In his latest piece, the widely recognized political thinker and Eastern Europe expert, Ivan Krastev, claimed that the anti-nationalist stance of liberalism or, more precisely, the ongoing undeclared war between liberals and nationalists ripped open a political vacuum in Central and Eastern Europe that has resulted in the emerging support for populist right-wing nationalism throughout the region.

As Krastev expounds, the breakup of Yugoslavia fed the belief that [nationalist] flag-waving leads to bloodshed.” Consequently, throughout the region moderate, centralist political powers disqualified nationalist discourses and swore allegiance to liberalism, unaware of the fact that in the long term this will undermine their political support and fuel an ethnic-based intolerance.

One more arch-sin of liberalism

Krastev’s idea about an additional arch-sin of liberalism may appear tempting and provoking, but it is standing on feet of clay.  The relationship between liberalism and nationalism in East-Central Europe requires a more nuanced diagnosis. If there exists a dominant pattern in the region, it is that both the former cold-war-era communist regimes and the new democracies embraced nationalism.

Liberals might not have been the vanguards of ethnocentric nation-building, but they were not anti-nationalists either. The reason for their demise appears rather to be the simple emulation of neoliberal redistributive policies without reflecting on the egalitarian traditions deeply rooted in the post-communist societies of the region. Therefore, the re-alliance of liberals and nationalists, which is tacitly suggested by Krastev, is also far from being a viable political strategy able to contribute to the survival of liberal political values in Europe.

Putting his analysis under the microscope, the theory of the break-off between liberal and nationalist political forces is far from being universally valid in Central and Eastern Europe, and where such a break-off did take place, it was caused by domestic political dynamics. Therefore, no determining causal or temporal link between the Yugoslavian wars and the alleged political disqualification of nationalism exists.

On the international level, the ethnic wars on the Western Balkan shaped the European security architecture and EU enlargement policy in a significant way, but their impact on the domestic ideological feuds of non-involved East-Central-European countries has remained, with some sense of proportionality, rather limited.

In Poland, currently a key stronghold of populist right-wing nationalism in Europe, the split between liberalism and nationalism didn’t occur before Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s “Law and Justice” party came to power in 2015. The main centre-right power, the liberal-conservative “Civic Platform” (PO) has always been fairly nationalist in a rational sense. While PO had put a major emphasise on Polish national interests, it was still able to transform Poland into one of the key European players during its years in government (2008 – 2015). PO’s Polish conservative-liberalism cannot be labelled anti-nationalist, unless we share the discourse of Kaczynski and identify nationalism with bigoted conservativism and paternalism.

A notable comparison

In Slovakia, illiberal nationalism declared war on liberal values just after the country gained its independence in 1993, and Vladimir Mečiar’s five years in power turned the country into the illiberal “black hole of Europe”.

Nevertheless, the centre-right conservative-liberal camp, and its main party, the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU), never turned to anti-nationalism. The minority policy has always been both the flagship and barometer of Slovak nationalism until the outbreak of the refugee crisis.

However, the minority policy of the SDKU government has only been slightly more moderate than of its left-ethno-nationalist counterparts, Robert Fico’s “Smer” and the Slovak National Party (SNS).

In 2010, Iveta Radičová, the most liberal Slovak Prime Minister ever, prohibited dual citizenship just to give an appropriate, symbolic response to the Hungarian dual citizenship legislation which had been raising considerable concerns for those in Hungary’s immediate neighbourhood. In 2012 she opposed Slovakia’s participation in the Greek bailout package using again a nationalist discourse, and once she gave in, she immediately lost the vote of confidence in the Slovakian parliament, when the liberal coalition partner “Freedom and Solidarity” (SaS) withdrew its support.

False assumptions

Every East-Central-European country has its own, individual story about the relationship of liberalism and nationalism since 1989, but hardly any of them fits to the model of Ivan Krastev, except Hungary perhaps. Frankly, right-wing liberal parties have remained fairly nationalistic in East-Central-Europe since the fall of the iron curtain.

Their calamity was caused by the emulation of Western neoliberal redistributive policies in a social environment accustomed to state paternalism and a longing for more equality. The rise and demise of PO in Poland and SDKU in Slovakia obviously demonstrated that.

Furthermore, the region definitely lacks any “Germanisation”, as Krastev labels the alleged suppression of ethno-nationalism in East-Central-Europe. Not only have the liberal parties remained fairly nationalistic in East-Central-Europe but so too had the previous communist regimes, again with the emblematic examples of Hungary and the GDR.

In contrast to the official ideology of “proletarian internationalism”, the cultivation of ethno-nationalist reflexes and practices – such as official anti-Semitism and the maintaining of anti-German sentiments in Poland, the rather straightforward anti-Hungarian policies in Romania, or the suppression and later even expulsion of Turks from Bulgaria – were organic parts of the communist regimes’ everyday routine, not exceptions.

In the context of Krastev’s accusation of “Germanisation”, the only sin of East-Central-European liberals might have been their openness to “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”, the objective reflection on the historical past and the nation’s own historical responsibility. Though, it must be admitted, they decisively failed to adequately defend against the “rally round the flag” mentality of conservative and nationalist identity politics. Nevertheless, the conflict in the politics of memory offers a very weak reason for the liberals’ political failure or the illiberal nationalist populist resurgence in the region.

Time to end liberalism-bashing

In our contemporary context, it is rather challenging to find the golden middle way between liberalism bashing and a critical, but constructive contribution to the liberal renewal. Of course, Krastev is right that a fair share of well-intended nationalism is essential in democratic politics, even for liberals. However, it would be a futile endeavour to expect that identitarian nationalism can permeate the core of 21st century liberalism, or that a strategic re-alliance between liberalism and nationalism is possible, and that says nothing about whether it would be desirable at all.

Obviously, nation states are elemental frames of democratic politics in Europe. In contrast, sovereigntist and identitarian nationalism, which aims to recollect and centralise political power under the umbrella of nation states or as possible closed societies, is a destructive effort, especially from the perspective of the nations affected.

Sovereigntist and identitarian nationalism intends to bind the respective nations even in such policy fields as state-level regulations, where nation states have for long time not represented the appropriate and efficacious level of regulation, once compared for example with the European Union, or where European nation states are simply no longer competitive in the global race. In a nutshell, the breakthrough of identitarian and sovereigntist nationalism would result in the slow self-marginalization of European nation states.

The key historical failure of liberalism, both in an East-Central-European and broader Western context, has been that the neoliberal wave lost sight of social cohesion during its resolute criticism of welfare states. Hence, while neoliberalism and the remaining, non-collaborating political left fought their historical war on questions of redistributive justice during the nineties and in the new millennium, identitarian right-wing conservativism simply filled the political vacuum caused by the weakening of social cohesion with the only political product they had: nationalism.

The impact of populist right-wing nationalism had simply been more explicit in Central and East Europe as the grassroot, democratic leftist political traditions were both underdeveloped and partially discredited by their post-communist heritage as well as the lack of strong, organic capitalist development. Therefore, the innate contender of liberal individualism unavoidably became, as it always has been, nationalist communitarianism.

To counter the ebb of democracy caused by the rise of populist right-wing nationalism, a new coming together of liberalism and nationalism is not required, but rather a new progressive alliance between liberalism and the political left, or more precisely among everyone committed to progressive social and identity politics, those willing not to reduce liberalism to the radical freedom of market forces nor the leftist political tradition to mere anti-capitalism. Such a progressive alliance could rectify the fissures of social cohesion caused by past and present neoliberal practices and challenge the project of identitarian nationalism, by fully embracing the values of political liberalism.


Daniel Hegedüs is a fellow in the Rethink.CEE program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and visiting lecturer at Humboldt University, Berlin.

Daniel Hegedüs


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