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by Stuart Austin 

This article summarises discussion held at the Ratiu Dialogues on Democracy conference, held in Cluj (Romania) on 15-16 June 2023. Contributors to the discussion were: Dr Radu Albu-Comanescu, Prof Christopher Coker, Dr Adrian-Gabriel Corpadean, Prof Sumantra Bose, Prof Christopher Dandeker, Prof Michael Burleigh, Dr Mois Faion, Dr Marcin Fatalski, Dr Alexander Gerganov, Maja Kurilić, Prof Dominic Lieven, John Lloyd, Bálint Magyar, Prof Slobodan Markovich, Dr Oana-Cristina Popa, Wojciech Przybylski, Richard Ralph CMG CVO, Nicolae Ratiu, Emilia Șercan, Louisa Slavkova, and Dr Eric Weaver.

Since the early-1990s, Europe has been facing what Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindberg term the ‘third wave of autocratisation’; post-communist East European countries accounted for 16 out of 75 protracted episodes (as of 2019) and, unprecedented in history, the third wave largely affects existing democracies over autocracies.1 The panels and audience alike repeatedly pondered the question of whether consolidated democracies are irreversible, and whether ‘European values’ (i.e. liberal democratic values) are universal. The Hungarian case seems to suggest not: Prime Minister Viktor Orbán notoriously and proudly declared Hungary to be an ‘illiberal democracy’ in 2014. The outlook for democracy is not entirely negative, however. Hungary remained the only European Union member state downgraded to ‘partly free’ by Freedom House as of 2023.2
This year’s Freedom in the World report has found that, while global freedom has declined for a 17th consecutive year, the gap between those countries improving and those declining is also now at its most narrow—a reason for some optimism that autocracies are not themselves consolidating irreversibly.3

What is concerning is that, as part of that long decline, trust in democratic institutions across the centraleastern European region is overall notably low. Without that trust but also unity on liberal values—however different the norms to implement those values are between nations—democracies will slide further into illiberalism, and from that into another form of state altogether but one which is neither free nor democratic. According to Bálint Magyar’s interpretive framework of post-communist regimes, on the political spectrum Hungary is almost entirely a patronal autocracy; Poland sits between liberal democracy and conservative autocracy; Romania is classified as a highly patronal democracy, while North Macedonia and Moldova are definitively patronal democracies.4

The article is available here



  1. Lührmann, Anna, and Staffan I. Lindberg. 2019. “A Third Wave of Autocratization Is Here: What Is New about It?” Democratization 26 (7): 1095–1113.
  2. 2023. “Hungary.” Freedom House.
  3. Yana Gorokhovskaia, Yana, Adrian Shahbaz and Amy Slipowitz. 2023. “Marking 50 Years in the Struggle for Democracy.” Freedom House.
  4. Data based on Magyar, B. and Madlovics, B. The Anatomy of Post-Communist Regimes (CEU Press, 2020); see