Dalibor Rohac: Populist politics is here to stay and we need to adapt to it

Ani Chkhikvadze of Voice of America’s Georgian Service interviewed Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), on recent political and economic developments in Central and Eastern Europe.

There is a lot of discussion on the backsliding of countries like Hungary and Poland, as well as on their government’s authoritarian tendencies. Can you explain what is going on in the region?

The big picture after 1989 in Central Europe, in Visegrad countries is overwhelmingly good one. You look at real incomes which have tripled in a place like Poland since 1989. Starting from the same base as a country like Ukraine for example, life expectancy has increased, rule of law has become more and more rooted in these countries. These countries are living through the best periods of their history, in any way you look at it. Yet, at the same time, you see this growing disenchantment with the status quo. People are being more and more unhappy with the corruption, with the nexus of business and big politics, and in two countries in particular – in Poland and Hungary – that has been translated into an authoritarian populist backlash which has really transformed the way politics is being done there, and we can go into details about that. But even by Central European standards, Hungary and Poland are not necessarily typical of the region, but they really are outliers in how far this authoritarianism has gone.

In Hungary, the media is being monopolized – oppositional outlets are losing support and only pro-government forces are monopolizing the media sphere. Can you go into detail what is happening in these two countries institutionally, from the side of the state?

You look at Hungary and you see that there is not a single daily printed newspaper being published that is critical of the government. And the reason is that all of these newspapers were bought up by oligarchs close to the government or were shut down in both Poland and Hungary. There has been this deliberate effort to rewrite the rules of the political game. Judicial review of new legislation is practically non-existent in Poland as it is in Hungary. Most recently, large part of the Polish Supreme Court was forced into early retirement. Viktor Orban did the same thing in Hungary seven years ago. Back then it was declared unconstitutional and we will see what the verdict is going to be in Poland. There have been efforts to change electoral laws. Viktor Orban has been receiving constitutional majority in parliament even with a much smaller proportion of the popular vote. Also, there have been efforts to build a domestic capital-owning class. The existence of entrepreneurs close to the ruling party and with access to public contracts, public tenders and the EU money, has contributed to an extraordinary rise in corruption. That has not happened in Poland so far, but when you look at Hungary today – it is not Turkey, it is not Russia, people are not in jail, but the direction of travel, I think, is unmistakable.

What can the West do in this case, particularly the European Union? What leverage can they have on these countries to avoid further backsliding?

Ultimately, this is a political question for the Poles and the Hungarians. I think, the battle for democracy and rule of law has to take place at home and it needs to be the Poles and the Hungarians who are taking leadership on that, but we also have to think about the way international organizations are structured. So far, being part of the EU, being part of NATO has been a one-way street. Countries join the club and there is no way of disciplining them, there is no way of sanctioning if they misbehave. The EU has a formal mechanism now under Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union that should lead to some proceedings if there are rule of law violations, but the problem is that you need unanimity in the European Council. If you have two countries that face similar problems, they are obviously covering each other’s backs. I think, the extent to which the West can help steer this process is limited. Moreover, so much else is happening in the world that, I understand it is not the priority of policymakers in Washington or in Brussels.

This week marks the fifty years since the Soviet crackdown in Prague. Fifty years later, we see President Putin dance in Austrian Foreign Minister’s wedding. After half a century, when we look at Central and Eastern Europe, does Russia still retain influence over these countries and have these countries understood what Russia really is?

I think there has been an extraordinary loss of memory in certain parts of the Central Europe. Not so much in Poland where I think the recollections of Soviet tyranny are still very vivid but particularly in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The historic memory of 1968 has weakened over recent decades. You ask young Czechs, people between 18 and 34 years of age, whether they knew what happened on August 21, 1968, over a third of them will tell you that they have no idea. In a different poll, Slovaks were asked about life under communism and overwhelming majorities were telling pollsters that life was better, people lived longer and food was better.

This relates to all age cohorts and it is really striking. There is this nostalgia which is compounded by the fact that in spite of all the successes of post-communist transitions, these countries have not become as wealthy or as prosperous and as well-governed as Sweden, Germany or the United States. So that compounds this nostalgia for the old days that people do not really remember and that is something that the Russians have been exploiting very ruthlessly. In places like Slovakia, for instance, they are funding various extremist organizations, paramilitary groups, and I feel, for the first time since 1989, everything is suddenly up for grabs again in this region.

How is Russia influencing these countries today?

Through various channels. One most obvious, visible one is energy. The Hungarian government awarded a contract to rebuild, refurbish a nuclear power plant in the country to Rusatom, the Russian nuclear energy monopolist. The details of the contract are secret for the next 30 years. Essentially Hungarians are tied to Russian energy supplies for the foreseeable future. When in 2014 Russian gas supplies to Ukraine were cut off, the European Union came up with a sophisticated way of providing reverse flow of natural gas to Ukraine from the European Union. Hungary was the only country that went against that consensus and tried to derail it and did not participate. The Hungarian government tried to effectively veto Ukraine’s participation in the recent NATO summit. It is hard to see what exactly those motivations are, but the Hungarian government is effectively acting like Moscow’s fifth column within the EU and NATO.

Why do you think people fall for the populists? What are the reasons behind the dissatisfaction with the traditional way of doing politics?

Populism is not just a central European phenomenon. It is not just Polish or Hungarian problem. It is something you see in Western European countries as well, you see it on this side of the Atlantic. And let’s face it, populism is not always inherently a bad thing. Nobody is blaming politicians for crafting political messages in a way that resonates with the voters. That is something that is a normal part of democratic politics. The problem is that when populists become authoritarian they start rejecting constraints that are placed on democratic majoritarian decision-making and start to rewrite the rules – like Viktor Orban in Hungary, like Law and Justice Party in Poland, like Syriza in Greece on the far left. And I suppose the answer to that for any country, whether it is a post-communist transitional country or an established western democracy, is to renew the commitment to rule of law and the rules of the game. People have to understand that there are things in politics that transcend the day-to-day majoritarian decision making that a popular mandate does not mean that everything that exists can go out of the window. There are individual rights. There is a rule of law. There are certain procedural aspects of how we do politics that should remain secret no matter who wins the election.

Have we seen populist movement anywhere actually respect the same principles that you just pointed out? Because there is a tendency to abuse power once you have all the popular support, so what hope can we have?

 In a way that is true, that is something that is sort of inherent to the politics as such. You have to have these checks and balances and institutional rules that prevent that from happening and centrist politicians can be guilty of that as much as populist ones are. And to me the fact that you see this backsliding in places like Hungary and Poland this is not so much a result of the acumen of populists or their motives, but it is rather a sign of the weakness of these underlying institutions and the fact that in spite of all the progress that we saw in 1989, perhaps some of these norms have not taken as deep roots as we would have hoped. When these countries were entering the European Union and NATO it was sort of taken for granted that this progress was irreversible. This judicial system that was put in place was rock solid and could not be attacked politically and that people would rally behind it. And to some extent it is happening. And I still think that especially in a place like Poland, we are really just going through a phase and that in the next elections the center of gravity will move back, but I am less certain about Hungary where electoral competition has been really restricted.

We have seen populist movements all across Europe, United States, Brexit, Italy, even Germany to a certain extent. What is the end of this, what do you think can come next after this?

I think, there is a real danger in embracing the sort of defensive reactive mode and worrying too much about populism. It is going to stay, it is part of the way politics is being transformed in developed and established democracies and in transitional post-communist countries. And we have to embrace it. We have to live with that reality and we have to offer voters something better. If you do not like what people like Orban or Tsipras, or the Five Star Movement have to offer, you have to come up with better ideas and you have to fight them within the realm of democratic politics. And there are real grievances that got these people elected. We cannot pretend the Iraq war never happened. We cannot pretend that the financial crisis never happened. We cannot pretend that lots of people have not been left behind by the forces of globalization. I think we have to start thinking seriously about policy responses to these problems that can resonate within the broader public. I think this is a challenge for centrists on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Central and Eastern Europe people imagined that maybe we would be able to catch up with the rest of the world within one generation. But that did not happen. And politics also is very different from the idealized version of democratic politics that people had in mind in the 1990s. The sort of nexus of corruption, big business and politics is as strong in a place like the Czech Republic as it is in Moldova. And you have the second wealthiest person in the country running the government right now while being under police investigation. That is the case of Andrej Babis in the Czech Republic. He is not as authoritarian like Orban, but there is this massive conflict of interest that would not be out of place anywhere in the former Soviet republics. Yet, this is the Czech Republic, one of the wealthiest, most prosperous, best governed places in post-communist Central Europe. It is quite striking that this heritage is there. It has not gone away and I think it goes along the way towards explaining the disenchantment that some people feel about the 1989 political order.

You mentioned that we took the progress granted in these countries and we thought there would not be any reversal. Now when we look at countries like Ukraine and Georgia that are following the path of Central Europe and are hoping to make it to Western institutions, seeing it as an end point for their development, political maturity, etc. what does the backsliding of the Central Europe tell these countries?

I think, both Ukraine, Georgia and other countries are in a much tougher position today than any of the Central European countries were over the past 20 years, for a simple reason that a gravitational pull of the West is much weaker today than it was in the early 1990s. The prospects of EU membership and NATO membership are very distant, and the West looks like a less appealing place than it did back then. That certainly is a problem. It is going to make reformist politics, centrist politics tougher in these places. But if there is one lesson from this phenomenon of backsliding of Central Europe, it is that you have to really win the hearts and minds at home first and you have to entrench these reforms more deeply, that it is not just about creating a veneer surface of doing everything by the book that you are handed by Brussels, but changing the way you run your political system, your courts and your public administration in a way that resonates with the way people think and act. Otherwise, it is going to be very fragile. And I think you see that fragility in places like Hungary today.

Partner Post
This material was prepared for Civil.ge by the Voice of America. In order to license this and other content free of charge, please contact Adam Gartner.