It is not altogether surprising that the thirtieth anniversary of the collapse of communism has prompted many to question the choices made during post-communist transitions in the Central and Eastern Europe. In many places, Soviet-style planning was replaced by cronyism and mafia regimes, while other countries saw ethnic strife and war. And even the most successful post-communist societies, such as Poland, have been lately turning their backs on liberal democracy.
In a powerful essay in The Guardian, Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes argue that transitions prompted an inevitable backlash in the form of today’s authoritarian populism under which “political opposition is demonized, non-government media, civil society and independent courts are denuded of their influence and sovereignty is defined by the leadership’s determination to resist pressure to conform to western ideals of political pluralism, government transparency and tolerance for strangers, dissidents and minorities.”
In Dissent, meanwhile, Dimitrina Petrova writes that transitions were a missed chance to deliver on the promise of genuine equality, which had clearly been a non-starter under Soviet-style planned economies. Instead, 1989 created opportunities for the advancement of both old, communist elites and new ones—oftentimes in ways that were perceived as deeply unfair, consequently inviting the kind of illiberal populist authoritarianism seen in Hungary and Poland today.
Yet, critics of the conventional wisdom of the 1990s—of, say, the “Washington Consensus” economic thinking and of democracy promotion—rarely articulate relevant counterfactuals. Disappointment is warranted only if there was an alternative path not taken that would have produced better outcomes, and not simply because Central Europe has not reached Western European levels of per-capita income and quality of public services. The reality remains that the countries that faced the prospect of NATO and EU membership and that were the most susceptible to what Krastev and Holmes criticize as “enthusiastic copying of western models” have grown into dramatically more successful societies than otherwise similar countries that rejected the West, for one reason or another.
That progress has not been undone by the recent episodes of so-called democratic backsliding in countries such as Hungary and Poland. Those two, furthermore, are not necessarily paradigmatic examples of the region. While to a varying extent corruption and a strong nexus of politics and money are endemic to the “post-communist” world from the Czech Republic to Moldova, Orbán-style authoritarianism is not.
More fundamentally, it is not entirely clear how the long is the shadow cast by the region’s communist past, and its 1990s experience. Particularly in the more successful post-communist countries, the extent of the current malaise is part of a much broader trend affecting the democratic world as a whole.
It seems odd to blame the “resentment at liberal democracy’s canonical status and the politics of imitation” for the illiberal turn in Central Europe at a time when similar realignments are underway in many other countries with vastly different histories, including the United States and the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding the genuine differences in voting patterns in the former West and East Germany, which do suggest a higher degree of receptivity of post-communist societies to some forms of political extremism, there is little that is distinctly “post-communist” about political realignments driven by the increased salience of immigration and national identity. Neither is Central Europe alone in its questions about the character of the EU, the future of the transatlantic alliance, and its relationship with China and Russia.
And if there is a palpable sense disappointment in the Visegrad region about the fact that the region is still lagging behind wealthier societies, similar doubts exist in the West about its own social contract. The social market economy served the West extremely well throughout the postwar era, yet the consensus is eroding in the face of new sources of economic concentration, driven by technology—and also by rampant kleptocracy, through which autocratic governments are in a position to poison our political conversations. From Trump’s voters, through the Gilets Jaunes, to those embracing populism and the politics of nostalgia in Central and Eastern Europe, there is a shared sense of being left behind and pushed around by the anonymous forces of globalization and smug urban elites.
While the specific legacies of communism and of the reforms that followed (or, in some cases, did not follow) are alive and well, transitions in the form of far-reaching economic, social, and political reforms are effectively over, at least in the post-communist countries of the Visegrad region and the Baltics. Similarly, politics in Portugal, Spain and Greece continues to be shaped to the present day by a historic memory of authoritarianism. Perhaps that is what makes voters on the Mediterranean’s periphery less receptive to the demagoguery of right-wing populists. It has also helped embed specific forms of political patronage not seen in older democracies. Still, as these countries were signing up for the common European currency in the early 2000s, some 30 years had passed since the end of Salazar’s and Franco’s rule and since the end of the regime of the colonels. Yet few would refer at that time to Spain, Portugal, and Greece as being in transition in any meaningful sense of the term.
In the Visegrad region and in the Baltic states, which are by any formal or technical measure a part of the West, it is time to accept that “this is it” and that these countries have largely reached their destination, instead of seeing them as being in the process of actively continuing in, or seeking to reverse, the reform legacies of the 1990s. And what one thinks of the path taken since 1989 has no direct bearing on where they should be heading now.
Whatever flaws Visegrad and Baltic democracies might present, they are no longer going to be fixed by straightforward adoption of “best-practices” from the West, as they often were in the 1990s. For the first time in decades, Central Europeans are charting their own course, unmolested by aggressive foreign powers and without the pressing imperative of rejoining the community of civilized nations, of which they are already a part. Mistakes and dead ends are unavoidable in that process of trial and error, including the authoritarian turn in Hungary and Poland. Yet, because they are now part of the same conversations, Central Europeans may also provide unexpected answers to questions that are on the mind of the democratic West at large.
In one important sense, Krastev and Holmes’ claim is more than just an interesting hypothesis. If taken to its conclusions, it justifies efforts to avoid, for fear of future backlashes, further attempts at instituting “politics of imitation” in the EU’s neighborhood—in countries that have seen their crony capitalist, gangster-ridden systems freeze shortly after the fall of communism. President Macron’s insistence that the EU stops its process of expansion is one practical application of that idea.
Yet it is precisely the gangster-ridden autocracies to the East and South-East of the EU that provide the best example of the relevant alternative to the ruthless pursuit of “politics of imitation”. It is not an encouraging one. The notion that there was, or still is, an alternative path forward, more appropriate to the realities of the post-communist world than liberal democracy and a market economy, may or may not be just unwarranted. At a minimum, its advocates have to articulate what that alternative path is and how exactly it would produce desired outcomes.
Otherwise, seeking to avoid inspiring “politics of imitation” is tantamount to the EU’s unilateral disarmament in its engagement with its neighborhood. For all of Europe’s problems, it is enough to look at Ukraine and its enthusiasm for everything Western and European to see how significant the EU’s soft power, based on example and the power of inspiration, still is.
More broadly, the liberal self-flagellation over the supposed failure of post-communist transitions is pointless. For one, the reforms worked in the overwhelming majority of cases when they were tried. Furthermore, transitions in those parts of Central and Eastern Europe that are now part of the EU and NATO are over. Communism is dead and has been replaced across the region by more or less flawed versions of liberal democracy and market economy—much like elsewhere in the West. Instead of dwelling on the supposed errors of the past, observers of Central and Eastern Europe should be looking forward. How young democracies of the region confront the challenges that they face and the flaws of their economic and political systems is bound to be among the most interesting stories of the coming years, with important lessons for much older democracies as well.