The State of Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe


Widespread common wisdom claims that democracy in general and the Central European one is facing dire future and unresolvable problems. Serious threats to the stability of the political system and, more broadly, to the political order of the continent are ahead of us.  Some observers claim the Eurozone crisis attracted so much attention and, indeed, policy decision that little room remained to deal with the more hidden developments that undermine democracy in the Eastern part of the continent.

In what follows I will try to convince the reader that the picture is far more complex and diverse than many tend to believe. Firstly, it depends how broadly we define Eastern Europe. The clearly obvious part of the picture is that Visegrad countries differ from the Balkan cases (be it West or East), and all can be distinguished from the ones located further to the East. Secondly, from a more global perspective the core Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) countries, including the Baltics seem to do much better than the remaining newly consolidated democracies in other parts of the world. Thirdly, and this is a fairly new development, profound differences have  occurred within the CEE region itself, that can’t be attributed to the recent crisis alone. Finally, and fourthly, the normative expectations concerning democracy and the assessments of its daily performance do not differ between Western and Eastern part of the continent as much as many observers are ready to assume.

The first issue refers to the broader, recently frequently discussed topic of ‘democratic proliferation’, and substantiation of the democratic expansion around the world, even to places evidently unconducive to this form of government. To be sure, Churchill was right - democracy is preferable to other known forms of regimes. Unless it creates prevalent chaos and unpredictability. Briefly, back to young Huntington (1968) interested in ‘political order in changing societies’ and his – for many researchers, including myself – key political science dictum that order per se might be much more important than any (even most desirable) yet unattainable democratic model.  Moreover democracy is a demanding regime type, it needs responsible citizen.

In Eastern Europe, the whole post-Soviet area, the pervasive division is between the two Christian traditions – Orthodox and Western. Even if it sounds politically incorrect, the empirical message is clear: whatever one does with the big divide on the one side there are relatively  successfully democratized countries, and on the other all are apparent failures, even the ones that belong to EU, including older ones. Obviously it is not about religious dogma, but the type of culture, and political culture in particular that proves difficult for smooth democratizations. The list of those impediments is long, let me just recall those of crucial importance: lack of enlightenment legacies and consequently liberal traditions; absence of  individualism as both, an ideology and dominant personality traits among citizens; instead – strong collectivistic spirit, and its organizational forms of socio- economic activities (zadruga, obshtina, etc); weak separation of the church and state; hierarchic-patrimonial traditions. The latter explain the ease with which potent oligarchs in post-Soviet states (as opposed to CEE's) have forced introducing presidential systems, which allow for easier capture of the state, establishment of clientelistic relationships, corruption and cronyism. More stable, fixed-terms' guarded, almost irremovable, presidents with their limited in number "court members" are more prone to manipulation and corruption than unstable nominated prime-ministers at the mercy of fluid parliamentary majorities. And it is not only about the specific features of elites. The major problem is that a true democratic citizen is missing in this part of Europe, except for tiny layers of brave people ready to sacrifice their life and freedom protesting against the deeply rooted authoritarian tendencies.

The durable effects of this "causally-deep" religious cleavage and its consequences are to be traced also within  countries – in former Yugoslavia and (even if in a definitely more milder form) – in Poland, where one can trace the impact of orthodox political culture traditions in the Russian partition of this country as opposed to the Habsburg and Prussian parts. In a nutshell, in part of the former Communist area, countries differ qualitatively and deserve an insightful and non-conventional political inspiration in designing their political infrastructure. After quarter of a century experiences and experimentation with democracy a call for a predictable, citizen-friendly regime, that would minimize citizens' sufferings and prevent massive civil and human right violations seems to be the appropriate goal. Yet, it should not be the classical liberal democracy.

CEE from global perspective and variation within it

Democracies are institutional infrastructures, their design is a sensitive and complicated matter. Democracy is an institutionalized uncertainty, governed by a set of stable rules of the game and resulting in uncertain outcomes. The ultimately adopted constitution in all CEE countries belong to the broadly conceived “liberal democracy” basket. The parts referring to the relationship between branches of power are, from a global perspective and even in comparison to the post-Soviet area, fairly similar. All are parliamentary democracies with prime ministers as heads of the government. All the countries of the region are unitary states. Most are classified as semi-presidential (save Hungary, Latvia and Estonia as well as the Czech Republic until 2013), yet their exact legislative and non-legislative powers differ substantially. The impact of semi-presidentialism on democratic consolidation and the quality of democracy seems to be mixed. Elgie and Moestrup (2008) argue that: (a) overall democracy success depends more on other factors than semi-presidentialism and (b) if anything, its effect is negative with regards democratisation (p 257). Let me add however that this overall result suffers from a problem of endogeneity, that is the choice of institutions might have been flawed by (for instance) anti-democratic preferences of ancient regime actors; most post-Soviet cases given in the analyses quoted above (Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Belarus) are precisely such examples. Yet, the overall picture is complicated once we concentrate on the core CEE countries. On the one hand we have the successful case of Poland with fairly strong presidential powers and on the other Romania, with even stronger powers of the head of state, but clearly less positive democratic (and economic) performance.

Countries of contemporary world differ as far as democratic models and quality of democracy are concerned. The region of CEE, including the Baltics and part of Eastern Balkans, perform compared to Latin America or Asia relatively, but clearly, well. Data on comparative quality of democracy be it Bertelsmann Transformative Index 2014 or IDEA Report of 2009 on Latin America indicate huge differences between CEE and those other regions. Among the top 20 countries performing best in terms of political subsystem in the BTI2014 one finds all CEE countries, while only four Latin American cases qualify (Uruguay, Costa Rica, Chile) and the biggest country – Brazil – is ranked only 17. Other major countries – Mexico, Argentina, Columbia trail far behind and are to be found in the fourth and fifth decile. IDEA 2009 general assessment of the state of Latin American democracies reads conveys the same message. The transitional literature attributes this to many categorically different phenomena: existence of astronomic social inequalities, dominance of quasi-feudal patron-client relationships, patrimonial hierarchical structures, widespread social and educational exclusion, and visible pockets of poverty or/and criminal subcultures generationally transmitted and the like are present in Latin American cases for good, irrespectively of the recent attempts in several countries to flatten their social structures. Briefly, CEE democracies seem to be in comparative terms a real success story. The question is what is the main reason of this relative success. Most political commentators are quick to offer an "EU conditionality" explanation. In my view indeed the accession process and its rules had forced many politicians and decision-makers to abide by the Western standards. Yet I think key reforms of these countries had taken place well before the conditionality started operating, in the very early 1990s. This was the period of "shock therapies", essential changes in property rights, labour market position and experiences with the new socio-political reality.  Regional elites, be it Balcerowicz with his monetaristic market vision reform, be it Klaus with his 'kuponovka', decided for certain systemic and path dependent enterprises, which were much more constrained by the World Bank and IMF than the EU (for a detailed discussion on this point see my Conclusions in Lewis/Markowski 2011).

What seems so far to be missing from the equation aimed at explaining the relative success of the  CEE democracies is a serious analyses of the socialist legacies of these countries. For most of the 25 years after the collapse of communism the literature on socialist legacies has been biased towards pretty conventional (and to tell the truth at times boring) enumeration of perils and deficiencies of these systems. To be sure, they clearly deserve such assessments. Yet, what is systematically missing from these descriptions are certain phenomena that by any standards should be considered positive and which – in my mind – can be treated as assets that had ultimately contributed to the relative successes in democratization. Briefly, one should name: egalitarian culture, comprehensive educational system eradicating illiteracy, income equality, limited  poverty subcultures (as per poor countries), universal health care system (even if malfunctioning), professionalization of women and their significant presence in the labour force and, not least, fairly well educated and skilful labour force, to name just the most important ones. In a nutshell, these factors have to be seriously taken into account if we really aim at explaining CEE democratizing success.

One of the most debated and debatable controversies in theoretical reasoning concerning what are the necessary constitutive element of democracy is the economic fortune of a given polity. Output performance is one of those controversial elements. It has been neglected by many studying democracy because, as the argument usually goes, it is dependent on many other factors. Nevertheless, I submit that even if we are not perfectly clear or even if we disagree on how precisely to conceive 'social justice', it is worth including it in our descriptions and evaluations of democracy.

Almost two decades ago there has been a call by Linz and Stepan (1996)– unfortunately neglected by political practitioners - for including into democracy domains an economic community, that is, an appeal to introduce clear set of rules and procedures by which the economic sub-system operates. Currently the economic/market subsystem is detached from social control to the extent that it violates basic democratic norms and, in turn, impedes smooth economic development. This applies equally and even more so to the CEE polities.

Para-objective “expert judgment” (Freedom House, Polity, BTI and the like) evaluations show that most CEE countries are considered today to be consolidated democracies, although some are more embedded (Slovenia, Poland, Estonia, Czech Republic) than others (Bulgaria, Romania). The same message can be derived from the Rule of Law Index evaluation1.
Apart from the obvious fact that CEE democracies are doing better than similar systems in other parts of the world, does not preclude us from pointing to certain visible challenges and outright worrying developments, in particular in the recent few years, somehow – yet, not deterministically - related to the current global crisis. For this we have to visit Hungary. Dozens of articles have been already written about the unfortunate developments with liberal democracy in this country since 2010, when Fidesz party won a constitutional majority, allowing for constitutional changes that would open new period in Hungarian history. To be sure – constitutions are human products and as such might be changed, if need be. The problem with the Hungarian case is that it is the newly adopted constitution three years ago that has already undergone substantial changes, amounting – as experts claim – to about 1/3 of its provisions. Moreover, these changes have been clearly politically-driven -- results of instrumental goals in Orban's fight with the Constitutional Court. A Court that among CEE similar courts has been considered as very influential and of high quality rulings. Its prerogatives have been drastically limited and particular judges simply removed from it. TEK secret police is operating without proper monitoring and lack of accountability rules. Media freedoms have been seriously constrained, the official name of the country has been changed from "Republic of Hungary" into "Hungary", apparently republics to Orban are also suspicious institutional phenomena… the list is long. What is however specific about this case is that the undemocratic  changes are wisely implemented. Today's authoritarians, or those like Orban who openly unveil distaste for liberal components of democracy, unlike their XXth century role models, do not openly reject democracy, they adjectivize it ("Russian", "peoples'", "national") and claim their proposal is both superior and better adjusted to the new era to combat the dominance of the nasty global forces. Orban dismantles the institutional infrastructure by neglecting some of its elements and giving extraordinary powers to other elements. Yet, democracy is a system; if selected subsystem stops functioning properly, other subsystems malfunction as well. What keeps him strong is the weakness of the opposition. But not only internal factors matter – EU is too much preoccupied these days with the eurocrisis, and the fate of much bigger southern European economies. Orban precisely knows it and he is wisely abusing this contextual circumstances. This allows Hungary to  continue its clearly semi-authoritarian journey. Moreover, some of his decisions (towards banks, credits in Swiss francs, kicking out of the country the IMF experts, pretending to be tough on international corporations) paint a picture of a true leadership, sensitive and responsive to the preferences of his sovereign. And this kind of attitude (and indeed  deeds) certainly makes him popular among many not only young Europeans of the South, that would wish to see a politician of this kind to win power in their countries. In a nutshell a mixture of unpopular moves towards democracy with pretty popular ones concerning global economic issues, makes his case attractive for many disappointed with sluggishness of current European reaction to the corporate malpractices.

Hungarian case also raises several issues that refer to electoral rules/systems. For long two decades it has been assumed that precisely the kind of simple political system design of a Hungarian type (clear executive-parliamentary, with powerless non-directly elected president, and single parliamentary chamber plus majoritarian electoral rules that favour strong parties) was considered to create a more consolidated, stable and predictable party systems. And indeed it does create such a system, provided politicians abide by the democratic rules of the game. The trouble starts once the winning politicians reject the pillars of democratic governance.

Since 2012 we witness a similar drive in the neighbouring Romania. Fortunately there are differences between the two countries. The most important one being a structural one -- more complex political system (semi-presidential, two-chamber parliament, with constitutional changes to be approved in a popular referendum with at least 50% turnout) with more veto points in Romania, prevents sheer executive voluntarism to materialize in policy decisions. Briefly, institutions matter and the big debate about the merits of horizontal (and of course vertical) accountability which at times decelerates governing decisions is back to the fore topics of contemporary political science.
Different developments occur in Poland, where a strong nationalistic-populist contender for power is – in my view and unlike for many other commentators – relatively successful, provided that the country has no similar to the Hungarian imperial nostalgia and proved - relatively though evidently- successful in economic terms. My opinion that PiS should be treated as successful political enterprise paradoxically comes from the very fact that Kaczynski's PiS party is in permanent opposition, and unlikely prospects for executive control in the near future. It allows them to irresponsibly confabulate about the economic reality of the country, make unrealistic promises, attract the excluded and the less successful on the market and socialize them to their world view (numerous enemies of Poland, internal "traitors", the whole 25 years of democratic development defined in terms of corruption and state's malfunctioning). If one adds the "Smolensk fable" and the way they were capable of persuading approximately two million Poles that the plane catastrophe was a deliberately crafted act of the Polish governing party in alliance with Putin, one remains rather impressed by the still around 30% of active voters support for this party. Briefly, it seems that PiS' goal in Poland is a very long-term one, aimed at creating a conservative-nationalistic mindset of Poles and focus on contributing to the spiritual changes especially among the youth. They seem to have understood that executive power is rather a game to be abandoned and have embarked on a more demanding task of creating a politico-cultural milieu and only then try to win electorally.

There are several hypotheses as far as the current illiberal turn in Eastern Europe is concerned. The first points to cultural deficiencies and resembles the famous Ogburn's 1924 "cultural gap theory" coupled with Downsian "mechanics"– the growth of illiberalism is explained by active entrepreneurial spirit on the side of politicians that construct and frame the public reality in those empty spaces or domains considered disorganized the way they consider benefitting for them and offer new policy proposals allegedly well-crafted for their amelioration. The second hypothesis advanced most prominently by David Ost hints at possible disappointment with elites and their irresponsiveness to the essential preferences of crucial social groups in society. Outcomes of the reforms are considered unsatisfactory and as a consequence political apathy and cynicism with main stream politicians is on the rise, resulting in friendly welcoming of more populist political proposals.

The reality seems to be more complicated than that however. First, indeed the Downsian type of creating new populist political entities turns to be partly correct – such parties occur but they equally quickly disappear (see Markowski, Tucker 2010). Second, the disappointment with elites hypotheses is a bit too tautological, but apart from that, it is at odds with empirical reality. Disappointment with elites is fairly widespread and does not only pertain to political ones alone. What seems to be hidden behind this new rise in populist support is a clearly anti-market sentiment. People expect less competitive individualism and more community and more state role and protection.

Citizens' normative visions and evaluations of democracy in Europe: West and East

The results of the analyses of citizens perceptions of democracy (utilizing the latest, 2012, Module 6 of the European Social Survey covering 29 countries) allow for many detailed observations, at this point I will however restrict my remarks to the following: 1) The axiological-normative models in both Western and CEE democracies combine various features of the theoretically assumed models. The first empirical cluster (‘real-existing model’), in both parts of Europe, is composed of a mixture of traits belonging to its liberal and electoral model. In the West it seems to be slightly more liberal, whereas in the East less so. The second of the disclosed normative models in the West clearly indicates a cluster that blends “social justice” features with “popular control” traits of democracy.
2) On the other hand, evaluative scores citizens assign to the performance of their democracies, depict a fairly different picture. Definitely the most important (both in the West and the East) clustering a model of democracy is the one related to democratic outputs, where ‘social justice’ components are mixed with ‘popular control’ facets. This is an interesting result, which first of all shows that those who fundamentally object to defining democracy via its socio-economic and redistributive output features probably have lost pace with 21st century and/or ‘post-crisis’ changes in European demoi key political preferences. Socio-economic redistributive issues are likely to be permanent feature of the democratic reality from now on.

Analysis of the detailed features of democracy: normative and evaluative

In depicting the normative expectations of European citizens towards democracy as a regime type, one needs not only to look at the complex clusters of constitutive elements of particular models, but these very components separately as well. My analyses (presented in detail elsewhere2 ) allow us to claim the following: first of all, in the West and in the CEE countries the truly important aspects of democracy from the normative perspective are the same. The five most salient elements are: 'courts treating everyone equally', ‘free and fair elections’, ‘governments explaining decisions to voters’, ‘media providing reliable information about government’ and ‘government protecting citizens against poverty’. Secondly, ‘electoral’ and ‘liberal’ aspects clearly enjoy the highest assessment scores. In this respect citizens of both parts of Europe differ only slightly, nonetheless citizens of the stable democracies of the West cherish the functioning of the core electoral institutions more than their Eastern neighbours. Thirdly, in both parts of Europe the one single domain of democracy that is both normatively most appreciated and highly valued in terms of its daily performance is ‘free and fair elections’, that is the distinct aspect considered to be the absolute necessary condition for treating a regime as democratic. 

As far as country-specific citizens’ attitudes towards democracy are concerned few general results are worth emphasizing: (a) the revealed features of particular democracies based on ESS data is similar to what one might find in comparative evaluations of democracy, most notably the recent BTI 2014 indexes and WJP Rule of Law Index 2012-2013; (b) citizens of particular CEE countries, so to say, "correctly evaluate their democracies in that they adequately see their performance shortcomings and accordingly unveil their normative, hierarchically logically structured, preferences that correspond to the institutional logic of their democracies' idiosyncrasies; and (c) countries that seem to have serious problems with the quality of their democracy, as evaluated by international experts, have these shortcomings confirmed by the citizens of these very countries. Briefly, after 25 years of practicing democracy, CEE citizens seem to have been pretty well socialized to the peculiarities of their democratic model.

The overall message from the ESS Module 6 comparative data set reads: contemporary Europeans still view democracy via its liberal and electoral components, yet the output-related expectations are on the rise. Europeans do expect democracy to assure 'social justice' as well. The less stable, poorer and more fragile the democracy of a given polity, the more it is true. However, democratic citizens of the CEE countries and their Western counterparts do not differ 'qualitatively' in what they expect from democracy; they do differ more in terms of how they evaluate the performance of their democracies. In this respect, the results are pretty logical. So are the data available for particular CEE societies – Czechs, Bulgarians, Poles, Hungarians and the rest expect from their democracies what is missing there most and they evaluate their performance accordingly. Moreover, taking into account the institutional design of a given polity of CEE countries the results presented are simply logical, which tells us that the democratic socialization of the new democratic citizens is effective. Poland features pretty well in recent years as far as its democratic credentials are concerned, in particular in comparative CEE perspective. The important message is that macro-comparative evaluations of the state of democracies in CEE reveal pretty similar overall picture to the ones delivered by its citizens.

  • 1. The Rule of Law Survey is part of the World justice Forum Initiative.
  • 2. See my chapter entitled "Media and democracy in CEE" in. J. Zielonka, ed. Media and Politics in new democracies: Europe in a comparative perspective, Oxford, Oxford University Press, forthcoming.
Retour en haut de page