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Attila Ágh

The Introduction gives a short summary of the book and considers East-Central Europe, as a historical and actual region, and its common basic features. In the 1990s the democratization cum Europeanization scenario appeared as an easy-dream narrative, but by the end of the 2010s the democratic order had collapsed in ECE. My book Emerging Democracies in East Central Europe and the Balkans (Edward Elgar Publishing, 1998) was conceived in an optimistic mood, and after two decades there is a need to reconsider ECE developments. The main message is that historically Central Europe has moved in cycles of Westernization and Easternization, or repeated modernization processes, and has recently joined the EU but failed in the catching-up process. The key question is why this ‘democracy from above’ finally collapsed in ECE in the 2010s and how ‘democratization from below’, or redemocratization, can be set in motion.

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Attila Ágh

The collapse of the Bipolar World Order in the late 1980s and the transformation in the world system opened a historical opportunity for systemic change in ECE. This chapter defines the Old World Order and New World Order as major periods of the world system, with the rise of the New World Order following the global crisis. These world systems have given the international frame of ECE developments in two stages, with a big turning point in Europeanization and democratization around 2010 from chaotic democracy to the emerging authoritarian systems. The Euro-Atlantic integration of ECE produced the illusion of rapid democratic transition, which has evaporated, and now it is high time to uncover the entire controversial development in ECE in its two main stages of declining democracy resulting in its actual collapse.

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Attila Ágh

This chapter begins the presentation of the special conceptual framework of the ECE region by arguing that historically ECE society had a dual face of Western and Eastern features, with a strong state and weak civil society. The point of departure for the new democracies was a simultaneous transition of legal-political, economic and social transformations, having different time horizons and producing deep conflicts. Originally it was supposed that these transitions would support each other, but the triple crisis – three consecutive crisis periods, consisting of transition crisis (1990s), EU accession crisis (2000s) and global crisis (2010s) – generated an increasing social frustration and democratic malaise in the ECE populations. The failure of the catching-up process has become evident since the global crisis, and it has led to a serious credibility crisis, since the controversial socio-economic development resulted in the weak ‘democratization from above’ described in Chapter 3.

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Attila Ágh

This chapter proves that the conventional terms and theories of international political science cannot be applied in ECE, since in the first stage of developments there was only an external democratization, with empty legal structures, and there was no internal democratization, with mass participation in the political institutions. The great historical achievement of democracy from above in macro-politics and the rule of law without genuine social and political participation resulted in the gradual emptying of democracy. The early success turned to failure with the decline of democracy, since the elitist democracy produced only fake consolidation and ultimately deconsolidation in the first two decades. The rising crony capitalism and increasing corruption in the hybrid neoliberal system generated weak governments and poor governance in ECE. By elaborating a new conceptual framework, this chapter characterizes the ECE parties and governments in the stage of soft populism.

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Attila Ágh

Owing to their lack of crisis resilience, the ECE countries have felt a deep impact from the global crisis, but it has remained a ‘forgotten crisis’ for the West, which has marginalized it. The New World Order provoked controversial EU crisis management, producing an eruption of neopopulism in the EU. Thus, the early years of the NWO were an age of uncertainty, in which the EU dealt only with the priorities of the core. This situation produced the Juncker paradox for ECE, because paradoxically the neglect of a special ECE crisis management was markedly counter-productive. It has resulted in the increasing alienation of the ‘East’ and widened the manoeuvring room of Eurosceptic ECE governments. In the second stage of ECE developments, the core–periphery divide deepened in the EU with the victory of hard populism and its traditionalist-nativist narrative.

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Attila Ágh

The global crisis has resulted in the complete failure of the ‘convergence dream’ for ECE in the EU. Although some quantitative catching up has taken place in GDP terms, there has been no qualitative catching up to the core in terms of the new, innovation-driven economy and global competitiveness. There has been no transition from the GDP-based ‘welfare’ approach to the ‘well-being’ universe of the West either. Owing to the loss of economic, social and legal-political security and the exclusion of ECE populations from the results of economic growth, people have lost trust in the political elite and political institutions. In this process of ‘desecuritization’, unhappy, low-trust societies have emerged in ECE, with substantial problems of disinvestment in human and social capital. Societal frustration has exploded into the deep credibility crisis of the Europeanization and democratization scenario.

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Attila Ágh

The critical elections in ECE around 2010 ended with the entry of the second generation of parties, which have been ‘Golem’ parties controlling all social sectors from the economy to the media in a special ‘party state’. The lack of participative democracy generated low systemic trust in political elites, with the formation of an ‘Apathy Party’ for the marginalized large masses. Soft populism has shifted to hard populism in ECE, with a synergy between crony capitalism (the economy), a strong state with overcentralized government (politics) and control of the media (culture). In the second stage of ECE developments, the authoritarian governments created a new neoliberal hybrid combining support for the multinationals with dominance of a nativist ‘predatory’ capitalism and its systemic corruption, while waving the flag of national sovereignty.

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Attila Ágh

The second party system brought the emergence of velvet dictatorships with façade democracies. Velvet dictatorships work with the dominance of soft power instead of hard power, with a weak and formalist democracy façade instead of a genuine system of checks and balances. The authoritarian governments have acted systematically, and have elaborated a ‘masterplan’ to demolish this European democratic order step by step, as a de-Europeanization process. In this three-stage model, 1) the state machinery, 2) judiciary and intermediary institutions and 3) civil society and cultural institutions have been the consecutive targets. For the de-Europeanization and de-democratization project the hard populist regimes needed the image of an internal and external enemy, and therefore they propagated hatred and xenophobia. In this way, ‘protecting’ national sovereignty and traditional European values became the main campaign slogan of the hard populist elites in order to achieve strong legitimacy in the age of uncertainty.

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Attila Ágh

Since the global crisis, the core–periphery divide has deepened in the EU between the most developed core countries and the ECE countries, which has been most manifest in the deep violations of the rule of law by Poland and Hungary. The ‘Copenhagen dilemma’ emerged in the EU because after the accession the EU had no legal tools to correct the divergence from democracy in ECE. As the increasing conflicts have demonstrated, the legal toolkits – the infringement process and the Article 7 procedure – have not been effective in enforcing the rule of law in ECE. The refugee crisis has increased the regionalization process in ECE, but at the heavy price of confrontation with EU mainstream developments. It is a big challenge both for the next EU leadership to solve this problem of divergence in ECE and for the ECE governments to comply with EU rules and values.

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Attila Ágh

This final chapter gives an overview of the relative backsliding of civilization in ECE in social and human capital, creating a civilizational crisis. At the beginning of systemic change ECE already had a ‘civilizational incompetence’ compared to the West, and this historically cumulated gap was an absolute civilizational deficit. With EU membership it has increased into a relative civilizational deficit, given the rapid development of the innovation-driven economy in the West and the low level of human investment in ECE. This deficit appears in the relative backwardness of public services, in particular in education and health care; therefore large numbers of the population have not been able to develop a Western way of life in general and competitive skills in particular. It has resulted in the decreasing competitiveness of ECE in the ‘new economy’ and the mass exodus to the West of the ECE population.