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Authoritarian Virus Spreading in Europe

A new anti-democratic plague is spreading across Eastern Europe, suggesting that the inevitable march toward democracy may be a little more complex than ideologues wish.  Last week it was Ukraine’s jailing of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko; this week it is developments farther west that are making the news.

The New York Times discusses the situation in the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia:

The patriotic politics of [governing party] I.M.R.O. have generated a public debate about “real Macedonians” and “traitors,” said Vasiliki Neofotistos, an anthropologist from the State University of New York at Buffalo studying identity politics in Macedonia. “People are afraid, and they are very divided.”

Growing concerns about a decline in press freedoms climaxed when the government revoked the license of A-1 television on July 30, perhaps the most openly critical media voice. While the government defended the closing on the basis of violations of tax laws, critics argued that pro-government media have never been audited.

Three newspapers owned by the same media group stopped printing earlier the same month after facing a similar investigation.

The government is one of the biggest advertisers in Macedonia, and its weight in the advertising market is also used to control the media, analysts say.

At least the F.Y.R.O.M. is on the outside of the European Union — reports from Hungary shows that even EU members are not immune. The Washington Post reports:

Lately, though, things have cooled — a lot. Maybe it’s Orban’s increasingly anti-democratic antics. Just the usual stuff — cracking down on the media, curbing the independence of the judiciary, attacks on minorities and a drift toward one-party rule.

Or maybe it’s his annoying praise of Chinese investment and aid along with his constant denigration of Western Europe and predictions of the decline of the West. This from a country that’s a member of NATO and the European Union.

Despite human rights groups’ increasing criticism of Orban’s governing style — a sort of Lukashenko-lite policy along the lines of autocrat Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus — the premier generally has continued his ways.

The political crisis of democracy and democratic institutions in parts of Europe underwrites the challenge that the EU faces in bringing very different countries and cultures into some kind of union.  Danes and Greeks, Bulgarians and the Dutch, Germans and Italians often don’t see eye to eye.

Unfortunately, many countries in Europe lack the historical experiences and strong institutions that support healthy and durable democratic growth.  We are going to see the political as well as the economic foundations of the European project tested in coming years.

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  • Paul

    Ah, “healthy and durable democratic growth.” The assumption is that there such a thing exists. It depends, I suppose, on one’s concept of “durable.” Majority-suffrage democracy at the state level has been around less than two centuries — even in the Anglosphere — and universal suffrage was only realized when the United States ended the political oppression of the descendants of the freedmen.

    How healthy and durable has democracy proven since then? How much so will it be seen to have been fifty or a hundred years from now?

    Again, we seem to be taking Churchill’s unsupported assertion as an axiom.

  • Mark Branov

    Greetings Mr. Mead,
    Surely, the democracy deficit is not confined to “the east”, but rather it goes to the heart of Brussels itself, which excels at playing favorites in an amoral fashion, losing more and more legitimacy with each appeasement of anti-democratic forces in the Balkans. A perfect example is the Republic of Macedonia, which has been terrorized by NLA rebels, only to be rewarded for their bloody work by the EU with the Ohrid Framework Agreement. The country has also been politically terrorized by the Hellenic Republic since 1991 for the great “crime” of challenging the nationalistic myths in Athens, and the EU is there every step of the way, supporting Greek jingoism at the expense of so-called “European ideals”.

  • Ben H

    The president of our own 200+ year old democracy has spoken fondly of how great it would be to have dictatorial powers (as in China) to solve the country’s problems and you are worried about Eastern Europe?

    Actually what’s worrying is that the president and many of the top commentators on his side (Tom Friedman most prominently) seem to have lost faith in democracy and yearn for a less inefficient system and no one seems to notice!

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