A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Eastern Differences


The nations of Eastern Europe have the experience of Soviet rule in common, but not much else. Consequently, they all have their own versions of populist politics.

© REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

Eastern Europe is a region more internally divided than any other part of the continent. It is homogeneous only in ethnic terms—its population is almost entirely white (apart from some Roma populations in some countries), which makes it rather exceptional and ill-suited to the realities of a globalized world.

When modern national identities were emerging, most of today’s Eastern European countries were not even on the map. Their most prominent nationals were citizens of other countries, and their broader populations were generally poorly educated and politically disenfranchised. The common experience that ultimately united Czechs, Poles, Romanians, and Hungarians was communism.

The 19th-century experience of struggles for independence has made Eastern European countries more nationalistic and more sensitive to issues of sovereignty, while the experience of communism (which was often more nationalist than leftist) has discredited the political left. The legacy of communism is that the region is poorer, more backward, more corrupt, and cut off from immigration.

Eastern European countries also differ from their Western neighbors in terms of their economic model. They lack the experience of the postwar welfare state. Meanwhile, the fall of communism came at the height of faith in neoliberalism, which is why the capitalism that was introduced in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary (as well as Russia) is far more neoliberal that its equivalent in Germany, France, or Italy.

The Narcissism of Small Differences

All of these factors serve to differentiate Eastern Europe from the West and underlie its classification as one cultural-political region. But this is a region dominated by the narcissism of small differences, where no country wants to be compared to the others because they all aspire to join the West. Every country in the region suffers from the complexes of backward and aspiring countries, meaning that they are all constantly competing with each other in an attempt to prove they are better than their neighbors.

For example, the Poles look down on the Czechs for not having fought hard enough for their country, while the Czechs disdain the Poles for constantly engaging in battles that cannot be won. The Poles see their country as the region’s natural leader because it is larger and more populous. But no one else sees Poland in that role. The Czechs see themselves as the most modern and most Western nation in the region. Slovakia, Slovenia, and the Baltics are in the eurozone. The Hungarians, meanwhile, are the only ones in the region who have international ambitions: Viktor Orbán wants to be the leader of Europe’s populist right. Jarosław Kaczyński wants Europe to leave him alone, but he joins Orbán in his campaigns from time to time.

Eastern European societies know much less about each other than they do about Germany or Austria. Language, religion, culture—there is much more that divides us than unites us. This is true even for the historic incorporation into empires. The territories of today’s Poland belonged to three empires at various times, which is still evident in railway and road infrastructure, and even in voting patterns.

Monastery, Mob, or Madhouse

The common experiences of 19th-century nationalism and 20th-century communism make the region far more populist than Western Europe. But the region’s internal differences also mean that it is home to entirely different brands of populism.

Poland’s populism is ideological, while the Czech Republic’s resembles the iconic Czech literary character Josef Švejk in that it is half-witted and bumbling, and therefore less threatening. Hungary, meanwhile, has gangster populism. Poland’s ruling party, the Law and Justice Party (PiS), is like a monastery, Hungary’s Fidesz is like the mob, and Andrej Babiš’s ANO is like a madhouse. The populism of Slovakia’s former prime minister, Robert Fico, does not resemble anything—it is an invisible populism, although it involves the rather surreal element of cooperation with the Italian mafia. Fico’s invisible populism has proven the least populist, and fostered economic growth in Slovakia. On the other hand, it has also proved the most murderous—only Slovakia has experienced the killing of a journalist, most likely with the involvement of businessmen cooperating with government authorities.

As political scientists Martin Eiermann, Yascha Mounk, and Limor Gultchin of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change have shown, only in Europe’s post-communist east do populists routinely beat traditional parties in elections. Of 15 Eastern European countries, populist parties currently hold power in seven, are part of a ruling coalition in two more, and are the main opposition force in three.

Eiermann, Mounk, and Gultchin also point out that whereas populist parties captured 20 percent or more of the vote in only two Eastern European countries in 2000, today they have done so in 10 countries. In Poland, populist parties have gone from winning a mere 0.1 percent of the vote in 2000 to the current PiS government winning two consecutive parliamentary majorities. And in Hungary, support for Prime Minister Orbán’s Fidesz party has at times exceeded 70 percent.

Liberalism Is a Western Import

Hard data aside, we need to consider the underlying social and political factors that have made populism so much stronger in Eastern Europe. For starters, Eastern Europe lacks the tradition of checks and balances that has long safeguarded Western democracy. Unlike Poland’s de facto ruler, PiS chairman Kaczyński, Donald Trump does not ignore judicial decisions (so far, at least).

Or consider Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump and his campaign’s ties to Russia. Mueller was appointed by US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a government official who is subordinate to Trump within the executive branch. But while Trump has the authority to fire Mueller or Rosenstein, he didn’t dare to do so. The same cannot be said for Kaczyński.

Another major difference is that Eastern Europeans tend to hold more materialist attitudes than Westerners, who have moved beyond concerns about physical security to embrace what sociologist Ronald Inglehart calls post-materialist values. One aspect of this difference is that Eastern European societies are more vulnerable to attacks on abstract liberal institutions such as freedom of speech and judicial independence.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, liberalism in Eastern Europe is a Western import. Notwithstanding the Trump and Brexit phenomena, the United States and the United Kingdom have deeply embedded cultures of political and social liberalism. In Eastern Europe, civil society is not just weaker; it is also more focused on areas such as charity, religion, and leisure, rather than political issues.

Attractive for Losers and Winners

Moreover, in the vastly different political landscapes of Europe’s post-communist states, the left is either very weak or completely absent from the political mainstream. The political dividing line, then, is not between left and right, but between right and wrong. As a result, Eastern Europe is much more prone to the “friend or foe” dichotomy conceived by the anti-liberal German political and legal theorist Carl Schmitt. Each side conceives of itself as the only real representative of the nation and treats its opponents as illegitimate alternatives who should be disenfranchised, not merely defeated.

Another major difference between Eastern and Western European populists is that the former can count on support not only from the working class, but also from the middle class. According to research conducted by Maciej Gdula published in Krytyka Polityczna, political attitudes in Poland do not align with whether one benefited or lost out during the country’s post-communist economic transformation. The ruling party’s electorate includes many who are generally satisfied with their lives, and are benefitting from the country’s development.

For such voters, the appeal of the populist message lies in its provision of an overarching narrative in which to organize positive and negative experiences. This creates a sense of purpose, as it ties voters more strongly to the party. Voters do not develop their own opinions about the courts, refugees, or the opposition based on their own experiences. Instead, they listen to the leader, adjusting their views according to their political choices.

The success of the PiS, therefore, is rooted not in frustrated voters’ economic interests. For the working class, the desire for a sense of community is the major consideration. For their middle-class counterparts, it is the satisfaction that arises not from material wealth, but from pointing to someone who is perceived as inferior, from refugees to depraved elites to cliquish judges. Orbán and Kaczyński are experts in capitalizing on this longing.

Dissimilar Twins

Stalin, in the first decade of Soviet power, backed the idea of “socialism in one country,” meaning that, until conditions ripened, socialism was for the USSR alone. When Orbán declared, in July 2014, his intention to build an “illiberal democracy,” it was widely assumed that he was creating “illiberalism in one country.” Now, Orbán and Kaczyński have proclaimed a counter-revolution aimed at turning the European Union into an illiberal project.

After a day of grinning, backslapping bonhomie at the 2018 Krynica conference, which styles itself a regional Davos (Orbán was named its Man of the Year), Kaczyński and Orbán announced that they would lead 100 million Europeans in a bid to remake the EU along nationalist/religious lines. One might imagine Václav Havel, a previous honoree, turning in his grave at the pronouncement. And former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, another previous winner, must be aghast: her country is being ravaged by Russia under President Vladimir Putin, the pope of illiberalism and role model for Kaczyński and Orbán.

The two men intend to seize the opportunity presented by the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum, which demonstrated that, in today’s EU, illiberal democrats’ preferred mode of discourse—lies and smears—can be politically and professionally rewarding. The fusion of the two men’s skills could make them a more potent threat than many Europeans may realize.

What Orbán brings to the partnership is clear: a strain of “pragmatic” populism. He has aligned his Fidesz party with the European People’s Party (the group in the European Parliament that brings together conventional, center-right parties including Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU), which keeps him formally within the political mainstream and makes the German chancellor an ally who provides political protection, despite Orbán’s illiberal governance. Kaczyński, however, chose to ally the PiS with the marginal Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, and he quarrels almost ceaselessly with Germany and the European Commission.

Cynic vs. Fanatic

Moreover, Orbán has more of the common touch than his Polish partner. Like Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister who has served as President of the European Council since 2014 (and whose tenure is about to end), he plays soccer with other politicians. Kaczyński, by contrast, is something of a hermit, who lives alone and spends his evenings watching Spanish rodeo on TV. He seems to live outside of society, whereas his supporters seem to place him above it—the ascetic messiah of a Poland reborn.

It is this mystical fervor that Kaczyński brings to his partnership with the opportunistic Orbán. It is a messianism forged from Polish history—a sense that the nation has a special mission for which God has chosen it, with the proof to be found in Poland’s especially tragic history. Uprisings, war, partitions: these are the things a Pole should think about every day.

A messianic identity favors a certain type of leader—one who, like Putin, appears to be animated by a sense of mission (in Putin’s case, it is the same mission proclaimed by the czars: orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality). So, whereas Orbán is a cynic, Kaczyński is a fanatic for whom pragmatism is a sign of weakness. Orbán would never act against his own interests; Kaczyński has done so many times. By attacking members of his own coalition government, for example, Kaczyński lost power in 2007, only two years after he had won it. He seems to have no plans. Instead, he has visions—not of fiscal reform or economic restructuring, but of a new type of Poland.

Orbán seeks nothing of the kind. He doesn’t want to create a new-model Hungary; his only aim is to remain, like Putin, in power for the rest of his life. Having governed as a liberal in the 1990s (paving the way for Hungary to join both NATO and the EU) and lost, Orbán regards illiberalism as the means to win until he takes his last breath.

Different Motives, Identical Methods

Kaczyński’s illiberalism is of the soul. He calls those outside his camp “the worst sort of Poles.” Homo Kaczynskius is a Pole preoccupied with his country’s fate, and who bares his teeth at critics and dissenters, particularly foreign ones. Gays and lesbians cannot be true Poles. All non-Polish elements within Poland are viewed as a threat. The PiS government has not accepted a single refugee of the tiny number—just 7,500—that Poland, a country of nearly 40 million, agreed with the EU to take in.

Despite having different motivations for embracing illiberalism, Kaczyński and Orbán agree that, in practical terms, it means building a new national culture. State-funded media are no longer public, but rather “national.” By eliminating civil-service exams, offices can be filled with loyalists and party hacks. The education system is being turned into a vehicle for fostering identification with a glorious and tragic past. Only cultural enterprises that praise the nation should receive public funding.

For Kaczyński, foreign policy is a function of historical policy. Here, the two men do differ: whereas Orbán’s pragmatism keeps him from antagonizing his European and US partners excessively, Kaczyński is uninterested in geopolitical calculation. After all, a messiah does not trim his beliefs or kowtow; he lives to proclaim the truth.

So, for the most part, Kaczyński’s foreign policy is a tendentious history seminar. Poland was betrayed by the West. Its strength—today and always—comes from pride, dignity, courage, and absolute self-reliance. Its defeats are moral victories that prove the nation’s strength and courage, enabling it, like Christ, to return from the dead after 123 years of absence from the map of Europe.

The Four Lessons of Populist Rule

The conventional view of populism posits that an erratic ruler will enact contradictory policies that primarily benefit the rich. The poor will lose, because populists have no hope of restoring manufacturing jobs, despite their promises. And massive inflows of migrants and refugees will continue, because populists have no plan to address the problem’s root causes. In the end, populist governments, incapable of effective rule, will crumble and their leaders will either face impeachment or fail to win re-election.

Kaczyński faced similar expectations. Liberal Poles thought that he would work for the benefit of the rich, create chaos, and quickly trip himself up—which is exactly what happened between 2005 and 2007, when PiS last governed Poland. But the liberals were wrong: PiS has transformed itself from an ideological nullity into a party that has managed to introduce shocking changes with record speed and efficiency. In fact, recent years have brought us four lessons about what makes populist rule more durable.

First, no neoliberalism. Between 2005 and 2007, PiS implemented neoliberal economic policies (for example, eliminating the highest income-tax bracket and the estate tax). But since returning to power in 2015, it has enacted the largest social transfers in Poland’s contemporary history. Parents now receive a 500 złoty ($120) monthly benefit for every child. As a direct result, the poverty rate has declined by 20 to 40 percent, and by 70 to 90 percent among children. And that’s just the most discussed example. In 2016, the government introduced free medication for people over the age of 75. The retirement age has been reduced from 67 for both men and women to 60 for women and 65 for men. The government is also planning tax relief for low-income taxpayers.

The 500 złoty child subsidy has changed the political paradigm in Poland. Now, no electoral promise that is not formulated as a direct offer of cash can have any hope of appealing to voters. PiS won big in the European elections in May 2019 thanks to its promise of paying out a 13th month of retirement benefits, which was enacted a week before voters went to the polls. In the campaign ahead of the Polish parliamentary elections in October 2019 the party ran on a promise of almost doubling the minimum salary (from 2250 złoty in 2019 to 3000 złoty in 2020 and 4000 złoty in 2023).

Second, the restoration of “order.” Independent institutions are the most important enemy of populism. Populist leaders are control freaks. For populists, it is liberal democracy that leads to chaos, which must be “put in order” by a “responsible government.” Media pluralism leads to informational chaos. An independent judiciary means legal chaos. Independent public administration creates institutional chaos. And a robust civil society is a recipe for chronic bickering and conflict.

But populists believe that such chaos does not emerge by itself. It is the work of perfidious foreign powers and their domestic puppets. To “make Poland great again,” the nation’s heroes must defeat its traitors, who are not equal contenders for power. Populist leaders are thus obliged to limit their opponents’ rights. Indeed, their political ideal is not order, but rather the subordination of all independent bases of power that could challenge them: courts, media, business, cultural institutions, NGOs, and so forth.

Third, electoral dictatorship. Populists know how to win elections, but their conception of democracy extends no further. On the contrary, populists view the separation of government powers, minority rights, and independent media—all staples of liberalism—as an attack on majority rule, and therefore on democracy itself.

The political ideal that a populist government strives for is essentially an elected dictatorship. And recent US experience suggests that this can be a sustainable model. After all, everything depends on how those in power decide to organize elections, which can include redrawing voting districts or altering the rules governing campaign finance or political advertisements. Elections can be falsified imperceptibly.

Fourth, might makes right. Populists have benefited from disseminating fake news, slandering their opponents, and promising miracles that mainstream media treat as normal campaign claims. But it is a mistake to think that truth is an effective weapon against post-truth. In a post-truth world, it is power, not fact-checking, that is decisive. Whoever is most ruthless and has the fewest scruples wins.

To Defeat Populism, Be Ruthless

Populists are both unseemly and ascendant. Trump’s supporters, for example, have come to view tawdriness as evidence of credibility, whereas comity, truth, and reason are evidence of elitism. Those who would resist populism must come to terms with the fact that truth is not enough. They must also display determination and ruthlessness, though without becoming the mirror image of their opponents.

In postmodernity, nationalism does not disappear into thin air. Unfortunately, in Poland and elsewhere, the only ideology that has survived in the post-ideological era is nationalism. By appealing to nationalist sentiment, populists have gained support everywhere, regardless of the economic system or situation, because this sentiment is being fueled externally, namely by the influx of migrants and refugees. It does not have to be real; imagined dangers also work well. Polish anti-Semitism does not need Jews, anti-communism works without communists. Another good example are anti-migration feelings, which can be whipped up without a single migrant or refugee around.

Mainstream politicians, especially on the left, have no effective message on the issue. Opposing migration contradicts their ideals, while supporting it means electoral defeat.

But the choice should be clear. Either populism’s opponents drastically change their rhetoric regarding migrants and refugees, or the populists will continue to rule in Eastern Europe. Migrants and refugees lose in either scenario, but in the second, liberal democracy does as well. Such calculations are ugly—and, yes, corrosive of liberal values—but the populists, as we have seen, are capable of far nastier trade-offs.

Kaczyński had succeeded in establishing control over two issues near and dear to voters: social transfers and nationalism. As long as he controls these two bastions of voter sentiment, he is safe.