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How profoundly is Russia’s war against Ukraine transforming Europe?

As I write this, it is already the 25th day of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine. The world is admiring the incredible resilience and determination of the people, the government, and the military of Ukraine. Yet in Ukraine thousands of civilians are dead, towns and cities are reduced to rubble, and human suffering is immense as every day the Russian military pounds countless civilian targets with missiles, artillery, and bombs.

For Europe, you could say that everything has changed and that nothing has changed—at least not yet. NATO has never been more unified in its resolve to protect NATO countries; however, NATO also appears weak, bickering about aid to Ukraine and reassuring Putin every day that it will not interfere in the conflict. Western governments, led by the United States, have imposed dramatic, unprecedented sanctions on Russia and are sending substantial shipments of military aid to Ukraine. But the sanctions are full of loopholes and the air defense systems and fighter jets that Ukraine is desperately seeking show no signs of being delivered. Germany has perhaps changed the most. It is strategizing how to end its dependence on Russian gas and is asking itself how it justified enmeshing itself economically with the Putin regime for so long. It has sent some weapons to Ukraine, ending a longstanding practice of not sending weapons to conflict zones. But for now, Germany is blocking some of the toughest economic sanctions and is still purchasing Russian gas. Also, the quantity and quality of the weapons Germany has sent so far to Ukraine have been very low. The European Union (EU) has come together with a show of support for Ukraine and a timely promise to consider Ukraine’s application for EU membership. But it has a long way to go before it finds the political will again to embrace EU enlargement as one of its most powerful foreign policy tools and to put in the work to implement a pre-accession process that incentivizes high quality political, economic, and administrative reforms. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, for all of his bravery, leadership, and integrity, cannot conjure a Europe that does not exist.

For their part, ethnopopulist and far-right parties across Europe that for years openly supported the Putin regime are now changing their positions and distancing themselves from the Kremlin and its brutal war against Ukraine. But this does not mean that they are changing their ethnopopulst and anti-pluralist appeals that vilify individuals, groups, and opposition parties they label as “culturally harmful.” In Hungary, Russia’s war against Ukraine may have weakened the position of Fidesz and its leader Viktor Orban in the upcoming elections, but this may not matter given how much Fidesz has tilted the playing field in its favor over the last twelve years. In Poland, in contrast, the ruling ethnopopulist Law and Justice Party (PiS) has re-invented itself by offering very strong support for Ukraine’s government and welcoming over two million refugees. While Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has called out Viktor Orban for his support of the Putin regime, he has applauded the PiS government for its very considerable assistance. But there are no indications that PiS has suddenly adopted liberal democratic and pluralist values at home. Indeed, for years, as I discuss below, PiS has worked in tandem with Fidesz to weaken and belittle the EU and the liberal democratic European values that many Ukrainians are fighting for.

The rest of this interview took place earlier this year.

You have been working for years on the role of the EU in tempering/leveraging political parties in Central Europe. Why does the EU today seem unable to stop Hungary’s and Poland’s illiberal moves and to prefer stability to democracy in the Western Balkans?

In the 1990s and 2000s, scholars indicated that the EU had the ability to exert leverage over candidate states in such a way as to bolster, over time, the quality of their liberal democracy.  What went wrong?  This kind of leverage could only work as long as EU membership was anchored in the values and institutions of liberal democracy among its members. Yes, many EU members had liberal democracies that were deeply flawed—think back, for example, to Berlusconi’s Italy—but all members identified as liberal democracies.

For a time, EU leaders embraced democracy promotion by way of EU enlargement as the EU’s most effective foreign policy tool.

Also, back then, the EU was ambitious. It wanted to get bigger and stronger. For a time, EU leaders embraced democracy promotion by way of EU enlargement as the EU’s most effective foreign policy tool. At the time, getting geographically and economically bigger dovetailed with the EU’s growing ambitions on the world stage. I still remember how in 1999 Javier Solana explained to an American audience that Europe would soon stretch deep into the Middle East and the US would have to take notice of its geopolitical power.  Today, that ambition is gone—and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has done a remarkable job leading an effort to decouple the EU from liberal democracy as a regime type. Sophie Meunier and I wrote about this in an article in the Journal of Common Market Studies a couple of years ago.

Central European countries’ economies have been deeply transformed since the 1990s, largely in partnership with international financial institutions. How do ethnopopulist movements conflate neoliberal policies and liberal democracy, discrediting the latter because of the former?

This is one of the cleverest tricks employed by the leaders of such ethnopopulist parties as Fidesz in Hungary and Law and Justice in Poland. Taking advantage of the aftermath of the financial crisis and the harsh consequences of neoliberal economic policies, many ethnopopulists purposefully conflate these policies with liberal democracy. They argue against “liberalism” per se and signal that choosing to end neoliberal economic policies necessitates dismantling liberal democracy. This is even more deceptive than it seems because, like incumbents in the UK today, for example, they enrich themselves by lowering taxes, by eliminating environmental safeguards, and by cutting or changing regulations to benefit their own businesses—all under the guise of helping the proverbial everyman.

Sadly, I see many scholars falling for this trick. It has become quite fashionable for political scientists, especially those trying to make a name for themselves on Twitter or shop book proposals, to make sweeping claims that citizens of Eastern Europe have “rejected liberalism.” Among the many pitfalls of this argument are two that I want to mention here.  First, such arguments ignore the great variation in political outcomes across the east of the EU; the slim margins by which “anti-liberal” parties have won elections; and the ways that, as incumbents, these parties have skewed the political playing field. Second, such arguments tell us little about voters, who may vote for anti-liberal parties for quite a range of reasons, from rejection of neo-liberal policies to fear of rapid social change to welfare benefits.

Such arguments ignore the great variation in political outcomes across the east of the EU; the slim margins by which “anti-liberal” parties have won elections; and the ways that, as incumbents, these parties have skewed the political playing field., such arguments ignore the great variation in political outcomes across the east of the EU; the slim margins by which “anti-liberal” parties have won elections; and the ways that, as incumbents, these parties have skewed the political playing field.

In your book Europe Undivided, you argue that the presence of a strong opposition to communism helped explain why Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic successfully built liberal democracies in the 1990s. Can we say that the current rise of ethnopopulism is articulated with the communist past and the conflictual memory of dissidence?

For starters, it is incredible how the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary have convinced a fair number of citizens that the transition in 1989—as negotiated between the opposition and the outgoing communist party—was part of an elaborate hoax. PiS and Fidesz argue that the dissidents were in cahoots with the communists to preserve the system and their privileges. There are so many ways in which this is absurd, not least the fact that some of the current leaders of PiS and Fidesz took part in those pacted transitions. Reflecting on the disinformation that all too many citizens here in the US believe, we understand how political elites can use captured media and intense partisanship to spread conspiracy theories effectively. As Joanna Fomina and Jacek Kucharczyk argue about Poland, this is “the politics of parallel reality.”

Yes, we can see how the presence of a strong opposition that embraced liberal democratic values and that ended communist rule at the negotiating table helped lay the groundwork for these conspiracy theories. Solidarność leader Adam Michnik argued in his celebrated essays from prison, for example, that “communists” could not be excluded from a future democratic polity. Decades later, PiS leaders have transmogrified these values to spin an elaborate conspiracy theory that opposition leaders were traitors who colluded with the communists.

I do want to highlight that ethnopopulists are remarkably resilient in the face of hypocrisy. There are many reasons for this that center on how ethnopopulist appeals are used to vilify opposition parties and to justify the concentration of power. As I argue in my article, PiS and Fidesz deserve special mention for claiming that they need extraordinary power in order to liberate the country, finally, from communism, even as they dust off many of the same tools for suppressing dissent that were used under communism, including censorship and shutting down civil society.

PiS and Fidesz deserve special mention for claiming that they need extraordinary power in order to liberate the country, finally, from communism, even as they dust off many of the same tools for suppressing dissent that were used under communism, including censorship and shutting down civil society.

Our Program is called the Illiberalism Studies Program. How does the notion of illiberal(ism) relate to the one you use, ethnopopulism? Where do they overlap and differ? Is “illiberal” a heuristic notion for comprehending current developments?

This is a great question.  In my mind, “illiberalism” is a rejection of liberal democracy.  In my book Europe Undivided, I theorized a liberal and an illiberal pattern of political change in Central Europe after 1989.  The two characteristics that I highlighted among the illiberal cases were the suppression of pluralism in the media and civil society, and the rejection of power limits on the part of incumbent parties. The illiberal parties that I was writing about in the 1990s and 2000s were mainly ethnic nationalist parties: they appealed to voters and justified concentrating power primarily by claiming that adjoining and intermingled nations are a grave threat.

The two characteristics that I highlighted among the illiberal cases were the suppression of pluralism in the media and civil society, and the rejection of power limits on the part of incumbent parties.

The ethnopopulist parties I am writing about today are also deeply illiberal, seeking to oppress independent voices and halt political turnover. The concept of ethnopopulism as I have defined it helps us understand how the two kinds of parties differ. In contrast to ethnic nationalist parties, ethnopopulist parties appeal to voters and justify the concentration of power by claiming that culturally harmful groups (such as the LGBTQ community or Muslim refugees) in league with cosmopolitan, transnational elites are a threat to the people. And while at home ethnopopulist leaders may wrap themselves in the symbols and conceits of grandiose nationalism, they rarely cast neighboring nations as a threat, in contrast to the practice of ethnic nationalist leaders in the region in the 1990s. Ethnopopulist leaders therefore benefit from much greater flexibility in choosing their friends as well as their enemies—and this is evinced by cooperation among them and with authoritarian regional powers. In this alleged struggle to save the people from the LGBTQ community, Muslim refugees, and cosmopolitan elites, for example, historical enemies—including Russia—can be embraced as friends who stand up for sovereignty and for traditional Christian values.

In your research on ethnopopulism in Central Europe, you looked at the racialization of the immigrant “threat.” Is this securitization process a bottom-up process, a top-down one, or both at the same time? What roles do a declining birth rate and emigration to Western Europe play in this anti-migrant xenophobia?

I argue that the process has been both bottom-up and top-down. Ethnopopulist appeals built on xenophobia and race may resonate especially strongly with citizens as a result of their existing attitudes and experiences. In East Central Europe, these attitudes may have been preserved and exacerbated by communism; after all, for four decades the region was closed off from the rest of the world. But the explanatory power of post-communism is limited, since around Europe we see many other countries where anti-immigrant appeals have a great deal of traction in domestic politics, including Austria, Italy, and France.

In any case, bottom-up pressure is only part of the story. Central Europe offers an opportunity to study a dramatic top-down process. Ethnopopulist parties have weaponized and racialized the claim that certain immigrants pose a cultural—even civilizational—threat. Tens of thousands of workers from eastern neighbors come to work in the Visegrad states every year, yet their presence is hardly debated at all. It is not the “white,” “Christian” economic migrants whose presence is politicized and weaponized, but the possibility of “dark-skinned” and “Muslim” refugees and migrants arriving, even in small numbers. Ethnopopulist leaders have also seized the opportunity to delegitimize domestic opponents and international institutions by claiming that these actors are championing the wellbeing of Muslim migrants at the expense of ordinary people.

You raise two fascinating questions about demography and outmigration. We are already seeing how low birth rates in East Central Europe and high levels of outmigration lead to economic demand for workers. Sadly, I expect that the current situation will last for some time: white migrants will come in large numbers because they are needed by the economy, while dark-skinned migrants will be kept out—and the “threat” they allegedly pose will continue to be a potent political tool. Again, this is not only the case in the east of the EU. In Italy, for example, the large numbers of Albanian migrants who have arrived over the last three decades are generally left in peace, politically speaking, while the arrival of Muslim migrants continues to be politicized by Lega, the Brothers of Italy, and other parties.

It is not the “white,” “Christian” economic migrants whose presence is politicized and weaponized, but the possibility of “dark-skinned” and “Muslim” refugees and migrants arriving, even in small numbers.


Professor Milada Anna Vachudova specializes in European politics, political change in postcommunist Europe, the European Union (EU) and the impact of international actors on domestic politics. Her recent articles explore the trajectories of European states amidst strengthening ethnopopulism and democratic backsliding – and how these changes are impacting party systems and the EU. She is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is also part of the core team of the Chapel Hill Expert Survey (CHES) on the positions of political parties across Europe. She has been a Jean Monnet Chair and served as the Chair of the Curriculum in Global Studies at UNC from 2014 to 2019. Her book, Europe Undivided: Democracy, Leverage and Integration After Communism (Oxford University Press) was awarded the Stein Rokkan Prize for Comparative Social Science Research. She holds a B.A. from Stanford University. As a British Marshall Scholar, she completed an M.Phil. and a D.Phil. in the Faculty of Politics at the University of Oxford. She has held fellowships from the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research (NCEEER), the European University Institute (EUI), the Center for European Studies at Harvard University, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Center of International Studies at Princeton University and many other institutions. 

illiberalism.org

illiberalism.org

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.

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