The European Challenge to Liberal Democracy

2014_norbert_hofer_15593676298From the Baltic to the Bosporus, governments have come to power which openly reject key components of liberal democracy and EU integration: Some play by democratic rules, but play the nationalist card, such as rehabilitate or relativizing the Nazi past, as in Croatia, or raise fear of a Muslim threat, as in Slovakia; some rule with authoritarian methods, but publicly stick to a reformist liberal agenda, as in Serbia and Montenegro, others use a mixture of both, such as Hungary, Turkey or Macedonia.

Europe is facing a double challenge from authoritarian and nationalist parties. By undermining either the institutions of democracy through authoritarian practices, or the ideas of liberal democracy by exclusionary, polarizing and populist rhetoric and policies, these governments are constituting a rising threat not only to democracy at home, but also the larger liberal democratic project of the EU.

Much media attention has focused on the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim right, from Marine Le Pen in France to Viktor Orbán in Hungary, whose nativism wants to keep refugees, and especially Muslims out. The refugees arriving in Europe over the last year proved to be windfall for these parties. However, the threat to liberal democracy and European integration, does not stem only for the populist right, but from two interlocking strands of European politics. Nationalists or nativists are often authoritarian, and vice versa, but they are neither identical, nor does any party or leader need to display both to threaten liberal democracy.

In Hungary Viktor Orbán came to power in 2010 and in Poland Jarosław Kaczyński last year, both with large majorities and established center-right parties, and have since began dismantling democratic checks and balances. The anti-Muslim rhetoric is not what propelled them to power or is an essential pillar of their popularity, but a convenient fashion accessory to remain popular. In Croatia, the conservative HDZ returned to power in a coalition government earlier this year with just over a third of the seats in parliament. Yet once in power, it began promoting a nationalist and revisionist agenda, including naming for minister of culture a controversial historian, who has relativized the collaborationist Croatian regime during World War Two.

In a number of Balkan countries, like Serbia and Montenegro, authoritarian rulers have refrained from using nationalism to stay in power. Instead they claim to pursue EU integration, while subordinating the state to their personal control and setting up elaborate patronage systems. Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vučić won nearly half of the vote in early elections in April 2016, which he called for no reason other than to secure his majority, while silencing opposition media.

Southern neighbor Macedonia is beset by a crisis for over year as the dominant conservative and nationalist ruling VMRO-DPMNE and its former prime minister Nikola Gruevski were caught on tape organizing electoral fraud, corruption and pressure on media and opposition. Despite EU mediation to secure fair earlier election, Gruevski seems determined to hang on to power with all means necessary. Gruevski had begun his career, much like Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on the promise of reform, but both drifted towards more personalized authoritarian rule.

In other countries, such as Slovakia, the ruling SMER party claims to be a center-left party and certainly cannot be accused of being authoritarian, yet it openly rejected accepting any non-Christian refugees over the last year.

On Sunday 22 May, Austria is facing the second round of its most important presidential elections in its history. None of the candidates of the ruling parties made it to the second round—the green candidate Alexander van der Bellen is facing Norbert Hofer of the populist and nativist Freedom Party, who made a surprising win in the first round. The anti-Muslim and anti-EU rhetoric of the Freedom Party  and its candidate is nothing new, but what made many Austrians nervous was a small sentence the soft-spoken Norbert Hofer uttered during a presidential debate on how he would exercise the office: “You will be surprised.” As the formal powers of the Austrian president exceed the constitutional practice, a president from the Freedom party could go a long way in sabotaging the current (unpopular) centrist government and help bring his party to power. His little sentence was understood by many as a hint that he would use his powers much more extensively than his predecessors did.

The Freedom Party thus poses not just a risk in radicalizing the debate about migration and refugees, but also in undermining liberal democracy in the country. If Hofer succeeds in Austria, this will mark a watershed in Europe, as parties which define themselves through their nationalism and nativism, marked with distinct authoritarianism undercurrents, will break the invisible wall that still divides Europe. Le Pen and others in Western Europe will have a success story to refer to.

The threat of liberal democracy in Europe does not come in a single disguise, but in distinct shapes, authoritarian and nationalist.


Tito as an Ottoman agent and how the earth no longer revolves around Serbia

A few days ago, Deutsche Welle ran a short story on my blog entry with funny exam answers I posted a few months ago. I guess the combination of the silliness of some of the quotes and a slow news day meant that the story was picked up by Tanjug, followed by most Serbian media (Vecernje Novosti, Blic, Danas, B92, Kurir, Politika, RT Vojvodina, and Press, including a commentary, and an interview I gave to RTS evening news), some in Bosnia (Radio Sarajevo, Dnevni Avaz, Glas Srpske), Slovenia (Radio Krka, RTV Slovenia), Croatia (Glas Istre, Vecernji List), Kosovo (Gazeta Express), Macedonia (A1,, Montenegro (Vijesti)  and Bulgaria (Vesti). The original article (unsurprisingly) dramatizes the quotes by suggesting that the students are future diplomats. While this might be true (and some, not quoted in my blog post, certainly would be good diplomats), I am rather confident that ones writing about Tito’s wig are less likely to end up in the foreign office. Of course the original post was self-selected by just listing the funniest contributions to over 400 exams over 4 years.

More interesting are the reactions to the articles in the Bosnian and Serbian press (and the comments I have received since). Of course a number suggest that it must have been my teaching which resulted in such skewed exam response. This grossly overestimates my creativity in making up the geography and history of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Reading through the debates (most comments have been posted on the blic website), I get three different takes on my student quotes.

1. “I would not be surprised if Tony Blair studied at this department…”

The first perspective sees in my student quotes evidence that Western policy towards Yugoslavia, from Tony Blair (above) to another suggesting that the ICJ is as ignorant as the students. Another thinks that “with such students, it is no surprise that they bombed us.” It is of course a creative step from bad student exams to international judges and prime ministers, but this the self-comforting take: We always knew it, the ignorant West mistreated us, if they knew better it would all be different.

2. “For Britain we are like Turkmenistan for us. So I ask you, what we, citizens of Serbia, know about Turkmenistan? … You expect that everything revolves around us.”

A number of comments take a different point of view, as represented by the quote above. They point out that the knowledge of students in Southeastern Europe is not necessarily much better. A comment on Avaz noted that “our students of history  wouldn’t be any better if they were asked about the history of Kyrgystan or Latvia. Nobody studies marginal countries.” Similarly a dear colleague from Serbia wrote to me that some students think the same (maybe less about Algerians in Kosovo, but maybe Tito’s wig?). I think these comments raise the right question. There is strong center-periphery tendency in educational systems. The familiarity of students in Westren Europe about Central and Eastern Europe might be limited (depending of course on where you’re from), but I don’t think an average student from Serbia would know much about Romania or Bulgaria, but know more about France and the UK. I need not to point out that I have also experience rather ignorant views of the West from some students in the Western Balkans.

3.  “The one who mentioned the Ottoman Empire is a pretty clever person. Even in our country people aren’t aware that Islam is slowly colonizing us.”

Finally, a third group see in the quotes evidence of their own conspiracy theories. Thus one person on Blic points out Tito was of course an Ottoman agent by creating the Muslim nation and another concurs as he/she see Islam colonizing the Balkans–I guess confirming the above take on the ability to find confused points of view everywhere–to which a witty reader replied that also gays and aliens are colonizing the Balkans. No further comment needed.

Dual Citizenship can be a solution, not a problem

I just published a comment with EUDO citizenship blog on dual citizenship for minorities.  Click here for the comment (The full text is below, to see the previous contributions follow link).

Both the Hungarian and the Slovak changes to their respective citizenship laws can hardly be viewed without considerable discomfort: They clearly constitute nationalist and populist moves that seek to re-affirm ethno-national ownership over the state. The idea that citizenship is linked to ethnic identity, irrespective of the place of residence is not only politically troubling, considering the timing before Slovak parliamentary elections, but also in the way Hungary structures itself as a state towards its own minorities. I therefore share the concerns expressed by Rainer Bauböck and Mária Kovács.

At first glance it appears therefore difficult to conceive of potential benefits the amendment to the Hungarian citizenship law might offer. This is even more evident when considering the matter in its broader regional context. As has been mentioned earlier, a large number of European states offer citizenship on the basis of descent or identifying with a particular nation, often with considerable impact on bilateral relations. In addition to Romania and its citizenship offer to citizens of Moldova (based on Moldova having been part of interwar Romania rather than ethnicity, though), all ethnic Macedonians are able to acquire Bulgarian citizenship based a mere declaration (and over 50,000 of them actually have done so), Croats in Bosnia (and according to the numbers also many other Bosnian citizens) have held Croatian citizenship and Serbs outside Serbia (and hypothetically others) can become Serbian citizens by declaring that they consider Serbia as “their state”.

The political and normative problems of these citizenship regimes, some of which Mária Kovács has alluded to, emerge mostly in the country offering access, rather than in the country where minorities with dual citizenship live: Voting rights might bolster populist nationalist political parties and these policies can be understood as defining the countries in question as ethnic democracies with a privileged core ethnic group.

Here, however, our primary concern is with the impact on the country where the minority with kin state citizenship resides.
First, ethnonational citizenship for minorities is often argued to undermine their loyalty towards the state. Compelling as it may seem, this argument does not convince empirically or conceptually. Take the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina. While the vast majority of Croats hold Croatian citizenship, at least until recently only very few Serbs in Bosnia have held Serb citizenship.  Nationalist parties supported by the respective kin states fought for secession during the 1990s. However, support for a common state over secession has been consistently and significantly higher among Bosnian Croats than among Bosnian Serbs. Citizenship of a kin state may be a symbol of limited identification with the country of residence, but it certainly is not the cause for it. As Andrei Stavila has argued, the citizenship offered by a kin state is only partial, even if it includes voting rights. Health care, education and many services, as well as taxation, which define social relations, remain linked to the country of residence – the only exceptions exist in countries with contested sovereignty and parallel systems of service provisions, as in Kosovo.

Second, it is also argued that dual citizenship gives a kin state a free hand to intervene in other countries’ policies towards minorities. One example might appear to be the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia sought to justify its intervention by claiming to protect Russian citizens. Yet, as Peter Spiro has argued elsewhere,  this argument did not gain much credence outside of Russia and there is little reason to believe that Russia would not have invaded had it not generously granted citizenship to inhabitants of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Problems stemming from dual citizenship can emerge if the kin state and the country where the minority resides do not possess a channel of communication to supplement the citizenship link between the minority and its kin state. However, this only suggests that dual citizenship cannot be the only component for arranging the complex relations between minority, kin state and country of residence.

This leaves the political disputes that might arise between states and minorities over dual citizenship, as is the case in Hungary-Slovakia, as a final point of critique. However, ethnically based citizenship is less the source of contention than a trigger or marker thereof, pointing to other unresolved issues. It is telling that the changes to the Hungarian citizenship law did not trigger similar strong responses in other countries with large Hungarian minorities, such as Romania and Serbia. As a result, the offer of citizenship to ethnic Hungarians by the Orban government was certainly ill-timed and intended to provoke rather than to improve relations with Slovakia, but it does not lie at the heart of tensions.

The critique of nationalist politics should therefore not distract from considering possible benefits of dual citizenship for minorities. I would argue that holding also the citizenship of the kin state can actually help to diffuse conflicts.  It lowers by implication the importance of the citizenship of the country of residence. In reducing its significance, it can diminish contestation over this citizenship and lessen the sense of having to rely on the good will of the majority (as the Slovak response appears to confirm). Diffusing and reducing sources of contestation can generally improve interethnic relations in divided societies. Not in the case of Slovakia and Hungary, but in post-conflict countries, the extra citizenship is also a sort of insurance policy, combined with an exit ticket. While one can lament the decline of certain minorities as a result (most prominently of course Germans in Central and Eastern Europe), the ‘exit option’ can provide a sense of security which might otherwise be absent.

In conclusion, one needs to note that the reasons for countries to offer citizenship to their ethnic kin are not always the same reasons motivating those who accept this offer. Many Macedonians who declared themselves to be Bulgarian to receive a passport certainly do not consider themselves Bulgarian but rather saw the passport as a useful way to travel. Similarly, many of 800,000 Bosnian citizens who also hold Croatian passports might just find it easier to leave Bosnia or to know that in case their country might suffer renewed conflict, they will be able to exit. Thus, ethnonationalist policies of countries are quickly subverted and citizenship becomes a practical tool for citizens who have experienced the transience of states and citizenship during their own lifetime.

Late thoughts on the 20th anniversary of 1989

Here’s is a text I wrote for the 1989 conference at Cornell in November.

Three Different 1989s

The monumental of events of 1989 and their aftermath were based on a collection of decisions, made or not made by Communist hard-liners, reformers, protesters and Western politicians. Far from inevitable, a number of other ‘1989s’ would have been possible.

Here three imaginary documents will stand for three different paths 1989 could have taken: The Communist crackdown, the Reform Communist take over and unified Europe.

The Crackdown

Except for Romania, no shot was fired during the overthrow of Communist regimes in 1989 in Eastern Europe. These mostly peaceful protests had followed the violent crack down of the student protests on Tiananmen Square in Bejing in June 1989. Many among the ageing guard of Communist leaders across Eastern Europe contemplated following China’s lead in fall of 1989. What if they had succeeded?

From: Der Freie Bote [The Free Messenger], East German samizdat, 3 February 1990.

Ever since the intervention of the army, the Neue Deutsche Volksarmee, during the Monday Protests in Leipzig on 9 October 1989, borders have remained firmly closed and news from out other democratic movements are scarce. [see interview with Egon Krenz, the successor to Erich Honecker in the fall of 1989:,9171,959320-2,00.html%5D

From West German news, now only to be viewed in rural Thüringen due to the stronger scrambling signals, we have heard that Poland continues to be in paralysis since the army intervention in December and the dismissal of the Mazowiecki government by General Jaruzelski. While protests have been disbanded by force, wildcat strikes and graffiti over the big cities, especially in Gdansk are a constant reminder of the crisis. In Czechoslovakia, a number of leaders of the demonstrations in November have been recently deported, including Vaclav Havel, who continues to broadcast his weekly speeches to the people of Czechoslovakia on Radio Free Europe.

The still relatively free press in the Soviet Union continues to speculate whether Gorbachev remains in power as he has not been seen in public since December 1989. Some observers note a change in tone of Pravda which has begun a series of unsigned editorials on “A Strong Economy for a Strong Soviet Union”, arguing -for economic reforms to reinforce the strength of the Soviet Union and its links to its allies.

It remains unclear to which degree Western governments are supporting our struggle for greater democracy. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the government have apparently frozen all ties with new leadership of the DDR and urged reforms. However, neither the US nor the EC have imposed sanctions and George Bush in a recent speech urged the Soviet leadership ‘to keep perestroika going’.

Hannes Modrow, a former leading member of the East German Communists has recently fled to Western Germany and been telling his story in a series of interviews on German television. According to him, the party has been deeply divided between reformers and hardliners before the purges in December. According to him, the determination of the politburo to use the army to end protests grew after his visit to China in June 1989. Modrow claims that Chinese advisors arrived in early November to provide guidance on repressing protests, but such accounts have not been confirmed by other sources.

Will it be another 20 years, just like after the Prague Spring in 1968 before we will get another chance?

Reform Communists

When Mikhail Gorbachev initiated his policy of Glasnost and Perestroika, his goal was to rejuvenate and modernize Soviet rule, but not to abandon Communism or dismantle Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union itself. What if succeeded?

From: John Smith, Reforms and Glasnost in Eastern Europe since 1989. Reform Communists between Market and Nation from East Berlin to Sofia. 1995.

Günther Schabowski breathed a sigh of relief—another one of these press conferences with increasingly difficult journalist question has been mastered. It was hard getting used to hard questions journalists were asking, especially as decision had to be taken quickly. Had he not checked his papers carefully before the press conference, he would have not been able the question which an Italian correspondent had asked him right at the end of the press conference about the new travel regime. “When does it come into effect?” As Schabowski went to bed, he knew that the 10 November would be a historical day, for the first time since 1961 East Germans could receive their stamp at the border and cross into Western Germany. [see transcript of the original press conference:

Indeed, as East German citizens formed long lines in Berlin along the border to reach the western half of the city, the wall had lost most of its power. Still, East German border guards remained in control and East Germans not returning back to the DDR risked loosing their property and job until the two German governments signed the agreement on the Freedom of Movement of citizens of the BRD and DDR in 1991, leading to the gradual removal of Berlin wall.

As Schabowski was mastering the press conference on the evening of the 9 November, the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party decided in a clear majority to send Todor Zhivkov into retirement. For all his flaws, the CC decided that his policy towards the Turkish threat against Bulgaria was wise and needed to be maintained. Especially now that 350,000 Turks had left in recent months, their quick return would only destabilize an already highly volatile situation. The thousands of Bulgarians who had the received the former Turkish properties would certainly turn against the government if they would have to hand over the houses and lands once more to their previous owners. If Bulgaria will engage in reforms, it has to make sure not to be vulnerable to the Turkish threat. After all in neighboring Serbia, the reformist Communist Slobodan Milošević had just similarly identified Albanians as a threat to modernization and the Serb majority.

By Christmas 1989, a young reformist guard of the Communist parties from Sofia to East Berlin had come to power, demonstrating a pragmatic approach to the challenges the countries faced. Devoid of a clear commitment to Communism, the new leaders from Modrow in Eastern Germany to Illiescu in Romania gathered in Moscow in late January 1990 to meet with their mentor Gorbachev to reinvigorate the Council for Mutual Cooperation and accelerate talks with the EC about greater cooperation. As had been the case since the early 1980s, Poland remained the odd country out of sync with the rest of Eastern Europe. Its non-Communist government, established after the June election, was oddly out of place at the Moscow summit.

A United Europe?

Nearly 15 years passed between the fall of Communists regimes and the first wave of EU integration of the countries of Eastern and Central Europe. This process was based on the new members the laws, rules and norms of the ever changing European Union, which had re-invited itself with the Maastricht Treaty and Euro during the 1990s. What if the EU had instead opted to offer rapid integration and a broader vision of a unified Europe?

From a European History Textbook for 12th Graders: European Integration and Unification, Brussels, 2010.

The 1993 European unification summit marked the beginning of the European Union. As presidents and prime ministers from 24 countries gathered in Berlin, the conference marked the end of the old European Community and the beginning of the European Union. From 12 members of the old EC, the new Union included the newly independent Baltic states, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Austria, Sweden and Finland. Malta, Cyprus and Albania had begun accession talks, but had failed to conclude talks joining the new European Union. They joined jointly in 1995. [see interview with Jacques Delors, EC president in 1989

The Berlin summit did not only mark the doubling in size of the EU, but also the signing of the Berlin treaty, which was the result of the draft constitution proposed by the European Constitutional Convention which had been in session in 1991 and 1992 to draft a new framework for European politics. In addition to a president of the European Union, it established the office of the EU’s Foreign minister. Jacques Delors, who had overseen the big bang enlargement of the EC was nominated to be the first EU president, with former Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki as the Foreign Minister of the EU.

Supporters of the big bang approach argued that the quick commitment of the EU to enlargement at the Luxembourg summit in June 1990 was necessary. The summit had made a clear promise of membership in the new European Union for every country in Europe committed to democracy and accelerated talks for integration with substantial financial assistance (formally know as PHARE, but widely dubbed ‘Europe’s Marshall Plan’). According to supporters, the quick response of the EU helped starve of the constitutional crisis in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia and contributed to quick overthrow of the Iliescu government in Romania in August 1990 and the victory of Ante Marković in Yugoslavia’s elections in 1990.

Critiques have challenged that the possibility of a dissolution of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia always appeared remote and that the quick unification of the European continent was high on symbols, but lacked sound economic and political logic: While Spain, Portugal and Greece had waited for nearly a decade after democratizing before joining the EC, the countries of Eastern Europe only waited four years. Furthermore, by creating the large EU, Western countries were exposed to strong labor cost pressures whereas many industries in Eastern Europe had to compete with more efficient Western companies.

Questions for pupils:

  1. Image what would have happened had the European Union with 24 members not been established in 1993?
  2. Give an example on how the EC/EU Marshall Plan changed the lives of European citizens. Can you think of any personal example?
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