Transition in Central & Eastern Europe – Neither Complete, Nor Irreversible

15. 3. 2017

The Visegrad region and the Baltics remain a success story for many in the post-soviet world. However, one needs to admit that Euro-Atlantic integration and its homework did play a positive role. Meanwhile, the decline in Hungary or Poland indicates that regress is also possible, when there is no steady commitment to human rights and when democracy is not constantly cultivated.

The prophecy of Francis Fukuyama about the “End of History” in the 1989 and the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,”1 though appealing, is dismissed by the skeptics or at least postponed by the optimists. The data of the Pew Research Center already in 2011 stated that “enthusiasm for democracy and capitalism has waned considerably over the past 20 years, and most believe the changes that have taken place since 1991 have had a negative impact on public morality, law and order, and standards of living.”2

Nations in Transit 2016 report3 indicates a steady regression of democracy in Central Europe, the Balkans, and Eurasia in the last decade. Weighted for population, the average Democracy Score in the region has declined for 12 years in a row. Recent consolidation of the authoritarian regimes in Azerbaijan or Russia are

usually the biggest and most visible concerns, however, the growing illiberal trends in Central and Eastern Europe clearly show that the assumption of irreversible transition should not be taken for granted.

Internal Challenges and Regional Patterns

Baltic States together with Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Poland were among the top six leading countries last year. They look rather good in the regional context. Compared to the consolidated regime countries in Central Asia or neighboring authoritarian Russia, where one of the opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov was assassinated and mounting repressions against civil society and independent media took place last year, all sorts of illiberal trends could be labeled as minor. Nonetheless, Hungary is a grim example of once-consolidated democracy dropping to the category of semi-consolidated democracy. It is the first and so far the only country with that kind of record in the Nations in Transit report.

It would be too simple to assign all the problems and challenges in the region solely to external threats or the Soviet heritage. These are important but not the only factors. The influence of Kremlin, its authoritarian practices, corrupt networks, financial support of certain parties, and aggressive behavior is obviously affecting the entire region, and it affects Eastern Partnership countries in particular. However, European Union itself is facing profound challenges to its unity, fueled still by the fallout from the eurozone debt crisis as well as by the new pressures of migration and increasing occurrences of terrorism.

The recent minor “ups and downs” in the Baltics and the overall lack of visible progress in the democracy score there could be evaluated as a signal of stagnation, but it is rather a sign of stability. Estonia, in fact, is the best-performing country of all, while Latvia is the third. Lithuania last year was the only one with the upward trend because of the direct election of the mayors for the first time in early 2015, which positively affected the indicator of the local governance.

Nonetheless, corruption is the lagging indicator in all the Baltic States, thus transparency and fight with corruption is an area of a potential improvement in (as well as a possible threat to) the overall democracy score. In fact, corruption is visible in all of the subregions – the situation in the Balkans is worse than in Central Europe, meanwhile many of the Eurasian countries could be labeled as consolidated kleptocratic regimes.

Poland is one of the countries to watch in the Visegrad region because of the recent negative developments. The Czech Republic is a leader in democracy score among them, while Poland is doing better than Slovakia and Hungary. Nonetheless, a steady decline of democracy in Poland since 2012 raises questions about its overall trajectory. The National democratic governance has decreased due to the rapid passage of major reforms at the end of the year without adequate consultations with civil society or in the parliament. Independent media decrease is related to the swift, politically motivated reshuffle of public media following the change of the government. Pressure to the Constitutional Tribunal affected the assessment of Judicial framework and its independence. All of that results in Poland’s Democracy score being down from 2.21 to 2.32 within the last year alone.

While comparing Poland to Hungary might raise some questions, the dynamics are certainly disturbing. Poland has shown the biggest decline in Central Europe together with Hungary, and the decisions of the government taken in 2016 show that the trend of deterioration is continuing. The massive protests of the public shows the resilience of civil society, but the public sphere looks increasingly politicized. The issues of public concern are usually dismissed as a political battle between the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS in Polish) and the Civic Platform (PO). In many occasions, civil society organizations and their initiatives are viewed through the lenses of political affiliation or are perceived very formally at best. The positive image of the EU has strikingly decreased (by 8 %).4 Given the internal EU challenges and the end of EU financial perspective in 2020, there is a very short timeframe for recovery.

Leading by Example in the Eastern Neighborhood

Internal challenges raise concerns about the EU’s ability to remain an inspiring example and a success story for the neighboring countries. Moreover, there is a growing European ignorance to or sometimes even a retreat from the agenda of democracy and human rights in external policy.

There are at least a couple of reasons for that retreat. One can observe a certain fatigue, since there were many unjustified expectations of a rapid transformation of the Eastern Partnership region similarly to the processes which took place in Visegrad and Baltic countries. Others falsely argue that certain countries, societies, or cultures are simply not built for democracy and it would not ever work there. There are some who still quietly believe in the conspiracy theory that agenda of human rights and fundamental freedoms is a hidden imperial policy of the US. Moreover, it is rather popular to dismiss human rights as simply a “leftist project” or a “crawling liberal program” designed to gradually hijack the narrative of values, erase ethnic and religious differences, etc. Finally, there were people who were always in favor of the “business as usual” and who were waiting for a proper moment to say “I told you so” to all the “idealists.”

The growing disbelief and skepticism regarding human rights neglects the fact that the very foundation of Europe was built on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Democracy despite all the drawbacks is an integral part of the EU. Human rights and rule of law cannot be monopolized by any political ideology, since it transcends the differences of the Left and Right or the debate of the North and South. Many also forget that democracy takes time and might be a process for generations. Moreover, many started to take democracy for granted as the inevitable and irreversible feature of the West.

Countries in Central Asia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Russia are the nest of authoritarian regimes in the region, which some countries once managed to escape. The Visegrad region and the Baltics remain a success story for many in the post-soviet world. However, one needs to admit that Euro-Atlantic integration and its homework did play a positive role. Meanwhile, the decline in Hungary or Poland indicates that regress is also possible, when there is no steady commitment to human rights and when democracy is not constantly cultivated.

Therefore human rights and fundamental freedoms should not be the hostage of selective geopolitical calculations when discussing Eastern Partnership countries. The “caviar diplomacy” and policy towards Azerbaijan is a harmful example of double standards. Moreover, one cannot raise a flag of rule of law and human rights without leading by example. Therefore democracy in retreat in Poland is an even more worrying signal. If the situation does not change soon, the decline in Poland might become an anchor (threat) not only to itself but to a broader region as well.

Decline of the standards of democracy and human rights has a direct negative effect on the Western soft power and works straight into the hands of any dictator who claims to lead his/her nation to a “sovereign democracy.” The non-democratic regimes are always the first to claim that the violations in their countries are comparable to the ones in the West and the differences are a matter of volume. Politicization of the intrinsic principles of human rights and democracy or even deviation from them enables the dictators to do various manipulations. Operating in a reality legitimizing “fifty shades of democracy” washes away the fundamental and universal principles and jeopardizes the Western values and the very essence of what EU is.

Finally, the decline of democracy, lack of trust in public institutions, and corruption is not just a Central and Eastern European story. The rise of the far-right parties in Europe, the migrant crisis, and Brexit are no less concerning. The racist rhetoric of a candidate in the US presidential race, his campaign built on open hatred towards immigrants and Muslims show that the US is not immune to such trends either.

Anyway, that should not be an excuse but rather a global signal to everyone. Dealing with internal deficiencies and vulnerabilities at home and leading by example would increase our credibility for advocating democracy, rule of law, and human rights abroad. Without that we might find ourselves very soon, to paraphrase Robert Kagan,5 living in a volatile and military “Hobbesian” world rather than a “Kantian” one, where rules, principles, and laws prevail. An example of Syria, where the dictator Assad was ignored for decades is a sad and tragic testimony to that.


1) Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, The National Interest, 1989. The full text is available at .
2) Pew Research Center, “Confidence in Democracy and Capitalism Wanes in Former Soviet Union”, org/2011/12/05/confidence-in-democracy-and-capitalism-wanes-in-former-soviet-union/>.
3) Nation in Transit is an annual survey of democracy in the 29 formerly Communist countries of Europe and Eurasia that Freedom
House has been conducting since 1995, and with the same methodology since 2004. The report provides the score for the country on
7 different indicators on a scale of 1–7: National Democratic Governance, Electoral Process, Civil Society, Independent Media, Local
Democratic Governance, Judicial Framework and Independence, and Corruption. This is a calendar-year report, meaning that all the data
covers only through December 31, 2015. The next cycle evaluating the events of 2016 will be finalized in April 2017. More information is
available at .
4) Public Opinion in the European Union, Standard Eurobarometer 83, Spring 2015, eb83/eb83_first_en.pdf>.
5) Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power: the America and Europe in the New World Order, 2004.

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