Corruption, populism, nationalism and disinformation have eroded faith in liberal democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, according to a new Globsec report – which says many people would trade in some of their freedoms for greater security and traditional values.
Thirty years after the fall of communism, liberal democracies in Central and Eastern Europe, CEE, are still “works in progress”, analysts from the Globsec Policy Institute from Bratislava say in their latest report, documenting perceptions of democracy in the region.
While support for democracy varies greatly between the different countries, its polls show that most people are not satisfied with their systems of governance, and are losing faith in traditional political parties and institutions.
In Bulgaria, only 35 per cent of people support a system of liberal democracy based on regular elections and with multiple parties. Some 45 per cent would prefer a strong, decisive leader who does not have to bother with elections or parliaments.
Surprisingly, in Hungary, often described as a problematic country that is on the way to becoming an “illiberal” state –a much higher number, 81 per cent, still support liberal democracy.
Most people in Poland and Czech republic also support pluralistic democratic systems. Romanians and Slovaks are more divided. In Slovakia, only 49 per cent of people support liberal democracy, while 38 per cent might prefer a system with a strong leader.
The Globsec report shows that countries ranked higher in the global democracy quality charts tend to be more satisfied with their systems of governance and their lives in general.
However, in Central Europe, only the Czechs are more happy than unhappy with their current governance. People in Bulgaria and Romania are the most dissatisfied with the current system.
In contrast to expert concerns over the state of democracy in Hungary and Poland under their populist and nationalist governments, people there are among the most satisfied with how their democracy works. Only 18 per cent of Bulgarians are happy with their state of democracy. But nearly half of all Poles and Hungarians are satisfied with how democracy works in their countries.
Growing number yearn for ‘strong leader’
Trust in democracy goes hand in hand with confidence in state institutions, which has long been a problem in the region. Polls across the region, and in the world, have showed an increase in people’s trust in governments, and even in autocratic leaders, during the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the Globsec data collected in March 2020 show that most people in the CEE region don’t trust the traditional parties and feel a deep-rooted sense of inequality in their countries.
People in Bulgaria and Slovakia are among the most pessimistic in the region. Over half of their populations think it doesn’t really matter who holds power, as things won’t change. Only 31 per cent of Poles think the same, revealing a more optimistic outlook on the future of democracy in their country.
An overwhelming majority of Slovaks, 85 per cent, think oligarchs and financial groups have real control over politics in their country, and only 22 per cent trust in the independence of their courts and judiciary. Trust in justice in the country received a new blow after an investigation into the murder of a young journalist, Jan Kuciak, revealed a series of corrupt practices involving prominent judges and justice officials.
The Globsec study shows that in the region, people in Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Slovakia would be most willing to give up some of their rights and freedoms in exchange for a better financial situation, greater security or the preservation of traditional values.
In Slovakia, 69 per cent said they would trade some of their freedom for greater security, while 66 per cent would do the same for a better financial situation.
According to Globsec, this trend “suggests vulnerability towards anti-democratic voices, both domestic and foreign”, and should be noted with caution, especially during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought more insecurity and instability to the region.
Hostility to migrants, LGBTI and the West
Opinion polls in CEE countries and the Baltic states show that an average of 70 per cent of people there feel that people linked to political elites are favoured over others, while 59 per cent think people who earn more are similarly favoured.
When it comes to geopolitics, Slovaks and Bulgarians expressed the strongest anti-US attitudes, while Czechs are most hostile to the EU in the region. Some 53 per cent of Slovaks feel their values and identity are threatened by the US, while 45 per cent of Czechs feel similarly threatened by the EU.
Anti-migrant sentiment is the strongest in countries that had least experience of and contact with migration waves in the past few years. Some 72 per cent of Slovaks and Czechs feel threatened by migrants, while in Austria, the country hit hardest by the migrant crisis in the region, only 42 per cent feel their identity is threatened by migrants.
In Poland, although anti-LGBT campaigns by politicians cause concern among human rights groups and make headlines, only about a quarter of people feel threatened by the LGBT community. In Slovakia, the figure is higher, at 39 per cent. Only 12 per cent of Czechs feel threatened by the LGBT community, making them the most tolerant towards sexual minorities of the “Visegrad Four”.
“A feeling of insecurity from other groups in society translates into lower tolerance and thus greater difficulties in creating a just and equitable democracy,” the Globsec report says, citing fear of the unknown or the strong anti-migrant and anti-LGBT campaigns as contributors to the trend.
In any democracy, media and journalists are an important integral part of protecting government transparency, accountability and oversight of all branches of power. During the coronavirus pandemic, media became even more significant and influential, and in some countries, enjoyed more support from the public.
However, populist politicians also thrive in polarised societies and journalists have often become targets and enemies of such politicians all over the world. In Central and Eastern Europe, trust in the mainstream media remains relatively low and the majority of people don’t trust their coverage. On the other hand, a lot of people still believe the mainstream media are free of external influences.
In Slovakia, 79 per cent of people think the media are free, but only 38 per cent in Bulgaria and 39 per cent in Poland think the same. According to Poles and Hungarians, the government influences the media the most. The Catholic Church also has a strong influence over the media in Poland, according to 42 per cent of Poles. Oligarchs are perceived as more influential in Bulgaria and Slovakia, where a significant part of the media landscape is directly or indirectly in the hands of powerful oligarchic figures with known ties to political elites.
Conspiracy theories dovetail with anti-Semitism
Trust in the media and political institutions, but also a feeling of insecurity, strongly correlates with the affinity towards conspiracy theories and disinformation, which have found a very fertile ground in the CEE region.
False or misleading stories about politicians, Western countries, the EU, ethnic and sexual minorities or migrants contribute to feelings of fear and suspicion, eroding the basis of democracy from within.
According to Globsec, Slovakia is the most conspiracy-prone country in the region, and the number of people believing different conspiracy theories there is on the rise. While 52 per cent of Slovaks believed that world affairs were controlled by secret groups in 2019, in 2020, this number rose to 60 per cent.
Slovaks are also the most prone to anti-Semitism in the region; more than a half of them think Jews have too much power and secretly control governments around the world. In Hungary, where political leaders frequently attack the American Jewish financier of Hungarian origins George Soros, 49 per cent of people believe Jews secretly run the world.
In Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary, a significant number of people also think that recent anti-government protests were orchestrated or controlled from abroad – in the Czech and Hungarian cases, directly by Soros.
Disinformation channels also influence public views on international cooperation, especially on EU and NATO, in the region. Anti-Western sentiments still coincide with affinity towards Russia, especially in Bulgaria and Slovakia. Some 65 per cent of Slovaks believe NATO bases in Slovakia would mean a de facto US occupation of the country, a belief strongly promoted by nationalist politicians in Slovakia over the past four years.
In Bulgaria, 55 per cent of people think the EU has always schemed to destroy Bulgaria’s nuclear energy industry and half of the people believe NATO is an American scheme to keep Europe subordinate.
“The research indicates that the fragility of CEE democracies might also lie in people’s dissatisfaction with their own governance systems, distrust in key institutions and dissatisfactory perception of wealth distribution,” the report says.
“In order to prevent leaders with autocratic tendencies and alternative explanations of events from thriving, the community of democracies must do more,” the analysts add.
They believe the EU must take a stronger role in promoting democratic values and transparency, in reforms aimed at diminishing income inequality and in promoting open public discussion on contested historical events.