The German and Visegrad Group leaders in Bratislava, February 7, 2019. From left to right: Viktor Orbán (HU), Angela Merkel (DE), Peter Pellegrini (SK), Andrej Babis (CZ), Mateusz Morawiecki (PL). Photo Credit: Andrej Babis’s official Facebook account.
By: Simon Machalek, Columnist
The Visegrad Group, also known as V4 – a cultural and political alliance of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – used to be seen as a prime example of how countries with an authoritarian past could be drawn into the liberal and democratic Western style of governance. The recent years, however, have shown that the anticipated transition into healthy and prospering democracies may be much harder to achieve and sustain going forward. Each of the V4 countries has different ideas about governance, the rule of law, the preservation of liberal values, and the future of the European Union (EU). Because of the public support for illiberalism in each of the V4 countries, an east-west divide will continue to threaten not only the European Union’s stability as well as the well-being of democracy of the entire continent.
Although each country is going through different developments, there are patterns that unite each of the V4 members. All of them have joined forces to form a bloc opposing the European Union’s consensus about to handle the refugee crisis; all of them have experienced an upsurge of nationalism and resentment of supra-nationalism; and all of them have undermined the role of civil society and the protection of democratic principles, such as freedom of the press. The anti-EU sentiment stands out in particular: all V4 countries challenge Brussels and question their role inside of Europe, while enormously benefiting from the EU membership, receiving financial assistance through structural and cohesion funds.[i]
Hungary, under the leadership of Viktor Orban and his right-wing Fidesz party, leads the V4 as a country with the heaviest turn away from political liberalism. Over the last decade, Fidesz rewrote the rules of Hungarian democracy for their own advantage, altering the level playing field and modifying the constitution in the process.[ii] These structural changes make it significantly harder for the opposition to counter the ruling party and to represent a viable alternative for Hungarian voters. Moreover, Orban has centralized power into his own hands and has intensified his rhetoric against the media, nongovernmental organizations, and Brussels. The anti-EU campaign has prompted the EU to respond with sanctions, an unprecedented move that created ruptures and disunity in the EU parliament, while empowering the populist faction of which Orban is a member. While it remains to be seen how far are Orban and Brussels willing to oppose each other, it is certain that such brinksmanship will have a lasting impact, further strengthening the east-west divide. The upcoming elections to the European Parliament will provide an answer to how much power do the populists hold and if they will be able to act as a unified group, confronting the EU establishment.
In Poland, it is the Law and Justice (PiS) party under leadership of Jaroslaw Kaczyński that has resorted to authoritarian practices. The PiS has altered the judicial framework for their own benefit by engaging in court packing and defying the law. Through this systematic process the PiS has seized control of the judicial institutions and has eliminated checks and balances to an extent which some describe as a “constitutional coup d’etat.”[iii] PiS’ populist campaign is founded on the notion that Polish sovereignty, and by extension the fulfillment of what Kaczyński describes as the “nation’s will”, should be prioritized over rule of law. The EU response to these practices has been limited: the sanctions procedure enacted by the European Commission has achieved little so far.[iv] While the situation is manageable for now, it is clear that the current Polish judicial system is not compatible with EU’s vision, which will be troublesome looking ahead.
While the Czech Republic has not experienced any structural changes to its political system, there are several alarming developments that raise concerns. The Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis has, through his populist rhetoric, and a myriad of empty promises completely shifted the political discourse, galvanizing wide and loyal domestic support. His political party called “ANO 2011” has shattered the political establishment that dominated the political scene since liberation in 1989. Babis is riding on a wave of nationalist sentiment which opposes immigration and which disapproves of the elites. Here lays the paradox: Babis himself is a product of the elites, who have helped him to create and manage his business empire worth billions of dollars. But the path to his wealth has been questionable, as he has been charged by the Czech police with illegally manipulating EU development subsidies.[v] Since, as a member of the parliament Babis holds political immunity, it remains to be seen if he will be prosecuted. But these corruption allegations, together with his campaign against the press and with his personalist political party, provide a negative outlook for the health of democracy in the Czech Republic. For the EU, Prague represents a reliable partner as of right now, but just like in other V4 countries, the anti-EU and anti-immigration sentiment is on the rise, which puts future of the partnership in doubt.
The smallest country of the V4, Slovakia, has experienced mixed developments over the last years. The country has been grappling with the murder of Ján Kuciak, a Slovakian investigative journalist, whose assassination in 2018 has sparked mass popular protests and a political crisis. The turmoil resulted in resignation of Prime Minister Fico and his entire cabinet. Fico, often compared to Orban, lead a government epitomized the weak state of Slovakian liberal democracy.[vi] His end in politics is a positive development for the country, but the future is uncertain, especially because the incumbent pro-EU and liberal president Andrej Kiska will not run for his second term. With the upcoming presidential election, Bratislava is therefore on a crossroad: either continue on the road to adoption of Western and liberal reforms laid out by Kiska, or divert and resort to the illiberal path of exploiting the flawed Slovakian democracy.
[i] Pol Morillas, “Illiberal Democracies in the EU,” Barcelona Centre For International Affairs, January 2017, https://www.cidob.org/en/publications/publication_series/monographs/monographsilliberal_democracies_in_the_eu_the_visegrad_group_and_the_risk_of_disintegration.
[ii] Andras Biro-Nagy, “Why Orban Won,” Foreign Affairs, April 10, 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/hungary/2018-04-10/why-orban-won.
[iii] Wojciech Sadurski & Maximilian Steinbeis, “What is Going on in Poland is an Attack against Democracy,” Verfassungsblog, July 15, 2016, https://verfassungsblog.de/what-is-going-on-in-poland-is-an-attack-against-democracy/.
[iv] Christian Davies, “Hostile Takeover: How Law and Justice Captured Poland’s Courts,” Freedom House, May 2018, https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/poland%20brief%20final.pdf.
[v] Chris Harris, “Andrej Babis EU funds scandal: Czech protesters use revolution anniversary to call for PM to quit,” Euronews, November 18, 2018, https://www.euronews.com/2018/11/18/andrej-babis-eu-funds-scandal-czech-protesters-use-revolution-anniversary-to-call-for-pm-t.
[vi] Dariusz Kalan, “Slovakia Stumbles,” Foreign Affairs, April 28, 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/slovak-republic/2016-04-28/slovakia-stumbles.