Will the EU survive the rise of democratorships within? Karolewski and Leggewie on the new quality of politics in the Visegrád states

Ferenc Laczó: The Visegrád Connection, the new book that you have co-authored with Claus Leggewie in the German language, discusses the gradual erosion and steep decline of democracy in the four Visegrád states – Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. Contrary to many previous interpretations focused primarily on Hungary and Poland, you diagnose “similarly serious threats” in Czechia and Slovakia. Next to party state capture, you also analyze corporate state capture. As a starting point for our discussion, could you explain to our listeners what you mean by these two expressions and how they are manifested in the various Visegrád countries?

Ireneusz Paweł Karolewski: Our main concept is indeed that of state capture in its two versions. We argue that in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe the problem of state capture has been serious for decades already. A key difference between the two versions is that party state capture is more visible. Corporate state capture may be less visible but is equally serious and follows a similar logic.

Democracy doesn’t start and doesn’t end at elections. Equally important is the existence of independent institutions like courts, independent media, and other independent institutions that exert various forms of control. State capture describes the limitations to the independence of such institutions and that can happen in two ways: state capture can mean subverting independent political institutions, such as central banks or constitutional courts, by powerful oligarchic actors, like firms or conglomerates that have become powerful and influential during the transformation process. We argue that this was the case in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. State capture can also take place through a political party or several political parties, which is the case in Hungary and Poland today.

We think of these two types as ideal types, of course. It is possible to have mixed cases and the one case does not really exclude the other. In Hungary, for instance, we can see party state capture and that certain features of corporate state capture are also in place. The empirical reality is more complicated, but we argue that to better understand the logic of state capture it makes sense to think about these two paths to less democracy, to democratic backsliding.

Corporate state capture is not necessarily about straightforward regime change. For instance, it does not necessarily imply putting party loyalists on the Constitutional Court, as is the case in Poland or Hungary. It is rather about subverting the very working of specific courts through political corruption. This leads to similar results, even if it is often less visible to the public. The same logic of power concentration is at play, and it is similarly about subverting the division of power. In the Czech Republic, for instance, the current prime minister Andrej Babiš is a very powerful oligarch who controls parts of the media landscape of the country as well – and these parts, of course, have a specific way of reporting his successes and failures. In the Polish case, it is the state-owned energy firm Orlen that bought many press outlets, but the logic is essentially the same. The reporting that comes out is very conducive to the line of the ruling party.

Ferenc Laczó: A central argument of your book seems to be that there is a new quality to political institutions and to political culture in these four countries. You diagnose the rise of Demokratur, which might be translated as democratorship. You view Demokratur as a dual state in accordance with the theory first proposed by Ernst Fraenkel. You discuss political capitalism and what you call “extractive institutions” where independent institutions are under attack and where constitutional measures may also serve the cause of repression. At the same time, you highlight that political capitalism continues to coexist with neoliberalism. How would you characterize democratorship and the workings of political capitalism in these countries? Why do you think such a theory is more apt at accounting for recent and ongoing developments in the Visegrád countries than other approaches, such as those measuring democratic standards and their decline?

Ireneusz Paweł Karolewski: We indeed use the concept introduced by Ernst Fraenkel, a German lawyer who was trying to analyze specific legal aspects of National Socialism. We argue in the book that the approach by Fraenkel was interesting, but not really that insightful when applied to National Socialism because Nazi Germany was a totalitarian system: the duality of law that Fraenkel thought characterized the beginnings of Nazi rule was not quite sufficient to understand the logic of that regime.

We take the concept of Fraenkel and argue that it is more relevant when used regarding the democratorships, because the changes in Central and Eastern Europe led to a difference in kind, rather than one of degree.

The majority of analyses, which may be quite insightful in various ways, view the problem of democratic backsliding as a problem of degree, because they analyze developments on a scale. They argue that we have different types of deterioration until there is a failure of democracy. We can see the problem with this analysis when we look at the Varieties of Democracy project that for many years argued that we see backsliding across the globe, but it is not really such a huge problem, it is all just about a slight recession. Recently, the index drew the conclusion that Hungary is not a democracy anymore even though just two years ago the same analysis argued that the country is on the brink of becoming an authoritarian state.

Such a focus on scales and the degree of change does not seem to capture the main problem of democratorships, which is that it is a new type of political system. It is something that includes both democratic and authoritarian elements, but which actually is an authoritarian system. We argue in the book that it can be understood by analyzing a duality: that between a prerogative state and a normative state, as Frankel called them. The dual character of the state is quite visible in the case of the democratorships.

On the one hand, we see an authoritarian turn in all four Visegrád countries. In Slovakia, specifically, this was seen already in the 1990s. In fact, we start our analysis with Slovakia to show that we should not be all that surprised when discussing Central and Eastern Europe today because Slovakia was a precursor of sorts and not in the sense that it was once authoritarian and then it became democratic. Our argument is rather that the authoritarianism and democratic elements were combined all this time, and they have now resulted in a new kind of regime. There is a new quality to democracies that stop being democracies and become authoritarian systems while they are not authoritarian like Russia or Turkey.

These countries have a different kind of authoritarian system because they still have democratic elements, specifically elections that are not rigged. That is quite important because there is still a chance that the ruling parties lose these elections, as was the case in Slovakia, even though they are to all intends and purposes ruling parties. The ruling actors are using a number of tricks, are trying out a number of policy technologies to change the regime in their favor. For that reason, the systems are already authoritarian. If the elections in Hungary next year get falsified or the parliamentary elections in Poland in two years, then that would mean a further step towards dictatorship.

Moreover, there is control of party-political nominations in the courts, which belongs to the specific logic of a dual state, meaning also that there are still courts that are independent and judges who make decisions against the will of the government. There are still independent courts in the Czech Republic, even though there have been many very strange decisions that went against the rule of law. These decisions concerned organized crime and politicians, entrepreneurs and organized crime involved in shady consortiums, having also to do with political corruption. Courts were not working as they are supposed to, still some of the judges remain independent, and so we have this duality in the political system.

At the same time, in Poland and Hungary, the respective ruling parties are trying to push through their political nominees to increase their influence over the courts and control the results. There is an increasing instrumentalisation of legality, for instance, with regard to the Constitutional Court – something we have seen in Poland regarding the abortion decision. As a matter of fact, the decision was a political one made at the core of the political party and then carried out by the so-called Constitutional Court, which is not an independent body – according to our analysis, it is not.

We argue in the book that there is a prerogative state that is trying to get as much as possible under its control. There was resistance to that when it came to the courts and the media, but resistance is not always successful. In Poland we have a new law that limits media pluralism, while in Hungary we have the state controlled KESMA foundation that concentrates in its hands a large majority of the media landscape. It is not just about state institutions or media that are supposed to be independent, it is also about civil society. It is another feature of the dual state that civil society has become more and more a subject of party state encroachment or encroachment by oligarchic actors, meaning that parts of civil society have turned into a pseudo-civil society or even an oxymoronic “state-controlled civil society.”

Researchers show quite clearly that state-controlled civil society or state-funded civil society has arisen in many countries. Research concerning Ukraine and Russia on how media and civil society is under the control of powerful oligarchs can be conceptually translated to describe the developments in Poland, Hungary, or the Czech Republic: in fact, we apply specific concepts to Central and Eastern Europe that were first applied to Ukraine and Russia and try to show that they work quite well.

Moreover, we argue that next to the duality of statehood that has arisen in Central Europe, there is also the rise of political capitalism, which is a specific type of capitalism. We used to understand the variety of capitalism in very specific terms: liberal capitalism, welfare capitalism, etc. There is a specific framing in scholarship of what types of capitalism there are. We argue with reference to the writings of Max Weber but also recent writings by Branko Milanovic that there is also something we might call political capitalism.

There is economic growth which is a very important source of political legitimacy for regimes that have embraced political capitalism. However, as you mentioned in your question, equally or even more importantly, political capitalism is about extractive institutions.

Powerful actors, political actors, parties, or oligarchic actors use the political institutions of the state – which are supposed to be independent – as economic resources but also as sources of political power.

This may be done in different ways. The ruling parties in Hungary and Poland use extractive institutions, such as political positions within the party, such as deputy positions in the parliament or positions in state owned companies to develop patronage networks. These patronage networks are very important because they allow the extraction of financial and political resources from the state which become a very important source for party loyalists. It’s no longer a system of liberal capitalism, where freeing the market of the influences of the states is the goal. Rather, it’s about delivering specific social goods to party loyalists and oligarchic loyalists.

This type of political capitalism has a very interesting relationship to neoliberal capitalism because the extraction of resources is directed mainly from state-controlled companies, but at the same time, capital must be attracted from abroad. These countries are heavily dependent on a specific liberal reputation to attract business, which is expressed in international rankings – they’re very interested in the rankings that give certificates of reputation. They introduce very convenient conditions for the functioning of foreign capital, such as low taxes for foreign companies, while they also try to hide their close connection to neoliberal capitalism and paint the image of a more social capitalism – the latter is not really the case, except in a few cases. Because the regimes are heavily involved in propaganda, they heavily fund so-called public media, which are in tune with the interests of the ruling actors. At the same time, there are many sectors that remain underfunded, specifically public health and public education.

Ferenc Laczó: A large part of the story you tell concerns the manifestations of civil society activism and the relative weakness and ineffectiveness of political opposition in the V4 countries. You point to the weaknesses of leftist, liberal, and green forces in particular. What might explain those weaknesses? Why have the numerous and sometimes large political and civil society-based protests yielded comparatively little in recent years? Let me also ask you a connected question. How do you view the political attitudes and activities of members of younger generations who already grew up within the EU? Would you expect generational turnover to bring substantial political change to the Visegrád countries?

Ireneusz Paweł Karolewski: We do indeed report on developments in civil society in all four countries as we want to highlight that there has been a vibrant civil society in all four of them. There are institutional changes towards more authoritarianism, but this does not happen in a vacuum and much of society is not happy with these developments.

Often it is assumed that these developments are in line with the will of the people, but we think that is mistaken. For instance, there was a famous statement by Martin Schultz, former president of the European Parliament who said that they cannot do much about the changes in Hungary because the Fidesz government has a constitutional majority. In other words, as far as the EU is concerned, they have the right to change the constitution as they see fit. I also remember hearing Günter Verheugen, former European Commissioner for Enlargement, saying that the Poles actually support the PiS government.

We argue in the book that this is not true because there is a vibrant civil society. There have been protests for many years, if not for decades. There were protests in Poland due to social issues, nurses, miners, public servants have all been protesting. In Slovakia, we have seen political protests against all major governments. In the Czech Republic, there have been recurrent protests for decades against political corruption involving major political parties. That is not to say it is totally wrong to describe the societies as in tune with what has been happening. In Hungary and Poland, the ruling parties have won elections. However, elections are not the only measure of democracy; the activities of civil society are also a very important measure of how much legitimacy these ruling parties enjoy. In Hungary and Poland, huge parts of these societies reject the authoritarian shift.

This leads us to ask why opposition parties are not more successful. Why have the Fidesz or the PiS governments been reelected? One of our explanations is that the authoritarianism that had been underway in Poland and Hungary, but also in the Czech Republic and Slovakia to some degree, was closely connected to a specific type of identity politics and propaganda embraced by government actors. Exclusive and xenophobic identity politics were extremely successfully introduced; a number of conspiracy theories and chauvinistic policy technologies have been quite effective because many people are attracted by them. For example, Robert Fico, the Prime Minister of Slovakia described journalists as prostitutes that work against “proper Slovak people.” In Hungary we see this not only with the rhetoric, but also with specific laws that take for granted that George Soros wants to replace the Hungarian people with people from the Middle East, and so on. This is not just the case in Central and Eastern Europe, it is also the case in many other countries, such as the United States, Denmark, Sweden, or France.

At the same time, opposition parties remain quite weak. We try to explain the weakness of green and leftist parties by looking at the transformation processes. Green parties and environmental organizations were quite strong at the very beginning of the 1990s. Environmental parties, however, faded as joining the West in terms of living standards became the central political issue. The topics are still there, and there are also important green parties, such as the one in Hungary, but they are not that strongly represented when compared, for instance, with their counterparts in Germany or Austria.

Social democratic parties are also quite weak because the transformation processes were accompanied by a very specific consensus on joining the European Union and the European single market. These nominally leftist parties changed their agenda towards a consensus concerning capitalism and lost their social democratic appeal. The resulting loss of legitimacy on the left has been combined with elements of the traditional social democratic agenda, such as redistribution of certain goods and support for working-class families, being embraced by conservative parties with populist appeal.

However, opposition parties are trying to reorganize themselves and doing so quite effectively at the moment – they are growing both in Poland and Hungary. But we don’t know what the governments’ response will be because they do not shy away from authoritarian solutions such as cracking down on peaceful demonstrations or harassing opposition candidates.

Concerning the younger generations, I would say we have seen a decreasing interest in politics among younger people in Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. They have switched to less traditional, more issue-oriented forums, alternative forms of political participation such as protests or politically loaded YouTube videos. They are politically active but not in the traditional way. For that reason, the participation of young people was low at parliamentary elections, and I would say you cannot really blame them. Domestic politics in these states have been dominated by a political consensus, a type of anti-politics, in which the government and its main opposition have been in agreement: what’s the point of voting when there is a political cartel, and it doesn’t really matter whom we vote for as there will always be the same parties and they will make a deal? That’s not a proper democracy. When we go back to 2005 in Poland, the main parties were virtually aligned, which is quite strange to think about given the political polarization we see today: the main opposition party and what is now the ruling party were contemplating forming a coalition together.

In other words, people and especially young people largely lost interest in politics because no real alternative was on offer, even though they continued to protest against various forms of it. At the same time, the new millennials see huge problems in the political system and think the major political actors lack legitimacy. I think they are coming to realize that it is not sufficient to be dedicated to alternative forms of political participation, but they also need to vote to influence those ruling elites and exert a proper impact.

In Poland, young people were participating in the huge demonstrations against the radicalization of the abortion law introduced a year ago. They experienced police brutality quite directly. There are many cases in which members of the police brutally beat them up and they were even hindered in acquiring legal support afterwards. This amounts to a generational experience, at least in Poland.

The protests back in 2015 were a different experience because the main participants then were 45–50-year-olds who could relate them to their past protest against communist rule.

The situation has changed radically since 2016 when the black protests began against the radicalization of the abortion law.

I see this new wave as exemplifying the coming change with regard to millennials in Central and Eastern Europe. I believe these changes will also be visible during the upcoming elections in Hungary next year and in Poland in two years’ time.

Ferenc Laczó: Let us also explore the role of V4 in international politics. You discuss how in some sense these countries are in-between Western core countries and autocracies such as Russia or Turkey. At one point in the book, you refer to the V4 as a Verhinderungskoalition, a coalition to block rather than one with a more positive vision and agenda of its own. How do you assess the foreign policy of the four countries, and do you see converging trends within them when it comes to their international orientation? In other words, is V4 likely to prove a stable alliance or would you rather view it as a temporary coalition of convenience?

Ireneusz Paweł Karolewski: We argue that there are more differences in foreign policy than commonalities. The Visegrád Four indeed mainly seeks to limit specific initiatives within the European Union, which began with the so-called migration crisis when, generally, the V4, along with Austria, sought to limit the activities of the European Union concerning refugees and migration. That’s not much in terms of a specific foreign policy and divergences become visible when we go deeper into the subject. For example, it’s quite clear that Poland defines Russia as a key threat to its energy security whereas Hungary embraces collaboration with Russia in the energy sector.

We also argue that the differences between Hungary and Poland seem to be decreasing. The so-called Lex TVN, which limits media pluralism in Poland and is also directed against American economic interests, brought Poland into conflict with the United States. It shows that there is already more openness towards other authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia, even though there is still this view of Russia as a threat. But Russia is probably a country that Poland will collaborate with on some levels in the future.

What really connects these countries is a specific understanding of how politics should work: politics as democratorship has spread among the V4.

Specific political technologies, clearly inspired by Hungary and Poland, have spread to Slovenia and, to a lesser extent, to Austria too. There is also a desire to create alternatives to the mainstream European politics of France and Germany. For instance, there is an attempt to form a new coalition of parties within the European Parliament that is not just a more conservative version of the conservative parties of Western Europe. It operates with a far-right vision of politics in Europe that involves parties that were long isolated, like Rassemblement National or the Vox party in Spain. This development is quite disconcerting because it shows that a coalition with democratic parties and democratic countries is not a priority for the ruling forces in the Visegrád region.

Ferenc Laczó: Let us perhaps close our conversation today with looking into the role of the EU and into current prospects a bit more. You write of a rather helpless EU which has not done sufficiently well at the time of its “big bang enlargement” and has not really managed to spread a culture of democracy and societal appreciation of the rule of law, and which also has a rather unconducive architecture to tackle the worsening political crisis in the Visegrád states. How could the EU act more effectively and successfully in the future? How likely is a further radicalization of the individual V4 states in your view? Last but not least, would you expect a new division of Europe to follow?

Ireneusz Paweł Karolewski: We argue that the European Union was quite complacent. Beyond its politicians, political scientists have also assumed that membership of the European Union will act as a guarantee of democracy; it was assumed that member states such as Portugal, Spain or Greece that were dictatorships beforehand were democratized through the EU and that it’s enough to simply be a member of the European Union. The EU doesn’t even need any specific institutions to punish authoritarian countries because of its robust democratic core. It has turned out, of course, that the European Union was wrong about that.

Anti-authoritarian mechanisms were introduced but they’re not very effective, partly because the EU assumed that there would be no more than one authoritarian regime at a time. With article seven of the Lisbon Treaty, the possibility of depriving a country of its decision-influencing capabilities was introduced, but it requires an EU-wide consensus. If multiple authoritarian regimes emerge at the same time, we have a huge problem in the Union.

Our argument is that political elites have misunderstood the problem of democratic consolidation.

Democratic backsliding can happen in every country, even in the United States as we have seen under the Trump administration. Democratic backsliding is not reserved for countries that have a history of non-democratic systems. We therefore argue that the European Union needs to do something about its current institutional setup. A number of approaches have already been suggested. One is that countries might be punished with massive fines in the future.

We argue that the EU needs to develop a number of new and powerful instruments to deal with rule of law violations and that is certainly not just about Poland and Hungary. Often these debates assume that Poland and Hungary are the rule-breakers, but there are many EU law violation procedures against other countries in the European Union too.

It’s not just about new divisions within the European Union, it’s also about the survival of the European Union as a community with a specific identity.

From the 1990s onwards, the EU has been a common project concerning the rule of law and democracy. If it is not able to tackle the problems with the rule of law, it will not be able to remain a legitimate political project.

Going after rule-breakers might lead to some internal divisions, of course. It’s quite possible that some countries would even increase the conflict surrounding the rule of law. This is a situation that would suit democratorships quite well because the European Union has historically been too soft and has been duped too many times already. There are many cases where Hungary and Poland have sought to manipulate the EU and that needs to end. There have been cases, for instance, where the Hungarian government sent wrongly or incorrectly translated documents to the European Union.

The matter is crucial because the European Union does not only represent its member states, but also its citizens. Member states deliver legitimacy through democracy, but citizens also participate, for instance, in elections to the European Parliament, which is a key pillar of EU legitimacy. By tolerating authoritarian developments, by tolerating rule of law violations, the EU has virtually given up on its obligations to protect European citizens.

As we argue in the book, the stakes are too high to avoid intra-EU conflict as the matter cuts to the core of the EU’s identity. At the end of the day, it’s about the survival of the European Union as a political community.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Mathias Gjesdal Hammer and Karen Culver.

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