Are Eastern Europe’s supposedly consolidated democracies beginning to unravel?
But taken together with the similar fall of a Romanian government and resulting turbulence last year, and Hungary’s defiant adoption this week of constitutional changes that opponents say threaten democratic values, something deeper is going on.
“The idea was transition was painful, it was suffering. But now we were supposed to get to a totally different life. We were going to live if not like Germans, at least like Greeks. It never happened,” says Ivan Krastev (above), chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies think-tank in Sofia:
Bulgarians’ chants of “mafia” were shorthand more broadly for perceived cronyism among political elites, and links with tycoons who made millions from the transition and, in some cases, with organized crime. Citizens, suggests Mr Krastev, believe the communist collapse ended up liberating these groups to prosper – but not ordinary people……
The EU’s response has been to search for bigger sticks to tackle democratic backsliding by member states. Four countries led by Germany last week called for the EU to get new powers to deal with countries breaching its “fundamental values”, including freezing EU funds.
However, Mr Krastev suggests that other EU members should make greater efforts to understand what is happening in the ex-communist south-east. They should engage more closely in long-term institution-building in these countries.
If not, the transition backlash risks spreading.
But the EU is largely limited to “political pressure or moral persuasion” in trying to curb anti-democratic practises amongst member states, observers suggest:
While that can have an impact, as was the case in Romania last year when the Prime Minister sought to oust the President, in tricky cases of law backed by democratically elected parliaments, as in Hungary, it is much more difficult.
“There’s a shortage of what the EU can do to ensure that democratic practices, or democracy itself, is not reversed,” said Corina Stratulat, an expert in the politics of Central and Eastern Europe at the European Policy Centre, a think tank.
“There is an awareness that something has to change in terms of enhancing the tools that the EU has at its disposal to influence situations like we’ve seen in recent years.”