The fall of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union brought hope that the newly liberated Central and Eastern European countries would be able to step out of the shackles of authoritarianism and become liberal democracies. There was an eagerness present in the countries to make this transition which ultimately led to the formation of the Viségrad Group in 1991. The Viségrad Group was comprised of these former Soviet satellite countries: the Republic of Hungary, the Republic of Poland, and the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic. In 1993, there was a dissolution of the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic, thus resulting in the establishment of the Czech Republic and Slovakia as separate states.
In the 1991 Viségrad Declaration, the long-term goals of the Viségrad Group were presented. Their goals included achieving independent statehood, fully embracing democratic principles, eliminating the remaining authoritarian influences in Central Europe, and overcoming historical tensions among the Central and Eastern European countries. They also sought full integration into the European political and economic system.
They no longer wanted to be on the outside looking in.
Between 1991 and 1998, there would not be much activity between the quartet. However, in 1998, the Viségrad Group underwent revitalization. At the Prime Ministers’ Summit in May 1999, the prime ministers approved holding regular meetings to discuss foreign and defense policies, border and immigration affairs, infrastructure strategies and projects, and the implementation of cultural programs highlighting on each country’s cultural heritage and history. They hoped that this cooperation would propel them into the European Union—the ultimate signal that they had achieved their goal in becoming liberal democracies.
The years following the creation of the Viségrad Group would be marked with great success, particularly rapid economic growth. According to Jan Pakulski’s “The Viségrad Countries in Crisis,” between the years 1990 and 2015, the GDP per capita in the four countries increased significantly—tripled. Since income and consumption grew rapidly, this allowed for the income disparity between the more established, democratic Western European region and the fledging democratic Central European countries to be narrowed.
In March 1999, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic would join NATO and were one step closer to accession into the European Union. (Slovakia would not join NATO until March 2004.)
2004 would prove to be a monumental year for the Viségrad Group because it would finally gain accession to the European Union (EU). It appeared as though democratic consolidation had worked. As members of the EU, the countries would have to adhere to the democratic principles of the organization.
Unfortunately, this is where the success story ends.
Since their admission into the European Union, there has been ample evidence of democratic backsliding as well as the emergence of illiberalism in the countries of the Viségrad alliance. Bermeo defines democratic backsliding as the “state-led deliberation or elimination of any of the political institutions that sustain an existing democracy.” Sheri Berman refers to illiberal democracy as the maintenance of “free and fair elections” while the “rule of law, separation of powers, and basic liberties” are attacked.
In Hungary, democratic backsliding was evident in the years following 2009. The economic policies of then-Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány nearly led the country to an economic collapse with the unemployment rate skyrocketing to 8.4%. This economic disaster led the Hungarian citizens to have an unfavorable perception of the ruling Socialist Party. The perfect environment was created for the emergence of the FIDESZ Party—a right-wing populist political party—and its leader, Viktor Orbán. In the 2010 parliamentary elections, the FIDESZ Party and Orbán cruised to victory. They have remained in power, claiming victories in the 2014 and 2018 parliamentary elections as well. In their now eight years in power, there has been a maintenance of “free and fair elections” with a simultaneous chiseling away of basic liberties. Prime Minister Orbán and FIDESZ have implemented policies to intimidate opposition groups and the general public. The judicial independence of the Constitutional Court has been diminished due to the FIDESZ appointees. The introduction of media laws in 2010 and 2015 have significantly weakened freedoms of the press. This has left the press susceptible to political influence and the coverage of events is dictated by the government, including coverage of the European refugee crisis. What is unsettling is that in a 2014 speech PM Orbán railed against liberal democracies and advocated for an embrace of illiberal or authoritarian principles.
In Poland, democratic backsliding coincided with the emergence of the Law and Justice Party—a socially conservative, populist political party—in 2015. The party praised Viktor Orbán’s actions in Hungary and sought to replicate them in a shorter timeframe. They have certainly accomplished this. In two years, the democratic principle of checks and balances has been ignored. Legislative actors delegated more power to the judicial minister who is responsible for replacing more than forty percent of the judges in the Constitutional Tribunal. They have also implemented media laws increasing regulation on the press. This is leading researchers to fear that the country is slipping back into authoritarianism.
In Slovakia, democratic backsliding became apparent in 2016. The emergence of the Kotleba (People’s Party – Our Slovakia)—a far-right, populist political party—in parliament coupled with unstable political coalitions make Slovakia susceptible to further backsliding. According to Eurobarometer conducted in 2017, Slovakians had the “lowest confidence [of all EU countries] in the independence of the judiciary” and labeled “interference or pressure from government or politicians” as the main reason. In addition, Slovakia is riddled with political corruption and this has severely undermined democratic institutions in the state and public trust. In fact, a Slovakian journalist seeking to expose the corruption in the government was murdered earlier this year. This sparked outrage and ultimately led to the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico.
In the Czech Republic, there does not appear to be a rise in far-right extremist parties. Instead, there is a willingness from democratically elected—and incumbent—officials to embrace illiberalism. Czech President Milos Zeman, regarded as a close friend of Vladimir Putin, has sought to change the constitutional fabric of the country by shifting the government from a parliamentary system to a semi-presidential system. This would shift more power to him. In addition, Zeman has spoken out against journalists. In a 2017 speech, he stated that there were too many journalists and suggested that the journalists be “liquidated.” This is disturbing rhetoric coming from the Czech President.
This brings forward the following questions: Do these countries belong in the European Union? If they are to remain in the European Union, what steps can be done to prevent further democratic backsliding in these countries?
EU parliament suspended Hungary’s voting rights with the EU in September 2018 and is considering imposing sanctions against Hungary in response to the country’s shift towards illiberalism. Poland may face budget cuts by the EU for its shift towards illiberalism. It is not clear if these reprimands will deter further democratic backsliding in the Viségrad Group.
I do not know what the future holds. The only thing that is certain is that the Viségrad Group has become the new illiberal democratic bloc.
(Photo by Cristina Arias, “European Union flag at the Mirador de San Vicente in Rio Madrid, Spain, April 2011.”)