I often argue that Eastern and Central European countries has in many cases (especially where they’ve joined the EU) managed to consolidate their democracies. Naysayers stress government instability, populism, the rising extreme right, corruption, poor economic performance – but I object that those things are not necessarily incompatible with democracy, but either way there’s plenty of established democracies that display one or several of those traits without anyone thinking they’re any less democratic because of it. Nothing’s perfect, and the notion of ‘consolidated’ democracy tends to suggest more longevity than we can actually guarantee (as Hungary worryingly demonstrates) but all in all I’d argue that much has been achieved in the countries that I study and that they should not be looked down on by the West or treated as lesser EU members, for instance, nor should they be lumped in with places further East that have a spottier record of democratic reform.
In this debate, one would expect the people from post-communist Europe to be protective rather than dismissive of their own achievements. The return to Europe was the watchword of the revolution, and I would expect Czechs and Poles and Hungarians to be insistent about having reclaimed their place amongst European nations, and adamant in rejecting the tendency that exists in the West to treat them as somehow politically inferior and less-developed. They could mention that there’s many instances of racism and populism in Western Europe, that there are lots of unstable governments collapsing before their mandate is up (the last Dutch government to serve out its mandate did so in 1998, and Belgium has recently set the record for longest ever government formation), that there is no shortage of corruption scandals in places like Italy, and that they are now economically caught up to Southern Europe. In short, I’d expect them to claim their position as equals in the European family and to take some pride in what they’ve achieved in just a little more than two short decades. I would agree with them if they did.
However, during my fieldwork in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia, I rarely encountered this attitude. Instead, talking to politicians of all stripes, I was often confronted with a great deal of negativity about those political systems, far more even than one would get from Western observers and commentators. The cynicism is just overwhelming, and there’s very little appreciation of any sort of democratic achievements. Politicians and pundits will talk about something perfectly normal going on in their country that they don’t approve of and they’ll shake their weary heads, saying that “in any civilized country, so-and-so would be completely unimaginable”. The ‘civilized country’ is more an elusive ideal, however, than a place that actually exists. Of course, these are not really attempts at thorough social analysis – this sort of pessimistic rhetoric is aimed at a domestic audience in an attempt to portray political opponents as obstacles to democratic development. Nonetheless, I am still struck by the sort of collective inferiority complex that this attitude reflects and possibly perpetuates.