Based on a study of five Central European countries, Shekhovtsov noted four main patterns in the spread of illiberalism. As we saw in Slovakia and Poland, he explained that the first step is often the wire-tapping of pro-EU politicians’ private conversations. They are leaked at crucial moments in the political cycle, damaging the reputations and popularity of those exposed. This is followed by changes to the constitutional structure, also a subtle yet important takeover of the media achieved by placing those loyal to the leading party in key positions, and the rise of an ‘uncivil’ society. The latter pattern, Shekhovtsov cautioned, is the most dangerous: “politicians may come and go, but an uncivil culture stays on and slowly becomes acceptable.”

Sierakowski, a Polish sociologist and political commentator, argued that the roots of the crisis lie in the lack of balanced policy debate in Central Europe. “We don’t have left and right in Poland” he said, “we have ‘right’ and ‘wrong’”.  By defining politics in the country as between ‘liberal’ and ‘illiberal’ models it became inevitable that when the liberals made mistakes, the ‘illiberals’ would come to power.

Shekhovtsov explained that much of illiberalism’s influence in the region comes from Russia. One of its biggest weapons is energy. He suggested that the EU focus on advancing the Energy Union, which would strengthen democracy and help curb Russian meddling in the long term. Additionally, western support for the development of free media is incredibly valuable. This should not stop as soon as a country joins the EU.

Finally, NATO and the EU must increase their visibility in individual countries. Currently both are seen as “Brussels-based monsters”. Their lack of local connectivity opens up space for manipulation and suspicion.  

The discussion was moderated by Anne Applebaum, Director of the Transitions Forum at the Legtatum Institute.

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About the Speakers

Anton Shekhovtsov is Visiting Senior Fellow (2015) for the Transitions Forum. His main area of expertise is the European far right and illiberal tendencies in Central and Eastern Europe. Over the course of his fellowship at the Legatum Institute, Anton will explore the rollback of transitions towards democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. Anton is also Associate Research Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation (Ukraine), and General Editor of the Explorations of the Far Right book series at ibidem-Verlag (Germany). He is the author of the Russian language book New Radical Right-Wing Parties in European Democracies (Stuttgart, 2011), and co-editor of The Post-War Anglo-American Far Right (Basingstoke, 2014) and White Power Music (Ilford, 2012). He is also a member of the Editorial Board of Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies, and published several academic articles in Journal of Democracy, Russian Politics and Law, Europe-Asia Studies, and Patterns of Prejudice among others.

Anne Applebaum leads the Legatum Institute’s Transitions Forum, a series of projects which examine the challenges and opportunities of radical political and economic change. She is also a columnist for the Washington Post and Slate, and the author of several books, including Gulag: A History, which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction as well as other awards. Her most recent book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1946, won the 2013 Cundill Prize for Historical Literature and was nominated for a national book award in the US. Since 1989, her journalism has frequently focused on the politics of transition in Russia, central Europe and other former communist states, but she has also written extensively about British, American and European politics and international relations. She is a former member of the Washington Post editorial board, a former deputy editor of the Spectator magazine, a former political editor of the Evening Standard and a former Warsaw correspondent of The Economist. Her work also appears regularly in the New York Review of BooksForeign Policy, the New Republic, the Daily Telegraph and many other UK and US publications. She is married to Radek Sikorski, former Foreign Minister of Poland.

Slawomir Sierakowski is a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times. Born in Poland, Sierakowski is a Polish sociologist and political commentator. He is a founder and leader of Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), an Eastern European movement of liberal intellectuals, artists, and activists. He is also director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw and the president of the Stanislaw Brzozowksi Association. A graduate of the University of Warsaw, Sierakowski has been awarded fellowships from Yale, Princeton, Harvard, and the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and has written for newspapers and journals across Europe.

The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.