By PATRICK STEPHENSON
BRUSSELS – Soft authoritarianism is gaining ground in Central and Eastern Europe. Political organisations such as Poland’s Law and Justice Party and Hungary’s “Fidesz” (Hungarian Civil Alliance) group, or have used parliamentary majorities and fear of Muslim immigrants to shape laws and institutions in ways that solidify their power.
The question is: How far will this soft authoritarianism’s appeal reach? Could it spread to engulf the Western Balkans, and thus infect all of eastern and Central Europe with its nationalist allure?
This critical question for Europe was reviewed from all angles during a brainstorming session here of civil society practitioners and NGO officials on 22 January hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). The focus was on how the EU and USA could work together to boost civil society across that broad swath of Europe. Civil society includes the private associations and interests that make up the personal sphere of human life.
Most development experts consider a strong civil society to be a prerequisite for any healthy democracy. “We are not where we were five years ago, in that the clouds are darker when it comes to civil society,” said Katarina Mathernova, deputy head of the European Commission’s so-called Neighbourhood Policy. “We need a call-to-arms that there’s work to be done.”
Tamara Brankovic, researcher at the Belgrade-based Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability, laid out the state of civil society in her country. “If you looked at the Western Balkans from a distance, you would probably think things are going well for civil society in comparison to Central and Eastern Europe,” she said, adding however that things not as rosy as they appear.
Brankovic described a survey that her organisation conducted among Serb citizens asking about their views about the EU and their fellow citizens. “The results were quite devastating,” she said. “The state of civil society has never been worse in the last 17 years since the democratisation of Serbia started. Civil society actors in Serbia feel excluded, marginalised, and demotivated.”
The result? Ordinary people have become profoundly alienated from their politicians. “Only 17 per cent of citizens believe that their engagement would contribute to change in their local communities,” she said.
According to Brankovic, part of the blame can be pinned on insufficient support for civil society. “The EU partners with the government and the biggest NGOs, but it pays almost no attention to what happens in local communities,” she said. “Twenty-five years of development aid contributed mainly to the development of isolated and scattered islands of democracy across Serbia.”
But conflicting goals in US and EU aid also dilute that aid’s effectiveness.
“The US promotes a ‘grass roots’ approach to democratic development and spreading democracy,” she said. “The EU promotes a more technical approach. Therefore, it’s not about promoting democracy but about training experts in civil society to support EU integration. So the EU is not as focused on norms, rules and values. Both approaches are definitely necessary. Undemocratic practices are emerging across the region but the countries are still receiving monetary support from the EU.”
Given the grim implications of the region’s deteriorating state of civil society, it would seem natural for the EU and the US to coordinate their civil society aid to maximum effect.
However, that coordination is difficult to achieve.
Jonathan Katz, GMF senior fellow, said he hopes for “a more structured and formal mechanism for cooperation” between the US and the EU on civil society support. But he tempered his remarks, saying the US has different priorities than the EU when it comes to foreign aid. “In the US, the development agenda is pushed down the list of [foreign policy] priorities”, making better US-EU coordination a tough prospect.
Why is this happening? It may be that the reforms launched by these countries were only skin-deep. Thus, they could be reverting to historical form: i.e., young and unstable democracies vulnerable to authoritarian temptations. Also, generous cash without proper scrutiny or checks-and-balances is a powerful incentive for corruption.
The costs for the offenders of backsliding are low: the EU has no clear mechanism for dealing with deviants, as no one imagined 15 years ago after the EU’s enlargement that this would happen. Now Brussels is scrambling how to deter Eastern Europe’s decay into dictatorship.
The Western Balkans offers another explanation. During the Cold War, communist regimes waged war against civil society actors as potential threats to one-party rule. After the Berlin Wall fell, those actors were supposed to re-emerge, creating a firm foundation for liberal democracy.
That re-emergence was only partial at best, with would-be “soft” authoritarians such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán exploiting weak civil society institutions to consolidate centralised rule. The EU sputters in indignation, but appears hesitant to reverse enlargement to include countries in the region whose democratic credentials are less than solid or time-proven.