Russia Seen Guiding the Illiberal Turn in Central and Eastern Europe

Russia is financing far-right political parties and critics of the European Union as part of a broader Kremlin strategy to sow disinformation and mistrust on the Continent, according to a member of the European Parliament (MEP).

Ivan Stefanec, an MEP from Slovakia, contended that Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is now more closely aligned with the Kremlin than Brussels.

The Financial Times reported this week that EU leaders will discuss covert Russian funding of far-right political parties in Europe in response to findings of Russian interference in European politics. The Obama administration has also accused Russia of directing cyber hacks to influence the outcome of the US presidential election.

Stefanec claimed that Russia is also using energy pricing as a political tool to divide Europe.  As reported by Reuters, the United States and France sought the EU’s condemnation of Russia’s air campaign in Syria and harsher sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad’s government, “but the bloc is split over strategy towards Russia, its biggest energy supplier, with divisions about how harsh any criticism of Moscow should be and whether there was ground for also putting Russians under sanctions.”

Stefanec spoke at a conference—“The Illiberal Turn: Reasserting Democratic Values in Central and Eastern Europe”—jointly hosted by the Atlantic Council, the International Republican Institute, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Center for International Private Enterprise in Washington on October 13.

The dynamic of internal strife exacerbated by external pressures has led to the realization of the deep fragility of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, said Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy.

When considering the issues that challenge the foundation of liberal values, those seeking a solution “can’t divorce the crisis from the broader geopolitical context, a context of growing Russian assertiveness and growing US retreat,” said Gershman.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March of 2014, support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, air strikes in Syria, and interference in international elections has the global community on edge, yet Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime looks like a system in control to those who feel the world is in chaos, said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Right now democracy does not appear well-equipped to handle global challenges, Conley said. However, “no one is articulating a positive vision for how we seize the opportunity of the great disruption and how we minimize those who have been left behind,” she said. “My fear is in that absence we’re getting the illiberal, the fear, because that is what the people want to hear, but it’s not going to solve their problems.”

At the conference, four panels discussed the political, economic, and social trends hindering Central and Eastern Europe’s path toward a more deeply ingrained democratic system. The panelists focused on a group of countries known as the Visegrad Four: Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. The conference aimed to explore “this idea of the illiberal state reemerging in the countries that we thought were on a specific path towards Western values, democratic values,” said Alina Polyakova, deputy director of the Dina Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.

Though the United States helped to establish a democratic infrastructure in the region after the fall of communism in the late eighties and early nineties, “democracy is not just about institutions, it’s also about habits and values and behavior, and it takes time,” said Jeffrey Gedmin, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative.  The EU soon became preoccupied with concerns other than the democracy of the region, he claimed, and “as we pivoted away, Vladimir Putin’s Russia pivoted back.”

Maria Stephan, a senior policy fellow at the United States Institute for Peace, emphasized the need to focus on a bottom-up approach, engage citizens, and support the activities of civil society groups that can hold illiberal governments accountable. “Bottom-up coalitions and movements are the most significant drivers of democratic breakthroughs and of consolidating democracies,” she said.

However, as the youth turn away from the EU, Russia is exploiting popular dissatisfaction to destabilize the Union, said Brian Whitmore, a journalist with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “Russia didn’t invent xenophobia in Europe, but it’s exploiting it…what Russia’s doing is that they’re holding up a mirror and a magnifying glass to our own weaknesses and exploiting them.” 

Jill Dougherty, a former foreign affairs correspondent with CNN, said: “What is very effective, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, is to exploit the disenchantment that people have in that region for why democracy did not work.” She said Russia uses a softer approach to propaganda that exploits the failures of Western democracy.

According to Dougherty, “when people don’t live well…they are fertile ground for another message that says that liberal democracy doesn’t work.”

Aleksander Dardeli, vice president at IREX, said “the game has changed; it is no longer about censorship. It’s about reach, agenda…and a well-educated design behind that agenda.”

The decline of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe is both an issue of national identity and an economic challenge, said Sally Painter, a senior advisor at the Atlantic Council and co-founder and chief operating officer of Blue Star Strategies. The fact that EU reforms are not immediately available to the common person has resulted in a public disconnect from the EU and desire for national control, said Painter.

Conley said economic problems exacerbate the turn inward, but the functioning of democracy, and its ultimate success, requires the people’s trust. Though not the best option in the short term, Conley said democracy is “the most durable system.”

“If you lack trust then you have short-term solutions because you don’t believe the future will be there, or not in the way you would like it to be,” said András Löke, president of Transparency International (Hungary). Short-term solutions lead to corruption and other social diseases, as seen in Hungarian President Victor Orbán’s government, he added.

Gedmin described the increasing erosion of checks and balances on Orbán, and the president’s manipulation of fear to exacerbate the fragmentation in Europe.

In a referendum on October 2, Hungary voted down the EU’s quotas to take in migrants fleeing war zones in the Middle East and Africa. However, there was insufficient voter turnout to secure ratification. “Right now the discussion is being shaped by the most aggressive people,” said Gershman.

Commenting on the rule of authoritarian populist politicians like Orbán, Hans Timmer, the chief economist for Europe and Central Asia at the World Bank, said: “I think it is a system that feeds upon itself with circular causality. Under certain circumstances such a system can reach a critical mass where it really changes society.” He added, “it’s still possible that there will be an enormous crisis in the European Union.”

To find solutions to the crises at hand, governments need to deal with the right set of questions, said Kurt Volker, executive director at the McCain Institute for International Leadership. “There’s something wrong with the way that our governing elites in our Western-style democracies have failed to grasp, respond, and address legitimate fears and concerns the publics have. In response to that [the people] are hunkering down, protecting identities,” he said.

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.

Image: From left: Marc Schleifer, regional director for Europe, Eurasia, and South Asia at the Center for International Private Enterprise, moderated a discussion with Sally Painter, a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and co-founder and COO of Blue Star Strategies; Han Timmer, chief economist for Europe and Central Asia at the World Bank; Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and András Löke, president of Transparency International (Hungary). (Atlantic Council)