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2021 Conference of the ECPR Standing Group on Politics and Gender

The Illiberal Turn in the Post-Communist Region

Europe (Central and Eastern)
Comparative Politics
European Union
Political Parties
Transitional States
Section Number
Section Chair
Aron Buzogany
Freie Universität Berlin
Section Co-Chair
Christian Hagemann
Bavarian School of Public Policy

A decade ago, the outlook for political and economic liberalism in the post-communist region was rather optimistic. The accession of ten countries from Central and Eastern European (CEE) to the European Union (EU) and the lack of severe immediate post-accession backsliding seemed to be good news for their political and economic prospects as well as the EU’s transformative power. This path also seemed preassigned for the Western Balkan countries, who had received the crucial EU membership promise and were hopeful to proceed towards candidacy. Even in the hybrid regimes of the former Soviet Union, attempts to close political competition had regularly failed, and ‘color revolutions’ have helped to sack unpopular incumbents from Chișinău to Tbilisi. These displays of Western willingness for engagement and people’s readiness to oust their elites sent shock waves even across the post-communist divide to Eurasia’s stable autocracies. Even though floating on high oil and gas prices, autocratic leaders seemed terrified by the likes of the ‘Orange Revolution’ and desperate to find counter-strategies to avoid being toppled in the next round of regime changes. A decade later, however, none of these optimistic prospects has materialized.

Over a quarter of a century after the end of the communist regimes, illiberal politics is clearly on the rise in the region. The financial and economic crisis has hit many countries hard and worked in some places as a catalyst for dissatisfaction with unreliable post-communist social contracts. Several consolidated party systems have collapsed, with even long-time ruling parties suffering extreme losses or outright extinction. The importance of alternative strategies of political legitimation like populism or nationalism, crack-downs on the opposition or independent civil society, or symbolic foreign policy victories have increased steeply. This development is probably most surprising in CEE, where most countries were regarded as consolidated democracies. In contrast to high expectations, especially the earlier front runners of democratization have now turned to Eurosceptic and anti-liberal rhetoric and politics (Poland, Hungary, partially the Czech Republic). The situation is worse in the Western Balkans, who have, except for Croatia, hardly made progress on their way towards EU membership and mostly declined on their democracy scores (WGI, BTI, SGI). When it comes to the countries of the former Soviet Union, hybrid regimes in Ukraine and Georgia have continued patrimonial politics, even after several rounds of elite changes. The closed autocracies of the region from Minsk to Dushanbe seem today more stable than ever, with Russia using a self-confident strategy of projecting hard and soft power far beyond its traditional sphere of influence.

How can we account for this illiberal turn? In this Section Panels and Papers will focus on all aspects of the described developments. We will analyze contributions that combine diverse area specialisms with a solid embedding into different subfields of comparative politics or international relations. Of interest is, on the one hand, the domestic politics of the illiberal turn, its main political actors, their ideologies; the role of political economies of the region and the continued importance of patrimonialism and patronage. Papers will also look at the role of public opinion, citizen’s political participation, civil society or the politics of protest. On the other hand, we are also interested in examining the role of external actors like the EU and Russia in the region, their channels of influence, and mediating factors on their leverage. Important questions could be: Why did some CEE countries experience serious democratic backsliding, while others, especially less promising cases did not? Are CEE countries moving in the direction of the post-communist grey zone, or is their development part of the general trend toward populism also in Western liberal democracies? What tools have domestic and supranational actors at their disposal to stop this trend? Do citizens care enough about democracy to defend it in difficult times (thus focussing at the attitudinal level)? Why do we see stagnation or even decline in the post-Soviet and post-Yugoslav grey zone? What are the domestic factors supporting regime stability in hybrid regimes and autocracies? Why do we see further regime closure and high levels of stability in the Eurasian autocracies? What are the domestic and international mechanisms and institutions supporting stability and enabling regime reproduction in hybrid regimes and autocracies? How does the post-communist region compare to other regions or global trends in terms of democratic backsliding and the rise of illiberalism?

Panel List

Code Title Details
P005A Popular Political Leadership: Social Movements and Politics in Central and Eastern Europe View Panel Details
P044Causes and Consequences of Illiberal Policies View Panel Details
P086Constitutional Politics and De-Democratization View Panel Details
P121Does "Western" Democracy Still Mean "Liberal Democracy"? View Panel Details
P122Does European Integration Sponsor Populist Politics? View Panel Details
P139Entrepreneurial Parties: Danger to Liberal Democracy in East-Central Europe? View Panel Details
P169From a Neo-Liberal to Non-Liberal Context: Social Movements in (and Of) the Dark Times? View Panel Details
P203Illiberal Turn, Democratic Backsliding, or a New Model? View Panel Details
P348Populism and Nativism as Legitimation Narratives of Illiberal Politics View Panel Details
P408Same Ingredients, Different Recipes: EU Leverage and Democratic Backsliding in New Member States and Candidate Countries View Panel Details
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