When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union disintegrated, it seemed that the triumph of Western democratic values was complete. If communism represented autocratic state/party control of political and economic life, the West represented limited government devoted to facilitating individual choice, not suppressing it.
In Russia, a parliamentary democracy replaced the dictatorship of the proletariat. In Central and Eastern Europe, formerly “captive nations” clamored to join NATO and the EU as they established their own democracies. Outside Europe, there were stirrings. Turkey threw off decades of autocratic military rule, held elections and petitioned to join the EU — to become a Western nation by political choice. Some years later, even the Middle East seemed poised to follow suit as popular uprisings toppled Arab dictatorships in what came to be known as the Arab Spring.
Seldom has history provided such ground for pervasive political optimism as existed in the 1990s and early years of this century. But today that optimism seems illusory and dark cynicism far more appropriate. Russia has reverted to a de facto dictatorship under a latter-day czar, Vladimir Putin. Russia will continue to hold elections under a nominal constitution, but it is a near certainty that Putin will find a way to be “re-elected” as long as he wants. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has followed the same playbook: get elected once and then clamp down on the media, the courts and political institutions to make sure you win every future election. In the Middle East, the Arab Spring gave way to a new era of autocracy limited only by incompetence, civil strife and corruption. China, in its own way, has followed a similar trajectory. Since 1980, the Communist Party has adhered to a system that selected a new group of leaders every 10 years. Within severe limits, the system did provide for an element of accountability and renewal. That is all over; the current leader, Xi Jinping, has gutted these provisions and is now ensconced as president for life.
The most interesting and telling developments have occurred in Europe — particularly in Eastern/Central Europe, where “illiberal” political forces seem to be in ascendance. This is particularly true in Hungary and Poland, but there have been echoes in the Czech Republic and to a lesser degree, Slovakia. In Hungary, Victor Orban has become a semi-autocratic strongman. One close observer describes Orban’s political strategy as “neutralize an independent judiciary; subjugate much of the media; demonize migrants; create loyal new elites through crony capitalism; claim that the ‘people’s will’ overrides constitutional checks and balances.” In Poland, the prime minister has adopted the same strategy. Both leaders have made the EU their favorite whipping boy — Brussels bureaucrats who supposedly want to submerge traditional national culture and values under a tide of globalism. Think of it as Davos vs. Budapest and Warsaw. All this is made more striking by the fact that Hungary and Poland have benefited hugely from financial aid from the EU. Between 2012 and 2016 alone, Poland received $90 billion in EU assistance. The results have been spectacular with rapid modernization of a region that continues to enjoy robust economic growth.
So what explains the lurch toward authoritarianism? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the historical roots of democracy in many of these countries are shallow or nonexistent. The Arab political tradition is entirely autocratic. The same is true for Russia and Turkey. Hungary flirted with fascism in the 1930s and allied with Germany during World War II. With the exception of the former Czechoslovakia, democracy has little historic precedent in Eastern Europe. A second factor involves the impact of the disorienting and wrenching changes that came with the collapse of communism. For the urban young, these changes spell opportunity; for the rural older generation, it can all seem threatening. EU largesse has flowed disproportionately into the relatively affluent cities. The resulting resentment in less well off rural areas has provided the political constituency that underpins the current leaders in Poland and Hungary. A third consideration is that the new autocrats are skilled political demagogues who know how to whip up political support to defend the nation against “enemies” real or largely imagined. The recent wave of migrants coming into Europe from the Middle East and Africa has been a political godsend for those leaders who portray Islamic hordes descending on their villages. Each leader has his own favorite enemy. For Putin, it is NATO and the United States. For Erdogan, it is the Kurds. For Poland, it is godless globalists. For Hungary, it is Muslim migrants aided and abetted by the EU. All of these champion in one form or another the “purity” of their native land and the threat of the “other.” Here is Hungary’s Orban at an election rally: “We do not want to be a multi-colored country … [where people mix] in such a way that our color is mixed with other colors.” There is a distinct whiff of fascism in the air. Not surprisingly, perhaps the most important factor shared by these various autocrats and semi-autocrats is a love for power — their own political power — beyond anything else.
Over the weekend, Hungary held closely watched parliamentary elections. European monitors condemned the election process as unfair with gerrymandered districts, “intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and opaque financing.” But the turnout was high and Orban’s party won in a landslide. Orban has promised to “settle accounts” with his opponents. For the EU and for the United States, it seems clear that the new autocrats are not going anywhere anytime soon.