Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the former Warsaw Pact countries hitched themselves to the star of liberal democracy in the hope of reaping all the freedoms and liberties that communism could not afford them. And make no mistake, many people did profit handsomely from the new political arrangements. However, for many citizens of Central and Eastern Europe, who have had the unique experience of living under two completely different systems of government, the inherent problems of liberal democracy are perhaps easier to identify.
An opinion poll conducted by GLOBSEC monitored the public attitudes of the 10 CEE countries (the Baltic States, Austria, Poland, The Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania) with regards to their perceptions of the state of liberal democracy in their respective nations. The results were less than glowing.
Liberal Democracy and its discontents
Consider the public perception of democratic institutions. While the majority said they favored a liberal democratic system complete with elections and a multiparty system, just 40 percent said they were satisfied with how democracy works in their individual countries. The people of Austria (the only country in the survey without a communist past) reported the highest level of satisfaction at 86 percent, while at the other end of the spectrum, just 18 percent of Bulgarians reported the same. For the remaining eight countries, less than 50 percent of the population reported satisfaction.
It is noteworthy that the survey revealed a strong connection between the respondents’ views on liberal democracy and their own level of personal happiness. On average, 83 percent of those who support liberal democracy are also satisfied with their lives. This may indicate that for those individuals who have reaped all the material advantages of a liberal democratic system, anchored as it is on capitalism, they may more readily forgive or never see the shortcomings of the system they live under.
On the question of trust in political parties, however, the picture doesn’t get much brighter. On average, 72 percent expressed distrust for these entities, and this sentiment is consistent with the decline in voter enthusiasm for traditional parties across much of the CEE.
The reasons for such attitudes are completely unique to each individual state, and may reflect long standing feuds with Brussels.
Poland’s Law and Order Party, for example, recently attracted the wrath of the EU Court of Justice after Warsaw awarded the Polish Supreme Court “extraordinary powers” to prosecute judges who oppose the government.
Brussels said the move was not in line with democratic principles; Warsaw essentially said “mind your own business.”
Another example of Brussels flexing its muscles came when the European Parliament sanctioned Hungary, purportedly for its crackdown on NGOs and the media. The government of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, the right-wing leader of the nationalist party Fidesz, called the move by Brussels “petty revenge” for Orban’s efforts to prevent illegal migrants from passing through the territory of his country on the way to Western Europe.
These sorts of regular skirmishes work to inflame tensions between the pro-EU and Euro-skeptic camps, while making EU states question their commitment to the EU democratic project, which appears less democratic with each passing day. Indeed, it was exactly those sorts of negative perceptions that led many British people to support Brexit.
Migrant crisis fueling distrust
It should be emphasized that illegal migration is a major concern for most of the CEE. And although Austria was the only surveyed country directly impacted by the recent refugee crisis, it showed less anxiety with regards to migration than those countries that kept their doors closed to the refugees. The authors of the survey concluded that the CEE states that organized anti-migrant campaigns have made their countries “more closed and less tolerant.”
Ironically, that conclusion helps to explain the political cynicism now prevalent across much of Eastern Europe. The authors of the survey ignore the critical question as to whether countries should be free to determine the management of migration without automatically being labeled “intolerant.” After all, not all CEE nations have the resources of Austria to handle the migrant influx.
At the same time, one need only look at the migrant situation in Sweden, for example, dotted as it is with so-called “no-go zones,” to understand that there is a heavy price to pay for unregulated migration. The failure of Brussels to appreciate the inherent dangers of throwing open the door to millions of people with little chances of being assimilated into their new cultures could be fueling the increased skepticism over liberal democracy.
It may come as no surprise that the field of journalism also took a beating in the survey. Of the polled countries, only Latvia recorded a majority of respondents who said they trusted the mainstream media.
The other respondents pointed to state and oligarchical actors working behind the scenes to manipulate news and information.
Taken together, the lack of trust in the media was forcing many people to search out “alternative sources” for their news and information, even dabbling in so-called ‘conspiracy theories’ to explain events.
Since the survey was taken amid the Covid-19 pandemic, that could explain yet another disturbing finding, which showed that over 50 percent of the surveyed said they would be willing to “trade away some of their freedoms in the name of security.” That is a worrying trend since the hallmark of liberal democracy has always been its love of freedom and personal expression. Today, however, with so many people concerned over their personal safety, many seem to be coming to the conclusion that liberal democracy is failing them.
Western governments have good reason to be concerned about the prevailing mood in Central and Eastern Europe. After all, the majority of Western capitals are suffering from their own severe problems as well. From London’s move to extricate itself from the EU, to Washington attempting to tamp down racial tensions one might be tempted to conclude that the West has turned into a raging dumpster fire.
Such perceptions naturally damage the political brand known as ‘liberal democracy,’ and could force some Western governments to experiment with less democratic forms of government in an effort to solve their problems. Consider, for example, the current protests in the United States where some cities are actually moving to defund their police forces. Inevitably, such an unprecedented experiment must ultimately fail, and this will lead the government to ride to the rescue, possibly with the use of military force and martial law. For those citizens suffering under a lawless society, as is presently the case in a six-block section of Seattle, Washington, the people will welcome such solutions with open arms – anything to give them a sense of peace and security.
Just this month, former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, wrote in The Washington Post that China, the Western world’s primary ideological foe, is championing their system of “autocratic, state-led development as an alternative to liberal democracy.” Given the difficult challenges now facing much of the Western world, it would seem that some countries are ripe for such a radical transition, despite their best efforts to avoid such a fate.
In conclusion, the citizens of the CEE must be secure in the belief that liberal democracy truly works for the best interests of its people, and not those people known as the elite. Increasingly, however, the impression is that the system only serves those sitting astride the social pyramid. Who benefits, for example, from millions of illegal migrants pouring into the European continent? Who benefits from a political system where control is increasingly forfeited to the distant and out-of-touch overlord known as Brussels? Who benefits from a manipulated media? Unless more than just cosmetic changes are made to those Western institutions now governing the liberal democracies, the results will be demonstrated not by surveys, but by massive protests on the streets.
Original: Robert Bridge – RT