Central and Eastern Europe

Were we ever free?

Power, democracy and illiberalism in the V4.

I was standing in front of the the Monument of the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970 in Gdańsk with my uncle, once a participant in the 1980 protests of the Solidarność movement. Looking up at the massive object, with its three 42 metre high steel crosses each weighing 36 tonnes, he said: “we didn’t know how long we could hold out, we had to make sure that they wouldn’t be able to get rid of it easily.”

Thinking of recent political developments in the Visegrad 4 (V4) region one wonders; if we shouldn’t apply the same principle in the construction of our new institutions of freedom ? Should we not have ensured that it couldn’t be easily dismantled? How can it be that, today, anti-democratic forces can influence, and even take control of countries which have freed themselves from dictatorship only 25 years ago? Have we learnt nothing from the past?
There are those who believe that it is the political immaturity, the inexperience of Eastern Europeans in government, which has brought illiberal rule upon us. More sophisticated explanations include that offered by David Ost, the renowned scholar of Polish history. Ost argues that the institutions of liberal democracy could not provide a sense of community and solidarity to the people of the V4. Without a sense of unity democratic institutions became vulnerable to authoritarianism. The idea, however refined, is essentially that illiberalism was brought to power by exploiting the internal flaws of the Eastern European democracy. The post-socialist block was given the gift of freedom, but proved to be unable to sustain it.

The truth, however, is that freedom, that is, self-determination, has never been a reality in the V4, or anywhere else in Eastern Europe for that matter. Neither as states nor as individuals were we ever in a position to be the masters of our own fate. Instead a pervasive system of domination and oppression came to rule the region in the guise of political and economic liberty. The current rise of the authoritarian Right is a direct result of this system of oppression. This oppressive response is essentially nothing but a violent reaction to the oppressive atmosphere permeating East European societies. We do not require further education in democratic theory, nor foreign intervention in the form of EU sanctions, in order to be able to rid ourselves of illiberalism.

After 1989, the young democracies of Eastern Europe found themselves under increasing pressure to secure their place alongside of the winners of the cold war. Grossly underdeveloped and struggling with increasing social and economic problems, V4 countries were in desperate need of support from the West. By 1991, the V4 (then V3) had already declared their commitment to the project of European integration (their wish, that is, to join the European Union). In 1999, three of the four V4 members jointed NATO. In 2004, almost all of the post-socialist countries became members of the EU.

Of course, these weak and vulnerable societies had little power to negotiate the terms under which they joined Western alliances, and even less influence over the transition to market capitalism.

Market capitalism conquered Eastern Europe when neoliberal expansionism was at its height, having already claimed British heavy industry, and being well on its way to definitively crushing unions, social democracy, and the welfare state world-wide, and to causing a series of economic meltdowns in East Asia, Russia and Brazil. In retrospect it is hard to see how disaster could have been avoided, how these few underdeveloped countries could have resisted the most powerful global force that has emerged in last fifty years.

The results of Eastern Europe’s accession to the global free market are clear. The rapid increase in living standards that many had expected from market capitalism never happened. Instead massive unemployment and poverty occurred and the economies of the post-socialist block became increasingly dependent on foreign aid (and, after 2004, EU funds). Only regions with good infrastructure and cheap labour succeeded in attracting foreign investment (mostly for ‘near-shoring’). However, had living standards and wages risen significantly, foreign investors would have moved their operations farther east. Thus both Western corporations and governments had an interest in halting development, and keeping wages low, thereby creating cheap assembly lines, or sweatshops, for Europe.

Regions which failed to attract foreign investment, like in Eastern Hungary, ‘Poland-B’ (the old industrial east), and northern Bohemia, capital was simply withdrawn, leaving behind desolate landscapes. Indeed, depopulation is the most tangible effect of the triumph of neoliberalism in the V4. In the absence of investment, industry and agriculture have collapsed, those who can, leave for bigger cities or employment abroad. Those who do not have such an option, stay and fall prey to poverty, crime and hopelessness. Pensioners, unskilled workers, and, disproportionately, Roma people are trapped in the far-flung deserts of the Eastern European countryside without prospects or hope, unable to break free from the constraints of their social situation.

Many have pointed out that the V4, and Eastern Europe in general, is commonly viewed as peripheral to the prosperous centres of Western Europe. The term ‘periphery’ comes from dependency theory which was developed in the 1960s to explain the relationship between the developed and the developing world, mainly in relation to the connection between South and North America. Dependency theorists posited that the continuous growth of the wealthy centre was conditional upon the underdevelopment of the periphery, on the ability of the centre to preserve cheap access to raw materials in periphery. For this reason, the centre ensures, through its financial and political power, that the periphery remains in a state of dependent development, or, underdevelopment. The parallels between the global north-south and the European east-west situation are hard to miss.

Here too we have a wealthy centre, which extracts cheap raw materials, mainly labour, from an impoverished periphery, which is kept in a state of underdevelopment.

The main issue, however, is not economic inequality, but power. Analysing the status of Eastern Europe in terms of the periphery and dependency is insufficient insofar as it overlooks the most important global development since the 1960s, namely neoliberalism. David Harvey describes neoliberalism as a political project whereby global economic and political power elites attempted to wrest control from the increasing influence of unions, socialists and democrats during the 1970s. In so doing, economic exploitation became ever more explicitly entangled with political domination. Western capital did not only subordinate the developing world by economic means, but also by military intervention and political pressure. The 1973 military coup in Chile is the first such example of the use of force to intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, and thereby to influence global affairs. Economic dependency was thus replaced by neo-imperial policies, the periphery became a neo-colonial space, not only economically dependent and underdeveloped, but dominated and oppressed by the centre.

It was in these circumstances that the liberation and democratization of Eastern Europe took place in 1990. Military intervention, of course, was never employed, but, as the post-socialist bloc became a spatial-fix for crisis-prone Western capital, Eastern Europe was transformed into a neo-colonial space. Even though institutions of self-governance were established, individuals in Eastern European states had very little influence over how social and economic organizations were organized, or over how these institutions interacted with others in the international community.

The label ‘neo-colonial’ might well seem exaggerated were it not for the example of Greece. In this disgraceful instance of recent European history we witnessed the way in which European power elites can, and are, willing to exert direct influence over the domestic policies of a sovereign country, an EU member state. It was clear that Greece could not function as a free and equal partner in interactions with the western European holders of power and was forced into a subordinate role. It became clear for the international public that challenging the dictates of the central elite can in fact lead to severe repercussions that may well cripple the society of the periphery.

If this is not imperial rule, then what is?

However, labels aside, it would be hard to deny that the V4, and the post-socialist block in general, are subordinate to an overarching system of domination within the European and the global order. The V4 region is poorer than the Western European ‘centre’, and is exploited while being kept in a state of underdevelopment. In a very real sense, the Eastern European ‘periphery’ is also dominated by the centre, which deprives it of the capacity for self-determination. It is not up to the people of the V4 to determine how they govern themselves, how they organize their societies, it is foreign will that rules over them. This knowledge offers insight into one of the most important political developments in the region, the rise of the authoritarian Right.

Illiberalism, and with it authoritarianism, emerged in V4 countries as a direct response to this system of domination. The 2008 financial crisis put an end to the hope of a steady path towards western living standards and, more importantly, even that of economic stability.

The feeling of lack of control, lack of self-determination, has taken over Eastern European societies.

The people, desperate to gain control over their lives and futures, turned against those they held responsible for the situation. These were, throughout the region, agents of neoliberalism, proponents of privatization, deregulation, and, later, of austerity. These were the beneficiaries of the post-1990 arrangement. The emergent Right, presenting itself as the only available alternative, merely channelled popular outrage against the figures and institutions that personified and mediated the system of domination which deprived them from agency, from freedom.

Illiberalism did not come to power in Hungary and Poland by deluding the masses with nationalist and xenophobic propaganda. In 2010, when Fidesz acquired two thirds of the seats in the Hungarian parliament, their central campaign promise was a commitment to defying foreign ‘power-elites’, first the International Monetary Fund, then Brussels and Brussel’s allies at home, and, in so doing, to achieve national self-determination. The slogan, “we won’t be a colony”, was used by Fidesz well before the left wing analyses of Eastern Europe as a neo-colonial periphery which have surfaced in recent years. The central theme of Poland’s ruling PiS party, no less illiberal than Fidesz, has, since its inception, been the mythical image of Poland’s eternal fight for freedom from German and Russian domination.

Silly as these narratives of heroic freedom struggles against Western oppressors may seem (and it is very hard to take seriously the remarks of Polish Justice Minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, comparing Germany to the Third Reich or Hungarian MP Viktor Orbán’s speech in October on the “sovietisation” of the European Union), we need to understand the significance of the way in which such narratives resonate with the wider, Eastern European public. People feel, and are justified in feeling, that even after ridding themselves of the dictatorship of state socialism, they have not gained autonomy, they are still at the mercy of external forces.

Paradoxically, the advance of the authoritarian Right in the V4 originates from the deep desire, often implicit and hidden, but always present, to be, at last, free. Naturally, authoritarian illiberalism is the worst possible ally in a struggle for freedom and self-determination. Under its rule neoliberal exploitation continues on a scale never seen before, inequalities are growing faster than ever, and the grip of the western European centre over the Eastern periphery has never been this strong. At the same time, however, nationalist authoritarianism focuses on narratives of oppressed nations and evil empires which do not exist, instead of emphasizing the fact that we are bound together by virtue to being subordinated to the same overarching system of domination, from Poland to Greece, from Czech workers to migrants. The Right is the wrong answer, but not an irrational one.

It is this lack of freedom and agency, these renewed, often subtle, but always merciless, forms of domination that give rise to and keep in place illiberalism in the V4. Challenging authoritarian politics and nationalist doctrine directly can hardly be sufficient to beat it. Pointing out their inconsistencies, its deceptive and ruinous nature, and praising the undeniable accomplishments of the EU only diverts attention from the underlying problem, the oppression of the periphery under neo-colonial rule of the centre. It is the periphery, together with the power system producing it, that needs to be abolished in order to fully dismantle illiberalism. As long as we are not in fact masters of our own fate, the Right can capitalize on the resulting frustrations, anxieties, and feelings of uncertainty.

Pointing out that far-right extremism is not a good answer doesn’t do away with the question itself: how are we to regain control over our lives?

What is needed, therefore, is a shift from a system of domination to a system that would minimize the influence of powerful elite interests, economic or political, over European politics, and would grant all European people a substantive say in how they govern their lives and organize their societies. The answer, simply put, is more democracy on a broad European level. This should be accomplished within the framework of the European Union. But this line of thought overlooks the fact that illiberal oppression and peripheral domination are kept in place by a larger, Europe-wide, or possibly global system of power. To challenge this system of power, we need transnational institutions, and transnational advocacy, and the most effective organ for that is certainly the European Union.

A superficial reform of European institutions, e.g. increased transparency and reduced bureaucracy, won’t do, however. Progressive, Europe-wide social policy might be a step forward, yet reducing poverty and inequalities of wealth and income can only be a partial solution, for as we have seen, the most fundamental issue is domination, the periphery’s lack of freedom and of self-determination. Thus the only solution is to grant the people of the periphery a genuine chance to participate in the determination of their social and economic life; a democratic turn that would ensure participatory parity for European countries and people in Europe-wide decision-making. This, coupled with increased democratization on the domestic level, can and will get rid of illiberalism by dismantling the system of oppression that produced it in the first place.

Initiatives for creating such radical changes are developing throughout Europe in the form of progressive parties and movements. This development needs to be encouraged. Transnational cooperation still needs strengthening, the voices of the people of the periphery need to be focused and amplified so that they may be heard. The path ahead will hardly be an easy one. But the result might by a system of freedom and democracy which cannot be so easily get rid of.


Zsolt Kapelner lives in Budapest and is a regular contributor to Kettös Mérce. He writes on the politics of the Visegrád region (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia). He also teaches philosophy at Budapest’s Eötvös Lórand university.