At the end of 2020, the European Union reached agreement on a rule of law mechanism to control the use of EU subsidies, particularly in the eastern Member States. Further impetus for the process was given by the waves of public discontent in Eastern Europe. Over the past few years, people have demonstrated for democracy, freedom of media and universities, gender equality and independence of judges, and against corruption. There has therefore emerged a hope within the EU that such pressures could at last reverse the authoritarian trend in these countries. But is this optimism justified?
The essential difference between the current and past authoritarian systems is that the current rulers no longer need violence.
I would argue that the current systems bearing marks of authoritarianism are actually implementing a new type of governance mechanism, and in that they are being quite flexible and innovative. The essential difference between the current and past authoritarian systems is that the current rulers no longer need violence. It is enough to make the opponent's actions impossible by administrative and financial means. This can be achieved through accelerated legislation, institutional changes and efficient channelling of resources. It is easy to justify solutions by invoking international examples or necessary savings. Social policy programmes guarantee a growing number of people loyal to power. Key factors include generous family allowances, pension increases, tax exemption for young workers, employment programmes, supported housing and comfortable housing loans. Corruptive practices around EU subsidies are seen as supporting domestic entrepreneurs and thus generally acceptable. Given that efforts are being made to restrict the activities of independent media, the message from the government is gaining an increasingly strong monopoly position. This creates a parallel reality, a black-and-white juxtaposition, in which the administration appears to be a force of national interest that provides goods and security.
Security in the broad sense is one of the core concepts of political culture in Eastern Europe, where the traditions of democracy are historically shallow. The democratisation process after state socialism has been perceived as chaotic. It has been characterised by marketisation of society, and by destroying the social security network, many people have fallen through the net. Shock therapy distorted the image of liberal democracy, which led to a nostalgic demand for strong leadership that underlined law and order and promised fundamental security – especially when expectations of reaching a standard of living common in Western EU were eventually not met.
In the West, criticism of authoritarianism has a downplaying attitude and the critics don't perceive the fact that these systems are constantly changing and adaptable. For example, as the management of the Covid-19 pandemic has also required the restriction of civil liberties in the most robust democracies, it has provided a great opportunity to tighten centralised power even more. Moreover, even demonstrations can be seen as a learning process in which the administration constantly invents new ways of neutralising protests. The same inventiveness is reflected in the legislative manoeuvres posing a threat to the implementation of the rule of law mechanism. Authoritarian forces are also networking in order to exchange experiences and strengthen the common front. In addition to the ”collegial” support from Russia and China, there is an amalgamation project playing out where the right-wing populist parties in Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy and France are seeking stronger representation in the European Parliament.
The traditions of liberal democracy in the EU are the strength of the community, but there is a weakness in the conventional approach to authoritarian regimes, which – in reality – are able to transform surprisingly flexibly.
Katalin Miklóssy is Head of Discipline of Eastern European Studies at the University of Helsinki