The collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe 15 years ago brought vast and positive democratic changes. But in 2006, after more than a decade of striving for acceptance by the West, the moral and political vacuum left by communism was fully exposed. Can a new balance between the democratic ethos and the undertows of the region’s political history and culture be found?
In Poland, for example, the prevailing mix of Catholicism and nationalism made society particularly resistant to communism (certainly in comparison with the egalitarian, social-democratic ethos of pre-war Czechoslovakia). But these anti-communist antibodies also worked against the universal acceptance among Poles of liberal democracy.
Indeed, right-wing populists in Poland and left-wing populists in Slovakia are now allied in government with extreme nationalist parties. In Hungary, the main opposition party Fidesz organizes demonstrations in front of Parliament for the resignation of a government, even after it won a confidence vote. In the Czech Republic, a minority right-wing government has not gained a confidence vote in Parliament after six months of bickering. Bulgaria’s entry into the European Union was heralded by a presidential race between an ex-communist (the victor, who claimed to like the EU) and a proto-fascist (who says he hates Turks, Gypsies, and Jews).
Political instability and unpredictable behavior by elected leaders typifies affairs throughout the region. Even more worrying is the erosion of trust in democratic institutions. According to a recent Gallup International poll, Central and East Europeans are the most skeptical about democracy, which only about one-third of people trust. In contrast to a majority of West Europeans, East Europeans do not consider their elections free and fair. Only 22% responded affirmatively when asked, “Do you think your voice matters?” Democracy today has no rivals, but it is losing support.