On February 21, 2019, the BMW Center welcomed a panel of distinguished guests to discuss democratic backsliding in Central and Eastern Europe. After a series of prepared remarks, Angela Stent, Director of Georgetown’s Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, moderated a discussion prompted by audience questions.
Professor Pawel Karolewski of the University of Wroclaw began by examining the sociopolitical causes of nationalist populism in Poland. While some experts believe that “every aspect of politics can be seen as a question of belonging,” he personally subscribes to the belief that nationalism finds its roots in sociopolitical issues misconstrued as identity conflicts. Professor Karolewski traces recent surges of nationalism in Poland back to the transitions from communism to capitalism and from authoritarian to democratic systems. Of primary concern for him is the long-term impact of populism on democratic liberal institutions. Despite this, however, he still believes “Poland is not lost.”
Andras Simonyi, Ambassador of Hungary to the United States (ret.), provided commentary on the situation in Hungary, arguing that Viktor Orbán’s control of the country may have already created irreversible damage to its democracy. He fears the country may already have reached the point of no return, because illiberal democracy has taken hold in its institutions. According to the Ambassador, Viktor Orban is, at heart, an opportunist who was able to raise his status by positioning himself opposite Chancellor Merkel in the European immigration debate.
Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society at Human Rights First, presented possible initiatives to strengthen civil society and counter democratic backsliding. In her view, the United States and European Union should promote democracy to citizens directly by supporting local organizations and investigative journalism. Programs like the European Values Instrument are essential, as well as “targeting to citizens in order to make them less vulnerable to anti-EU disinformation.” External forces have not been doing enough to leverage their power to effect change in Hungary.
Professor Jeffrey Anderson of the BMW Center focused on responses to nationalist populism in the context of the Articles of the Treaty on European Union. In his words, “the EU [as an organization] has lost a lot of credibility among its electorate,” and to fail on the task of preserving democracy would be catastrophic. However, the structure of the European Articles makes it unlikely that internal action will be taken against Poland and Hungary. Furthermore, instability in Central Europe may provide Russia with an opportunity to undermine the the strength of the European Union.
The BMW Center would like to thank these distinguished guests for their time and illuminating discussion of Central and Eastern Europe.