Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán © kremlin.ru

Towards a Putinization of Central Europe?

With the migrant crisis ongoing, Central European countries are increasingly inching towards populism and nationalism. Russian President Vladimir Putin may well become a model for some. How can Europe avoid the rift?

If the Eurozone crisis stoked great divisions between northern and southern Europe, the ongoing migrant crisis has already led to sharp conflict between western and central Europe. While Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel, at least initially, pushed to welcome the refugees and institute an EU plan to redistribute them, many central European governments were overwhelmingly opposed to receiving them.

A new “Visegrad+” anti-immigration bloc is emerging, including at least Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania. The elections in Poland – with the populist-conservative Law and Justice party winning an outright majority in parliament – will likely accentuate this trend.

The sharpest differences between western and central Europe have deep roots, typically dating back to the Cold War and sometimes much further. Central European nations were damaged by four decades of communist dictatorship and often had little-to-no indigenous liberal-democratic tradition.

Preexisting fractures

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has even spoken of building “illiberal democracy” as an objective. None of these countries have a history of non-European immigration, besides a few with unhappy memories of Islamic settlement under the Turks.

Thus, the migrant crisis only revealed preexisting fractures between western and central Europe. The Bertelsmann Transformation Index BTI observes that, far from being a recent trend, many countries in central Europe have been moving away from Western liberal-democratic norms:

“Democracy has suffered in 12 of the region’s 17 countries [since 2006]. Two long-standing trends in particular are responsible: majority governments disregarding the rule of law and growing mistrust in democracy.”

Opportunities for nationalist and populist politics are furthermore increasing in the face of mediocre economic performance and frustration with corrupt ruling politicians as the BTI points out in its regional analysis:

Membership in the EU has not led to across-the-board gains in prosperity, nor has it closed the economic gap between old and new EU member states as quickly as many had hoped. This has strengthened eurosceptic and outright anti-European political forces and generated widespread disappointment and dissatisfaction, which have found expression in protest movements, the mobilization of populist sentiments and power politics focused on dominance by parliamentary majority.

While the BTI does not consider any central European country to be in “serious danger of regressing to autocracy,” already several countries (Hungary, Romania, and Serbia) are deemed by it to be “defective democracies.”

Scepticism of Western democracy

The result is that many central European leaders may be tempted to increasingly forgo Western political norms and stoke nationalist and populist sentiment for political gain. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin may well be a model for some, as, despite a weak economy, he is enjoying astronomically-high approval ratings of over 85 percent.

Putin’s popularity has undoubtedly been increased by a nationalist “rally-around-the-flag” effect stemming from the conflict with the West over Ukraine. Indeed, while central Europeans have generally been hostile to Russia due to a long history of Russian and Soviet imperialism, a few countries such as Hungary and the Czech Republic have been adopting a relatively pro-Russian line.

Already, central European leaders are deviating from their western partners on the crucial issue of immigration and may well decide to take a harder line still, partly out of frank skepticism of the West’s model of multiculturalism, but also to opportunistically shore up their popularity by exploiting ethno-political issues.

Still suffering from the Eurozone’s stagnation and a botched management of the migrant crisis, the Westerners will have to do more to show the benefits and credibility of their model of liberal-democracy to prevent the central Europeans from going astray. Central European political leaders will for their part have to show themselves more immune to corruption and more competent if they do not wish their young democracies to be discredited.

Craig Willy is an EU affairs writer. He writes for the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s BTI Blog and SGI News.

Related BTI:

Study: BTI 2014 Report
Political Management in International Comparison



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