Although West European policy makers have been slow to recognise the fact, the Iron Curtain was never the only or necessarily the most important feature dividing the continent. As governments in Hungary and now Poland neutralise many of the key institutions of liberal democracy – robust and impartial courts with far-reaching powers of constitutional oversight, print and electronic media that are independent of government – this uncomfortable truth is beginning to be more widely understood. In a number of important respects, political, cultural and social norms in Eastern Europe are far removed from the liberal, cosmopolitan ideology that prevails, however precariously, in much of the western half of the continent.
The existence of at least two widely divergent zones within Europe – in contrast to the largely fictive notion of a continent united by a common set of values – was amply illustrated in 2015 by the almost pathological hostility displayed by several East European governments and senior churchmen to the dramatic increase in the numbers of mostly Muslim asylum seekers entering Europe. No West European head of state emulated the Czech President, Miloš Zeman, who declared in June 2015: “I do not want Islam in the Czech Republic”. No West European Prime Minister chose to follow the lead of Hungary’s premier, Viktor Orbán, who stated on 25 July last year: ”we would like Europe to remain the continent of Europeans” and “we want to preserve Hungary as a Hungarian country”. No Catholic bishop in Western Europe has publicly expressed views remotely similar to those of Bishop Lászlo Kiss-Rigó. In September 2015, Bishop Kiss-Rigó, whose Catholic diocese lies in southern Hungary, achieved a measure of international notoriety when he appeared to rebuke the Pope for urging Catholics to extend help to asylum seekers. The Pope “doesn’t know the situation”, stated Bishop Lászlo Kiss-Rigó, who went on to accuse the mostly Muslim refugees of wanting to “take over”.
It is important to resist the assumption that the existence of Soviet-type communist regimes was the sole obstacle to the establishment of pluralistic, liberal democracies in Eastern Europe, committed to the rule of law and the protection of human rights. In reality, the social, cultural and political ’gap’ between East and West Europe has a much longer and much more complex history, as recognised by many social scientists and historians. For example, in his insightful book, Politics in Eastern Europe 1945-1992, George Schöpflin cautions against treating Western and Eastern Europe as though they are heirs to a common historical legacy:
There was much in the history of Eastern Europe that overlapped with that of Western Europe and, to this extent, Eastern Europe is quintessentially a part of the broad pattern of shared experiences and values in the European arena…Yet each one of these was shared slightly differently, less intensively, less fully with the result that East European participation in the European experience was only partial.
For most of the inter-war period, neither Poland nor Hungary was a genuine democracy, any more than Romania, Bulgaria or the former Yugoslavia. Poland was only reconstituted as a sovereign unitary state following World War One, after an interval of almost 150 years during which it had been divided between three foreign powers. The country adopted a flawed but broadly democratic constitution in March 1921. However, following a successful coup in May 1926, engineered by Marshall Józef Piłsudski, Poland’s style of government became increasingly authoritarian and managerial.
In 1919, Hungary lurched from a brutal communist dictatorship to rule by a viciously reactionary and deeply anti-Semitic regime within the space of a few months. For the remainder of the inter-war period, as described by Eric Hobsbawm in The Age of Extremes, Hungary was ”an authoritarian state which remained parliamentary, but not democratic”.
Set against this historical background of rampant but frequently thwarted nationalist aspirations, subjection to imperial or quasi-imperial domination and intermittent great power intervention – as well as, at best, an extremely limited experience of democracy – it’s perhaps not surprising that a significant proportion of the Polish and Hungarian electorate should have opted for intensely nationalist and stridently populist parties (PiS and Fidesz, respectively) that are openly scornful of liberal democracy.. Support for these parties – as well as for others even further to the right, including Jobbik in Hungary and Kukiz’15 in Poland – has also been a reaction to economic insecurity or dislocation, particularly amongst various sectors of the population that have conspicuously failed to benefit from the economic opportunities opened up by the end of communism.
Rightly or wrongly, populist parties on the right, including Fidesz and PiS, are seen by their supporters as offering a measure of protection from the harsh effects of a purely market-driven economy and from the supposedly predatory practices of multinational companies. For example: since 2013 Fidesz has forced utility companies in Hungary to make a series of price cuts. This much publicised strategy – which may be in breach of European Union law was clearly calculated to enhance the popularity of Fidesz with voters. Parties on the right, with their uncompromisingly nationalist rhetoric, have also benefited from what the Hungarian scholar, István Bibó, described as Eastern Europe’s distinctively, “petty, narrow…and anti-democratic nationalism”.
It is becoming increasingly clear that there are at least two competing visions of ‘Europe’. Or, to put it another way, there are at least two Europes not one. In Eastern Europe, whose historical experience has been overwhelmingly of political or cultural subjugation, the lure of staunchly nationalist parties such as PiS and Fidesz is likely to remain strong. For voters drawn to these or to other right-wing nationalist parties, an unshakeable belief in the sound judgment of their preferred political leader (Orbán, Kaczynski etc) and in the necessity of ‘strong government’ is likely to outweigh any lingering concerns at the erosion of constitutional checks and balances or at the rollback of liberal democratic principles.
Stephen Pogány is emeritus professor in the School of Law, University of Warwick. His latest book is Modern Times: The Biography of a Hungarian-Jewish Family (2021).
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