What are the geographically different countries

Causes of the different development of democratic standards in the post-communist states of Europe


The political development of a number of communist states towards the rule of law up to 1989/91 was so positive that the EU accepted eleven of them as full members between 2004 and 2013. Since then, the political system, especially in Hungary and Poland, has taken on increasingly authoritarian features. The article first asks about possible long-term shaping of the political culture of these countries through their affiliation to East-Central and Southeastern Europe and then looks into the reasons for the declining attractiveness of the democratic values ​​of the EU in some new member states. It turns out that some national conservatives like Orbán in Hungary accuse the EU of betraying basic European values ​​such as Christianity, family or nation and propagate their own model as the future of Europe. The "restructuring" of the constitutional systems in Hungary and Poland, in which horizontal controls are deliberately dismantled in the political system of institutions, as well as the argumentation patterns of populist parties are also outlined. It becomes clear, among other things, that conflict situations from the past that were taboo during communist times have a destabilizing effect today. Finally, the question is asked which internal social forces such as the churches or external actors such as the EU can contribute to consolidating the rule of law attitudes and structures in the respective societies.


Several countries which had been Communist until 1989/91 developed so well into the direction of states under the rule of law that the EU admitted eleven of them as full members between 2004 and 2013. Since then, the political system of Hungary and Poland has shown more and more authoritarian characteristics. The article first asks for possible long-term influences on the political culture of these states by their geographical situation in East Central and South East Europe and then investigates the reasons for the diminishing attraction of the EU's democratic values ​​and ideas in some of its new member states. It turns out that some national-conservatives like Orbán in Hungary are reproaching the EU to betray basic European values ​​like Christianity, family, or nation and are propagating their own model as the future of Europe. Moreover, the “renovation” of the constitutional systems in Hungary and Poland is outlined which aims at dismantling horizontal controls in the system of political institutions, and typical patterns of argumentation by populist parties are presented. Among others it becomes obvious that conflicts stemming from the past, but being a taboo in Communist times, still have destabilizing consequences. Finally is asked, which forces inside the societies like the churches or external actors like the EU can contribute to stabilize attitudes and structures concerning the rule of law.

The overcoming of communist systems in Eastern Europe after 1989 raised hopes that at least a larger number of the states concerned would create a transition to democracy and a market economy. At the same time, it was to be expected that a number of them would have problems for the most varied of reasons in coping with the problems of the transformation of the political, economic and social system that had to be solved at the same time. The accession of a total of eleven former communist states to the EU between 2004 and 2013 seemed to confirm the optimistic forecast that the system change - especially with EU help - would be feasible. Empirical analyzes of the results that have taken place since then, however, suggest a much more sober assessment of the transformation results. Around a quarter of a century after the accession of eight East Central European countries, the following is to be examined, which causes can be blamed for the different political developments of the post-communist states, especially in the area of ​​the rule of law.

Different initial situation in East-Central and Southeastern Europe

The starting point is the tabulated results of the relatively complex Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI)Footnote 1 for the years 2006 and 2020, namely for various criteria of the dimension “democracy status”. This is implicitly based on the objective of a “constitutional democracy”, which “in particular protects civil rights and controls government and administrative action by the legislature and judiciary (horizontal accountability) ”(Brusis et al. 2012, p. 384).

At its meeting in Copenhagen in 1993, the European Council set criteria that the candidate countries had to meet if they wanted to become EU members. In the context of this article, the “political” criterion formulated by the Council is of particular interest: institutional stability, democratic and constitutional order, respect for human rights and respect for and protection of minorities. The candidate countries had to submit annual "progress reports". The EU checked exactly how far its conditions had been met in each of the areas (“chapters”) and pushed for improvements, e.g. B. in the area of ​​the rule of law or the protection of the Russian minority in Estonia and Latvia. After the accession of the new members, however, the EU has only very limited possibilities to sanction a violation of the Copenhagen criteria.

A look at the post-communist states that were admitted to the EU in 2004 shows that all of them with the democracy status of the BTI for 2006, for which the first such figures are available, had exceeded the critical value of 8.0 for the overall status, so were classified as “consolidating” democracies. If you look at this group of countries from a different perspective, you can see that their eastern border - from the Baltic to the Adriatic - roughly coincides with the historical border between Rome and Byzantium. This border is essentially blurred only in Belarus and Ukraine in the areas that belonged to the historical Polish-Lithuanian kingdom. Croatia actually also belongs to the “Roman” area, but was not included in 2004 because it still had to work off the legacy of the authoritarian regime of its former head of state Franjo Tuđman and, above all, learn to accept it, with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in Den Hague to work together. Croatia only became a member of the EU in 2013.

Bulgaria and Romania also had the “democracy status” value above the “critical” mark of 8.0. However, they had enormous deficits in the fight against corruption, a legacy from the time of the respective real socialism, as well as in the establishment of an independent judiciary. For Romania and Bulgaria to join the EU as full members in 2007, primarily geopolitical considerations were decisive. In view of the strong Russian influence in the Balkans, both countries should be integrated into the western alliance system, with the hope that EU membership could contribute to a consolidation of democracy, similar to the case of Greece, Portugal and Spain before 1989. Bulgaria and Romania had to accept that even after accession they had to submit progress reports on the critical areas initially for three years, as it turned out, but also afterwards at regular intervals, which, however, has hardly contributed to a fundamental improvement in the problem areas (Ivanova -Manthey 2018). In enforcing the rule of law, the socialist legal legacy obviously continues to have an effect. It “lives on most likely in the 'soft factors' of legal culture such as mentalities and legal attitudes of both those who legislate and apply the law, as well as those subject to the law” (Küpper 2019, p. 26).

If one looks at the border between Rome and Byzantium in the context of the states admitted to the EU in 2004, the question almost inevitably arises to what extent the historical character and thus the political culture had an influence on the ability of the candidate countries to meet the Copenhagen accession criteria. The societies of these states, or at least their elites, had been familiar with the concept of Roman law for centuries, and had known the separation between church and state and thus the principle of the separation of powers since the conflicts between the emperor and the pope in the Middle Ages. These and other factors also determined the relationship between state power and citizens. This includes the protection of the individual and his rights, which can also be enforced against the state. But even within the Latin-influenced states, there were considerable differences in historical experience, depending on whether and to what extent the Reformation and Enlightenment had an impact on the respective society.

In the societies east of the Rome - Byzantium line, on the other hand, completely different historical conditions prevailed with regard to the traditional political culture. In the area of ​​the Orthodox churches, especially where Russian influence dominated, the principle of Caesaropapism prevailed, which made a separation of powers impossible, and the relationship between the citizen and the state was completely different.

But not only such factors of (très) longue durée, but also the specific form of communist rule and the manner in which it ended can be used as explanatory factors for the different political developments in the individual countries after 1989/91. Poland and Hungary achieved the system change in 1989/90 through an agreement between parts of the (formally illegal) political opposition willing to compromise and parts of the communist establishment willing to compromise at the “round table”. In the ČSSR and the GDR, mass protests forced a peaceful transition through a compromise between the previous nomenclature and the emerging new elites. The accession of the GDR to the Federal Republic of Germany represented a special case of establishing a democratic system in a previously communist state. Democratization in the Soviet Union was attempted “from above” with “perestroika”. In Bulgaria, the compromised political elites renounced their offices in favor of their "grandchildren" and were thus initially able to retain control over further power and personnel policy as well as economic development, as was Ceauşescu's successor in Romania, Ion Iliescu, who until 1996 and again from 2000 to 2004 was President of the country. Since 2019 there has been a case against Iliescu (born in 1930) that aims to clarify his role in the overthrow of Ceauşescu (revolutionary hero or criminal responsible for the death of many people?).

Another point is noticeable when looking at the post-communist states that joined the EU in 2004. They are all in what is often referred to as "East Central Europe". The term "East Central Europe" is by no means clear. The East Central Europe Institute (Instytut Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej) of the Catholic University of Lublin, which existed until 2018, examined the area between Russia and Germany from the Baltic States to the Adriatic and the Black Sea, including the parts of Poland-Lithuania that used to be part of Belarus and Ukraine. In Germany, the states of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, which call themselves “Central Europe”, are associated with “East Central Europe”.Footnote 2 The Baltic states, for which the term “Northeast Europe” is sometimes used, will also be included in Eastern Central Europe in the following.

Large parts of south-eastern Europe were shaped by direct or indirect Ottoman influence for almost 500 years, which cut the region off from developments in the rest of Europe. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Monarchy at the end of the First World War, states with borders emerged or consolidated in an ethnically, linguistically, culturally and politically highly heterogeneous region, within which it was impossible to apply the principle of an (ethnically understood) right to self-determination to enforce the peoples. The result were numerous domestic and foreign political conflicts, which were exacerbated in the region by the course of the Second World War.

After 1945, Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria and Romania developed different models of socialism. Yugoslavia was formally a federal state, but in the communist federations (also in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia) it was not the principle of vertical separation of powers that applied, but rather the principle of "democratic centralism", according to which all decisions of importance were ultimately made by the party's political bureau or its general secretary were hit. All three communist federations disintegrated because the smaller republics felt themselves to be dominated by the ethnically strongest. In the case of Yugoslavia, the dissolution was accompanied by armed conflict lasting several years, which lasted until 2001Footnote 3 and killed well over 100,000 people. Many trouble spots remained in the now independent states. As a result of the war of 1992–1995, Bosnia-Herzegovina has a deeply divided society in which the ethno-national concepts of Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks are mutually exclusive, but the three groups nevertheless have to live in a common state. In Macedonia and Kosovo, the sovereignty of the state is contested by at least one large ethnic group (Dzihic 2014). Kosovo is still waiting for recognition by several EU states and for at least indirect recognition by Serbia. In addition to the political and socio-economic transformation efforts, these countries have to fulfill the tasks associated with building a new statehood. Obviously, in view of such a starting point, building democratic political systems is extremely difficult. The individual indicators of the democracy status in the BTI 2020 make this clear, especially in the areas of “rule of law” and “political and social integration”.

Even Bulgaria and Romania, which have been EU members since 2007, show worse values ​​for “democracy status” in the BTI 2020 than in 2006. These two states, like Poland, fell below the limit of 8.00 points and thus became states with downgraded to a “defective democracy”. Hungary even stayed below 7.00 points and is therefore one of the “severely defective democracies”.Footnote 4 How could such a development come about?

Attempts to explain the declining attractiveness of the democratic values ​​propagated by the EU

In her extensive study of the political development in post-Soviet Europe since 1989, which, however, primarily focuses on the former Soviet republics, Katherine Graney assumes a kind of west-east cultural gradient in the political value system, which she describes as the "Eurocentric-Orientalist Cultural Gradient" (Graney 2019, p. 4 ff.). It divides the time from 1989 to today with regard to the attitude of the earlier communist societies to "Europeanization", i. H. acceptance of the values ​​propagated by the EU in three phases.

  1. 1.

    1989 to 1999 “Europhoria”: The European institutions were convinced that they were committed to Europe as a community of values, and post-communist states tried to maximize their political, economic and military security in accordance with the codes propagated there.

  2. 2.

    1999 to 2008 “Europhilia”: During this time a number of post-communist states became members of the EU (and NATO). The successful “Europeanization” of some post-communist states increased the attractiveness of this model for further applicants.

  3. 3.

    2009 until today “Europhobia”: From around 2009, not least due to the consequences of the financial crisis that started in 2008, the usefulness and feasibility of the European post-war project were increasingly called into question. This is proven by the successes of populists in old EU member states as well. Among the new EU members, the dominant parties in Hungary and Poland, as well as important actors in almost all EU states, are questioning the liberal, multilateral, value-based European institutions (Graney 2019, p. 14 ff.).

The Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev and the American legal philosopher Stephen Holmes attempted an answer to the question of the reasons for the declining attractiveness of the Western model in some post-communist countries in the volume “The Light that went out” (Krastev and Holmes 2019) . They published important considerations in advance in an article in the "Journal of Democracy" (Krastev and Holmes 2018). According to this, the origin of the “illiberal revolution” in Central and Eastern Europe can be found in socio-psychological and cultural causes. After the end of the East-West conflict, the only measure of “normality” that existed was the liberal political model of the West, which the previously communist societies now wanted to strive for.Footnote 5 In doing so, they should have accepted that the West would judge their success or failure.This feels like a loss of sovereignty. It has been shown that attempts by Central and Eastern Europeans to imitate the way post-war Germany dealt with its recent history ran into insurmountable problems.

The question arose how one could reconcile what one regards as "normal" in one's own country with what is considered "normal" in the West. Establishing such a "normality" is, however, a very lengthy process. An individual can change country far more quickly than one can change a country. Krastev and Holmes point out that many states in east-central and south-east Europe should have recorded an extremely high level of emigration, especially young, often liberal-minded people, to Western Europe after 1989. In many cases, this has exacerbated existing demographic problems and contributed to strengthening “national”, right-wing attitudes. While the states of the eastern half of Europe are perceived as ethnically relatively homogeneous, the West is perceived as increasingly heterogeneous and multi-ethnic, which is attributed to the “thoughtless” and “suicidal” policy of easy immigration.

As a result, the West has lost its cultural role model function. Populists in Warsaw and Budapest saw the refugee crisis of 2015 as an opportunity to give Eastern Europe a new trademark, the preservation of authentic culture in contrast to the increasingly multicultural Western Europe. If the reputation of the West as a region with special opportunities and Western liberalism as the standard for an advanced social and economic order are questioned, emigration from one's own countries could be limited. Western Europe's open immigration system is condemned less because it has invited Africans and people from the Middle East, but because it has proven to be an irresistible magnet for Central and Eastern Europeans themselves.

The argument of Krastev and Holmes that the West has lost its role model function at least for a number of the elites of the post-communist states is, among other things. confirmed by a series of statements by Viktor Orbán. In it he diagnoses the decline of European civilization. Instead of sticking to its Christian roots, Europe is building an “open society”. Traditional values ​​such as family would be abandoned. Nation, national identity and national pride would be seen as negative and obsolete terms. However, he foresees the replacement of the "1968s" ​​by the "1990s", an anti-communist generation with Christian beliefs and commitment to the nation. The punch line at the end of a speech at a summer academy in 2018 shows that for him the role of role model and those who would have to emulate him has been reversed: “Thirty years ago we thought that Europe was our future. Today we believe that we are Europe’s future "(Prime Minister Orbán’s Speech 2018).

One of the leading intellectuals of the Polish ruling party PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość - Law and Justice), Prof. Ryszard Legutko, member of the European Parliament, argued in a book with the provocative title that was also published in German in 2017 The Demon of Democracy: Totalitarian Currents in Liberal SocietiesJust as the communists once had an obsession with class issues, so would the liberals today with issues of social values. They strived for the dissolution of family, church and nation and forced the EU to adopt a left-liberal agenda such as feminism, LGBT rights or multiculturalism. You have to oppose that. The consequences of the so-called refugee crisis are predictable, namely a radical transformation of the existing social identities. The influx of migrants offers the opportunity to withdraw even more rights from the nation states and to strengthen the European center - “a combination of the European bureaucracy and the major political actors”. Furthermore, the European elites are apparently attracted by a new model of society, multiculturalism (Legutko 2017).Footnote 6

A signal: The constitutional amendment in Hungary and the “restructuring of the judiciary” in Poland

In the parliamentary elections in Hungary in 2010, the left-liberal government was voted out of office after devastating failures in the previous electoral term. The new head of government was Viktor Orbán (born 1963), who had already been Prime Minister from 1998 to 2002. After he was at the head of his party Fidész (Union of Young Democrats) from 1992 to 2000 one of the vice-leaders of the Liberal International, he switched to the European People's Party with Fidész in 2002 and became one of its vice-chairmen. In the 2010 elections, Fidész and its much smaller coalition partner KDNP (Christian Democratic People's Party) won a two-thirds majority in parliament with 52.7% of the votes in the first ballot. Orbán had a new constitution drawn up which, on the one hand, laid down an extremely national-conservative state ideology. This not only shapes large parts of the preamble, but runs through the entire constitution. Liberal-individualistic values ​​take a back seat to collectivist ones. According to the preamble, individual freedom can only develop in cooperation with others.

On the other hand, the rights of the constitutional court were curtailed and so-called “priority” or “cardinal laws” were introduced, which can only be changed with a two-thirds majority. These are vaguely reminiscent of the French “lois organiques”, but are far more numerous and concern many matters that are usually regulated by simple legislation. In this way, the Fidész led to favorable regulations z. B. in the electoral law (constituency division) for the National Assembly, which cannot be changed in the foreseeable future due to the required two-thirds majority. The “Venice Commission” of the Council of Europe expressed serious concerns about this constitution (European Commission 2011).

Even more serious were additional constitutional changes in 2013, which further dismantled horizontal mechanisms for controlling the executive and, in particular, introduced a drastic reduction in the powers of the constitutional court and the autonomy of the judiciary. In practice, the freedom of independent media has also been curtailed and the scope of civil society organizations to act has been restricted. A total of six constitutional amendments had been made by spring 2018. Most of the time, the Constitutional Court had initially criticized a legal text. Its content was then written into the constitution and the incriminated text could be passed as "constitutional" (Bos 2018, p. 19).

After the renewed election victory with a two-thirds majority in parliament in 2014, Orbán had to accept a temporary loss of popularity, which temporarily cost the Fidész its parliamentary two-thirds majority in by-elections in individual constituencies (Lendvai 2016, p. 150 f.). At the same time, Orbán further drastically restricted the possibilities for critical media coverage. He mobilized society by pointing out the constant threat to the nation, for example from “Brussels” or the multi-billionaire George Soros, who came from Hungary and who, after 1989, sustainably promoted the establishment of democracy in East Central Europe (from which Orbán also benefited with a scholarship in Oxford ). “National consultations” are intended to give Orbán additional legitimation by answering often leading questions, for example in May 2015 on “Immigration and Terrorism”. Orbán constantly criticizes criticism from Brussels of his policy, which is largely incompatible with the EU's political value system, but uses the EU funds not only to build up the Hungarian economy, but also to provide targeted support to politicians loyal to him and relatives.Footnote 7 The classification of his regime in Hungarian political science ranges from an "electoral autocracy" (Attila Ágh) to a "hybrid regime" (András Bozóki and Dániel Hegedűs) and a "plebiscitarian leader democracy" (András Körösényi) to a "post-communist mafia state" (Bálint Magyar).Footnote 8

With the restructuring of the political system in Hungary, a pattern was set according to which the national-conservative party PiS, which was victorious in the 2015 elections in Poland, proceeded after its victory in the November 2015 elections in order to gain control over as many state institutions as possible. In the Polish media this goal was z. In some cases the formula: “Budapest in Warsaw”. Party leader Jarosław Kaczyński had already sued in 2006/07 as prime minister of a coalition of his party with a populist and a national-clerical partner when the Constitutional Court repealed several laws initiated by the PiS as unconstitutional in whole or in part always agrees with the opposition ”. Accordingly, one of the first steps of the new PiS government at the end of 2015 was to de facto subordinate itself to the Constitutional Court, which marked the beginning of a struggle that has continued to this day for the final elimination of the horizontal separation of powers and the subordination of the judiciary to the executive in Poland.Footnote 9 The almost obsessive endeavor of the PiS leadership to “have everything under control” became apparent on November 16, 2015, when the PiS candidate Beata Szydło was elected as the new Prime Minister by the Sejm at a very late hour. Four of the five intelligence chiefs were replaced after midnight.

Gradually the differences in the quality of democracy, which were still quite clear in 2004, between the states of East-Central and Southeastern Europe began to blur. The three Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which only regained their independence in 1991 after more than 50 years of foreign rule, are an exception. For them, joining the EU (as well as NATO) in 2004 meant an important institutional link to the West and thus greater security from Russia. As Table 2 shows, their democracies have achieved remarkable stability, and these three countries have also made great efforts in the economic field to join the euro zone (accession of Estonia in 2011, Latvia in 2014, Lithuania in 2015). and thus to belong to the group of EU states with the closest economic integration. But even in the otherwise exemplary Estonia, the populist and EU-critical EKRE (Estonian Conservative People's Party) has been the third strongest party and a member of the governing coalition since 2019.

Populist Patterns of Argumentation in East Central and Southeast Europe

The arguments used by populists to win votes in Eastern Europe are at least partially similar to those in the West. They present themselves and their party as the “true representatives” of the interests of the people, while the state is under the control of “elites” who exploited it for their personal goals and who could have kept some of their power from the communist era . In contrast, the majority of the population has been excluded from the benefits of the economic system transformation. Such an argument, combined with the (then kept) promise of a major social redistribution in favor of the hitherto neglected, explains, for example, the electoral successes of the PiS in Poland. At least parts of their electorate are not affected by abstract terms such as “rule of law” or “constitutional court”. What counts for them is the regular - sometimes considerable - monthly child benefit, which families receive from the second child and, in the case of particular need, from the first child. Here, of course, the representatives of economically liberal transformation strategies must ask themselves why they have not built stronger components of social redistribution into their policies themselves.

In some countries, such as the Czech Republic, the process of economic transformation was so intransparent that the leadership of political parties gained control over the privatization process in the economy and thus de facto control over the filling of management positions in companies. This resulted in informal networks and client relationships between politics and business that are often difficult to control for the public (Klíma 2020).

A common pattern of mobilizing one's own political camp and gaining votes is the abandonment of fairness and polarization in political disputes. The systematic characterization of political opponents not as competitors but as “enemies” has consequences on several levels. In the long term, social trust not only suffers in the opponents of its own political camp, but in politics as a whole. Not only the example of Poland shows that at parliamentary level respect for unwritten laws governing cooperation between the government majority and the opposition is being given up, the rules of procedure of the parliament are being disregarded and the agenda of the meetings for the opposition is being completely unexpectedly changed. Or because a bill has to be pushed through, the members of the responsible committee are given 30 seconds to speak. Not only is trust lost in the process. If the opposition is continuously branded as an “enemy”, in the long run there is nothing left but to repay with the same coin (Sadurski 2019, p. 8). The long-term negative effects on the political culture of the country concerned are foreseeable.

In a number of countries, the still controversial dispute over conflicts from the past, which can go back to the interwar period, is a source of fierce controversy. This concerns internal social conflicts, but also problems with neighboring states. Examples of this are ethnic-national disputes between Poles and Ukrainians or, in the former Yugoslavia, between Serbs and other nationalities. Crimes during and immediately after World War II exacerbated tensions between the warring ethnic groups, but they were not allowed to be discussed during the communist era. This past, which has not been dealt with, was, however, present in the oral tradition of the groups concerned. This was one of the reasons that enough emotions could be mobilized for the war in the crumbling Yugoslavia at the beginning of the 1990s. In several countries that became communist after 1945 - for example in the Baltic States - it is difficult for many to admit that many of their compatriots who were victims of communist occupation were previously accomplices in the Holocaust, which can still provoke violent emotions today.Footnote 10

In many cases in the post-communist region, the controversial memory of the Second World War still harbors highly emotional conflict. In the case of the successor states of Yugoslavia, this is even more understandable in view of the wars and the associated suffering after the collapse of the previous "federal state" and certainly does not contribute to the consolidation of today's states as democracies.

But also in East Central European EU states such as Poland, the state propagated “history policy” leads to foreign and domestic political controversies. Just before Auschwitz Memorial Day 2018, of all times, a Polish law was passed that threatened fines or up to three years in prison for anyone who, contrary to the facts, ascribes the responsibility or joint responsibility for acts related to the Holocaust to the Polish state or the Polish nation the Third Reich were committed. It was not so much the protest from Israel as pressure from the USA that after a few weeks after the decision had been made at the political level, the government took the most violently criticized points of the law on the now usual "lightning path", which is hardly compatible with the rules of procedure of parliament to remove.

Domestically, the sovereignty to interpret, especially over recent history, at least since the Second World War, is often highly controversial. This concerns, for example, the question of collaboration with the Nazi state or armed resistance against it. In the case of Yugoslavia, this can even lead to controversy between its successor states. The conflict in Poland over the memory of the Second World War has also attracted international attention. The Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, initiated by the then Mayor of Warsaw and later President Lech Kaczyński and inaugurated on the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising in 2004, is an example of how history can be conveyed from the “national”, “patriotic” awareness-raising point of view with modern museum technology. The “Museum of the Second World War” in Gdansk, conceived as a “counterpoint”, presented the war worldwide from the point of view of the population affected by it. Such a perspective was too little “patriotic” for the historical policy of the PiS. The museum was changed in several points and thus in a direction different from the one originally intended.Footnote 11

A formula used by populists in many East Central European countries - they cannot yet do it in the Southeast European countries (except Romania and Bulgaria), since they are not yet EU members - is: Moscow dominated us in the past, Brussels today. Jarosław Kaczyński recently took up this slogan, which is particularly popular in Budapest and Warsaw, in connection with the threat expressed by the EU to possibly cut funds because of the violation of the rule of law in Poland. He referred to the successful preservation of freedom in Polish society vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Even in the People's Republic it was possible to maintain private agriculture, and the Catholic Church was able to work in spite of all persecutions. Today, however, EU officials and politicians who have never been elected by Poland are demanding "that we verify our whole culture, discard everything that is of fundamental importance to us just because they like it". There is no trace of a contractual justification for this and it contradicts the declaration of cultural sovereignty that the Sejm gave up before joining the EU. “We will defend our identity, our freedom and sovereignty at all costs. We don't allow ourselves to be terrorized with money. If the threats and extortion continue, we will harshly defend Poland's vital interests. Veto. Not possumusFootnote 12 ... We are on the good side of history ”(Prezes PiS stanowczo 2020).

Which actors within society could help stabilize democracy?

The role of the churches in the process of democratization and Europeanization is ambivalent. In most of the post-communist states, church-bound people are in a clear minority due to the consequences of church persecution under communism and independent secularization processes. It is undisputed that the Catholic Church played a large part in the success of the Polish opposition movement in the 1980s. As early as the early 1990s, however, the American sociologist José Casanova asked with unmistakable skepticism whether, after the victory of Solidarność, the church would free civil society in a democratic society with the right to self-organization based on a heterogeneity of norms, values ​​and life models would recognize, or whether they would propagate the principle of a homogeneous, Polish and Catholic national community.Footnote 13

The answer to this question is clear around 30 years after the system change. Certainly there are still magazines like the that existed in the time of the People's Republic Tygodnik Powszechny or Więź. Your editorial teams have done an excellent job when it comes to dealing with the cooperation between Catholic clergy and the People's Republic's secret service and how it is dealt with in today's church. They analyze the current political reality both according to the criteria of Catholic social teaching and according to the values ​​of today's Polish constitution. However, they are also a minority within the Church.Footnote 14 The majority of the episcopate and the clergy support national-clerical slogans; her mouthpiece is “Radio Maryja”. Even if the social position of the church in Poland is far stronger than in other countries in the region, a clear process of secularization is unmistakable, especially among the younger generation.Footnote 15 In recent times, the uncovering of decades of cover-up of pedophile crimes by clergy, which was covered by high-ranking members of the episcopate, has recently contributed to this, especially by the private media and via the Internet.

In other “Roman” states of the Soviet sphere of influence, the religious ties of society were in some cases significantly lower. This was due both to experiences from before Soviet rule and to the suppression of the Catholic Church during the communist era. In what is now the Czech Republic, among others, the forced recatholization under the Habsburgs after 1620. But also in more Protestant-dominated countries such as the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, in addition to the atheization pressure under communist rule, the effects of “normal” secularization processes were also evident.

The situation was completely different in the states in which traditionally Orthodox churches predominated. In many cases, cooperation between these churches and the communist governments could be observed. After the end of communism, the Orthodox Church in these states developed in different directions and was partly affected by the consequences of the break-up of Yugoslavia. In Montenegro, for example, of around 650,000 inhabitants according to the 2003 census, around 32% are ethnic Serbs. About 70% of the population belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church, into which the previously autocephalous Montenegrin Church was incorporated in 1920 after the founding of Yugoslavia. Since the renewed independence of Montenegro in 2006, its government has been trying to restore the autocephalous status of the Montenegrin Church, which the Serbian Orthodox Church categorically rejects (Korzeniewska-Wisznewska 2016, p. 227 ff.). When the parliament in Podgorica passed a church law at the end of 2019, according to which churches active in the country must disclose how they got ownership of buildings and real estate before 1920, there were violent protests by the Serbian Orthodox Church, but also by demonstrators in Montenegro. Under such framework conditions, the Orthodox churches in the region may contribute to strengthening the fragile new statehood, but hardly to consolidating a democratic civil society.

A strong civil society in particular would be necessary to build democratic societies. Andrew Arato reintroduced the concept of civil society (Arato 1981) into the international discussion with his essay on Solidarność and its temporary success against the communist state in Poland. According to Arato, the Polish civil society, which was developing against the communist state power, won a victory against the communist state with the approval of Solidarność.

There was a twofold misunderstanding associated with this statement. On the one hand, Polish civil society turned out to be far weaker than Arato assumed. In the 1990 Polish presidential elections, for example, Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who is closely associated with Solidarność, only came third. On the other hand, a completely unknown candidate who was successful with populist slogans made it into the runoff election against Lech Wałęsa.

On the other hand, the current term of civil society implies that it controls the state on the one hand at various levels, but on the other hand supports it by recognizing the values ​​on which it is based. The stronger such a civil society, the stronger the community in question. This is exactly where the deficits of the real socialist legacy become apparent in many societies in East Central and Southeast Europe. In real socialism, structures independent of the party could hardly develop, which was often explained by the historical background of the respective society.

Civil society engagement has developed differently in the regions included in this article. It was relatively high for the Balts at the end of the 1980s, which contributed to the recognition of independence by the USSR in 1991 and may also explain the relatively high status of constitutional criteria in the BTI. Civil society organizations are now very active in East Central Europe and, depending on the current point of conflict, they do intensify the social discussions and are also visible abroad during corresponding demonstrations via the mass media, social networks, etc. In the societies of Southeastern Europe, especially in the ethnically divided, such approaches have so far been less, but are beginning to develop strongly in countries such as Romania and Bulgaria.

External actors

The European Union and NATO were among the most important external actors who were able to promote the process towards a democratic consolidation of the political system in the post-communist European states. In the 1990s, both combined constitutional criteria with admission to their organization, the fulfillment of which was mandatory for the admission of the previous communist states. When joining NATO, this included the subordination of the military to civilian supervision, which was not easily enforceable in all candidate countries. Slovakia received no invitation to join under the authoritarian Prime Minister Mečiar and despite the change of government in 1998, unlike Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, it was not admitted to NATO in 1999, but only in the next round of accession in 2004 with Bulgaria, Romania and the Baltic countries States and Slovenia.

At the moment, the criteria for joining NATO seem to be shaped more by geopolitical considerations. Montenegro, for example, was accepted as a member in 2017, although it was widely known that Prime Minister Đukanović ran the country like a family business and apparently worked with the Italian mafia (Patrucić 2018, p. 21 f.).Footnote 16 Successful participation in the Membership Action Plan (MAP) is a prerequisite for acceptance. After the dispute with NATO member Greece over the name of the country was settled, the way was clear for the admission of North Macedonia in March 2020. After Albania's admission in 2009, almost every coastal state in the Adriatic is now a NATO member. Bosnia-Herzegovina has been participating in the MAP since 2010.

North Macedonia (2005), Albania (2010), Montenegro (2010) and Serbia have had since the European Council in Thessaloniki in 2003 that all states of the Western Balkans have the prospect of accession to the EU, but that certain criteria must be met before accession negotiations can begin (2013) received candidate status. Bosnia and Herzegovina has been a “potential candidate for membership” since 2014. However, none of these states has a realistic chance of being accepted into the EU in the foreseeable future.

After all, one of the main problems facing the Union, in addition to dealing with current problems such as combating the corona pandemic, is: How can states that no longer meet the requirements of a constitutional state be induced to comply with the relevant standards? A comparison of Tables 1 and 2 with the BTI assessments 2006 and 2020 shows that these standards have fallen in some countries, in Poland and especially Hungary even drastically. The instruments available to the EU to ensure compliance with the Ensuring the rule of law has proven too cumbersome and impractical. The use of the rule of law mechanism introduced at the beginning of November 2020 could provide a remedy here. That Hungary and Poland, in view of this new instrument, initially veto the medium-term financial framework for 2021-2027 amounting to more than one billion euros and the development program launched by the EU Commission to overcome the economic damage caused by the corona pandemic amounting to 750 Billion, is expected to be only an intermediate stage. If the EU takes a tough stance, the veto can cause considerable domestic political difficulties for both the Polish and the Hungarian government. In the event of a “soft” compromise, which experience has shown to be more likely, there should be little incentive for Hungary and Poland to adhere more closely to the rule of law in the future.

Who else, as an external actor, could influence compliance with the applicable rules? First of all, the European party families should be mentioned here, some of whose members include parties from new member states with a dubious understanding of democracy. First and foremost is the European People's Party, of which Fidész has been a member since 2002. After admonitions did not lead to a change in the understanding of democracy, Fidész was only suspended in its parliamentary group before the 2019 elections to the European Parliament, but has not been excluded to this day. However, the EPP is not the only European party association that has had to make such reproaches. The faction of the “Progressive Alliance of Social Democrats” has also tolerated the Romanian PSD, whose management staff has been accused of massive corruption and therefore in some cases judicially convicted, in its own ranks for years. Her membership in the group was also only suspended before the 2019 European elections. The Liberal Group (ALDE) also has a “strange bedfellow” in the ANO party of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, a populist oligarch (Hlousek and Kopeček 2020). In the case of party mergers in the European Parliament, the idea of ​​being able to claim as many positions as possible in the Presidium and the committees of the EP through the large group strengths obviously prevails.

Often little visible external actors who primarily promote the development of civil society are foreign organizations such as German political foundations. It is no coincidence that Orbán is a thorn in the side of a prime project of such long-term foreign support for the development of democracy as the renowned Central European University in Budapest, which is mainly funded by money from George Soros's circle. She is now mainly active in Vienna. The effect of such external democracy promotion is aimed at sustainability. There can be setbacks in the democratic development of the political system, as in Hungary. At the same time, young elites oriented towards democratic values ​​are growing back.

The direction in which authoritarian politicians in East-Central and Southeastern Europe are trying to strengthen their power is clear: dismantling horizontal controls in the political system of institutions; Restrict the autonomy of civil society, especially the media, to the greatest possible extent; constant political polarization of society; Reward loyal followers with benefices available to the state,Footnote 17 i.a. The pattern of the exercise of power is thus similar to the populist regime in other regions of the world (see e.g. Pappas 2019).

However, the development in the examined region does not necessarily go in the direction of a further dismantling of the rule of law. A reversal of this trend could not only take place by increasing external influence, for example by the EU. There is also hope that civil society will become more visible, for example at large protest demonstrations in 2018/19 in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and RomaniaFootnote 18 or Bulgaria. It is important that this civil society succeeds in organizing itself on a permanent basis.


  1. 1.

    The BTI is preferred to indices such as that of Freedom House or that of the Economist Intelligence Unit because it is much more complex.

  2. 2.

    In 1983, the essay by Milan Kundera (1983), published in exile in Paris, sparked a lively discussion in underground publications, especially in Czechoslovakia, but also in Hungary and Poland. According to Kundera, these countries were geographically in the center of Europe, culturally in the west, but against their will politically in the east. This discussion is often seen as an advance notice of the revolutions of 1989/90 and the accession of these states to the EU as a “return to Europe”.

  3. 3.

    In 2001 Albanian forces started an uprising in Macedonia, at the end of which the Albanian minority were granted the same rights as the ethnic Macedonians.

  4. 4.

    For a detailed analysis of the political and, in particular, the constitutional development of all the states considered in Tables 1 and 2, see the individual state contributions in the monumental volume Handbook of European Constitutional History in the 20th Century (Benz et al. 2019).

  5. 5.

    Kuisz and Wigura (2020, p. 50) specify that the object of imitation was not the West as it really existed, but an imaginary West.

  6. 6.

    Since the Polish original was published in 2012, Legutko has added the remarks on the migration crisis in the foreword to the German-language edition on p. 17 f.

  7. 7.

    Current examples can be found in the report by Kruchem (2020).

  8. 8.

    Individual receipts from Bos (2018, p. 29 f.)

  9. 9.

    For details, see inter alia. Ziemer (2020).

  10. 10.

    See a more recent study on Lithuania: Bobryk (2020) and Sužiedėlis (2018). For a broad historical context, see inter alia. the extensive volume by Sapper and Weichsel (2008).

  11. 11.

    See, inter alia. the report of the dismissed founding director of the museum, Machcewicz (2018).

  12. 12.

    The phrase “non possumus” (we cannot do that) has been common in Poland since Cardinal Wyszyński used these words in 1953 to reject demands of the Stalinist state for the subordination of the Catholic Church to its rules and punished for this with internment until the political “thaw” of 1956 has been.

  13. 13.

    Casanova, José. (1994). Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago / London, p. 109. Patriotism in Christian form (2017).

  14. 14.

    An exceptional publication of the Polish episcopate is the document "Chrześcijański kształt patriotyzmu" (The Christian figure of patriotism), which was adopted on April 27, 2017 and was drawn up by the Episcopate Council for Social Issues and approved by the General Assembly of Bishops. It distinguishes z. B. between patriotism and nationalism, reads like a catechism for Catholic citizens in a democracy and could do a lot to promote democratic civic attitudes. In practice the document - e.g. B. in Catholic religious education - never played a role. However, it has at least found its way to the website of the German Bishops' Conference: Patriotism in a Christian guise. Document of the Polish Bishops' Conference of March 14th (sic) 2017, https://www.dbk.de/fileadmin/redaktion/diverse_downloads/dossiers_2018/2018-Dokument-Poln.-Bischofskonferenz-Patriotismus-in-christlicher-Gestalt.pdf. Accessed 18 Nov 2020.

  15. 15.

    According to a survey by the opinion research institute IBRIS from November 2020, 35% of those questioned had a “positive” attitude towards the Catholic Church (including 16% a “decidedly positive”), 31% a “neutral” and 32% a “negative” attitude. In the age group 18–29 years the results were: 9% positive, 44% neutral and 47% negative; see Krzyżak 2020.

  16. 16.

    The sub-chapter of the contribution relating to Montenegro has the subheading Montenegro: A Criminal State.

  17. 17.

    Even if not as blatant as in Hungary, this can also be observed in Poland, where within the PiS-dominated “United Right” the individual parliamentary groups have access to filling management positions in large state-owned companies. If the state is run as a “family business”, as it has been for many years in Montenegro, this is all the easier.

  18. 18.

    In Romania, the roughly three million migrant workers do not only contribute to higher real incomes through their remittances. In their host countries they also gain criteria for the functioning of a democracy in everyday life. Jiglau (2019) points out that the current Romanian party system has no relevant anti-EU or extremist party.


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