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Fake It Till You Make It: The Future of Democracy in Central Eastern Europe

November 19, 2020

Veronica Anghel, European University Institute; Johns Hopkins SAIS
Erik Jones, Professor of European Studies and International Political Economy, Johns Hopkins SAIS Europe
Anghel joined Jones to discuss democratization in Central Eastern Europe, especially in the light of recent conversations about democratic decline in the region.
An important theme of Anghel’s talk is complacency regarding the path of democratization in CEE. She claims that many observers engaged in wishful thinking and assumed that democratic institution building would be swift and smooth, despite limited experience with democratic politics. At the same time, Anghel pushes against the complacent view that this is as good as gets in the region. She argues that democratic stagnation and decline in the countries of CEE should be accepted as a fact. To fix these issues going forward, she claims that why and how such problems of democratization took place should be properly understood.
Anghel identifies the integral role that corruption plays in illiberal democracies. According to her, the problem of corruption extends beyond limited state capacity. Corruption serves the role of strengthening illiberal democratic actors through the handing out of favors to those proximate to the government, even if they are not directly in government. In response to an audience question on whether the problems of corruption and illiberal democracies should be separated, Anghel emphasizes that the two are inextricably connected.
Beyond the “supply” of illiberal democratic politics by authoritarian actors, Anghel draws attention to the “demand” demonstrated by the strong political support politicians like Viktor Orban have. She underlines the troubling issues of intolerance for diversity, limited acceptance of minorities (such as Jews, Muslims, and LGBTQ individuals), and the acceptance of the majority national culture as superior. These attitudes produce diffused support for illiberal politicians and a sense of popular legitimacy.
Touching on current events, Anghel discusses the interplay between the COVID-19 crisis and the recent rule of law mechanism of the EU’s recovery fund. Due to limited domestic state capacity, many CEE countries are dependent on EU funding to properly support their economies and health systems amid the pandemic. Without EU funding, Anghel claims that the stability of these illiberal regimes like Poland and Hungary will be put under more strain, although at a high economic and health cost. On the contrary, if the EU continues to fund countries that erode the rule of law, it runs the risk of strengthening their regimes. Moreover, Anghel argues that the rule of law mechanism will help stop democratic degradation if it surfaces in countries like Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Romania, who currently support the mechanism and do not feel targeted by it.
Despite many difficulties with democratization and institution building, Anghel claims that the progress in CEE has been better than it would have been if these countries remained outside the European Union. Returning to the question of complacency, Dr. Anghel argues that the European Union and especially the European People’s Party have prioritized political stability over principles for far too long, and that they need to strongly put pressure in support of rule of law in CEE.