Looking at East-Central Europe through a new lens

August 26, 2016


The following op-ed piece was written by Ervin Csizmadia, director of the Budapest-based Centre for Fair Political Analysis, and appeared in the August 25, 2016, edition of print weekly Figyelő (pg. 24-25):

Europe is going through a difficult time. One sign of crisis is the result of immigration, and another sign, though connected to the first, concerns the internal problems of democracies. While it is true that Western Europe’s liberal democracies are considered to be regions under crisis, it is our region that is often cited first, and within this region specifically Hungary. That is because our country, as it is now generally viewed, transitioned in recent years from a liberal democracy to an illiberal democracy. I think this explanation is quite deficient, so I will attempt to present an alternative explanation here about what caused this and what the long term trends show. The illiberal democracy is not a cause, but at best an effect.

Short or long term trends?

The causes can be sought in longer historical trends. Simply put, “history has repeated itself.” Unfortunately, we here in Hungary are not exactly curious or particularly receptive — this alone is worthy of a separate analysis. But the question right now is not why we are not interested in analysis of long term trends, but rather what these trends consist of and what they tell us. I would mention just one of the countless analyses of modern democracy through a historical dimension, Grzegorz Ekiert-Daniel Ziblatt’s “Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe One Hundred Years On“.

In this study, the authors view democratic development as a one-hundred year project, and they reject the traditional perspective which hold that the East-Central Europe of 1989-1990 experienced a “third wave” transition. Instead, they propose that the transition of the last quarter century was the final stage of a process that began in the 19th century. The two cornerstones of this 19th century process are identified as the state-building of liberal democracies and the joining of these countries to Europe. That is, state-building and joining Europe go hand-in-hand, you cannot have one without the other.

The legacy of pre-communism

If we only consider Hungary in passing, we can see straightaway that these two elements never intertwined to form an organic unity, and this is a great source of our problems. In the case of state-building (other authors talk about state- and nation-building), following the transition we see that only partial successes were achieved. While Hungary is a member of the European Union, the role of the other element (the state and the nation) has yet to be clarified. It should be easy for us to see why this clarification is important.  Because Hungary could be a western country. The reason developed liberal democracies can be definitive global players in a global age is because prior to that they completed a lengthy period of nation and state-building. For example, they grew into liberal democracies within the framework of nation-states. East-Central Europe never had this opportunity (because) development of the nation-state simply never took place.

State-building is a serious historical accomplishment, and those countries which have not been able to achieve the necessary results in this area are the very ones that remain frustrated. This is also why Hungary, among other reasons, is a frustrated country. A substantial part of the population misses the unequivocal national framework, while the other part of society is simply unable to acknowledge this and wishes to throw the nation onto the ash heap of history.

Ekiert and Ziblatt caution against approaching history through such a one-sided perspective. Furthermore, they demonstrate that pre-communist traditions played a much greater role in the democratization of Central Eastern Europe than we would have thought. These tradition were lost in the transition period, but have become much more apparent now than any time in the last 26 years. Today, we are well beyond the perspective that the communism-socialist period is what is most defining. No, today the pre-communist period is what is most defining.

Why didn’t we concern ourselves with this until now? Because the transition theories of the last 26 years concentrated on entirely different things. We switched from dictatorship to democracy, and the main focus was the consolidation of democracy. Readers will certainly remember the slogan so frequently repeated in 1989-1990, that “it is a historical experiment to transition from a dictatorship to democracy.” Many used this to describe the uniqueness of why the consolidation of democracy was not taking place at the pace expected. Today, however, it is clear the consolidation was not more difficult than expected because the transition from a dictatorship to democracy is unique, and because politicians were compelled to operate in unknown terrain. Instead, it is because we are faced with layers of tradition compounded many times over, thousands and thousands of historical processes, behavioral reflexes, social experiments and legacies — all layered on top of one other.

Ekiert and Ziblatt do not propose that, instead of focusing on the recognized legacy (communism), we focus exclusively on its opposite (pre-communism). Their position is that we must treat both legacies as equals within confines of a synthetic theory. The study of the pre-communist legacy, of course, culminates in the continuity that has led to today, but it has shown intermediate results. For example, better understanding these traditions can help us understand the successes or failures of the communist period’s attempts at liberalization and democratization. Understanding the latter can help us have more precise insight into opportunities and perspectives of other former socialist countries during the transition period.

Institutionalized mimicry

In addition to this, these authors also break other taboos. For example, the role of institutions. The ruling idea is that institutions play a central role in the successful consolidation of democracy. Except, as Fukuyama’s famous debating partner, Samuel Huntington, pointed out, institutions can easily lose the orientation of their roles during transitions. This is precisely because transitions are hardly straightforward events — there are many groups fighting one another, and everyone has different ideas regarding institutions. Ekiert and Ziblatt coined the term “institutional mimicry” to describe, for example, the clash between formal and informal institutions. New democracies are inclined to act as if new institutions cover everything, as if they, too, were like those in the west. But the institutions of new democracies cannot do one thing: they are unable to repeat the history of the west. This is because the institutions became what they are today after developing gradually over time. The democracies of our region had to develop these institutions within only a few years, and that is impossible. This is how numerous institutions became compromised and were replaced with, what our readers may find familiar, mutyik (Hungarian slang for: “embezzlement of public funds”). This is a clear state of mimicry, when actors essentially create a caricature of democracy.

But none of this is new to our region, and we should not be shocked by this. After all, these are precisely the kinds of things that happen in Central European history, and the authors suggest we view these steps from the perspective of continuity. Ekiert and Ziblatt propose that, in the future, we not view things through the lens of 1989-1990 because this will not help us understand what is currently happening. And how right they are! Because we really do see around old norms forms of behavior, and religious systems thought to be extinct. We cannot reject the presence of these by simply calling them foolish. Instead, we must understand why these old beliefs are reemerging.

Understanding Central Europe

The study concludes that the research in recent decades had focused on changes (new countries were created, regime changes, etc.), while examples of continuity have received less attention. This is also why it is so difficult to understand the current situation, when traditions of the past re-emerge even more vigorously than before. It is impossible to understand the success and failures of the post-communist transition simply from the perspective of the transition from the communist system to democracy. At the same time, we mustn’t take things too far. We will only have a better understanding of the Central Eastern Europe’s democratization if we look at the correlations between continuity and discontinuity. It is a huge task, but it can be a goldmine for political scientists.