Guido Franzinetti – What went wrong in Eastern Europe? Orbán, Kaczyński and the demise of European Liberalism

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It is difficult to find an objective analysis concerning the political developments in the Eastern EU nations. Guido Franzenetti is one of the few authors who provides one.

Guido Franzinetti has carried out research and worked in Poland, Hungary, Uzbekistan and Kosovo. He teaches European Contemporary History at the University of Eastern Piedmont, Vercelli, Italy. <>



The consolidation of the governments of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, their apparently unshakable grip on political power (through methods fair or foul) has given rise to a wave of “europessimism”. This pessimism often translates into a simple formula: “eastern European democracies are being hijacked by unpleasant politicians who are intent on creating illiberal democracies, or worse”. This may well be the case, but it does not explain much.

It is, in fact, a very reassuring kind of explanation. Ultimately, this kind of explanation boils down to a dismissal of the eastern European “plebs” (the term is used advisedly) as “deplorables”: populists, anti-Semites, neo-Fascists, and so forth. The “people” have proved themselves unworthy of the enlightened guidance provided by the liberal elites. This is of course what Western European chattering classes like to hear. Indeed, many commentators have always suspected this.

Most of the accusations levelled at these illiberal governments are valid. Right-wing populist governments seem intent on creating what may be termed “neo-patrimonial regimes”, blurring the line between public money and private enrichment. But if this is so, why have these governments been re-elected so easily, usually with comfortable majorities? Both Orbán and Kaczyński have been voted in and out of power. Is it really good enough to churn out interpretations in terms of “manipulation of the masses”, or to indulge in descriptions of “power-hungry” politicians?

The starting-point for any understanding of the crisis of “liberal democracy” (for want of a better term) in eastern Europe (and perhaps in Europe as a whole) is, quite simply, the performance of liberal elites in power. In the case of Hungary, we have the eloquent testimony of Ferenc Gyurcsány, the Hungarian Socialist prime minister, in his famous secret speech in May 2006:

“There is not much choice. There is not, because we have screwed up. Not a little but a lot. No country in Europe has screwed up as much as we have. It can be explained. We have obviously lied throughout the past 18 to 24 months. It was perfectly clear that what we were saying was not true.

We are beyond the country’s possibilities to such an extent that we could not conceive earlier that a joint government of the Socialists and the liberals would ever do. And in the meantime we did not actually do anything for four years. Nothing.”

The point is not to moralise about Gyurcsány’s cynicism and language, but, rather, to understand why this happened. Why was it that, despite the lacklustre and often disastrous performances of right-wing populist governments in eastern Europe, voters have been so reluctant to (re)endorse liberal/social democrat parties? If anything, the tendency in eastern Europe has been for voters to vote for any party except those parties. At best, liberal/social democratic parties have managed to hang on to their core voters, but they have never really managed to achieve a comeback.

Some enlightened commentators have the quick answer: “It’s the culture, stupid!” In other words, the real issue is the culture of these appalling “deplorables” (natural born Fascists, in fact). Presumably, the answer should be “education, education, education”.

Of course the problem is cultural. Any economic, social and political problem always needs to be translated into cultural terms. Being unemployed in Naples does not have same meaning as it does in Yorkshire. But does this really mean that real economic, social and political issues do not actually exist? Perhaps culture wars can be left to the side, for culture warriors to fight them out in their own arenas.

Let’s make another assumption: “It’s the economy and society, stupid!” Let’s look at the picture in a broader time-frame (say, 1989 onwards), and in a broader social perspective (less “civil society” a bit more “age cohorts”). Done properly, this would require an extensive research programme. What follows instead is a rough sketch which might explain some processes.

The economic and political transitions of the 1990s in eastern Europe involved massive social costs. Anyone who knew anything about eastern Europe at the time knew it, well in advance. One can argue to what extent these costs were avoidable, if at all. What was remarkable was the fact that the political fall-out was so limited. In Poland and Hungary governments came and went, but economic reform by and large continued. Indeed, the fall-out was so limited that, in the space of very few years, voters were quite happy to elect governments with a strong presence of ex-Communists converted to capitalism (even in staunchly “anti-Communist” Poland).

So was the pain quite bearable, in the eyes of Polish and Hungarian voters? Whatever the case may have been, the fact was that many young, qualified people were able to get good jobs (relatively well-paid by European standards). Families in which older members had lost their jobs (with scant prospect of getting another in their lifetime) could still rely on some kind of support from the luckier, younger members. Some people might benefit from property restitution. By the mid-1990s, Polish supermarkets were beginning to stock Polish food products again. Life was hard, but there were better prospects in sight.

Fast-forward to the 2000s-2010s. The good jobs which were available for young people in 1990s are now much scarcer. For a start, the elder brothers and cousins are holding on to the positions they got at the time. Young people go abroad for work (sometimes just across the border to Germany, sometimes farther west). Agriculture is not faring well with entry into the EU, since EU agricultural policy was geared to the market economies of the European Economic Community of the 1960s, not the post-Communist agriculture of the 1990s and beyond. Last but not least, liberal/socialist governments have been affected by cases of corruption or sheer inefficiency since Poland’s accession in the EU.

On top of this, the “post-Communist” generation is now approaching retirement age. The pension problem was already looming the 1990s, and certainly pensioners did not have an easy time in those years. But the pension problem which is now presenting itself (29 years after the changes of 1989) is no less daunting. Is it just a coincidence that eastern Europeans have tended to shift towards right-wing populism precisely in the years which are seeing more and more of the “post-Communist” generation approaching retirement?

Needless to say, any political and social crisis has innumerable causes, and each individual country has additional ones. A reasonable assumption for east-central Europe as a whole is that, at best, one-third of the population has been a net beneficiary of the post-Communist transitions. At least one-third was a net loser. The remaining third was in between, and may be considered the “floating vote” in terms of electoral behaviour (sometimes voting left, sometimes right, sometimes not voting at all). This is inevitably guesswork, but it would at least make sense of what has been happening in the region in the past decade.

Assuming that an assessment of this kind is valid, how did it happen? To explain everything in terms of the dominance of “neo-liberalism” is no less culturalist than explanations in terms of unchanging “political cultures”. As the late Polish economist Jacek Kochanowicz pointed out, “the domination of a neo-liberal discourse does not equate to a neo-liberal practice [since] the reasons for the divergence from the neo-liberal creed have tended to be more political or pragmatic than ideological”.

In providing a case study of the process of economic reform in Poland, at the beginning of the 1990s, Kochanowicz owned that the Polish liberals of Gazeta Wyborcza (the leading daily newspaper) feared most right-wing, nationalist populism. But, he cautioned: “the type of policies they advocated actually led to marginalization and social exclusion, with few provisions for institutionalizing re-inclusion. Thus, as an overview of east-central Europe politics shows, in the longer term they led exactly to what Gazeta was most afraid of.”

In short, the exaggerated self-confidence of liberals and social democrats during the early decades of “transition” produced the social context which has allowed right-wing populism and nationalism to flourish subsequently. This does not mean that “liberal democracy” is doomed to fail in the region (or in the rest of Europe, for that matter). But it does mean that the sharing of this democracy cannot be treated as a package acquired once and for all, as a sort of political acquis communautaire. It is a package which needs to be credible, sold and re-sold politically at every election. Orbán and Kaczyński are the symptom, not the cause.


Igor Guardiancich, Pension reforms in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe: From post-socialist transition to the global financial crisis (London-New York: Routledge, 2012).

Ferenc Gyurcsány, “Excerpts: Hungarian ‘lies’ speech”.

Jacek Kochanowicz, “Private Suffering, Public Benefit. Market Rhetoric in Poland, 1989–1993”,
East European Politics and Societies: and Cultures, Vol. 28, no. 1 (February 1, 2014), page(s): 103-118,









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