The original Orbis article, in 2013, focused on how the Euro-zone crisis led to democratic backsliding in the new democracies that emerged in Central Europe, notably in Hungary and Poland. Ambassador Adrian Basora expressed concern that this “could jeopardize the extraordinary progress in post-communist democratization and Western integration achieved with the help of U.S. and EU policy in the 1989-2004 period.” Orbis editor Nikolas Gvosdev asked Ambassador Basora to revisit his piece in the context of a second crisis—the COVID-19 pandemic—and the recent reelection of Polish President Andrzej Duda, given the concerns that Duda, along with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, are part of this trend toward illiberal democracy and soft authoritarianism in the region.
What is your assessment of the strengths or weaknesses of Polish democracy after the reelection of President Duda?
Polish democracy has been severely weakened over the seven years since the 2013 article was written. The Law and Justice Party (PiS) has used its control of both the parliament and the presidency to consolidate and perpetuate its power. Most alarmingly, the PiS government has systematically worked to undercut the independent Polish judiciary, blatantly seeking to convert it into an instrument of autocratic power. The reelection of President Duda threatens to further advance the destruction of this key guardrail of Polish democracy and, more generally, to entrench PiS control of the country.
On the positive side, however, democracy in Poland still shows considerable resiliency, as evidenced by the strong showing of Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, the Civic Platform candidate who got nearly 49% of the vote in this election despite irregularities on the part of the government.
One major factor that may help determine the future of democracy in Poland are the actions of United States and the European Union. President Donald Trump has shown clear favoritism towards the PiS government, and he specifically praised President Duda and gave him the benefit of an official visit to the White House. Although the EU has been critical of the politicization of the judiciary, it has so far proven ineffective in using its massive potential leverage in forcing the PiS to back off. If there is a change of administration in Washington, a combined U.S.-EU effort to support democracy in Poland would have the potential to help encourage a democratic comeback there.
How do you feel your conclusions from the 2013 article have held up in light of recent developments in Poland and Hungary?
My 2013 article was entitled “Can the Post-Communist Democracies Survive a Continuation of the Euro-Crisis?” It concluded that the Euro-Crisis was already proving to be a major “stress test” for the 10 fledgling post-communist democracies that had recently joined the EU. It judged that most of these countries—with the notable exception of Hungary—had at that point thus far withstood the stress test reasonably well. But the crisis was not over, and there were still major challenges ahead for these transitional democracies.
In retrospect, on the predictive front, two things are clear. First, the Euro-Crisis lasted well beyond 2013, with prolonged economic stagnation in the region, and even a second-dip recession in many of the EU countries. This compounded and thus worsened the damage done in the 10 transitional democracies. Second, the fragility of these democracies was at the time significantly greater than I had realized. Poland is the most extreme example of a country that was a frontrunner and seemed by 2013 to have an already well-consolidated democracy, but Poland has regressed far more significantly than I would have thought likely at the time. And, overall, the net regression in these EU-10 countries has been greater than I would have predicted.
On the policy prescription front, however, the main conclusions of the article remain sound. It suggested that the erosion already visible in the EU-10 was significant enough to be a matter of serious concern to Brussels and Washington. It thus recommended that the considerable leverage that the U.S. and the EU enjoyed in these countries be used far more consistently and more strategically and they had been up to that point. Sadly, the opposite has been the case, particularly on the part of the United States since 2017.
Does COVID-19 pose a similar challenge to post-Soviet democracies in Central Europe similar to the Euro-zone crisis?
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic does indeed pose a similar challenge to the post-communist democracies, particularly so if there is a resurgence of the virus and thus very prolonged economic damage, as resulted from the 2008-2009 recession and its aftermath. On the other hand, autocratic governments that mishandle the crisis could be a weakened and democratic opposition forces strengthened. Much will also depend on whether U.S. and the EU begin to play a much more effective role in leading the world out of the corona crisis and the deep economic recession that it is causing thus far.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.