The revolt against liberalism: what’s driving Poland and Hungary’s nativist turn? – podcast

For the hardline conservatives ruling Poland and Hungary, the transition from communism to liberal democracy was a mirage. They fervently believe a more decisive break with the past is needed to achieve national liberation. By Nicholas Mulder


Written by Nicholas Mulder, read by Tanya Cubric and produced by Esther Opoku-Gyeni

Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán at an electoral rally in April 2018.
Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán at an electoral rally in April 2018. Photograph: Zsolt Szigetvary/EPA

Sat 21 Aug 2021 12.00 BST – Last modified on Mon 23 Aug 2021 09.19 BST

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In the summer of 1992, a 29-year-old Hungarian with political ambitions made his first visit to the US. For six weeks he toured the country with a coterie of young Europeans, all expenses paid by the German Marshall Fund, a thinktank devoted to transatlantic cooperation.

America had long fascinated Viktor Orbán, but he seemed disengaged and unaffected as the group walked around downtown Los Angeles, which was still reeling from the Rodney King riots two months earlier. One Dutch journalist on the trip recalled that the eastern Europeans in the group preferred to spend their daily stipends on “a Walkman and other electronics” rather than on food or fancy hotels. The free market and cutting-edge technologies certainly appealed more to Orbán than American debates and struggles over equality, justice or the rights of people of colour.

Orbán’s indifference to the plight of western minorities became more apparent during a tour of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon. Orbán and one of his travel companions, the Polish journalist Małgorzata Bochenek, listened to local complaints about economic injustice. He responded with questions about land distribution. Why didn’t the native tribes draft a strategy to monetise their common lands? After all, this was what Hungarian smallholders like his parents had been doing with local collective farms since the end of communism. Orbán began to sketch a business plan for the reservation, but when his Umatilla interlocutors didn’t respond with enthusiasm, he quickly lost interest.

What fascinated Orbán most during the rest of the trip was high politics. The group tour finished in New York City in July, where he attended the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden and watched Bill Clinton’s nomination to the sounds of Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop. The excitement of the occasion was not lost on Orbán. Visiting the US reaffirmed his own desire to become prime minister of Hungary.

At the time, the nature of the west’s appeal to young eastern Europeans was changing. In 1989, when Orbán studied at Oxford University on a Soros Foundation fellowship, the western consensus of the late cold war – deregulated capitalism, social stability, and national traditions – still held sway. These were the values he wanted to bring back to his home country. Three years later, by the time of his trip to the US, a shift was palpable. While free markets still reigned supreme, European and north American culture had moved into a more introspective mode. Orbán liked Clintonism as an approach to administration and economics, but had little interest in western human rights discourse, discussions of gender and race, or the legacies of colonialism and the Holocaust.

Orbán’s enthusiasm for American economics and indifference to American cultural concerns was a sign of the direction Hungary and Poland would eventually take in the coming decades. In the 1990s, the two countries led eastern Europe in economic shock therapy, pushing market reforms beyond what their western advisers demanded. But in cultural terms, the Polish and Hungarian right chose a more conservative course. The result is that both countries have continued to see themselves as deeply European, even as they have steered further away from EU-style liberalism.

Bill Clinton and Viktor Orbán at the White House in 1998.
Bill Clinton and Viktor Orbán at the White House in 1998. Photograph: Paul J Richards/AFP/Getty Images

A decade after she visited the Umatilla reservation in Oregon with Orbán, Małgorzata Bochenek became an adviser to Polish president Lech Kaczyński, who together with his brother, Jarosław, founded the conservative nationalist party Law and Justice, which now has the support of nearly 45% of the Polish electorate. Orbán’s Fidesz party commands a supermajority of two-thirds of the seats in the Hungarian parliament. Both parties have enacted similar policies: filling the courts and media with pro-government judges and journalists; driving out leftwing and liberal NGOs, academics, and universities; violating the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights by restricting or banning access to abortion and denying legal recognition to transgender people; and ignoring attempts by European institutions to hold them accountable for these provocations.

At the same time, four out of every five citizens of Poland and Hungary support their country’s EU membership. For the anti-liberals in Budapest and Warsaw, the goal is autonomy within Europe, not independence outside of it.

How did the revolutionaries of 1989 become the nativists of the 2010s and 2020s? There are a number of ways to answer this question. Depending on the narrator, it can be told as a story of gradual estrangement, or a forced reversion to self-interest brought on by external shock, or the adolescent rebellion of pupils against their former teachers.

In their 2019 book, The Light That Failed, Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev and US law professor Stephen Holmes made the case for the rebellion hypothesis. They argue that the transition from communism to capitalist democracy was driven by “copycat liberalism”. Eastern Europeans took it upon themselves to adopt the habits, norms and institutions of the western world, whose prosperity and freedoms they wanted to enjoy. The problem, according to Krastev and Holmes, was that submission to this “imitation imperative” was “inherently stressful” and “emotionally taxing”. Modelling oneself after an external ideal was bound to produce feelings of shame and resentment when the outcome fell short of an unattainably perfect original. Faced with the humiliation of perpetual inferiority, Orbán and Kaczyński used the 2008–2015 economic and migration crises to reject western liberalism and advance an illiberal alternative.

Krastev and Holmes see emigration from central eastern Europe as a key factor in the appeal of nationalist politics. Decades of brain drain have caused a demographic panic, which, they suggest, heightens fears about the arrival of Middle Eastern and African migrants. Especially in Hungary, anti-immigrant politics have indeed gone hand in hand with efforts to stem population decline through low birth-rates and emigration. Orbán has unfolded an ambitious and popular family policy involving the nationalisation of IVF clinics and generous loans and tax breaks for newlyweds and large families. Orbán has also granted citizenship to more than one million ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, Serbia and Ukraine, creating a Fidesz-led diasporic civil society in what Hungarian nationalists see as a “Greater Hungary”.

Yet other countries have seen millions of citizens emigrate and not swung towards illiberalism. Between 1989 and 2017, Latvia lost 27% of its population, Lithuania 22.5%, Croatia 22%, and Bulgaria 21%. But the Baltic and eastern Balkan states have not changed in the same way as Poland and Hungary. Although nativism is present, it has not become the dominant tenor in national politics. In Bulgaria, a pro-EU protest movement became the second-largest party in parliamentary elections this spring, and the country’s departing prime minister, Boyko Borisov, has emphasised that he wants the country’s “Euro-Atlantic orientation to be seen clearly”. Romania, a fifth of whose inhabitants have left the country since 1990, has been gripped not by strongman politics, but by fervent anti-corruption efforts and pro-Brussels protests. By contrast, Poland and Hungary, where illiberalism has advanced the farthest, have some of the lowest net emigration rates in the region.

A far-right demonstration in Hungary in February 2020.
A far-right demonstration in Hungary in February 2020. Photograph: Bernadett Szabó/Reuters

Migration shapes nativist politics, but does not fully explain the wider crisis of liberalism. Exclusionary policies on immigration are being pursued in most European countries. Yet despite general anti-immigrant sentiment, it is only in the UK, Poland and Hungary that nationalist governments have departed from the European Union or turned their back on its values, and only in Budapest and Warsaw that open season has been declared on liberal civil society and the rule of law. Kaczyński and Orbán are special among Europe’s nationalists not for their chauvinism, but for their authoritarian actions against domestic opponents and European and international institutions.

Poland and Hungary’s ruling parties pursue what they see as a truer break with the past than the mirage transition of 1989. Anti-liberal nationalism in eastern Europe is more than an outburst of uncontrollable passions. Common to both is the belief that a historic task has befallen them, and that the end of communism was only the beginning of the road to national liberation. The fact that these ideas were formed during the transition decade also suggests that illiberal democracy is a purposive project – something not just reactive, but with clear ideological goals of its own.

The revolt against liberalism began to stir in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as growing fractions of the Polish and Hungarian right started demanding a harder break with the past. Orbán’s first premiership, from 1998 to 2002, when Fidesz ruled together with the agrarian conservative Independent Smallholders’ Party, promoted Holocaust revisionism, racism against Roma populations, and support for Jörg Haider’s far-right government in neighbouring Austria. But since Hungary kept recording solid economic growth and entered Nato in 1999, the cabinet’s rightwing policies were quickly forgotten in western capitals.

In 2002, his narrow election loss to the socialists left Orbán embittered and convinced that reformed communists throughout Hungarian society had conspired to prematurely end his tenure. When Hungary entered the EU in 2004, massive European funds flowed to a group of liberal politicians around centre-left prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, an economist who had been head of the Hungarian Young Communist League in the 1980s. During the transition from communism to democracy, Gyurcsány and his old comrades had made a small fortune running pop-up consulting firms with names such Eurocorp International Finance Inc. By the mid-2000s they were regulars at Davos. While this kind of shapeshifting and economic opportunism was common everywhere in eastern and central Europe, these links made it easier for Orbán to portray Soviet communism and European liberalism as successive forms of external rule.

As in Hungary, the role of reformed Polish communists in smoothing the political transition to liberal democracy ultimately radicalised the right. In 1997, conservative thinkers first began to call for a “fourth Polish republic” to replace the third iteration that had followed the end of communism. Four years later, Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński founded Law and Justice, promising a radical purification and political renewal of Polish society. The Kaczyńskis’ aim was to use the full force of executive and legislative power in pursuit of a final reckoning with the “contaminants” of state socialism. For many years, Poland’s constitutional court restricted efforts to purge state institutions and civil society of anyone with communist associations, a process known as lustration. This protection received support from EU laws protecting personal dignity and privacy.

When Law and Justice first came to power in 2005, however, it took lustration to a new level. A law was proposed that would have required 350,000 civil servants, journalists, academics, teachers and state managers to declare past political associations, no matter how mundane, on pain of losing their jobs. Widespread resistance from Poland’s progressive elite against this deeply intrusive purge helped push the Kasczyńskis out of power in 2007 in favour of the liberal pro-European Civic Platform led by Donald Tusk.

Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński, who founded Poland’s Law and Justice party, as MPs in 2005.
Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński, who founded Poland’s Law and Justice party, as MPs in 2005. Photograph: Jacek Turczyk/EPA

This failed first attempt at a wholesale purification of Polish society forms the backdrop to Law and Justice’s renewed assault on the country’s judiciary since 2015, which has attracted more international attention. But Law and Justice’s illiberal agenda was not, as Krastev and Holmes would have it, a reaction against western imitation. It is precisely the desire of Polish illiberals for a more thoroughgoing expunging of the communist past, at the cost of ignoring EU protections, that has led them to stack the country’s courts and attack progressive civil society. As in Hungary, the very thing that made the transition from communism to liberal democracy so peaceful – its negotiated character – has provided an insurgent nationalist right with a powerful accusation of original sin. In this turncoat myth, 1989 was not a clean handover but a massive elite whitewash. What is at stake is not western identity – something about which Poles have never been in doubt – but rather who is fit to join a purified Polish nation-state.

Ultimately, Polish and Hungarian opposition to EU norms and civic rights has not produced, as it has among Brexiteers, a corresponding desire for economic sovereignty. Brussels’ financial faucet has simply been too lucrative to resist. Even as Orbán has dismantled liberal institutions, he has drawn vast amounts of EU funds to feather the nests of a loyal oligarchy of tycoons and agro-entrepreneurs tied to Fidesz. Conservative nationalists in Poland have also raked in material support from a political and economic union whose influence they routinely attack.

This insensitivity to political behaviour is the result of how the EU disburses funds to its members. Money is allocated in large tranches that are sent over many years in accordance with pre-arranged spending and investment plans; short-term political friction between national governments and Brussels does not alter these long-term entitlements. Between 2007 and 2020, eastern European member states received €395bn, half of which went to Hungary and Poland.

A rally by supporters of the Law and Justice party in Warsaw, Poland in 2016.
A rally by supporters of the Law and Justice party in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. Photograph: Czarek Sokołowski/AP

Just how difficult it has become to restrain illiberalism within the EU became clear at the end of 2020. As EU leaders prepared an unprecedented €1.8tn budget and stimulus package in response to the pandemic, Budapest and Warsaw nearly derailed the negotiations. Objecting to a mechanism that would tie funding to their observance of the rule of law, Poland and Hungary threatened to veto the entire EU budget for the next six years.

As member states, Poland and Hungary argued that they were fully entitled to their chunk of the funding; illiberal governments turned out to be fluent speakers of the language of law and treaty rights. Ultimately the standoff was defused through a last-minute “interpretative declaration” ensuring that the rule of law sanctions mechanism must be approved by the European Court of Justice before it can be applied. It is uncertain if such measures will be taken soon, if at all.

For the time being, funding will come with relatively few strings attached. The struggle between liberals and illiberals in eastern Europe will continue on its main battlefield: political, legal and cultural institutions. As the nationwide women’s strike against Law and Justice’s abortion ban in October 2020 showed, this is an acute and important fight. What is not in dispute, however, is the character of the region’s economic model. Liberals and illiberals both agree that after the end of communism, the only developmental path that remains for their societies is a capitalist one.

If Krastev and Holmes see Poland and Hungary’s backlash against western liberalism as a psychological reaction, the renowned German historian Philipp Ther puts forward a different explanation. In his view, the new nationalism is a reaction less against imitation than against the exposure of entire societies to the vicissitudes of the world market. In his book Das Andere Ende der Geschichte (The Other End of History), he writes that the nativist right has a “coherent worldview, which can be characterised as a cluster of promises of protection and security”.

Ther argues that the rapid transition from state socialism to free-market capitalism triggered an impulse towards self-protection. Signs of popular distress became visible in elections in several countries in 1993 and 1994. Polish and Hungarian voters elected centre-left cabinets with substantial ex-Communist personnel, but this brought little protection. Polish privatisation slowed but never ceased. In Hungary, the new government soon pushed through a more savage austerity package. A different course was taken in Slovakia, where prime minister Vladimír Mečiar didn’t just break with the neoliberalism of his Czech colleague Václav Klaus, but split the unified Czechoslovak state into two parts. In every respect, the years of Mečiar’s rule in 1990s Slovakia were a harbinger of contemporary illiberalism – combining populism, nationalism and protective welfare to mask an increasingly autocratic government. It was due to Mečiar’s arbitrary rule that Slovakia was deemed unfit for Nato membership in 1999; the country joined the organisation five years later than its Central European peers.

The eastern European transition to free markets in the 1990s was made difficult by the local weakness of liberalism’s preferred agent of capitalist transformation, a property-owning bourgeoisie. Sociologists Iván Szelényi, Gil Eyal and Eleanor Townsley described this challenge as one of “making capitalism without capitalists”. Western European funds initially prioritised market expansion over democratisation: from 1990 to 1996, just 1% of the European Union’s international aid mechanism for former socialist states went towards funding political parties, independent media and other civic organisations. But as markets advanced, the middle class remained anaemic.

Thirty years later, the benefits of the free economy have been very unequally divided; income gaps between city and countryside are wider in eastern Europe than anywhere else on the continent. Yet the ubiquity of free-market thinking in the region is an accomplished fact. In the famous July 2014 speech that set out the need for Hungary to adopt “illiberal democracy”, Orbán predicted that “societies founded upon the principle of the liberal way to organise a state will not be able to sustain their world-competitiveness in the following years, and more likely they will suffer a setback” and announced, “we are searching for … the form of organising a community, that is capable of making us competitive in this great world-race”.

The start of history: Foreign ministers Gyula Horn of Hungary and Alois Mock (ledt) of Austria cutting the barbed wire fence on the Hungarian-Austrian border in 989
The start of history: cutting the barbed wire fence on the Hungarian-Austrian border in 1989. Photograph: Károly Matusz/EPA

Yet it would be wrong to ascribe this conversion to global capitalism entirely to westernisation. In their book, 1989: A Global History of Eastern Europe, James Mark, Bogdan Iacob, Tobias Rupprecht and Ljubica Spaskovska leave no doubt that eastern European elites’ interest in capitalism preceded their embrace of democracy. Reformist bureaucrats under late socialism looked above all to east Asia. The successes of Deng Xiaoping’s China were an example for Gorbachev’s later economic reforms. In the 1980s, Polish and Hungarian market-oriented reforms were modelled partly on South Korea, whose authoritarian capitalism had achieved high levels of economic growth.

Eastern Europe didn’t just take other regions as its end goal. Its transition in the 1990s became “a new global script” for African, Latin American and Asian countries to follow. Ruling elites and oppositionists from Mexico to South Africa took eastern Europe’s political democratisation and economic liberalisation as a guiding light. In time, eastern Europeans graduated into a position where they could offer their own experience as advice to others. In 2003 the architect of Poland’s neoliberal reforms, Leszek Balcerowicz, toured Washington DC to suggest how the US should overhaul the Iraqi economy. During the Arab Spring, Lech Wałęsa visited Tunisia “to tell them how we did it” in the words of Poland’s then-foreign minister Radosław Sikorski, who flew to Benghazi to provide counsel to the Libyans overthrowing Gaddafi.

The fact that eastern Europeans eventually acted as ambassadors of the west solidified the belief that 1989 was a long overdue return to a natural cultural home. But that turn had been initiated long before the end of communism. In the 1970s and 80s Czechoslovak, Polish and Hungarian elites and dissidents steadily abandoned anti-imperialism and socialist solidarity with the Third World, and emphasised their “common European heritage” instead.

This focus on high European culture had clear anti-African as well as anti-Islamic overtones. In 1985 the Hungarian minister of culture declared that “Europe possessed a cultural heritage … a specific intellectual quality – the European character”. On a visit to Budapest two years later, the Spanish king Juan Carlos was shown the ramparts that Habsburg troops had seized from the Ottomans in the 1686 – a Communist celebration of Christian Europe’s fight against Islam. Observing the ferocity of the Afghan mujahideen, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu warned that the Islamic world was “a billion-strong and they are fanatics. A long-term war can be the result.”

Meanwhile, Romanian exiles attacked Ceaușescu himself as a foreign ruler who had foisted a “tropical despotism” on their country. The dissident Ion Vianu wrote in 1987 that “Romania today resembles an African country more than a European one”. He railed against “the disorganisation of public life, the administration’s inability to maintain its activity at the level of one from the old continent; the state of roads, the squalor in the streets … empty stores, the generalised practice of graft; the police’s arbitrariness”. All this, he wrote, reminded him of Haiti. “Romanians with western ideals are some sort of silent majority in today’s Romania.”

Before communism ended, a new sense of cultural belonging had taken hold among many eastern Europeans. This growing identification of their countries as European and Christian explains why during the last decade, anti-immigrant rhetoric about a “Fortress Europe” to keep out African and Middle Eastern migrants has found fertile soil in the region.

In the long run, the year 1989 therefore marked a moment when eastern Europe both closed itself off from old influences and opened itself up to new ideas. Socialist planning and international solidarity with the developing world were abandoned, while identification with a narrower European civilisation went hand in hand with integration into the liberalised world economy. Eastern European countries still display this combination of open and closed characteristics today. Hungary is the prime example of this hybrid approach: under Orbán it has repudiated the liberal idea of an open society, but has nonetheless remained firmly connected to the transnational European car industry as well as the military networks of Atlanticism through EU and Nato membership.

Orbán has further complicated the question of his international allegiance by sustaining close ties with Moscow and Beijing. Russia supplies Hungary with energy, while Chinese state capitalists have made Hungary the regional hub for Huawei’s efforts to expand 5G technology across Europe. Budapest is also the terminus of the new Balkan railroad that runs from the Greek port of Piraeus through Belgrade – part of China’s sweeping Belt & Road initiative, a vast infrastructure construction spree across the world to boost trade. The construction of this freight railroad costs 2% of GDP, making it the largest investment project in Hungarian history.

In mid-March 2020, as the coronavirus spread across Europe, Hungary closed its borders to entry by all non-citizens. While Hungary was under lockdown, the only foreigners allowed into the country were 300 South Korean engineers tasked with completing the accelerated opening of the country’s second plant producing batteries for electric vehicles.

Korean conglomerates have recently moved into Hungary and Poland, establishing themselves as the main battery suppliers to the European car industry. With VW, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Renault clamouring for batteries, the Polish government also waived its quarantine requirement to let specialists from the Korean chemical company LG Chem continue work on a massive plant near Wrocław, a €2.8bn project backed by the European Investment Bank. Thirty-five years after eastern European economists looked to Seoul as a model of authoritarian capitalism, South Korea’s industrial giants are entering the region in force.

Since the start of the pandemic, liberal commentators have frequently warned about the risk that nationalism and great-power conflict will cause a collapse of the international political and economic order. But instead of such dramatic deglobalisation, what is more likely is that we will see nationalist leaders around the world construct politically closed societies undergirded by open economies: a globalisation without globalists.

An earlier version of this article originally appeared in n+1

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