Image by European People’s Party
EPP Summit, Brussels, October 2018
A specter is haunting Eastern Europe. The prevailing view among Western observers is that the region is on the verge of sliding backwards into autocracy, driven by the resurgent forces of nationalism, nativism, and populism. The rise of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Law and Justice Party are routinely portrayed as harbingers of an authoritarian takeover. The European Union’s recent reprimand of Hungary for democratic backsliding is another warning sign. Eastern Europe is supposedly well on its way to abandoning liberal democracy, as Orbán and his ilk take their place on the pantheon of global strongmen next to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and China’s Xi Jinping. This theme is evident across the media spectrum, from straightforward news accounts (the New York Times), to highbrow political science (Francis Fukuyama in the American Interest), to lefty polemics (The Guardian).
The trouble with this view is that it is wrong, relying on sweeping claims about the region’s trajectory while failing to distinguish between fundamentally different political systems. It’s not that illiberal symptoms are absent from Eastern Europe’s body politic. Less than a generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it would be premature to take the health of liberal democracy in the region for granted. But the idea that Eastern Europe is on an inevitable track towards authoritarianism, or that its current crop of right-wing populists should be lumped in with Putin, is fundamentally misguided…
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