Political Elites in East Central Europe. Paving the way for "negative Europeanisation"?
Reviewer: Hanna Vasilevich
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2009 witnessed the celebration of 20 years since the collapse of communism in Eastern-Central Europe (ECE): starting with Poland's 1988 nation-wide strike and free election of the Sejm and the legalisation of the Solidarnosc, followed by the peaceful liberalisation of the political regime in Hungary and the opening of the Hungarian-Austrian border - which allowed a large number of East-Germans to escape to Austria (May 1989) - then, on 09 November 1989, the Berlin wall was torn down, and on 17 November 1989 the Velvet Revolution in (then) Czechoslovakia replaced communist rule. 20 years later and the ECE countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) have successfully joined the Atlantic political and security community, reflected in their NATO membership and became members of the EU, choosing the path of democratisation and Europeanisation. But have these ‘Vysegrad' countries succeeded in the processes they began some 20 years ago? In her book entitled: Political Elites in East Central Europe: Paving the Way for "Negative Europeanization"? Nicole Gallina attempts to demonstrate that, despite democratic changes in these countries which were followed by the creation of the democratic institutions; political elites have largely failed to become Europeanised. Gallina argues that the main reason for such failure lies in the fragmentation of political elites that created a significant gap between the behaviour of such political elites and the formal democratic institutions in ECE countries.
The book is composed of 8 substantive chapters, and is structured in a way that provides readers with a short introduction to the importance of analysing ECE elites, followed by a chapter devoted to the fragmentation of the political elites in ECE generally and in relation to the institutional system, and then the next four devoted to case studies of each of the Vysegrad countries. The final chapter provides an answer as to whether the Vysegrad countries' political elites are capable of Europeanisation. It is important to briefly present each chapter as a means of weighing the success of this contribution.
The first chapter concentrates on the changes political elites faced post-1989 and Gallina suggests that in order to become Europeanised, political elites should have turned away from the communist past. The problem she recognised within the Vysegrad group is based on the fact that Europeanisation occurred only on economic and institutional levels and few alterations to the structure and behaviour of political elites were undertaken. For instance, there was only a partial removal of apparatchiks; formal democratic institutions were, and still are, conducted using Soviet-style techniques; old elites are still employed with new governments - hindering reforms that endanger their positions - leading to a situation where new, emerging elites are unable to effectively replace older ones, a process which would likely assist in proposing, accepting and adopting reforms and more constructive forms of governance. As such, the gap between political elites and democratic institutions, caused, according to Gallina, by elite fragmentation has been widening.
The second chapter delves deeper into the idea of elite fragmentation. The core of such fragmentation is connected with the fact that "even if communist-rooted elites proved to be in the minority after 1989, they had a significant impact on the whole political system. In coexisting with old elites, the system found it more difficult to tackle critical issues, such as lustration or the reform of security services." Communist parties have, surprisingly, not vanished. Instead they simply changed their names and transformed into new parties, this time declaring democratic values. This was endemic on the state-level in the cases of Poland and Hungary, while in the Czech Republic and Slovakia former communists became a "serious adversaries on the local and regional level." In any case, this bred certain distrust between old and new elites, while, at the same time, the new elites were forced to adapt the old elites' attitude that brought the communist and sometimes even pre-World War II political traditions. Gallina characterises ECE political elites' behaviour according to four aspects:
1. Top-down and authoritarian thinking towards to public and within the political elites as well (Czech political parties leaders' arrogance)2. The use of emotional issues in politics (concept of nation, history and identity - case of Hungary)
3. Policy-making that can be determined as a "head-in-the-sand politics" including "culture of lying" and double standards of "talks and deeds".
4. Policy of confrontation and non-cooperation not only with the public but also between and within the political parties.
Such behaviour led to polarisation and populism, while the latter presented one of its elements in the shape of Euroscepticism (re: the Czech Republic's conservative ODS party). So, based on the above patterns of behaviour, Gallina notes that such political elites might "endanger and outweigh the influence of both domestic and European institutions."
The third chapter is devoted elites fragmentation and the institutional system. In this chapter Gallina focuses on the correlation between political systems in the selected countries and their political elites. The rapid development of democratic institutions enabled these countries to create formal political frameworks which met nearly all requirements of a democratic system. However, the political elites, whilst acting within this democratic framework, do not give up their behavioural habits and attitudes. Therefore it is common that democratic political institutions are practically used in favour of certain interest groups. It may be seen in the example of non-transparent and corrupt budgetary proceedings. Gallina argues that despite the creation of formal democratic frameworks, these countries did not adopt a code of elites conduct which implies that such elites cannot produce fair and democratic behaviour, which are not guaranteed by the existence of democratic institutions alone. Therefore she contrasts egoistic political elite and democratic frameworks. In her opinion, elites' conduct is characterised by
1. an authoritarian-based character,
2. a top-down understanding of politics,
3. a high reliance on political confrontation,
This contradicts major principles of democratic institutions, namely the rule of law, the separation of powers and cooperation. Gallina refers to the analysis of political parties in this system and states that they are closely related to state structures (clientelism) and fragmentation is facilitaded by political ‘noise' with multi-partism. Fluctuation of old and new elites did not solve the problems of the societies. Political elites' flexibility was rather intra-partisan and did not have any impact on the transparency of the entire political system. Thus, it was a democracy itself where democratic rules were merely ignored.
The case studies in this work commence with Poland, where there had been the strongest anti-Communist opposition which developed into a strong political force. In this case, the old political elites agreed to dialogue on transition issues and thus remained present in the democratic structures. The Polish party system can be characterised by frequent party splits and foundations (also into the 2000s). Elite system instability is reasoned by focusing on single leaders in political parties, prime ministers, and presidents. Post-communist Polish political elites, according to Gallina, are insufficiently transparent and corrupt, but reveal strong patriotism. The entire Polish political system is characterised by informal networks amongst political groups, personal rivalries, frequent changes of positions and alliances and high-level corruption.
The country's governments (after 1989) are described by their rather pragmatic approach to EU entry despite that public scepticism has been voiced over deeper integration and the development of federal EU structures. A supranational EU was placed in opposition to national values and traditions in the context of the Poland's accession and integration into the EU. This changed during Jaroslaw Kaczynski's prime ministership, when he stated that "the EU cannot be dominated by one single state" expressing concerns on German domination in the EU which roots back to traditional anti-German sentiments in Poland. Relations with the EU and especially with Germany were affected by such position.
Polish elites embraced ‘European political formalism' with great difficulty and Poland's reaction to Europeanization differed depending on the nature of the EU programme. While financial aid and various EU programmes were welcomed; denationalising tendencies were sharply rejected. Therefore, "in regard to EU integration, the national issue had proved its strength vis-a-vis EU politics and was a strong uniting force for the political elite".
The next chapter is devoted to the case of the Czech Republic and Gallina posits that Czechoslovakia did not have as strong an opposition movement as Solidarnost in Poland. After 1989 the communists had to step down and be replaced by dissidents, but they managed to organize themselves into left-leaning parties like the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD). After 1993, when Czechoslovakia was peacefully divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, some political scientists were afraid that there were not enough professional politicians for leadership positions. So, "Czech political elites appeared immature and unqualified." Gallina states that the Czech party system consolidated around 2 big parties: the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and CSSD (with communist roots). The period after 1989 was also characterised by mistrust and fragmentation (for instance the ODS party-financing scandal in 1997). Gallina characterises Czech political elites as "arrogant, authoritarian, non-communicative, and without integrative qualities, adding sometimes a patriarchal features." Elite competition was "intrasparent and therefore took unpredictable development." All these influenced Czech policy-making: false promises during electoral campaigns, hidden procedures in the decision-making process, evading unpleasant topics such as privatisation and corruption.
Thus the split between old and new elites led to a confrontation, which resulted fragmentation as well as new divisions and coalitions. Due to the rapid and radical emergence of a new elite, it inherited some traditions from the older one. Such strong connections to the communist party and old political elites led to fragmentation in dealing with the process of lustration and showed general tendencies of disrespecting of the legal decision on this issue, which shows, according to Gallina serious issues with the political corruption. Such tendencies resulted in an inability to fight political corruption since there was and still is such a connection. Gallina believes that it could be solved by de-politization of anti-corruption courts and prosecutions, which however were hindered by the political elites.
Czechs are reluctant to European integration which was not prominent in Czech political discourse. So when the Czech Republic was accepted to the EU, European political debate became realistic and brought political conflicts. There was a clash between the vision of the Czech future of President Havel and the rest of political elite scepticism. Gallina states that Euroscepticism had become an inseparable part of the ODS party identity (the party of the current Czech president Václav Klaus), which affected the process of the voting on the constitutional treaty in 2005. Such scepticism is believed to be instrumentalized in getting political power and obtaining personal interests.
The case of the Czech Republic is followed by Slovakia which differs significantly from the Czech one since there was no replacement of old reform-oriented elite. The old elites stayed in their positions, or even got promoted, which led to tensions with the new political elites that were not rooted in communism.
Slovak political elites are even more fragmented than in the Czech Republic; characterized by their intra-elite fragmentation and rejection of the political system. Polarisation was used as a base for the creation of the newly established Slovak independent state. According to Gallina, the politics of Vladimír Meciar were autocratic and could be described by institutional weakness that outweighed political institutions in favour of his private interests. Gallina states that Meciar "was the first example of an ECE autocratic populist coming to power through democratic procedure." Such a situation lasted until 1998 when, during the elections, opposition parties managed to win 3/5 of the seats in parliament and created a united government under anti-Meciar Slovak Democratic Union leadership. Such measures helped to return to democratic policy-making. A number of successful reforms were then conducted in the economic and social spheres. Fragmentation and disunity of Slovak political elites led to the readiness to "accept non-democratic actor in governing coalitions for the sake of power preservation." Therefore the Slovak case showed that elite fragmentation was characterised by "non-accordance with democratic principles" which ended up with a non-democratic elite; a unique case for the countries of the Vysegrad group.
A characteristic case of Slovakia is the anti-Hungarian rhetoric among elites and the identification of the Hungarian minority as a threat to the existence of an independent Slovakia. Slovak nationalism and particularly anti-Hungarianism was a uniting ideology for the Slovak political elite. Another peculiarity of the country is the existence of the well-established political representation of the Hungarian minority which have been welcomed as coalition partners under the post-Meciar government of Mikulas Dzurinda. However, what Gallina calls national populism "was welcomed by the majority of the Slovak society and thus draw its visibility in the political rhetoric." She argues that a characteristic feature of Slovak politics was its criminalisation which was embodied into questionable money transactions and privatisation processes.
In regard to Slovakia's Europeanization, the biggest achievement was the country's accession to the EU which happened without a real public debate on the matter. However, despite some positive economic and social developments, the political elite's tolerance toward political opposition diminished significantly. Moreover, hatred between Hungarian and Slovak politicians remained which, in case of Slovakia, led to ‘cynical' exclusion of the country's Hungarians from political power in which Slovak ruling elites reached consensus.
The last case is devoted to Hungary; in this country the concensus over reforms and negotiated transition had been achieved before 1989. The political transition itself was initiated by the regime to convert their political power into economic power. Thus, old elites became defenders of the new system and tried to hide their communist past, wanting to retain at least economic power.
Political fragmentation developed by Hungarian elites has evolved into the creation of new political blocks around the Fidesz and the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP). Thus, elite relations were characterised by fractionalisation and bipolarisation around these two parties. Elites from this quasi-two-party system held more than 90 per cent of parliamentary seats since 2002.
In Hungary, elite confrontation which splits between "Christian, national, and collectivist authoritarians" and "secular, cosmopolitan, and libertarian individualists" seems not only to be more aggressive than in Poland but just as irreconcilable. It goes along with different visions of Hungary's past, present and future. In confrontations, leaders' role were strengthened. This personalisation was particularly strong within political parties as parties were mainly identified with their leader and judged accordingly. Public perception of politicians does not differ from Communist times as they are perceived as liars and politics are regarded as morally questionable activties. Most citizens react to it with passivity or a lack of interest.
Hungarian elites are characterized by strong historianisation (Consequences of the Trianon Treaty of 1920) led to the evoking and mythical construction of historic events and ideologies in daily poltics. A uniting factor, despite differences, is the protection of Hungarians in the neighbouring countries with so-called status laws.
In regard of the EU integration most elites demonstrated their pro-European approaches. Scepticism was generally not associated with dangers to national souvereignty and instead Hungarian authorities attempted to Europeanise Hungarian minority and ethnic rights issue. As in other countries there was no strategic debate on EU integration and Hungary's ‘belonging' to the West was accepted as a fact, but no common vision of this integration was produced. Most euroscepticism was not focused on rejecting EU membership but on views some related issues sceptically. As in other states, the EU was used to legitimise domestic policies; politicising the EU in both negative and positive ways (for instance by Ferenc Gyurcsány). Finally, Europeanisation did not influence the degree of polarisation and nationalism in the country.
The final chapter is devoted to answering the question of whether political elites are incapable of Europeanisation. Gallina admits that the monograph gives a rather negative picture of ECE political elites and political systems. She centres its fragmentation and argues that it had a strong path-dependent link. So, the first result of the fragmentation is the gap between political elites and institutions which hinders their simultaneous development, often leading them in opposite ways. Having analysed four countries, Gallina claims that democratic systems were formally placed above elites but does not determine behaviour. Formal, adopted legislation conformed to democratic norms. Elites' Euroscepticism is more grounded in the Czech Republic and Poland and is not so evident in Slovakia or Hungary. Elites and publics of these countries "fear of identity loss and originality when confronted with bureaucratic measures from Brussels." Additionally, the old EU should show more support of new members in various aspects of their policies.
Political behaviour in these countries toward Europeanisation differs on the basis of the relevance of economic, social or IR factors. Gallina claims that Europeanisation should be a tool to ‘weaken' nationalist voices and limit the scope for populist government activities. But the political processes in these countries are stile volatile and can hardly be consolidated according to Western models which raises the issue of whether the entire political system works at all. She believes that nationalism is used to achieve political goals; as an instrument having been developed into an important tool for the political elites securing their powers. The question of ‘Negative Europeanization' remains acute in cases where elites focus on non-democratic ways of behaviour and accordingly apply their strategies to overcoming institutional mechanisms (both nationally and internationally). The individual interests of elites are much more important for them than institutional or public interests.
Some essential factors must e presented in this regard: First, "the relationship between political division and the elite unity is important." Certain issues cause bitter political divisions which is revealed in elite fragmentation. Second, independence of democratic political institutions from the decisive impact of the political elites is an important factor for changing fragmented political elites and to maintain cooperation and cohesion between them. So far the behaviour of the ECE elites is much rooted with their past codes of conduct and acts as an example of "negative Europeanisation." The need for elite-based reform is unquestionable. According to Gallina, "only a new elite understanding will reduce political elite fragmentation and enforce the Europeaness of ECE political elites." This may be achieved only by abandoning their past-oriented policy concepts and selfish interests - such as egoistic political and national ones. This process has to be accomplished with considerable support of the EU.
On the other hand, positive Europeanisation, may occur only if reform-minded political powers, platforms and institutions form cohesive elites in the future and consequently "sell this to the public." If the acceptance of the Western democratic model is unquestioned by the elite, it may be said that the successful Europeanisation of these countries with an existence of the elites professing Europeaness has occurred.
While the book is very well structured and logically constructed, and is obviously based on various sources, the main problem seems to be the authors' impartiality seen through the approach of labelling certain political groups or politicians as ‘nationalist,' ‘fascist,' ‘backward-minded,' or ‘outsiders' instead of demonstrating real understanding of their electoral base and reason d'être. A second problem concerns the one-sided view; focusing only on elites and not describing the electorates of the major political parties which often may be the key for the understanding why the people opted for this political power at this period of time, is generally misguided. Finally, Gallina uses, at times, improper terms and facts. For instance, she uses the word "diaspora" regarding Hungarians residing in the areas of the former Kingdom of Hungary which had been assigned for the neighbouring countries as a result of the Trianon Treaty. Diaspora implies migration into the new areas and means that this population group is a relative newcomer or is just a foreign for this area. Ethnic Hungarians in Romania, Serbia, Slovakia or Ukraine represent however a typical irredenta case, i.e. they are an autochtonous population of the areas separated from Hungary and thus must have at least the same rights in that areas as the representatives of the title nation of a respective state.