Wednesday

29th Jan 2020

Optimism and populism clash in central Europe

  • Waves of protests, as in Poland, showed spirit of 1989 was still 'robust', the report said (Photo: Jaap Arriens)

Academics and young women could help to protect democracy and rule of law in central Europe, a new study has indicated.

People in the region "almost unanimously endorsed academic institutions as a 'force for good'," according to the Open Society Foundations (OSF), a US-based group which promotes liberal values.

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Women born after 1997 were also "a voice of reason", it said in a report published on Sunday (3 November).

The rays of optimism came in a generally gloomy picture in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia as well as Germany.

"The liberal values that effectively vanquished communism have come under threat from rising populism" 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the report noted.

"The lure of nationalist-minded parties and authoritarian leaders is growing" and "some of the freedoms won in the 1989 revolutions are now under pressure", it said.

More than half of all respondents in the seven central European countries said "democracy was under threat" in a poll for OSF by British firm YouGov.

More than 60 percent, except in Germany, said rule of law was at risk.

And more than half in Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, and Slovakia "feared" they would face "negative consequences" if they publicly criticised their government, it added.

The report comes amid EU sanctions procedures against Hungary and Poland on anti-democratic backsliding.

Hungary has also demonised George Soros, a New York-based billionaire who sponsors OSF, in an antisemitic campaign and expelled a Soros-funded academy, the Central European University, from Budapest.

The populist threat was compounded by government disinformation in the heart of the EU, the OSF report warned.

Distrust in government information and state media rose to around 70 percent in Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary and to 48 percent "even in Germany", it noted.

Many states had entrenched hard feeling against minorities, such as migrants and LGBTI people, OSF said.

And majorities who thought the shift to a free market economy after 1989 had been good for them now existed only in the Czech Republic and Poland, it added.

But there was cause for hope that the tide could be turned, it also said.

"Fear, frustration, hardship, and discontent with the status quo can dangerously precipitate us towards the hard grasp of populism", OSF warned.

"But the Berlin Wall anniversary reminds us that discontent can also drive positive social, political, and economic change," it said.

Recent waves of street protests in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Romania had shown that "a robust spirit of dissent, and a readiness to challenge those in power, persists," it noted.

And there was huge support for academia as an antidote to tainted news, the YouGov survey showed.

"Academic institutions should be allowed to criticise the government," more than 70 percent of people said.

"In a post-truth era, citizens may be starting to turn away from the established media in favour of the voices of experts, intellectuals, and scientists," OSF said.

People born after 1997 formed "a very special avant-garde" in the defence of liberal values, OSF added.

They were able to "mobilise effectively, navigate the information landscape, and harness social media," it noted.

And "optimistic" women formed an avant-garde within the avant-garde, the OSF said.

"Women are a voice of reason and a driver of positive change," it noted.

"Indeed, women are significantly more tolerant and compassionate towards minorities, and are more confident in their capacity to bring about change on a large scale," it said.

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