The Illiberal West: A New Era for Central and Eastern Europe
In 1989, on the eve of the Cold War’s final chapter, Francis Fukuyama suggested that the world had come face to face with the ‘end of history’ and that the fundamental ideology behind liberal democracy would henceforth be free of any obstacles to global domination. It has become somewhat of a cliché to lambast his theory, but reflecting upon it is important as it succinctly captures the zeitgeist of the post-Cold War era. Many in the West did, and still do, believe that liberal democracy is the single most successful socio-political system; a system which was bestowed upon the people of Central and Eastern Europe in a shared victory over authoritarian Communism between 1989 and 1991. This is part of the reason why liberal democracy’s contemporary losses in the region, notably to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, are often received as a shock. While self-proclaimed illiberal nationalists now lead Hungary and Poland, the sentiment they harness is palpable across almost all the post-Communist states which moved to integrate with Western Europe, indicating a broad regional phenomenon. There are various theories as to why these nations are on their current path, but two principal factors stand above the rest: demographic anxiety and a rejection of what European and Western identity has come to mean.
First, it should be noted that economic decline has not played a significant part in this particular rise of illiberal nationalist sentiment, which makes the root factors of the region’s recent political shift distinct from theories explaining Western Europe’s lurch to the right. Poland, especially, has seen exponential economic growth for the past 26 years, and even managed to escape recession during the 2008 crisis. With GDP per capita growing by 6% on average over the past 20 years, it would be difficult to argue that the populace is suffering from economic grievance. This goes without mentioning that the region actually boasts high income equality, even relative to Western Europe. While Hungary has experienced some economic hardship, such as recession around 2008, the rise in illiberal thought across the region is largely unexplained by economic decline.
To fully understand Central and Eastern Europe in the decades following the end of the Cold War, one must understand its demographics. The Economist estimates that around 18 million people, or 6% of Central and Eastern Europe’s population, have left the region since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unlike past revolutions, in which the losers form the emigrate population, the end of Communism presented a situation in which liberal minded citizens, the winners, were the ones to depart in mass numbers. This alone has made a significant political and psychological impact on the remaining populations, but the demographic issues do not end there. The area also suffers from an incredibly low fertility rate, with the regional average coming out to a rate of about 1.4 children per a woman (the replacement rate, or the rate at which a population maintains its size, is 2 children per woman). This means that not only has the Central and Eastern Europe lost millions due to emigration, but emigrants are also not being replaced. In other words, the region is growing older and shrinking.
With these numbers in mind, it may be easier to imagine why the surge in numbers of migrants arriving in Europe, starting around 2013 and peaking in 2015, was seen by many as a threat to national survival. While almost none of the migrants arriving in Europe aspire to immigrate to post-Communist states, there was widespread fear that they would, and that nations in the region would be unable to assimilate them or preserve their national identity due to the dire demographic situation. This emerged as a driving factor in the popularity of right wing and nationalist political forces. Illiberalism is closely related to this, as skepticism in the liberal model had already begun due to the demographic impacts integration with the West had on Central and Eastern Europe. However, the perceived failure of Western European nations, seen as liberal role models, to properly deal with the migrant crisis significantly increased support for the rejection of liberal democracy, and married the sentiment to the political right.
This rejection of Western European judgment is something that has been festering for quite some time. Since the end of the Cold War, the region has striven to imitate the West and become a part of the Western world in almost every way. Governments in the region therefore allowed judgements according to Western standards, and the remaining populace often felt as though they were in some ways losers for having not left for the ‘promised land’ further west of them. However, the reality is that post-Communist Europe is very different from the rest of the continent. Social values are an important example, as the region is very much more socially traditional than its western neighbors, and while imitating God-loving Reaganite America was appealing in decades past, the West has since changed. Much of Western European and American society now embrace secularism, LGBT rights, cultural diversity, and liberal social values in general. Illiberal movements in Central and Eastern Europe are a response to this, both in terms of rejecting the idea that the region should imitate nations with different values than them, and that it should be the submissive partner in the imitation game. More specifically, they believe that roles should be reversed, and that traditional Central and Eastern Europe is, in fact, the real Europe that should be imitated across the West. This is elegantly expressed in a quote from one of Viktor Orbán’s 2017 speeches, in which he proclaims, "Twenty-seven years ago here in Central Europe we believed that Europe was our future; today we feel that we are the future of Europe.”
However, the differences between East and West go both ways, and there are some issues with spreading Hungary and Poland’s right-wing illiberal model to the rest of the continent. Most importantly is the fact that Orbán and Kaczyński are selling a model designed to prevent ethnic and cultural diversity, rather than to deal with an already diverse population. Despite this, it is very unlikely that European-wide expansion will be given up on easily. Some illiberal leaders, notably Viktor Orbán, seem to understand that the best way to remain in power is to secure the regions and institutions of which they are a part. As Orbán’s Fidesz party constitutes an important member of the largest parliamentary group in the European Union, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), it is likely that the European Parliament will manifest as an important battleground in this struggle. More specifically, the battle over the ‘soul’ of the broader European center-right will be crucial, as a center-right more sympathetic to right-wing populist and illiberal movements could greatly shift the balance of political influence in favor of post-Communist states.
Broader strategic developments are also important to note when regarding the future of this region, especially as Chinese funds increasingly make their way into the scene. As a wealthy and authoritarian power, China’s rise may provide an opportunity for illiberal nations to reduce their reliance on Western Europe and the United States. Although some countries, such as Hungary, Slovakia, and Bulgaria, express sympathy towards Russia, the area’s traditional influencer is unlikely to regain significant inroads in the region due to financial constraints, as well as historical grievances with important local actors, notably Poland and Romania.
If China does signal greater interest in Central and Eastern Europe, Western Europe and the United States may need to consider more dynamic responses in order to retain their level of strategic influence. This could take the form of certain concessions, such as reduced criticism of the region’s disregard for “European values”, of which both Poland and Hungary have been accused in the form of article 7 procedures filed against them by the European Parliament. This would resemble treatment towards Ukraine, or Saudi Arabia, which are not liberal democracies yet retain Western strategic support. Another possible strategy is an aim at the deeper roots behind this issue - demographics. Financial and political support for pro-natalist policies in the area could significantly boost the image of Western Europe and the United States in the eyes of the local population, along with a reduction of the demographic anxiety playing a significant part in this phenomenon.
History has come back to post-Communist Europe with a vengeance. This is true both in Fukuyama’s terms, but also as regarding the essence and flavor of the illiberal revolution taking place there. While Poland, Hungary, and other nations in the region have their differences, they are united in a common experience of demographic devastation, a search for identity, and fear in a rapidly changing world. This has lead to a rejection, in various degrees, of the liberal democratic model and the definition of Western identity in terms of social liberalism. This does not mean that Central and Eastern Europe has necessarily been “lost”, especially if Western European and American policymakers begin to demonstrate an understanding of the root causes of these developments, and adapt to them accordingly. However, they should also understand that the region is unlikely to return to its immediate post-Cold War state of mind, and this is ultimately a new era for Central and Eastern Europe.