Saturday

3rd Dec 2022

Opinion

Towards a Putinisation of Central Europe?

  • Hungary's Orban (l) with Russia's Putin (r). A few countries such as Hungary and the Czech Republic have been adopting a relatively pro-Russian line (Photo: Viktor Orban Facebook page)

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

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 Orban 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 scepticism 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.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

EUobserved

How to build an illiberal democracy in the EU

With Brussels increasingly worried by Poland, we take a look how Hungary's Viktor Orban created a template for dismantling democratic checks and balances inside an EU state.

EU and Poland aim to calm tensions

EU Council president Donald Tusk and Polish president Andrzej Duda tried to calm tensions ahead of an EP debate on recent reforms in Poland that critics say threaten the rule of law.

Stakeholder

What is really happening in Poland?

Poland is a stable, democratic member state of the European Union, respecting European values, while shaping its internal legal order in a sovereign manner, in accordance with the democratically expressed will of its people.

What does EU scrutiny of Poland mean?

The EU Commission will discuss on Wednesday the state of play in Poland, and might launch a monitoring procedure against Warsaw. But what does this procedure mean, and does it matter?

Analysis

Is Putin trying to topple Merkel?

If Putin was trying to use refugees to topple Angela Merkel, then Aleppo was a step too far, Norbert Roettgen, the head of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, has told EUobserver.

EU must break Orbán's veto on a tax rate for multinationals

This global tax rate for multinationals could yield up to €64bn annually. Yet, the Hungarian government led by Viktor Orbán has been blocking it for months. The impotency of the EU to strike a deal is irresponsible and incomprehensible.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP27: Food systems transformation for climate action
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region and the African Union urge the COP27 to talk about gender equality
  3. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  4. Friedrich Naumann Foundation European DialogueGender x Geopolitics: Shaping an Inclusive Foreign Security Policy for Europe
  5. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe
  6. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos

Latest News

  1. EU must break Orbán's veto on a tax rate for multinationals
  2. Belarus dictator's family loves EU luxuries, flight data shows
  3. How Berlin and Paris sold-out the EU corporate due diligence law
  4. Turkey's EU-funded detention centres ripe with abuse: NGO
  5. In green subsidy race, EU should not imitate US
  6. EU Commission proposes suspending billions to Hungary
  7. EU: Russian assets to be returned in case of peace treaty
  8. Frontex leadership candidates grilled by MEPs

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Committee of the RegionsRe-Watch EURegions Week 2022
  2. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  4. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  6. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us