The focus of this breakfast discussion was a report written by Edit Zgut (Political Capital) and Wojciech Przybylski (Res Publica Foundation) called Illiberalism in the V4: Pressure Points and Bright Spots and corresponded with the title of the debate: “How to Defeat Illiberalism in Central Europe?” With Ms. Zgut and Mr. Przybylski were Marcin Zaborowski (Visegrad/Insight) and Marek Tatała (Civil Development Forum) who offered their opinions alongside a large crowd of distinguished and engaged participants.

The background

Comparing the various states of illiberalism in the countries of Central Europe allows us to more accurately pinpoint the areas of democratic backsliding in each society and how they are being manifested by the governments currently in power. The key illiberal patterns studied in the report are: authoritarian populism, the eroding of checks and balances, the overhaul of the judiciary, attacks on civil society, the restricting of media, clientelism, systemic corruption, and the presence of anti-Western rhetoric.

To begin with the most advanced hybrid regime, Hungary, underneath Orbán’s control, has strong autocratic tendencies, complete with a semi-oligarchic support structure. According to the report, referenced by Ms. Zgut, all of the above mentioned illiberal patterns studied were present if not in an advanced state in Hungary.  Poland is not far-behind, yet it would be too early to say it has become autocratic but rather a watered-down democracy.

In comparison, both Czechia’s and Slovakia’s illiberal moves are more tempered as there haven’t been attempts to overhaul the judiciary, weaken the system of checks and balances or attack civil society though they do share some similar traits like attacks against the media (e.g., Fico saying that journalists are just prostitutes) and the potential for a consolidation of power by the political elites.

While Hungary is the most advanced illiberal state, there is one area where Poland is outperforming their fellow Visegrad partner: attacks on the judiciary. Hungary decided first to change their constitution to give the ruling Fidesz party an unfair advantage in maintaining power. Poland has yet to go this far; however, they are in the process of replacing many judges on the Supreme court as well as the Constitutional Tribunal. This is a rather crucial step as the most prominent check on the government in Poland is currently the judiciary.

That being said, Poland is in a better position constitutionally since the President has a powerful role; this coupled with the numerous, still-empowered local governments which can act as a buffer against the current power grab underway by PiS.

Where the countries diverge

Corruption is a key issue in the Visegrad countries. Victor Orbán’s regime is riddled with authoritarians-in-waiting who do the government’s bidding. That being said, they aren’t quite oligarchs as they are so dependent on Orbán for their own power and funds, a point we’ll return to a little later on.

For all of Jarosław Kaczyński’s illiberal leaning, corruption has not been a major issue in Poland. Kaczyński is an ideologue who is closely associated with the Catholic church; there can be instances of corruption from individual members, but the problem is not as systematic and widespread as it is in Hungary, Czechia and Slovakia.

When it comes to civil society, Fidesz has all but destroyed any independent voices at work in Hungary (estimates place government-controlled or -friendly media at around 80%). In Poland there is still some space for media which doesn’t simply regurgitate the government’s talking points; however, the situation is progressively getting worse. The Polish state-owned companies (many of which have been renationalised in an attempt to centralise PiS’s control over the country) only advertise in government-friendly media, removing a valuable revenue stream from many independent outlets.

The chorus speaks

We were fortunate to have a notable collection of audience members who asked probing questions around the subject of the debate. Following are a paraphrased selection of their comments and questions, with the subsequent rephrased responses from the panel and audience members.

Q: How did Orbán obtain such an overwhelming victory if he is systematically stripping power away from the electorate?

The upper-middle class in Hungary, who have been the primary beneficiaries from the last eight years of Fidesz’s rule, were crucial.

So too, the anti-Soros campaign played very well in rural areas as well as the government led fear-mongering about refugees. While the situation for those living in the countryside is rather bleak, the government was able to convince them that with the potential influx of migrants their situation could deteriorate even further.

These circumstances coupled with an opposition unable to find a platform to reach the public as well as a series of well-placed corruption scandals harming non-Fidesz members of the government, gave Orbán the ability to secure a third consecutive term.

Q: If these trends towards illiberalism continue, could we expect to see one (if not more) of the Visegrad countries leave the EU through a referendum?

In most cases, this is a myth. Why would the governments of the V4, who have benefited tremendously from being members in the EU, want to leave?

Currently, no mechanisms – including Article 7 – are strong enough to constrain their expanding control over their countries.

That being said, there have already been calls for referenda by far-right parties and populist leaders in the region, specifically in Czechia. The situation could develop that to satisfy a perceived desire of the public, a referendum could be asked for and could lead towards Czexit, even though this would be disastrous for the country.

Poland is, for the time, in favour of EU membership, and Orbán – despite all his posturing – wants to keep Hungary in the EU but on the periphery.

However, as we saw with Brexit, the referendum can be highjacked by issues that don’t necessarily relate to membership and can lead to a vote for exiting the Union even if the leaders themselves know this would be a much worse scenario for their respective countries. Thus, the anti-Brussels rhetoric coming out of places like Budapest, Prague and Warsaw can have a knock-on effect the populists themselves may not desire.

It remains to be seen though, after the decisions are made regarding the next EU budget whether the V4 governments will intensify their rants that Brussel’s is against them. This could lead to greater EU scepticism in, for example, the Polish society.

The EU enjoys a certain level of support because the money keeps flowing into Poland. Once these cohesion funds begin to fade away, the Polish economy might slowdown or even lead to a recession. There are some who want to supplement these missing funds with money from the government, but what we need is more private investment.

Of course, the reason all this is happening is the current problems with the rule of law, but these funding cuts might take a year or two to be felt, which is not an immediate enough response to convince the V4 governments to act in accordance with EU regulations.

When it comes to Hungary, the situation is simpler but more problematic. Let us not forget that the most Hungarians believe the greatest threats to their country are Soros and Brussels.

Q: What should the EU do if not trigger article 7?

Short term advice – the EPP should remove Fidesz from the party immediately. Second, the case regarding the Supreme Court in Poland should be brought before the European Court of Justice without delay, before the changes are even implemented.

Frankly, the commission isn’t winning the argument here on the Polish domestic market. Furthermore, the Polish media market is going through a huge crisis, and the government is consolidating its grip over the information the populace receives.

Even more frightening, the Polish government is creating their own civil society using EU funds at the cost of the independent civil society. Today, we look at the report and it says attacks on civil society in Poland is moderate, but very soon it could become quite advanced.

Q: Assuming the aforementioned “rejection of the West” is based on cultural elements, how long can the Central European countries maintain this rebuffing of multiculturalism if there’s a constant exchange of people and ideas?

Quite some time. The Visegrad countries have a very short tradition with democracy. Perhaps the region is meant to be multicultural; however, this is viewed by many Central Europeans to mean a mixing of “white” European cultures.

Consider the issues surrounding migration. Poland has taken in over a million Ukrainians in the past few years. While there have been some minor problems, on the whole it is a rather insignificant issue; but if you ask them to help relocate 7,000 Syrians, suddenly they are being “invaded” or overrun by refugees. Those against relocating the refugees tend to lack experience dealing with other cultures, and, unfortunately, they don’t want to have any.

But there is, of course, an underlining contradiction that the Central European populists are exhibiting. The V4 has greatly benefited from globalisation and free trade. If their trans-Atlantic hero, Donald Trump, is successful in creating the trade war he seems bent on instigating, Polish exports will suffer.

Moreover, Poland and the other V4 countries give financial incentives to foreign companies willing to invest in the region. How is this compatible with the idea of maintaining their vision of Central Europe which is far more white-washed and homogenous than the reality they are attempting to create?

Q: The only illiberal pattern which is strongly being exhibited in all V4 countries is that of clientelism. Is there a connection between this and corruption in the region?

As mentioned before, Poland is an exceptional case which, due to the ideology of Kaczyński, currently doesn’t have systematic corruption. Again, that certainly doesn’t mean there’s no corruption, but it isn’t to the level of the other V4 countries.

That being said, there generally is a connection between clientelism and corruption. A good example can come from Orbán’s “oligarchic” supporters. There aren’t any oligarchs in Hungary – as opposed to Russia – because it requires a more developed industry and considerable natural resources. What resources does Hungary have? Oil? Gas? Nothing.

The only thing Hungary does have is EU funds, and the Orbán loyalists receive between 30%-40% of the EU money allocated for Hungary. Since they are wholly dependent on Orbán for their revenue, they can’t be considered oligarchs but certainly corrupt.

The heart of the matter

The discussion ended, rather fittingly, with a restatement of the titular question: how can we defeat illiberalism in Central Europe?

The essence of all these regimes is about the centralization of power and the dominance of their political message. The key to stopping this is by promoting political autonomy and building a strong independent civil society. Political culture needs to be consensual; the opinions of those in power should not be the only voices you hear.

While we can strive to have more multicultural societies in Central Europe, we should probably recognise that there are arguments we can currently win and some we cannot. For instance, it is easy to defend the call to decentralise the power structures in the region but arguing for the benefits of globalisation and migration is, for now, very difficult.

But as we do push for decentralisation, we should keep in mind that this should stretch from politics to the banking sector and beyond. Furthermore, there should be an enabling of local, regional competition to help spur on the economies.

Lastly, we need to make sure that even ideologically opposed NGOs work together to strengthen civil society and help stabilise our democracies. NGOs from across the spectrum can agree that to live in a vibrant, free society, we must have a plurality of opinions heard and real checks on our governmental institutions and leaders.

Galan Dall

Report

Over the past several years, it has become ever more apparent that the post-Cold War era of democratic reform, socio-economic development and Western integration in Central Europe is coming to an end. Five scenarios for 2025 map possible futures for the region and encourage a debate on the strategic directions.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Download the report in PDF