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BIPR | Democratic Recession in Central Europe: Causes and Prospects
Democratic Recession in Central Europe: Causes and Prospects

November 4, 2021 - 18:30

Adéla Gjuricová, Academy of Science of the Czech Republic

Event Recap

Adéla Gjuricová begins her lecture by asking why certain central European countries, including Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have distanced themselves from the European Union, and, by extension, the western democratic model. To analyze this trend and to find an answer, she divides her talk into the following five parts: 1) the historical context of the eastern bloc after the fall of the Soviet Union 2) early institutional failures in the countries, 3) the political reaction to such failures, 4) a case study on her home country, the Czech Republic, and 5) traditions, continuities, and prospects for the future both in the Czech Republic and the region more generally.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the western world had a goal to build a political system in central Europe even more democratic than that of the west. This western dream, Gjuricová explains, ran into a central European reality that was anti-experimental. These countries wanted to adopt the same liberal democracy of the rest of the continent, which included neoliberal economic reforms like market privatization and deregulation. However, central European states had little systematic experience with this economic model, and also paid too little attention to the political institutions to control the fair functioning of the model.

For Gjuricová, this lack of experience, combined with the "omnipotence of the past" (labeling any idea as communist was enough to stop it in its tracks), led to rampant corruption in the region. After the 1992 split of Czechoslovakia, Slovakian prime minister Vladimir Meciar began to garner the reputation of a mafia boss for his tough, corrupt leadership. At the turn of the century, the Czech Republic also began to experience increasingly normalized corruption, and in 1998 Viktor Orbán, famous proponent of "illiberal democracy", came to power as Hungary's Prime Minister.

The political reaction to the corruption of the post-Soviet period was the formation of broad opposition coalitions. Gjuricová describes how these political movements were anti-political, eroding traditional ideologies in favor of anti-corruption, and eventually illiberal and Eurosceptic, positions. To illustrate this point, Gjuricová brings in the case study of the ANO movement in the Czech Republic, which would eventually vault to power current prime minister Andrej Babis. She explains that the movement lacks any recognizable democratic structure. Rather than conforming to any particular ideology, the movement started as anti-establishment, and therefore holds little respect for political institutions. These characteristics, combined with a simplifying of electoral choice to binary options unconcerned with the nuances of policy making, leads Gjuricová to believe that democracy in the Czech Republic, and the region generally, is in a precarious place.

Gjuricová notes that there are some signs of resilience in the region's transition to constitutional democracy. Babis's party failed to retain a majority in this year's elections in the Czech Republic, possibly signaling a decline in a populist political appeal. However, Gjuricová reminds us that a precondition of constitutional democracy is the shared acceptance that a political system's institutional framework is fair and protective of the losing parties. This feeling, according to Adéla Gjuricová, is eroding in central Europe.

Full Audio:

Democratic Recession in Central Europe: Causes and Prospects
History of the Present Series and Patrick McCarthy Memorial Series on Intellectuals and Politics

hosted by Professor Mark Gilbert

Adéla Gjuricová
Academy of Science of the Czech Republic

Adéla Gjuricová is a senior researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague.

Gjuricová focuses on politics and society during the late socialist era, the 1989 revolutions and post-communist transformations in Central Europe. She is the head of the Institute's Political History Department and of the Working Group on Parliaments in Transition. Currently she leads the "City as a Laboratory of Change", a large interdisciplinary project within the Strategy AV21 scheme of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Gjuricová is co-author of Rozdeleni minulostí: Vytvárení politických identit v Ceské republice po roce 1989 [Divided by the Past: Political Identities in the Czech Republic after 1989] (Prague, Václav Havel Library 2011), Lebenswelten von Abgeordneten in Europa 1860-1990 [The Life-Worlds of Members of Parliament, 1860-1990] (Düsseldorf, KGParl – Droste 2014) and Návrat parlamentu: Ceši a Slováci ve Federálním shromáždení 1989-1992 [The Return of Parliament: The Czechs and Slovaks in the Federal Assembly 1989-1992] (Prague, Argo – ÚSD AV CR 2018).
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