The barbaric war in Ukraine seems to have a silver lining – the Russian aggressor has become a catalyst for European states to reevaluate their democratic standing and commitment to EU values. Russia’s ideological reversal provides insights into the strength of democracy in Europe and may signal the end of a post-cold-war Europe and the beginning of a new west-east divide between liberalism and authoritarianism.
Ukraine’s plea for EU Membership
Prior to Ukraine’s invasion, Russian influence and Putin’s authoritarianism have largely been tolerated as a legitimate political regime in the global system. However, with Russia’s launch of a military invasion into the independent and democratic state of Ukraine, western tolerance has shifted to worldwide resentment. Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, has become the face of a courageous stance against Russian terror. With his newly gained political importance, he has requested Ukraine’s “immediate accession via a new special procedure” into the EU. Zelensky’s plea for immediate EU membership has been met with conflicting viewpoints across member states. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s President, has declared that Ukraine deserves to be part of the EU – “They are one of us and we want them in”. She alone does not have the power to grant membership to prospective states, but instead, the decision has to be negotiated and made by a unanimous vote of all 27 member countries.
Hungary’s ideological deadlock
The conflict places the west and east at the discretion of a double-edged sword. Whilst Russia’s invasion has the potential to devastate Putin’s legitimacy as a leader and international actor, it simultaneously places European backsliding countries in an intricate position: Putin or the EU. The Moscow-friendly Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been undergoing vetting since the invasion. The Ukrainian president has called him out for his lack of support in regard to his neighbor. Orbán’s behavior is marked by strong norms of forbearance, but not in the classical sense of safeguarding the existing system, but seemingly to prolong time and eventually choose the winning side. His new election campaign exploits his electorate’s sense of insecurity, prompting them to “preserve Hungary’s peace and security!” Despite the fact that the opposition is not advancing tactics of military engagement at all, he has been using state resources and the media to convince his overwhelmingly lower-middle-class and pensioner electorate of the opposite, signaling the subverting of democracy.
Poland’s realignment with the west
Poland’s democracy has equally been eroding over the past years as demonstrated by a report issued by the V-Dem Institute, a democracy NGO, which found that Poland was one of the world’s top “autocractizing” countries. However, for the first time in recent years, Poland has been receiving positive press regarding its stance in the Ukraine conflict. Not only has Poland become the main staging point for all war supplies, but ordinary poles have been assisting more than half a million Ukrainian refugees with shelter and relief aid packages. Polish representatives have expressed hope that the European Commission would see past accusations of violating the bloc’s rule of law principles, in return for Poland’s continued support and cooperation. The commission hasn’t unlocked €36 billion in covid-19 grants due to undemocratic proceedings in its judiciary. The commission president reiterated that these grants would only be released once the concerned chamber of judges is dissolved and not as a favor for their Ukrainian support. In light of the situation, Donald Tusk, leader of the opposition Civic Platform party and a former prime minister and European Council president, commended national unity and advocated for a return to “a return of rule of law in Poland.” Many others agree and believe that democratic reforms to the judiciary are imperative in repairing polish relations with the EU and USA.
Global polarization over democratic ideals
Seemingly the Ukraine conflict has cut through European order with a “democratizing edge” providing favorable incentives for democracy in backsliding countries – arguably, not in the name of advancing liberal values but rather in the name of national security. Yet, on an international level, the war is only amplifying the cracks of democracy that backsliding countries have manifested over the past years and decades. In total, 35 states (or half of the global population) have foregone the UN General Assembly motion rebuking Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Despite some positive changes in the EU’s backsliding states, comprehensively, democracy is in a much more vulnerable position than authoritarian regimes. In fact, there is no universal “delegitimization of Putin-esque” values, even if that may hold true for western Europe. Facta non-verba, years of democratic backsliding in both Hungary and Poland have created crevices between the fronts, severing trust and synergy to and from the EU. Additionally, while all other central and eastern European countries terminate dealings with Russia’s International Investment Bank, Hungary did not. Likewise, Orbán persists in his tactical game aiming to remain in Putin’s good books by showing hesitancy to implement EU sanction packages. In his predictions, sanction packages will become too costly over time, accumulating a growing resistance that will advocate for a coexistence with Russia – in which Orbán plans to be first in line. Should his predictions hold true, he can leverage breaking unity with respect to economic sanctions to threaten EU member countries and in turn, blackmail his allies with vetoes.
Antidemocratic legacies and the EU’s future
Poland may have shown a more humane response to the conflict, yet that does not amend the damaging effects the governing party has had on the rule of law and democratic practices. While the commission feels under pressure to provide support to Poland, it cannot let go of years of past transgressions. Consequently, a common defense, even when in its own national interest, will not single-handedly steer a country toward democratization. In particular, since this new-found unity is enforced through fear of a common enemy, it is more likely to weaken democracy at state and supranational levels. Furthermore, unlike Poland’s damaged judiciary, democratic states with solid legal mechanisms have considerable capacity for some flexibility in times of crisis and will recuperate immediately. Poland displays symptoms of “constitutional retrogression” (namely the absence of the adjudicative and administrative rule of law), that excludes the country from the luxury of flexibility. Regardless, it should not go unnoticed that eastern European states that have portrayed previous sympathy with Russian autocracy, have had to entirely reevaluate their stance on their loyalty and commitment to European ideals and have, to some degree, made adjustments. While it is too early to predict whether internal reforms of state institutions will follow, a measurable return to European values can be deemed significant. The threat derived from Russian aggression may be the catalyst the EU needed to reassert its unwavering, unified, and just position in the face of a common enemy and within the global system.