Central Europe long served as an example of everything the European Union has craved—youthful energy, bold ideas, and unparalleled growth. Its countries have overcome Soviet rule more or less peacefully, but it didn’t happen instantaneously. The path toward democracy had been paved long before the collapse of communist regimes in the region in 1989.
It was on one of those warm sunny days of August 1978 in the mountains of Karkonosze, bordering Czechoslovakia and Poland, that a group of dissidents from both countries decided to hold their first meeting. They held long discussions celebrating rare moments of freedom with cheap booze—united by hope, common values, and a common enemy—and plotted against Moscow.
The group’s conveners included Jiří Dienstbier and Vaclav Havel from Czechoslovakia working with Adam Michnik and Antoni Macierewicz from Poland. All four became hallmarks of their countries’ transitions by pursuing careers in public life, either starting flagship newspapers (Dienstbier, Lidove Noviny; Michnik, Gazeta Wyborcza) or becoming influential political figures.
The politics of the 1990s were shaped by such long-standing friendships, although the stances taken by these leaders could not be more different. As Czechoslovakia’s president, Havel opposed lustration, fearing political retribution. Meanwhile, as Poland’s minister of internal affairs, Macierewicz fiercely supported decommunization. Trust between the leaders was a fundamental feature of this special bond within the region. Poland and Czechoslovakia learned from one another during this period of transformation and vouched for each other if one of the countries lagged behind. They progressed in the spirit of teamwork, common values, and trust. No country from the region could have singlehandedly entered NATO and the European Union as smoothly as Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, nor could they have achieved the same degree of economic success.
Given that experience, one might ask what went wrong? Why is Central Europe no longer a community of shared values? Once united by hope, Central Europe has become a region where fear and dissatisfaction are the prevalent emotions between the elites and the wider public. The region’s gross domestic product is growing at the fastest pace since the global financial crisis, fueled by €180 billion of EU funding written into the 2014-2020 EU budget, and given to Central and Eastern European countries that are member states. Additionally, unemployment levels are at a record low.
At the same time, politics in the region have taken a sharp turn to the right, bringing to power charismatic populists such as Victor Orbán, the prime minster of Hungary; outright autocrats like Jarosław Kaczyński, a mastermind behind current Polish government; and vulgar nationalists such as Robert Fico, the prime minister of Slovakia, and Miloš Zeman, the president of the Czech Republic. The selfishness and isolationism of these leaders distorts the values of partnership and solidarity that have long been associated with the region. In a world of post-factual politics, lies repeated hundreds of times become the new normal, and populism takes a toll on the attitudes and beliefs of the public. A recent study by Pew Research found that the majority of people surveyed in Hungary and Poland don’t consider diversity enriching for their societies. They believe refugees are their biggest contemporary security threat.
How and why did Central Europe stray from the path of cooperation and solidarity? The answer, it appears, is that countries in the region focused on the “process” while ignoring the “outcomes.” Theorists of governance assert that electoral democracies focus a great deal on enabling participation in the “process” of decision-making, while neglecting the intended “outcome,” such as efficiency, results, or benefits of given activity. Consequently, democratization in and of itself has been treated as an accomplishment, and in many instances an endgame for the development of the region. However, the endgame should be a government that delivers policies beneficial to society and which maximizes the well-being of its citizens. Democracy is one successful means of achieving this ideal, yet it is a system that cannot guarantee quality of governance. The triumph of overcoming autocratic rule has dominated the political discourse of the last quarter century, overshadowing the nuances that have now surfaced as the main sources of citizens’ disenchantment. These nuances encompass all that falls under the term “democratic disconnect,” or the gap between governments, institutions, and citizens. Though the citizens are empowered by “norm-disseminating and rights-claiming networks,” they cannot connect their efforts to institutional structures. Many falsely believed that the introduction of democratic rule would automatically eradicate income inequality and corruption. However, there is no substantial evidence that links the benefits of electoral democracy with the quality of government or life.
It is the lack of a sustainable effort by the governments in question to raise the level of inclusiveness and improve regulatory quality that has infringed on democracies’ immune systems and prepared a fertile ground for populists that roam the region today.
Is the case for democracy in Central Europe lost? Not if expectations are properly managed. Democracy cannot be treated as a silver bullet. The role of democracies is to enable rather than enforce human activity, guaranteeing clarity of the process and not the quality of the outcomes. In the challenging times that lie ahead, let’s hope that democracies can offer dissatisfied citizens the satisfaction of having the right to do something about their dissatisfaction once again.
Maciej Kuziemski is an Atlantic Council Millennium Fellow and a Master of Public Policy Candidate at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.