Have we missed a new ‘springtime of nations’ in Eastern Europe?

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By Dr Luke Cooper, consultant researcher for the Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit and co-author of Covid-19 and the new authoritarianism (LSE CCS, 2020)

Since the revolutions of 1848 were heralded as the ‘Springtime of Nations’, it has become customary to refer to international conjunctures marked by civic mobilisation as a ‘Spring’. The ‘Prague Spring’ formed part of the wave of rebellion in 1968. This language re-surfaced with the peaceful revolutions of 1989 – though, as the most striking events fell in the latter half of the year, it was often recast as ‘the Autumn of Nations’. The label was taken up again in the Arab revolutions of 2011, which tragically like 1848 mostly ended in bloody defeat.

Historical analogies are, of course, often unhelpful as a pathway to knowledge. They can sometimes serve to disguise the unique crystallization of forces and actions that give meaning and novelty to history. But whether in 1848, 1968, 1989, or 2011 the drawing together of a set of interconnections marked by civic rebellion is often motivated by a political, rather than explanatory, concern. When events and crises occur in a domino-like fashion, and movements draw inspiration from activity in other countries, the language of the ‘Spring’ gives expression to the sense of internationalism that marks these street protests.

This raises an interesting question for movements that arise in a similar but not entirely contemporaneous historical moment – do we become less able to draw together their links, common motivations and discuss them as part of the same internationalhorizon?  When mass movements erupt over the course of a few years, rather than across one, we might find ourselves blindsided to the connected ways they are reimagining democratic politics.

As we will discuss at our forthcoming event and in a new LSE IDEAS report, there is a case for thinking this may have happened in Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe. To analyse it does not require rehashing the hackneyed language of the ‘Spring’, but we can and should consider the common themes in what has been a sustained wave of civic mobilisation.

2017 – 2021: the new anti-authoritarianism   

Central and Eastern Europe is often placed at the centre of the European Union’s rule of law crisis. The rise of authoritarian politics and practices is, however, far from limited to the region. On the contrary, the struggle between civic-democratic and authoritarian forces is the major characteristic of international politics today – touching, to different degrees, countries all over the world. This is why the new upsurge of protest offers hope to democratic forces internationally. It shows that populaces are prepared to contest the authoritarian drift. 

The pattern of resistance in the region is strikingly clear. In February 2017, Romania saw half a million citizens demonstrate against moves to shield politicians from prosecutions for corruption, inviting comparison with 1989 and igniting sustained civic activity. In March 2018, Slovakia also witnessed protests described as the biggest since the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Mass demonstrations forced out Prime Minister Robert Fico after his administration was exposed as having links to the organised crime groups that murdered journalist, Ján Kuciak. In the Czech Republic, the same analogy with 1989 was used a year later, as 250,000 people demanded – this time unsuccessfully – the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš over corruption allegations. In Bulgaria, huge civic protests broke out in the summer of 2020, leading to a year of protests over corruption and the capture of the state by organised crime.

In the same period, Alexander Lukashenko’s fraudulent election victory sparked the biggest wave of protest in Belarus’ history, prompting brutal state repression; mass demonstrations erupted against a total ban on abortion in Poland; and, in Russia, tens of thousands defied the state to demand the release of imprisoned oppositionist, Alexei Navalny.

Movements challenge the logics of authoritarian protectionism

This new civic resistance confronts governing practices that are striking for their ideological coherence. In my forthcoming book, Authoritarian Contagion, I refer to this politics as ‘authoritarian protectionism’. As a type of political language used to mobilise support among the population, it has a post-neoliberal quality. In place of the meritocratic illusions of the neoliberal era (specifically, its distributional argument that free markets allocate resources fairly on the basis of hard work and competition), authoritarian protectionists instead advance a claim to protection on the grounds of ‘kin and creed’ against a series of ‘alien’ threats. As they argue that the interests of the in-group (usually the ethno-nation) are primary and face existential risk, attacks on the rule of law are justified to protect these partisan interests.

So, rather than the alleged meritocracy of ‘free’ markets, the claim to protection is not qualified by merit, but is granted according to status. The ‘true’, national people will be defended from the various oppositionists and minorities considered ‘alien’. This approach weakens the rule law, and generates patronage politics, leading to corruption and cronyism.     

The Eastern European cases provide a vantage point to shed new light on the rise of such political forces. They illustrate, perhaps paradoxically, that this politics is both remarkable for its ideological coherence and has been taken up by parties formally in the centre ground (e.g., Czech Republic), on the centre-left (e.g., Romania, Slovakia), as well as by right wing actors (e.g., Poland, Bulgaria). We see this playing out in their responses to mass civic resistance and political criticism. For example, protestors and oppositionists have been condemned in anti-Semitic terms as part of a conspiracy concocted by the Jewish philanthropist, George Soros, against the national people – an argument that has been used in recent years in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary. In the migration crisis, this connected, in most of these cases, to the classical anti-Semitic-cum-Islamophobic trope that held a Jewish elite responsible for letting in Muslim and other non-white immigrants. In this way an ethnonational conception of the nation – the rooted and true people – serves to delegitimise critics and protect corrupt and authoritarian practices.

The wave of new civic resistance in Eastern Europe should be seen as part of a global challenge to the rise of authoritarian protectionism. It shows that populaces can be mobilised in very large numbers to protect democracy from these threats. ‘If there is a commonality in the distinct manifestations of autocracy’, argues Amartya Sen, reflecting on what may constitute the major question of our time, ‘there is also a shared reasoning in the resistance’.

Indeed, those facing this politics across the world – including in Britain – could learn much from the rising civic movements sweeping Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe.

If you are interested in hearing more about the politics of the far-right in Central and South Eastern Europe, you can register to attend our event at the end of June, here.

Dr Luke Cooper is a consultant researcher for the Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit and co-author of Covid-19 and the new authoritarianism (LSE CCS, 2020). His forthcoming book, Authoritarian Contagion, analyses ideas of ‘authoritarian protectionism’ as a type of political language used to mobilise support amongst populations across the globe.