Gelber Prize winners blame 'politics of imitation' for extremism in Central Europe

Extreme leaders, inequality, and unhappy citizens: what happened to the promise of a new day in Eastern and Central Europe? From the fall of the Wall to this pandemic era, looking at the legacy of an ill-fitting “politics of imitation,” with 2020 Gelber Prize-winners Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes.

From the fall of the Wall to this pandemic era, experts look at the legacy of ill-fitting political systems

Political scientists Stephen Holmes (L) and Ivan Krastev (R) explain why liberal democracy failed to become a universal ideology despite its victory over communism, in their Gelber Prize-winning book, The Light That Failed: A Reckoning. (Nadezhda Chipeva/Allen Lane/Penguin Random House Canada)

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's majority government extended Hungary's state of emergency in early April. Initially tied to the global pandemic, the bill's sweeping powers nonetheless have no expiry date. 

It's an example of what the nationalist leader defiantly calls "illiberal democracy:" a refusal of the values and institutions associated with the West, and, in particular, the European Union. 

Influential Polish politician Jaroslaw Kaczynski supports the government's plan to hold an election in May despite probable pandemic lockdown. (The Associated Press)

Hungary's leadership is not alone in this attitude. Poland's government — under the heavy influence of Law & Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski — espouses similar views. 

From the outside, this seems like a surprising development for post-Communist societies that emerged from behind the Iron Curtain in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

At that time, many citizens wanted what they saw in the West: more prosperous individual lives, and a freer, more democratic national future. 

Political experts Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes analyze what changed, and why, in their book, The Light That Failed: A Reckoning. 

It's the winner of the 30th annual Lionel Gelber Prize, which honours a top English-language book on foreign affairs that aims to "deepen public debate on significant international issues." 

IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed spoke to the award-winning authors in early April. Krastev and Holmes see concrete reasons why a "politics of grievance" has emerged in Central and Eastern Europe.

A second-class citizenship

In the 1990s, Western values and institutions were imported and grafted onto Eastern societies, ignoring their existing histories and traditions. That bred resentment for what Krastev and Holmes call the "Age of Imitation."

Advances were slow, incomplete, and not to the standard of the Western original. Some of the second generation born in these countries grew tired of feeling a "second class citizenship," says Ivan Krastev.

Some of the region's young and educated people simply left. They emigrated to countries further down the Western path, such as Germany.

An unequal set of advantages also went to different groups within Central and Eastern European countries. Economically and culturally, fewer of those benefits went to groups who were not young, educated, or connected. People noticed the differences.

"Part of the populist revolt is...against the Westernizing, liberalizing elites in their own society who are viewed as betraying their own national identity. And that's the language that Orbán and Kaczynski use. It's the unequal enclave development...that produces a lot of the tension," says Stephen Holmes.

On March 30, the Hungarian parliament passed a law giving Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's government the right to rule by decree for as long as a state of emergency is in effect. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Ivan Krastev notes that people in a city like Bratislava sometimes relate more to Western European urbanites than their own rural communities. It's a tendency that goes beyond Central and Eastern Europe and extends to a changing West, as well.

"The biggest divide when it comes to how people vote, and support for these populist options, is not between Eastern Europe and Western Europe," Krastev explains.

"It's between big urban centres,  and the countryside...that felt neglected. What you see in Poland is not so different than what you see in the United States." 

About the guests in this episode:

Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes are co-authors of The Light That Failed: A Reckoning (Allen Lane/Penguin Random House, 2019), which won the 2020 Lionel Gelber Prize. The Gelber Prize is a partnership between the Lionel Gelber Foundation, with Foreign Policy magazine and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, at the University of Toronto.

Ivan Krastev is also the author of several other books, including After Europe. He is a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, Austria, and chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria. 

Stephen Holmes is author of multiple books, including The Anatomy of Antiliberalism.  He is a professor at New York University's School of Law.   

* This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.


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