Illiberal and authoritarian tendencies in Central, Southeastern and Eastern Europe

by Florian Bieber (Volume editor) Magdalena Solska (Volume editor) Dane Taleski (Volume editor)
©2018 Edited Collection 378 Pages


Even though the democratic decline has been deemed a global phenomenon, the question of how it manifests itself in the postcommunist world and how it varies across different regions with divergent levels of democratic consolidation has not been sufficiently addressed yet. This book tries to fill the gap and examines the causes and nature of the deteriorating quality of democracy in Central Europe as well as the reversal or stagnation of democratization processes in Southeastern and Eastern Europe. The political elite plays a key role in initiating legislative changes that may lead to democratic backsliding. Its constant commitment to the rule of law and to the practice of selfrestraint in securing the independence of judiciary and the rights of political opposition appears hence indispensable for sustainable liberal democracy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Part I: Introduction: The State of Democracy and Authoritarianism
  • 1. Introduction (Florian Bieber / Magdalena Solska)
  • 2. Democracy, Dictatorship and Hybrid Regimes: Concepts and Approaches (András Bozóki / Dániel Hegedűs)
  • 3. Between Stalled Reforms and Authoritarian Temptations: Revisiting Debates on Democratization, “Grey-Zone Regimes” and “Bad Leadership” in Eastern and Southeastern Europe (Vedran Džihić / Nicolas Hayoz)
  • Part II: Democratic Decline in Central Europe
  • Central Europe: Regional Overview (Magdalena Solska)
  • 4. Populist, Illiberal and Authoritarian Challenges to Democracy in Slovakia (Grigorij Mesežnikov)
  • 5. The Politics of “Good Change” in Poland (Magdalena Solska)
  • 6. Pioneering Illiberal State Building in the European Union: The Case of Hungary (Dániel Hegedűs)
  • Part III: Competitive Authoritarianism and Democratic Stagnation in the Western Balkans
  • Western Balkans: Regional Overview (Florian Bieber)
  • 7. Serbia – A Regime that Only Seemed Gone (Irena Ristić)
  • 8. Montenegro between Democracy and Authoritarianism (Jovana Marović)
  • 9. Illiberal Tendencies and the Aspirations for Euro-Atlantic Integration in Kosovo (Arben Hajrullahu / Lirije Palushi)
  • 10. Macedonia: Illiberal Democracy or Outright Authoritarianism? (Ljupcho Petkovski / Dimitar Nikolovski)
  • 11. From International State Building to Domestic Political Clientelism: The Failures of Postwar Liberalization in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Adis Merdzanovic)
  • Part IV: Stalled Democratization in Eastern Europe
  • Eastern Europe: Regional Overview (Nicolas Hayoz)
  • 12. Ukraine after Euromaidan: Increased Pluralism amid Patronal Politics (Oleksii Sydorchuk / Olexiy Haran)
  • 13. Moldova: From Poster Child to Democratic Decay (Natalia Timuş)
  • 14. Splitting the Apex: Liberal Democracy and Georgian Political Elites (Giga Zedania)
  • Part V: Regional Comparisons and Conclusions
  • 15. Different Faces of Illiberal Party Politics in Central and Eastern Europe (Vlastimil Havlík / Věra Stojarová)
  • 16. The Role of the European Union in Building Democracy in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union (Cvete Koneska)
  • 17. Conclusion (Florian Bieber / Magdalena Solska)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Series index

← 8 | 9 →

Part I
Introduction: The State of Democracy and Authoritarianism

← 9 | 10 →

← 10 | 11 →

Florian Bieber and Magdalena Solska

1.  Introduction

Moments of crisis reveal exactly how diverse the democratic world is. Its rules and values are not necessarily homogenous; they have different traditions and undergo different interpretations. We talk about democracy, rule of law, social justice and freedom, and understand them through the prism of these different traditions and historical experiences. John Ikenberry (2018), while writing about the crisis of liberal internationalism, stated that the unity of the West constituted an “artefact”, lasting as long as the hegemony of the United States persisted. The same could be said about the concept of the “enlarged Europe”, bound to last as long as the dominance continues of the European Union, which enforces a kind of homogeneity of different traditions, experiences, and above all, interests. We live in a moment of crisis, not only of the liberal international order, but also of liberal democracy, which appears fragile and increasingly polarized, vulnerable to far-right populism and backlash politics (Ikenberry, 2018).

A democratic decline has thus been deemed a global phenomenon. In the 1990s, Peter Mair and Richard Katz pointed to the alarming development of the cartel party, oriented more towards the state rather than its voters. A waning popular engagement in the political process, lower levels of electoral participation, declining levels of party membership, a fading sense of attachment or identification with conventional political alternatives have become prevalent in many western democracies (Mair, 2006). The remoteness of political elites paved the way for the populist parties of different ideological leanings. In fact, far-right and populist forces have made considerable electoral gains in Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands and United Kingdom. The election of Donald Trump to the President of the United States has led to the fear of an overtly authoritarian leadership style (Levitsky and Ziblatt, 2018). Whereas the emergence of illiberal actors in Western Europe has drawn much academic attention, comparative studies concerning postcommunist space remain clearly neglected (see Holzer and Mareš, 2016). The question addressed in this volume is therefore: “how does global democratic backsliding manifest ← 11 | 12 → itself in the postcommunist world and how does it vary across the different regions with divergent levels of democratic consolidation?”

The answer touches upon the very essence of the postcommunist system transformation and its end – the consolidation of democracy. However, the notion of democratic consolidation remains contested (Schedler, 2001). The substantive understanding of this term (see Svolik, 2015) emphasizes the desirable outcomes, frequently including robust political competition, vibrant civil society, and widespread acceptance of key democratic tenets among the public and the elites, i.e. emergence of a new political culture through the incorporation of democratic norms at the wider societal level. The prospective definition, in turn, denotes rather the continuity and durability of democratic regimes. However, the widely felt and attested “democratic decline” at the global level contrasts with the perception that democratic consolidation is a stable and permanent phase. This contradiction has resulted in a debate on the “end of transition paradigm” (Carothers, 2002), as well as on the sources, existence and expression of “democratic backsliding” (see Bermeo, 2016; Mechkova et al., 2017).

As a global phenomenon, democratic backsliding covers regions with very different patterns and levels of democratic rule. In this volume, we look at three regions with a common communist past but different traditions of statehood and pluralism: the EU member states, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia; the Western Balkan countries with a realistic prospect of joining the European Union (Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia); and the Eastern European countries embraced by the European Neighbourhood Policy (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia). All the cases discussed here have faced similar challenges, moving away from communism (establishing a working democratic order, introducing a free market economy, maintaining an efficient state based on the rule of law and developing civil society) but have proceeded along increasingly different trajectories within the last two decades. In Central and Northeastern European countries, the successful postcommunist system transformation towards democracy and market economy was attributed to several factors (see Maćków, 1999): ← 12 | 13 →

Democracy is regarded as a political system based on the rule of law and political competition. Its crucial principle – political equality – can only be realized through various forms of participation. There are generally two approaches to the definition of democracy – the procedural and substantive (Gwiazda, 2016: 14). Whereas democracy can be understood as a set of procedures guaranteeing accountability, representation, competition and participation, the substantive (maximalist) understanding of democracy highlights such conditions as human welfare, individual freedom, social rights and security (Mair, 2008). We resort to a procedural perspective, as it allows exploration of the quality of political processes and the functioning of democracies as political systems (see Gwiazda, 2016).

The postcommunist democracies have never been impeccable. The opaque links between economy and politics, corruption, weakly institutionalized parties and party systems,1 scarcely organized civil society, and the missing democratic political culture among the elites and in society have characterized all postcommunist democracies. At the same time, the basic institutional tenets of liberal democracy – the rule of law, free and fair elections, division of powers including an independent judiciary, individual freedom both from external interference and the right of citizens to participate in the political process, political opposition and equal rights for minority groups, free market – were fulfilled to a greater or lesser extent.

Considering the complexity and uncertainty of the postcommunist transformation process, it came as a surprise that extremist, populist or illiberal forces played only marginal role during the system transformation. Postcommunist societies appeared surprisingly patient (Greskovits, ← 13 | 14 → 1998) while faced with the inevitably rising social inequalities. Mass mobilization across the region occurred, instead, against transgression from the path of reforms, epitomized by the “colour revolutions” (Ekiert, 2012). Consequently, initial fears about the popular protest against the neoliberal economic reforms implemented after 1989 faded away gradually. It was more than a decade after the EU and NATO accession that the assessment of democratic performance of, especially, the CEE countries, became more qualified. Regional experts have questioned the depth and sustainability of democratic institutionalization (Krastev, 2016) and have expressed concerns related to the process of “democratic backsliding” and illiberal, authoritarian tendencies in the region (Greskovits, 2015) as well as in the Balkan countries (BiEPAG, 2017).

When it comes to explaining divergent outcomes of postaccession developments and, more precisely, the different degree of democratic decline, two approaches may be mentioned: the structural one, focusing on economic performance, political culture, historical legacies; and the agency-related approach, focused on actor-level dynamics, such as elite choice, public opinion, attitudinal shifts (Tomini and Wagemann, 2017: 2–6). Backsliding is often associated with agency-related explanations (see Lust and Waldner, 2018), in particular the specific elite behaviour, whereby these “agents of change” are in a comfortable situation of absolute or constitutional majority of seats in the parliament and, at times, exercise control over presidential office. Structural factors can therefore act as enabling conditions (the state of democracy and economic situation before the problematic appearances), whereas agency-related elements account for the adjacent decline in democratic quality within the existing regime. Democratic backsliding therefore implies deliberate policies aiming at strengthening the power position of the ruling party, while placing its candidates in the oversight institutions, such as Constitutional Courts, judiciary, (state) media, civil service, civil society organizations, which in liberal democracies maintain their autonomy. This practice is usually associated with populist, antiestablishment discourse, emphasizing the previous elites’ failures and corruption, their subsequent lack of legitimacy as the current political opposition, and the claim of the ruling party for true representation of the “will of the people”. Such appropriation of public office and divisive discourse constitute the “illiberal tendencies”2 that may ← 14 | 15 → weaken the quality of democracy. It is against this background that we will be able to assess the depth and meaning of the backsliding processes observed in the regions that will be discussed.

The backsliding “entails a deterioration of qualities associated with democratic governance, within any regime. In democratic regimes, it is a decline in the quality of democracy; in autocracies, it is a decline in democratic qualities of governance” (Lust and Waldner, 2018: 5.3). Following the authors, the backsliding negatively affects competitive elections, liberties and accountability. The procedural dimension of democracy includes electoral competition (e.g. ability of parties to organize and participate in elections, independent electoral institutions). The liberties and rights relate to the laws and procedures governing civil society associations, media and freedom of assembly. Finally, horizontal and vertical accountability require the independence of the judicial and the legislative branches. This broad definition allows us to compare the cases of postcommunist democracies and nondemocracies as regards institutional and sociocultural dimensions of policy changes and proximate processes.

Jan Kubik also mentions the cultural causes of illiberalism, which should be considered from two angles: supply and demand. The political-culture approaches exploring the aggregates of attitudes provide answers to the demand side. Changes in demand for new narratives or ideologies are usually elucidated with extracultural factors such as economic crises or political action. The supply side, in turn, refers to the cultural frames and discourses, and these are regarded as autonomous causes of cultural change, explaining where the (new) beliefs come from. As Kubik emphasizes, analysis that focuses on the demand side of the politically relevant “cultural elements” treats culture as a dominant, frequently immutable “syndrome” of attitudes prevalent in a given society and shaped by history. Culture is hence seen as a constraint on political action. The supply side of analysis, conversely, approaches culture with a set of discourses, symbols, ideas constructed as resources – “carriers of meaning that are malleable enough to allow for useful manipulation …” (Kubik, 2012: 82). In this volume we combine both supply and demand sides, as the entrepreneurial ← 15 | 16 → activities of politicians might have found (at least in some countries) fertile ground within the societies under study.

The backsliding differs, however, from the democratic breakdown – i.e. a system change towards authoritarianism (Tomini and Wagemann, 2017: 688). Investigation of the backsliding processes therefore requires the in-depth exploration of qualitative differences within the countries under scrutiny in this volume. Following the theory of Juan J. Linz (2000), the authoritarian system is characterized by the “limited pluralism”, i.e. deliberate policies restraining political pluralism (political opposition, political parties, associations), societal pluralism (NGOs, separation of economy from politics), and media pluralism (including freedom of expression and information, diversity of media). The system change towards authoritarianism would therefore imply explicit attempts by the ruling party to suppress the parliamentary and extraparliamentary opposition and to constrain the typical control activities of these political and societal organizations that could endanger the next electoral victory of the party at power. The “authoritarian tendencies”, as the term is used in this volume, point to this direction of political development, but they do not yet imply the establishment of full authoritarianism, as experienced, e.g. in Russia or Belarus.

The book, therefore, does not handle the consolidated authoritarian regimes of the post-Soviet world. Neither does it address the Baltic States and other EU member states where illiberal tendencies have not been as remarkable as in Poland, Hungary, and partially in Slovakia. Apart from the problematic EU members, the volume focuses on the countries aspiring to become EU member states, such as the Western Balkans and Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, still struggling with their newly affirmed Westward orientation and with democratization processes.

Drawing on the theoretical considerations discussed above, the case studies in this volume have been analysed along several dimensions, illustrating the possible democratic decline and illiberal, authoritarian tendencies:

The book entails two theoretical chapters, eleven case studies, and two comparative articles. In both theoretical and conceptual chapters, the current debates are discussed, ranging from the classification of political regimes to the forms of political leadership. The analyses of regional cases are preceded by short overview chapters depicting the countries’ development according to the key measures of democracy: the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, the Economist Democracy Index or the Nations in Transit report of Freedom House. They also highlight the dimensions of political process where the illiberal, authoritarian tendencies occur, and thus allow for better comparison between the countries and regions. Two final comparative studies address the role of the European Union and the surprisingly diverse landscape of the illiberal actors in Central Eastern Europe.

This volume contributes to understanding of the current processes taking place in postcommunist societies, and their impact on the quality of democracy and democratic backsliding. The relatively new literature on democratic decline has rarely looked at causes of the illiberal and authoritarian tendencies and their nature, especially in a comparative manner. This study confirms some findings of the existing research on democratic backsliding – especially related to the role of agency – but it also sheds new light on the current state of postcommunist political systems and the transformation process.


Bermeo, N. G. (2016) On democratic backsliding. Journal of Democracy 27(1), 5–19.

BiEPAG (2017) The Crisis of Democracy in the Western Balkans: An Anatomy of Stabilitocracy and the Limits of EU Democracy Promotion, Policy Brief, http://www.biepag.eu/publications/the-crisis-of-democracy-in-the-western-balkans-authoritarianism-and-eu-stabilitocracy/ (accessed 28 September 2018). ← 17 | 18 →

Carothers, T. (2002) The end of the transition paradigm. Journal of Democracy 13(1), 5–21.

Casal Bértoa, F. (2014) Party systems and cleavage structures revisited: a sociological explanation of party system institutionalization in East Central Europe. Party Politics 20(1), 16–36.

Ekiert, G. (2012) The illiberal challenge in post-communist Europe. Surprises and puzzles. Taiwan Journal of Democracy 8(2), 63–77.

Greskovits, B. (1998) The Political Economy of Protest and Patience: East European and Latin American Transformations Compared, Central European University Press, Budapest.

Greskovits, B. (2015) The hollowing and backsliding of democracy in East Central Europe. Global Policy 6, 28–37.

Gwiazda, A. (2016) Democracy in Poland. Representation, Participation, Competition and Accountability since 1989, Routledge, London and New York.

Holzer, J. and Mareš, M. (eds.) (2016) Challenges to Democracies in East Central Europe, Routledge, London and New York.

Ikenberry, J. (2018) The end of liberal international order? International Affairs 94(1), 7–23.

Krastev, I. (2016) The unravelling of the post-1989 order. Journal of Democracy 27(4), 88–98.

Kubik, J. (2012) Illiberal challenge to liberal democracy: the case of Poland. Taiwan Journal of Democracy 8(2), 63–77.

Levitsky, S. and Ziblatt, D. (2018) Why Democracies Die. Crown, New York.

Linz, J. (2000) Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, CO.

Lust, E. and Waldner, D. (2018) Unwelcome change: understanding, evaluating, and extending theories of democratic backsliding. Annual Review of Political Science 21, 5.1–5.21.

Maćków, J. (1999) Der Wandel des kommunistischen Totalitarismus und die postkommunistische Systemtransformation: Periodisierung, Problematik und Begriffe. Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft 4(99), 1347–1381.

Mair, P. (2006) Ruling the void: the hollowing of Western democracy. New Left Review 42, 25–51. ← 18 | 19 →

Mair, P. (2008) Democracies, in Comparative Politics (ed. D. Caramani). Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 108–132.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (April)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 378 pp., 4 tables, 1 graph.

Biographical notes

Florian Bieber (Volume editor) Magdalena Solska (Volume editor) Dane Taleski (Volume editor)


Title: Illiberal and authoritarian tendencies in Central, Southeastern and Eastern Europe