Eastern Europe’s journey from totalitarianism to social democracy has stalled
EU seems uncertain how to respond to its newer members’ faltering transition to democracy
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán celebrating in Budapest after winning parliamentary elections on Sunday. Photograph: Getty Images
There are some tragic similarities between the murder of Ján Kuciak in Slovakia in late February and the murder of Veronica Guerin in Dublin in 1996.
Kuciak, a 27-year-old journalist, was shot at his home near Bratislava along with his fiancée Martina Kusnirová. Police suspect the crime, which prosecutors say looks like a contract killing, was linked to his reporting on tax evasion and political corruption in his country, just as Guerin’s murder was linked to her reporting on Dublin’s gangsters and drug-peddlers.
There is, though, an important difference in how Slovakia and Ireland responded to these crimes.
Kuciak’s death led to a political crisis. Huge demonstrations demanding a thorough investigation of the crime, and a clampdown on corruption led to the resignation of the prime minister. Slovaks clearly feel the double murder imperils their young republic, and that the authorities may lack the will to pursue the investigation wherever it leads. They feel that, in some way, the crime represents a fundamental assault on who they believe themselves to be.
Romania has had three prime ministers in little more than a year, and a revolving door of governments that have failed to tackle what the public sees as rampant corruption
Guerin’s murder also caused national outrage, and subsequent changes to the law have helped the Garda to tackle drug crime more effectively. But it did not create a political crisis. We Irish did not regard it as a threat to our democratic institutions. The threat it posed was enormous, but it was criminal, not political or existential. Something similar may be said about the murder last year of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a reporter in Malta killed by a car bomb.
That the murder of Kuciak should cause a political crisis in an EU state in 2018 tells us a lot about the fragility of central and eastern Europe’s transition to democracy, the rule of law, and a market economy.
Nearly 30 years after these countries liberated themselves from communism, and 14 years after the first of them joined the EU, their journey from totalitarianism to European social democracy seems to have stalled.
Across the region – in Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Hungary – governments, and perhaps even parts of the apparatus of the states they govern, have been captured by some combination of oligarchs, demagogues, populism, a certain affinity for Russia under Vladimir Putin, and indifference, if not outright hostility, to the EU.
After the murders of Kuciak and Kusnirová, we must add Slovakia to the list of endangered countries.
The cause of these countries’ democratic stumble, at least partly, is the refugee influx of 2015, which is fiercely resisted across the region. Yet its roots go back farther.
The faltering democratic transition in Warsaw, Budapest and other eastern European capitals pre-dates their entry into the EU. It touches on ideals such as the acceptance of checks and balances in the exercise of political power, the primacy of the rule of law, the emergence of civil society, and other essential elements of a modern democratic state that are taking longer to construct and embed than had been hoped in the euphoric aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In Poland, there is now an all-out fight for the future direction of the region’s most important country between conservative nationalists and liberal social democrats. The stakes are sharpened by the fact that both were on the same side in the struggle against communism.
Their most visible battleground is the judiciary, which the ruling conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party seems to think is stuffed with communist-era holdouts who are thwarting the party’s attempts to make Poland more conservative and Catholic.
Romania has had three prime ministers in little more than a year, and a revolving door of governments that have failed to tackle what the public sees as rampant corruption among the Romanian political and business elite.
We in western Europe can be terribly complacent about our democratic institutions. Yet we are lucky to live in countries where they are embedded in the DNA
In the Czech Republic, the prime minister, Andrej Babis, is a billionaire tycoon facing prosecution over alleged misuse of EU subsidies.
In Hungary, prime minister Viktor Orbán has become the figurehead for the surge in anti-immigrant and anti-EU sentiment that is shaping the politics of the region. This self-styled “illiberal democrat” has also identified the enemy – George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire. An extraordinary campaign of vilification against Soros, laced with anti-Semitism, has been whipped up by Orbán and his acolytes, including the preposterous claim that Soros is responsible for the refugee crisis.
The EU appears uncertain how to respond to the faltering transition to democracy among its newest member states.
It has reacted – indeed, over-reacted – to developments in Poland by threatening to declare Warsaw in breach of EU values. Yet it has remained bafflingly quiescent when confronted by Orbán’s undermining of Hungary’s democratic transition. If EU values are the benchmark, Hungary is almost a failed state.
Brussels needs to be more clear-eyed about what are passing political phases and what are threats to the fundamental stability of a particular country. Poland’s judicial reforms may be reversed by the next government. In Hungary, Orbán was returned for third term with a large majority in Sunday’s general election.
We in western Europe can be terribly complacent about our democratic institutions. Yet we are lucky to live in countries where they are embedded in the DNA. Since independence Ireland has been remarkably stable, politically and socially, considering the violence from which our Republic emerged. That achievement deserves respect. We should bear it in mind as we send condolences to our friends in Slovakia.
Vincent Boland is a writer and commentator