Twenty-Five Years On, Freedom in Central Europe Faces New Threats

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A quarter-century after the 1989 revolutions, freedom prevails in Central Europe, but some politicians are turning their backs on democratic values at home and new liberation struggles abroad.

Between now and the year’s end, the people of Central Europe will be taking note of the 25th anniversaries of the revolutions that liberated their societies from communist rule. Communism had collapsed in Poland in June 1989, after parliamentary candidates associated with the Solidarity movement swept to power in the first honest elections in the region since the onset of the Cold War. From September to December of that year, communist governments either surrendered power peacefully (Hungary), succumbed before mass protests (East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria), or collapsed after a brief spasm of violence (Romania).

Despite the euphoria of the moment, experts on the region and experienced diplomats were apprehensive about the future course of the former Soviet satellites. These societies had experienced four decades of the most pernicious sort of statism. Nor was the precommunist period especially impressive. As parts of larger empires or under foreign domination, the countries of Central Europe had little experience in self-government. Fascist parties had been influential in some; anti-Semitism was a cancer throughout the region.

After the Berlin Wall fell, many hoped to make a quick transition from state socialism to something akin to German social democracy. The reality would prove dramatically different, with an immediate embrace of free-market principles and the rapid decline of the heavy industries that had been the cornerstone of communist economics. The result was instability and, for many in the short term, a plunging quality of life.

Given the stunning social and economic changes these societies were undergoing, many commentators fretted over the political consequences. Would (slightly reformed) communist parties return to power through the ballot box? Would right-wing nationalists rise to leadership positions with thinly veiled messages that scapegoated Roma, Jews, and Muslims?

In fact, the countries of Central Europe moved quickly to build stable democracies, with elections that met international standards, the institutions of pluralism, press freedom, and guarantees of civil liberties. Predictably, there were some deficits: rampant corruption in some countries, discrimination against Roma, arguments over punishment for the crimes of communism.

On the whole, though, these countries became the crown jewels of the so-called third wave of world democratization, especially if one includes the three Baltic states—the only former Soviet republics to immediately adopt democracy after the USSR’s collapse. The annual Freedom in the World report documented the sweeping nature of the transformation: All 10 Central European and Baltic countries moved from the status of Not Free to the status of Free within a relatively short period, and not one has since fallen back to a lower category. Central Europe’s record thus compares favorably to other regions where political transitions took place during the 1980s.

But the general Freedom in the World rankings don’t tell the whole story. Another annual Freedom House report, Nations in Transit (NIT), offers a nuanced analysis of the trajectory of political reform throughout the postcommunist universe. And the NIT data reveal a steady fraying of key democratic institutions in recent years. Indeed, NIT scores have declined for virtually all the countries in the region since they cleared the hurdle of European Union membership in 2004 and 2007. Corruption is a major problem, accompanied by a pliable judiciary and an eroding press freedom environment. The perception of a corrupt elite circling the wagons to deflect scrutiny and accountability has in turn triggered public alienation, with a growing segment of the electorate expressing the conviction that the system is rigged in favor of avaricious oligarchs.

There has also been an erosion of solidarity with those fighting oppression in neighboring lands. This has been most disturbingly reflected in attitudes toward the Ukraine crisis. To be sure, some governments—notably those of Poland and Estonia—have been stalwart in their support of the Euromaidan forces.

But other regional leaders have expressed a surprising lack of sympathy for Ukraine in its plight. Slovakia and the Czech Republic have both made clear their skepticism about EU sanctions against Russia. Václav Klaus, a former Czech president and prime minister, has already written in support of the annexation of Crimea and has taken a position that leans toward support of Russia in its invasion of eastern Ukraine.

And then there is Hungary. Under right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán, Hungary has suffered the most serious decline in its democratic institutions among the former communist states. Orbán regularly heaps contempt on the liberal values that guide the EU; he recently delivered a speech in which he declared that under his guidance, Hungary was building an “illiberal state,” and spoke favorably of authoritarian states like Russia, Turkey, and Singapore.

In a predictable pattern, Orbán and his spokesmen subsequently claimed that his words had been misinterpreted and that he was committed to European values. At the same time, he made clear that these values would not be integrated into Hungary’s foreign policy. “We should not follow a foreign policy that puts values into the center of its considerations,” he recently said. “Ideology-based foreign policy was invented by smart countries for dumb countries.” Thus Orbán justifies his ever-closer economic ties to Moscow and outspoken opposition to EU sanctions.

Some will argue that the attitudes of Orbán, Klaus, and others are to be expected as the former satellites move in their separate directions. Yet as the we celebrate the 25th anniversary of one of the great nonviolent revolutions of modern history, it is worth remembering that the freedom now enjoyed by the people of Central Europe was achieved in part through the support of the outside world: the trade unions from the free world that mobilized behind Lech Wałęsa; the writers and intellectuals who signed petitions for Václav Havel’s Velvet Revolution; the American government that refused to accept Soviet domination of its neighbors as a permanent fact. It is unconscionable that leading politicians whose countries benefited from this support have so quickly forgotten it and turned their backs on new liberation struggles to the east.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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