsolidation. CEE democracies have had little time to become institutionalized and create fully functional, modern governments. This translates into bad governance with its corruption corollary, and, ultimately, a delegitimization of democracy.
Not least, the fading of the EU’s transformative power as the main incentive for CEE nations in the early 1990s, is becoming apparent. EU integration guaranteed that a breakdown would be prevented, and that democracy would follow a certain and predictable path. It also helped domestic agents of change to promote and carry out reforms that would not have gained political traction otherwise. But once these countries achieved full EU membership, Europeanization proved its limits and left a value gap that the EU’s influence can no longer properly fill. The eurozone crisis, followed by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the current influx of refugees overwhelming Europe, have exposed the EU even more to criticism and mistrust. Overall, a weaker, more disengaged EU, with no effective or credible mechanisms to bring deviant states back to the norm of democratic governance, is in no position to pressure CEE governments. At any rate, that pressure is more difficult to exercise, since these governments are democratically elected and—in theory, at least—represent legitimate expressions of the will of their people.
The resilience of liberal-democratic values is, therefore, a matter of survival for Europe and the transatlantic alliance. Defending liberal democracy and good governance, and even redefining them for disenchanted citizens, will have to be part of the Euro-Atlantic agenda even more than in 1989. Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic should return to a shared democratic framework. And on a global scale, maintaining the success of transition in Central and Eastern Europe means maintaining the promise that liberal democracy can deliver peace and prosperity.