A specter is haunting Eastern Europe. The prevailing view among Western observers is that the region is on the verge of sliding backwards into autocracy, driven by the resurgent forces of nationalism, nativism, and populism. The rise of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Law and Justice Party are routinely portrayed as harbingers of an authoritarian takeover. The European Union’s recent reprimand of Hungary for democratic backsliding is another warning sign. Eastern Europe is supposedly well on its way to abandoning liberal democracy, as Orbán and his ilk take their place on the pantheon of global strongmen next to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and China’s Xi Jinping. This theme is evident across the media spectrum, from straightforward news accounts (the New York Times), to highbrow political science (Francis Fukuyama in the American Interest), to lefty polemics (The Guardian).
The trouble with this view is that it is wrong, relying on sweeping claims about the region’s trajectory while failing to distinguish between fundamentally different political systems. It’s not that illiberal symptoms are absent from Eastern Europe’s body politic. Less than a generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it would be premature to take the health of liberal democracy in the region for granted. But the idea that Eastern Europe is on an inevitable track towards authoritarianism, or that its current crop of right-wing populists should be lumped in with Putin, is fundamentally misguided.
Even those leery of conservative populism should acknowledge some basic facts. The case of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the bete noire of European lefties, is instructive. Orbán has exhibited genuinely illiberal tendencies. His party’s recent proposal to ban gender studies in Hungarian universities is troubling. The Hungarian media landscape is increasingly inhospitable to independent journalism. The state media channel, which has disproportionate influence in rural Hungary, is noticeably slanted towards Orbán’s Fidesz party. The Hungarian prime minister’s tendency to invoke “illiberal democracy,” an ambiguous term with troubling overtones, hasn’t helped matters.
These are worrying indicators, but they don’t mean that Budapest has become, in the words of one overheated editorial, “Moscow on the Danube.” Pursuing independent journalism in Russia is a genuinely dangerous occupation. This past winter, Moscow residents scrawled opposition candidates’ names into snow banks to get their streets cleared. Electoral opposition to Vladimir Putin is negligible.
The recent Hungarian elections, by contrast, were vigorously contested by parties on both the left and right. Opposition billboards and signs were abundantly evident in Budapest and across the country. Public protests have not been suppressed. The internet is still an open forum for debate. And while Orbán remains in office, Fidesz did lose a consequential mayoral election in the run up to the national vote (in a country of 10 million, mayoral elections do count as significant).
Critics of Orbán tend to gloss over these facts. According to Vox, the recent Fidesz victory is entirely attributable to Orban’s stranglehold on the media and the country’s political institutions. Left unmentioned is the relatively strong state of the Hungarian economy and the fragmented state of the opposition. Fidesz has been extremely fortunate in the quality of its opponents—the largest left-wing party is tainted by its communist era-roots while Jobbik, the second-biggest vote getter, is in the midst of an awkward rebranding effort from neo-fascist gadfly to respectable center-right alternative. Attempting to explain the recent Hungarian election without reference to these facts is about as convincing as attributing Donald Trump’s 2016 victory solely to Russian interference.
Developments in Poland have provoked similarly over-the-top reactions. A new law that criminalizes blaming Poles for the Holocaust is an unwise infringement on freedom of speech, but it is not, pace the law’s critics, a sign of incipient fascism. The Holocaust is a fraught subject in Poland, and we make ample allowance for speech limitations in other liberal democracies. Surely there is room to criticize the Polish law without resorting to hyperbolic predictions of an impending fascist takeover.
Lumping in Poland and Hungary with genuinely authoritarian regimes is not only wrong, it may actually prove counterproductive to the gradual spread of liberal institutions. For most of the second half of the 20th century, the liberal democratic club was restricted to North America, Western Europe, and a few countries on the Asia-Pacific periphery. This small group was bound together by wealth, a common Cold War enemy, and, in many cases, shared history and political traditions. But if liberalism is to continue expanding outside its historic core, it must make allowances for local political and social realities. Such flexibility is not unprecedented: Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party has been in power almost continuously for over 50 years, yet we accept that this is a product of a consensus-based political culture, not a sign that Japan is an authoritarian, one-party state.
Broadly speaking, countries in Central and Eastern Europe are culturally traditional and touchy about issues related to their national sovereignty, a legacy of Soviet domination and longer historical memories of foreign rule. Given the circumstances, it is unsurprising that Poland and Hungary are suspicious of EU overreach and wary of mass migration. Critics would do well to consider the region’s history before summarily expelling either country from the liberal club.
Why are Western observers so quick to pronounce the death of liberal democracy in Eastern Europe? Alarmist predictions of looming fascism appeal to our desire for grand historical narratives, neatly inverting earlier ideas about the inevitable spread of liberal democracy in favor of a darker story. History is always on the march, and it is either advancing or retreating—there is no room for stasis, minor backsliding, or incremental reform. This narrative is powerful and easy to grasp, but it offers little room for a nuanced understanding of Eastern European politics.
It is also hard to escape the feeling that Poland and Hungary come in for disproportionate criticism because their leaders are outspoken skeptics of immigration and the EU. A recent New York Times story breathlessly warned that Romania is in danger of becoming an “illiberal democracy” like Hungary and Poland, but by any objective measure, Romania’s political institutions are not noticeably healthier than those of its neighbors. According to the Economist’s 2017 Democracy Index, all three countries fall into the category of “flawed democracies,” and both Hungary and Poland rate better than Romania. Freedom House’s 2018 “Freedom in the World” ranking has Poland ahead of Romania and Hungary only slightly behind. All three countries undoubtedly qualify as “flawed democracies,” but apparently authoritarianism only looms if you criticize Brussels.
It is entirely reasonable to worry about the health of liberalism in Eastern Europe. Less reasonable is the view that Euro-skepticism or opposition to immigration is damning evidence of creeping fascism. Considering their history and relative poverty, it is understandable that Eastern European leaders are less enthusiastic about mass migration than their Western counterparts. For those who care about the continued vitality of liberal democracy in Eastern Europe, it would be foolish to insist that liberalism can’t accommodate a range of views on contentious issues like immigration. If forced to choose between national sovereignty and liberal democracy, many Eastern Europeans may decide they prefer the latter. Let’s not force them to make that choice.
Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.