Searching for the Common Ideals of Democracy in Central Europe

People from Central European countries are more attached to their personal liberty than Westerners. This is one of the consequences of almost 50 years of communism in the region.

student reaches for an inflated globe
With current global challenges facing us, it's important to take of stock of the state of democracy around the world today. Photo: GUIDO KIRCHNER / AFP / East News

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried,” Winston Churchill once said. We are just now entering an era in which these words are once again being put to a difficult test. The tensions between the free world and anti-democratic regimes have been escalating rapidly in recent years. The Russian aggression against Ukraine, which started on February 24, is only the latest example of this.

Looking broader, we can easily find similarities with the Cold War era as the economic rise of authoritarian China has divided the world into two blocks. In fact, the situation is even more difficult for the democratic world because right now, authoritarian regimes – unlike during the Cold War – are not against the free market and globalization. On the contrary, they use them to their full advantage, which makes them look more attractive, especially in the eyes of less developed parts of the globe.

How can the free world respond to this challenge? First of all, it needs to answer the question: which part of Churchill’s thought is more accurate for them? Should we consider democracy “the worst form of government” while watching authoritarian regimes flourish and conquer neighboring countries? Or should we protect Western liberties with the knowledge that no better governance formula can be created in the long term? This is the central dilemma the free world is dealing with right now. The quality of its response will determine our future.

Le charme discret de l’autocratie

This leads us to the following question: what is the state of democracy today? One answer has been provided by the French think tank Fondapol, which at the beginning of 2022, published the results of their global survey “Freedoms at risk: the challenge of the century.” The survey was conducted in 55 countries worldwide, with 47,408 respondents who answered questions concerning the idea of democracy and freedom and their assessment of how democracy works in practice. These responses have painted a picture of the modern shape of the free world.

Firstly, it showed that Western countries understand the growing threat from China. In 2018, 59 percent of Americans, 50 percent of Canadians, and 40 percent of inhabitants of UE considered China a cause for concern. In 2021, this percentage was significantly higher – 60 percent for Europeans, 78 percent for Canadians, and 72 percent for Americans. The survey gave similar numbers when respondents were asked about Russia. In 2021, this country was seen as “worrying” by 16 percent of Europeans, 73 percent of Canadians, and 70 percent of Americans.

But this trend is not universal. The tendency went in the opposite direction in many places. Some countries in Africa (e.g., Nigeria, Tunisia), the Middle East (e.g., Lebanon), and even Europe (e.g., Cyprus, Malta, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece) have not seen the rise of China or the open revisionism of Russia as a threat, instead as an opportunity. Examples prove that le Charme discret de l’autocratie [Eng: the discreet charm of autocracy] can be tempting for countries not satisfied with the political and economic status quo.

How did countries that are formally part of the free world come under the spell of autocrats? Because many of their citizens lost their faith in democracy. Fondapol’s survey showed that 49 percent of inhabitants of EU countries think that democracy works poorly or very poorly in their countries. Corruption is seen as the primary threat, with 33 percent of respondents saying that it is the central menace to democracy and 58 percent believing that most governing politicians in power take bribes. The study showed similar results in the USA, with 33 percent of Americans considering corruption as a threat to democracy and 62 percent repeating that governing politicians have been bought.

The winds of democratic change in Central Europe

Taking a closer look at the numbers in Fondapol’s poll, one can see a distinction between countries in Europe. This divide is evident when comparing countries in the western part of the continent and those in the central region. In a nutshell: CEE countries have a rougher opinion about their politicians, but at the same time, they believe more in the idea of democracy.

Coming back to the question about corruption, most countries from the Three Seas Initiative see it as a more significant threat than in Western Europe. For example, 68 percent of Poles, 70 percent of Lithuanians and Latvians, 80 percent of Hungarians, and 86 percent of Bulgarians and Croatians think that ruling politicians are corrupt. On the contrary, only 44 percent of Germans, 25 percent of Dutch, 26 percent of Danes, and 53 percent of Belgians share the same opinion. As a consequence, more people in CEE countries see corruption as a threat to democracy than those in Western Europe.

But this distinction between European regions is seen in questions about democratic principles. According to Fondapol’s survey, 33 percent of Europeans think that “voting is pointless because politicians do not care about the will of the people.” Many inhabitants of Western European countries are above this average. For instance, 41 percent of French respondents agree with this sentence – as do 54 percent of Belgians, 38 percent of Spaniards, and 37 percent of Cypriots.

However, many of the CEE countries fall below this average. For example, 27 percent of Czechs think voting is pointless, as well as 32 percent of Slovenians, 31 percent of Hungarians, and 20 percent of Poles. It looks like countries that joined democratic communities quite recently, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, still have a more considerable conviction that democracy works. Or maybe – contrary to Western European countries – they have tried other forms of government and know that it is not the worst as many Westerners presume.

With liberty and justice for all

This belief in freedom and democratic values of CEE countries is also present when respondents answer questions about economic liberty. On average, 60 percent of people in EU countries reply affirmatively when asked if the role of the government in the economy should be limited and the role of enterprises strengthened. But this opinion was shared by only 49 percent of Germans, 51 percent of the Dutch, 53 percent of Spaniards, 57 percent of the French, and 58 percent of Italians.

At the same time, passionate advocates of limited government in the economic field are people from Three Seas Initiative countries: 64 percent of Bulgarians, 72 percent of Romanians, 74 percent of Slovakians, 81 percent of Poles and Hungarians, and 85 percent of Croatians.

The winds of democratic change are still alive in CEE countries in personal freedom. It was seen during the pandemic. When Covid-19 attacked our continent, the discussion erupted about the possible solutions and the role of states in coping with this threat. Governments began to impose pandemic restrictions, which triggered a debate about personal liberty.

Fondapol’s survey showed that 23 percent of Europeans agree to limit their freedom if that makes their government more efficient. This is the opinion of 30 percent of French, 28 percent of Portuguese, 25 percent of Danish, and 24 percent of Dutch respondents. But at the same time, only 22 percent of Slovenians, 19 percent of Austrians and Slovakians, 17 percent of Poles, and 15 percent of Hungarians would exchange the efficacy of their governments for personal freedom.

Varying perceptions of freedom

“Ideals are something we strive for; they are somewhere on the horizon of our efforts; they provide meaning and direction,” wrote Vaclav Havel, one of the leaders of opposition against the communist dictatorship in Central Europe before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. These words are still echoing in the region.

The communist regime was overturned in 1989, and this vaccine against other than democratic forms of governments still works. The most recent example is the level of solidarity with Ukraine when it was attacked by Russia – it is much higher in Central than in Western Europe. CEE countries have the common experience of living in the Kremlin’s sphere of influence. This is the main reason for different approaches toward democracy that Westerners do not share.

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