What We Misunderstand about Eastern Europe’s 'Populists'

The world is full of unsavoury leaders, and the media does its best to cover the worst of them. I felt real pride for the BBC last week when Andrew Marr took apart the Chinese Ambassador live on air for the Chinese human rights abuses against the Uighurs. The Prime Minister of India is truly low-calibre; when I type his surname, I chuckle as I see “Modi” hasn’t yet made it into Microsoft Word’s dictionary. Even “Uighurs” is in there.

That aside, I have been bemused in recent years at how much time the BBC and other news sites have devoted to covering one loose group of world leaders - Eastern Europe’s conservative populists. I remember last year Channel 4 followed a short segment on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi with a half-an-hour report on the worrying trend towards nationalism in Hungary, Poland and Russia.

For those unfamiliar with Eastern European politics, it is true that populists have firmly broken into the mainstream in the region since the early 2010’s. Hungary and Poland both have nationalist Prime Ministers in Viktor Orban and Mateusz Morawiecki respectively, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin has taken a noticeably more conservative line since he returned to the Presidency in 2012. All these leaders claim to be bastions of sovereignty, economic independence and Christian morality. In the social sphere, this means trashing multiculturalism, LGBT rights and urban elites. Economically, they are social democrats; Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party gives families a stipend for having children, and Orban took control of Hungary’s central bank to increase social spending. Although their outlooks are similar, there is some water between the three leaders; Orban is agnostic on Russia, while Poland is a strong North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) backer. Neither Orban nor Law and Justice have good words to say about bad press, but they are not as heavy-handed as Putin.

In spite of all this, I struggle to muster up much concern about these governments. Would I vote for these people myself? Probably not. Like any reasonable person, I condemn Putin’s shameless attacks on his opponents. I grew up in the English city where elements of the Russian ‘securocracy’ tried to poison two of its own citizens. In Poland, Law and Justice’s attempt to hold an election at the peak of the coronavirus was a naked power-grab. I’m not a religious zealot. So, on balance, I wouldn’t choose these leaders for my own country.

But this is exactly the point. They are not running my country, they are running theirs. Instead of assessing these leaders based on our own standards and norms, we should look at developments in Eastern Europe in perspective and context. To those who spend their time attacking these governments, I would make two points.

Firstly on democracy, don’t fall into the trap of thinking the world started the day the Berlin Wall fell. We might have a rosy view of European politics, where democracy knows no bounds, but this isn’t a perspective shared by many in Poland and Hungary. While my grandparents’ generation was enjoying the sleepy prosperity of 1950’s Britain, Hungarians were being gunned down on the Danube by Soviet tanks. It would be a big stretch to draw an equivalency between the current leaders of these countries and their communist predecessors. Modern Hungarians and Poles do not, thankfully, live under a police state. Putin may be more sinister, but he isn’t engaged in an ideological battle to take over the world, in the mould of Stalin or Khrushchev. He doesn’t shoot anyone who tries to flee his country. Real authoritarianism is woven deep into the Eastern subconscious, which helps to explain why the people there are willing to tolerate a level of thuggery and brashness in their politics, which we would not.

More importantly, if you don’t like these leaders, you ought to ask yourself whether Western dealings with Eastern Europe has made nationalism more or less appealing to the people who live there. I think the answer is obvious. If they must be grouped together, Orban, Putin and Morawiecki, all represent a reaction against economically and socially liberal policies imposed quite forcefully on their countries by the US State Department, the EU and the IMF from the 1990’s onwards: freer trade, privatisation, state secularism and free elections. In all these countries, especially in Russia, most of these policies proved to be a disaster. In Hungary and Poland, inflation and unemployment surged to double digits, and the end of state subsidies and protections meant that Hungary lost over two-thirds of its export markets in four years. The Russian democratic process was quickly colonised by old Soviet politicians eager to line their pockets, a period harrowingly recounted in Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-hand Time. Russia, along with most of Eastern Europe, is far more unequal now than it was thirty years ago.

Many people in these countries, especially the poor, did not want these policies. They still don’t want them now, and they have voted for people who articulate something different. I would wager that in years to come, other European countries will do the same, and they shouldn’t be berated for that. In fact, I often find myself wishing that we, in Britain, France or Scandinavia, had the guts to reject the parties and policies of the last twenty years which have brought us such unhappiness.

Again, I feel the need to state that I don’t have much time for Putin and Co.’s treatment of the press. I’m not trying to justify their brand of politics. What I am saying, though, is that if we are going to criticise these governments, we at least ought to understand why people voted for them. It’s worth pointing out that polls tend to show that Eastern Europeans are now more optimistic about their futures than the British, French and Italians are about theirs. Sure, optimism alone is no indicator of good government, but it does suggest a degree of contentment. And I’d take contentment over whatever it is we have.


Tom Leeman

I am a Politics and Spanish graduate from the University of Bristol, going on to study a Master's degree in Political Economy at King's College London.

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