This paper was launched at the Legatum Institute on Tuesday, 19 January 2016 [Details]


In 2008, just before the international financial crisis, the World Bank published a report, Unleashing Prosperity, which concluded that the era of democratic transition in Central Europe was over. All the countries that had joined the European Union (EU) in 2004—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Slovenia—as well Romania and Bulgaria, which had joined in 2007, were now functioning liberal democracies. They had met all the “Copenhagen criteria” which were set up at the time they applied to join the EU. They had built “stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities”; they had “functioning market economies”; and they had “the ability to take on and implement effectively the obligations of membership”.

Since then, much has changed. The transatlantic economic crisis undermined the Western European “model” that the eastern half of the continent had long sought to emulate. Russia began to pursue an aggressive foreign policy in the region, aimed both openly and covertly at destabilising Central European governments and weakening their ties to the rest of Europe. The European recession led to unemployment in Central Europe as well as in the south. The impact of these changes took on a dramatic form in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared, in the summer of 2014, that his party was going to build “an illiberal state”. Orbán’s argument confirmed the fears of political observers: since his second term as prime minister, liberal democracy in Hungary has suffered severe setbacks, not only in the realm of politics and the media but also in market freedom.

The dramatic changes in Hungary represented a turning point. The question now is whether they are unique—a reflection of Hungary’s recent experiences and the specific nature of its political establishment—or whether they represent a trend in Central Europe and possibly beyond. Can a democratic transition be reversed? Might Western-style liberal democracy simply be a temporary stage in a country’s development into something else? This thought was raised back in 1997, when Fareed Zakaria argued that illiberal democracy was not necessarily “a temporary or transitional stage” in a country’s presumed development into a liberal democracy: “Western liberal democracy might prove to be not the final destination on the democratic road, but just one of many possible exits.” As this paper will argue, this sometimes controversial and certainly inexact term—“illiberal democracy”—has now been adopted by some in Central Europe as a positive description. More recently, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made the same point: “Democracy is like a train—we shall get out when we arrive at the station we want.”

Perhaps, for some in Central Europe, this “station” was accession to the EU. Having joined the EU, did their commitment to liberal democracy, a required condition for entry, come to an end? To answer these questions, this paper traces the development of Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Romania, with a very brief look at the current situation in Poland.

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