Hungary is ruled by an authoritarian demagogue who uses racist slogans to incite his voters against fictitious refugees. Romania has a government whose main goal is to protect its corrupt officials from punishment. The Czech Prime Minister has illegally channelled EU subsidies into his own companies and impedes scrutiny of his business. In Poland there are nationalists in power who do not tolerate an independent judiciary and do not respect the Constitution. Beyond the EU borders, criminal oligarchs rule in Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia and Montenegro, and Russia’s eternal president is enthroned above all, like the Tsar, for whom no means is too dirty to keep himself and his clique in power.
Thirty years after liberation from the Soviet yoke, democracy and the rule of law are in a bad way in the countries of the former Eastern bloc. The heirs to the authoritarian party dictatorships, it seems, do not much care for the basic values of a united Europe. This is why authoritarian populists and unscrupulous profiteers have an easy time. This is roughly how the narrative of post-communist Central and Eastern Europe is commonly told in the West.
But it is wrong. For it insinuates that the people in these countries do not want things any differently, because they don’t know any better. But this applies, at best, to the – still – ruling part of the elites in parties and companies close to the state. Many millions of citizens have long known better – and this year they have brought Europe a long-awaited stream of good news.
This began in March in Slovakia. After the Mafia murder of the investigative journalist Jan Kuciak the previous year, the Slovaks rose revolted and surprisingly elected Zuzana Caputova, an activist against corruption, to the presidency who also openly opposes the anti-liberal attacks by Viktor Orban in neighbouring Hungary. Soon afterwards, the parliaments in Lithuania and Latvia elected moderate pro-European and credible democrats to the presidency.
In June, the Czechs then showed that they were no longer willing to tolerate Prime Minister Andreij Babis, who is accused of having having taken subsidies illegally. At the height of the protest more than a quarter of a million people on the streets of Prague demanded his resignation. Measured in terms of population, this corresponded to as many as two million demonstrators in Germany. Babis was still in office during the summer break, but the activists announced that they would continue the showdown with all their might in the autumn.
Two weeks ago the Romanians followed the Czech example and turned out in tens of thousands against the ruling party that is steeped in corruption, not least because the many foreign Romanians fleeing poverty and mismanagement are mobilising for a democratic, constitutional change in their homeland.
Even beyond the EU border, the will for democracy is alive and kicking. In Serbia, activists against the regime of autocrat Alexander Vucic have been growing in popularity for more than a year. In Albania, thousands of citizens stand up every month against their prime minister, whom they accuse of electoral fraud. In Ukraine, the citizens elected the comedian Vladimir Zelensky as president, not for his ability to do the job, but because he at least stands for a new start against the oligarchy-governed apparatus.
And now it’s even happening in Russia. Despite police violence and hundreds of arbitrary arrests, another 50,000 Muscovites marched against their incompetent president in the Kremlin, demanding fair and free elections. For the first time in a long while, Putin’s regime has reached the limits of repression and is losing approval on a broad front.
All this shows that there is no quasi-natural division in Europe between the authoritarian East and the democratically consolidated West, especially since the latter is in question with the rise of the Italian crypto-fascist Matteo Salvini. Of course, it is by no means certain that any of the activists from Moscow to Tirana will prevail. It is therefore all the more urgent to overcome the arrogant ignorance of many Western Europeans towards the struggles of their Eastern neighbours for economic participation and democracy and to take the offensive and recognisable side of those who are fighting against the abuse of power by their rulers in order to secure their democratic rights.
Democracy is not a state, but a process and must be fought for again and again. And this is just as true in the West as it is in the East.