Eastern Europe; A Laboratory for the Sustainability of ‘Western Democracy’?

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Centre of Russian and East European Studies (CREES) at the University of Birmingham in 2013, a series of lectures and special seminars were held over the course of the year, each featuring distinguished guest speakers coming from different fields of expertise. Kasia Remshardt reports on the first of two for Vostok Cable.

Birmingham UniversityPicture by Graham Norrie, used under Creative Commons Lisence

Birmingham University
Picture by Graham Norrie, used under Creative Commons License

18 March 2013 (Dieter Segert, University of Vienna)

An expert on post-socialist transformations and political systems in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), Professor Dieter Segert came to talk to a small but interested audience on March 18 to share his insights on the highly topical issue of political change in Easter Europe after 1989. Indeed, what could well be termed a populist backlash against democratic development have made the headlines over the past few years in a number of CEE countries.

Building on Janos Kornai’s framework of the ‘Second Great Transformation’ taking place in the former Soviet bloc after the fall of communism, Professor Segert explored the reasons for the emergence of populist politics in Poland and Slovakia, the political upheaval in the Czech Republic in 2006, as well as the continued support for a nationalist government in Hungary. According to Segert, these parallel developments are not purely coincidental, but part of a broader process indicating that a “crisis of representative democracy” is underway in the region.

This crisis is not only reflected in the aforementioned rise in populist parties, but in a general lack of trust in parties and low levels of political participation in these countries. Underlying these phenomena is a profound sense of alienation of the populace from the incumbent political elites who were unable to live up to voters’ high hopes after the end of communist rule.

Key to this divergence between expectation and reality are not only the misconceptions about capitalism as a largely benign force, but also the unawareness of the changing nature of capitalism itself. As Segert points out, “consumption capitalism” as a model was becoming outdated in the West by the time CEE was shaking off its Soviet heritage, though it remained the coveted ideal to many people in the Eastern part of Europe. Delusions about the outcome of socio-economic transformation, paired with the disappointments of transition were sowing the seeds of discontent and political instability the results of which are becoming apparent now.

The lessons to be drawn from this are not that the ‘East’ will eventually stabilise and consolidate its democratic institutions in emulation of the ‘West’. On the contrary, according to Segert, CEE is likely to be a showcase of future political development in the rest of Europe, demonstrating how the institutions of liberal democracy might be undermined in the long run.


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