In 1984, Central Europe was in turmoil. After Solidarity started in August 1980 and continued for over a year with the festival of freedom, it became marginalised, divided and pushed underground.

In Czechoslovakia, Gustav Husak ruled with an iron hand; culture was strictly controlled by a violent faction of the Communist Party, and on the radio the kitsch songs by Karel Gotta dominated the airwaves.

In Hungary, there was “goulash stabilisation”. Thanks to a slight opening of the economy, Western products appeared in the Hungarian stores, and the society that continued in the state of collective depression dealt with the improvement of material existence.

Western Europe no longer distinguished Central Europe from the Soviet Union. In the Western consciousness, we have become part of a space in which there was no tradition of democracy, no civic spirit, society was backward, and the only remedy for omnipresent social depression was vodka, beer and palinka.

In this context, the famous essay by Milan Kundera appeared, The Tragedy of Central Europe.

“[W]e can no longer consider what took place in Prague or Warsaw in its essence as a drama of Eastern Europe, of the Soviet Bloc, of Communism; it is a drama of the West – a West that, kidnapped, displaced, and brainwashed, nevertheless insists on defending its identity,” Kundera wrote.

Map of the Iron Curtain in Europe

In 1989, when the winds of history turned and Central Europe emigrated from the Eastern Bloc, the new geopolitics of the region was commonly referred to as a “return to Europe”, a return to the West.

In Western Europe, this Central European enthusiasm was taken ambivalently, or even directly suspiciously. In the Western perception a stereotype prevailed, in which Central Europe belonged culturally to the East and was closer to Russia than to Carolingian Europe. These arguments were present in the battle for the enlargement of the European Union, in which the opponents referred to the blurring of the cultural core of Europe, based on the Roman tradition and the culture of the Enlightenment, in their opinion, unknown in Central Europe.

Illiberal Democracies

Until recently, Central Europe fought quite effectively against Western-European stereotypes, moving closer to economic and political standards to the West and passing a rather dry-shod through the crises that erupted in the EU, such as the euro crisis caused by Greece’s insolvency.

However, over the last few years, these stereotypes have returned to the foreground — and in the case of Hungary and Poland, they also have taken power — strengthening factions that are questioning the convergence of the region with Western Europe. Cultural and attitudinal differences about the role of the state are being highlighted .

In Central Europe, the conviction is growing that the role of the state should be more pervasive and the executive power should not be limited.

As a consequence, the process of approaching the West has been stopped, and in Hungary and Poland, there has been a de facto retraction and moving towards a different political system; no longer liberal democracy, but a hybrid in which free elections still function but media freedoms and judicial independence are limited. The role of the state is growing dramatically in such a system and civic freedom is restricted.

Towards Oligarchisation

In an expanded form such systems operate in Turkey and Russia, but both of those countries are practically non-democratic. On the other hand, in Central Europe, the precursor of introducing illiberal forms of democracy is Hungary under Victor Orbán.

After coming to power, Orbán has constantly dismantled the system of balance of power – typical of liberal democracies – based on the independence of the judiciary and extends the scope of executive powers. Since 2010, Orbán’s Fidesz party has taken absolute control over the public media and systematically destroyed or taken over the private media favourable for the opposition. Nominations from the Fidesz party have replaced the heads of virtually all major state-owned companies, and private Fidesz-friendly groups have been rewarded with generous government contracts.

As a consequence, as in Russia, the process of “oligarchisation” of the economy is deepening, in which the space of functioning of entities not related to Fidesz is shrinking.

The popularity of Fidesz is strengthened by the traditionally nationalistic rhetoric in which the national diversity of Hungarians stands out coupled with a nostalgia of the period of Great Hungary. In addition to this, the anti-immigration rhetoric gets heated and the xenophobic attitudes in society strengthen.

The Strategy Spreads

Viktor Orbán and Jaroslaw Kaczyński

In the wider region, the Hungarian model is most strongly reproduced in Poland by the Law and Justice government since autumn 2015. When he was in opposition, the PiS president, Jarosław Kaczyński said openly that his ambition is to create Budapest in Warsaw. Just like in Hungary, after coming to power, PiS immediately began to undermine the independence of the judiciary. The party took over the Prosecutor’s Office, the Constitutional Tribunal and attempted to seize the Supreme Court.

Due to the strong resistance of the European Commission and the European Court of Justice, the full suppression of the Supreme Court has been abandoned. Just like in Hungary, PiS immediately changed the law on the National Broadcasting Council and took full control over the public media, which has become propaganda tools of the government. For three years, there have been ongoing attempts to take over private media, most recently in the form of a private takeover – the case of Radio Zet – by pro-government organisations financed by a state-owned bank.

Just like in Hungary, PiS’s Poland is developing a nostalgic and nationalised version of history, in which several instances of a victim’s syndrome is present as well as the moral superiority of the country over virtually all its neighbours and western partners. The negative attitude towards emigrants is also a factor sought by PiS although no real attempt was made to limit mass emigration from Ukraine.

Czechia and Slovakia – Together but Apart

In contrast to Hungary and Poland, where the conservative parties rule, in the Czechia and Slovakia, the liberal left that is nominally pro-European is governing. In both countries, no attempt has yet been made to take formal control over the administration of justice. However, in both of them, media freedom is seriously limited, mainly due to the ownership concentration. For example, in the Czechia, Prime Minister Andrej Babis is the owner of the largest dailies in the country.

In both countries, economic freedoms are limited by a high level of oligarchisation of the economic environment and corruption. Similarly to Hungary and Poland, in the Czechia and Slovakia, the ruling teams have positions that are unfriendly to emigrants and have also not agreed to the forced allocation of refugees.

Central Europe or There and Back Again

The ideological evolution of Central Europe in recent years has strengthened the critics’ voices of the enlargement of the European Union. Looking at the region from the perspective of Paris, Berlin or Madrid confirms the stereotype that Kundera wrote about: a region in which deep nationalisms dominate, longing for a strong-handed rule, with the democratic tradition that is shallow or nonexistent.

In fact, no one in the region speaks proudly about “returning to Europe”, and the West is often cited by the rulers as a zone of decadence flooded by culturally-divergent emigrants. This is for two fundamental reasons. First, the process of socialisation with Western Europe allowed for the overthrow of many myths, and Western Europe turned out to be less perfect than was commonly thought in Central Europe. Secondly, since the 2004 EU enlargement, structural incentives for bringing the region closer to Western standards have virtually disappeared. As long as the countries of the region were in the accession process, they had no choice: to become EU members they had to adopt externally imposed patterns. The EU, on the other hand, has very limited instruments of influence with member states.

It is hard to deny that in recent years the process of convergence of Central Europe with the West has stopped.

However, the coming years will determine whether this is a permanent process and whether we are simply dealing with a short-term crisis caused by adaptive pains. The events in the region in 2018 let us think that perhaps it is already ending with admiration for the rhetoric of dissimilarity and that the need for normality and predictability associated with the West is coming back.


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. It was also published in Polish in Gazeta Prawna.

Senior Associate at Visegrad Insight

Central European Futures

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.

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

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