The Ambitions of Illiberal Democracy

Migration shapes nativist politics, but does not suffice to explain the wider crisis of liberalism. Exclusionary policies on immigration are being pursued in most European countries (with some notable exceptions, such as Portugal). Yet despite general anti-immigrant sentiment, it is only in the United Kingdom, Poland, and Hungary that nationalist governments have actively turned away from the European Union, and only in Budapest and Warsaw that open season has been declared on liberal civil society and the rule of law. Kaczyński and Orbán are special among Europe’s nationalists not for their chauvinism, but for their authoritarian actions against domestic opponents and the EU.

How did the revolutionaries of 1989 become the nativists of the 2010s and 2020s?

Jarosław Kaczyński and Viktor Orbán.

Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes. The Light that Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy. Pegasus, 2019.
James Mark, Bogdan C. Iacob, Tobias Rupprecht, and Ljubica Spaskovska. 1989: A Global History of Eastern Europe. Cambridge, 2019.
Philipp Ther. Das andere Ende der Geschichte: Über die Große Transformation. Suhrkamp, 2019.

In the summer of 1992, a 29-year-old Hungarian dissident first visited the United States. For six weeks he toured the country with a coterie of young European leaders, all expenses paid by the German Marshall Fund. America had long fascinated Viktor Orbán. One Dutch journalist on the trip recalled that the Eastern Europeans in the group preferred to spend their daily stipends on “a Walkman and other electronics” rather than on food or fancy hotels. Orbán seemed disengaged and unaffected as the group walked around downtown Los Angeles, still reeling from the Rodney King riots two months earlier. The free market and cutting-edge technologies certainly appealed more to him than American debates and struggles over equality, justice, or the rights of people of color.

Orbán’s indifference to the plight of Western minorities became more apparent during a tour of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon. Orbán and one of his travel companions, the Polish journalist Małgorzata Bochenek, listened to local complaints about economic injustice. He responded with questions about land distribution. Why didn’t the native tribes draft a business strategy to monetize their commons? After all, this is what Hungarian smallholders like his parents were doing with local collective farms after the end of communism. Orbán began to sketch a plan to capitalize the reservation, but when his Umatilla interlocutors didn’t respond with enthusiasm, he quickly lost interest. What fascinated him most during the rest of the trip was high politics. The group tour finished in New York City in July, where Orbán attended the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden and watched Bill Clinton’s nomination to the sounds of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.” The excitement of the occasion was not lost on Orbán. Visiting the United States reaffirmed his own desire to become prime minister of Hungary.

The nature of the West’s appeal to young Eastern Europeans was changing. In 1989, when Orbán studied at Pembroke College, Oxford on a Soros Foundation fellowship, the Western consensus of the late cold war—deregulated capitalism, social stability, and national traditions—still held sway. These were the values he wanted to bring back to his home country. By the time of his trip to the United States, a shift was palpable. While free markets still reigned supreme, in the 1990s European and US culture moved into a more self-interrogatory mode. Orbán liked Clintonism as an approach to administration and economics, but had little interest in Western human rights discourse, issues of gender and race, or the legacies of colonialism and the Holocaust.

Most people in Poland and Hungary in the 1990s were not concerned about the possibility that economic and cultural liberalization might eventually part ways. The two countries led Eastern Europe in the application of economic shock therapy, pushing market reforms beyond what their Western advisers demanded. But in cultural terms, the Polish and Hungarian right chose a more conservative course than the one that Western liberals now identify with the end of history. The result is that both countries have continued to see themselves as deeply European, even as they have steered further away from EU-style liberalism. A decade after she visited the Umatilla reservation in Oregon with Orbán, Bochenek became an adviser to Polish president Lech Kaczyński, who together with his brother Jarosław founded the conservative nationalist party Law and Justice, which now has the support of nearly 45 percent of the Polish electorate. Orbán’s Fidesz party commands a supermajority of two thirds of the seats in the Hungarian parliament. Their policies in office have proceeded along similar lines: filling the courts and media with pro-government judges and journalists; driving out left-wing and liberal NGOs, academics, and universities; violating the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights by restricting or banning access to abortion and denying legal recognition to transgender people; and ignoring attempts by European institutions to hold them accountable for these provocations. But at the same time, four out of every five citizens of Poland and Hungary support their country’s EU membership. For the anti-liberals in Budapest and Warsaw, the goal is thus autonomy within Europe, not independence outside of it.


How did the revolutionaries of 1989 become the nativists of the 2010s and 2020s? There are a number of ways to answer this question. Depending on the narrator, it can be told as a story of gradual estrangement, or a forced reversion to self-interest brought on by external shock, or the adolescent rebellion of pupils against their former teachers. In The Light that Failed, Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev and US law professor Stephen Holmes make the case for the rebellion hypothesis. In their view, Central and Eastern European illiberalism originates in a revolt against the imitation of the West. The transition from communism to capitalist democracy was driven by what the authors call “copycat liberalism.” Eastern Europeans took it upon themselves to adopt the habits, norms, and institutions of the Western world whose prosperity and freedoms they wanted to enjoy. The problem, according to Krastev and Holmes, was that submission to this “Imitation Imperative” was “inherently stressful” and “emotionally taxing.” Modelling oneself after an external ideal was bound to produce feelings of shame and resentment when the outcome fell short of an unattainably perfect original. Faced with the humiliation of a state of perpetual inferiority, Orbán and Kaczyński used the 2008–2015 economic and migration crises to reject Western liberalism and advance an illiberal alternative.

Krastev and Holmes see emigration from Eastern Europe as a key factor in the appeal of nationalist politics. Decades of brain drain have caused a “demographic panic” which, they suggest, heightens fears about the arrival of Middle Eastern and African migrants. Especially in Hungary, anti-immigrant politics have indeed gone hand in hand with efforts to stem population decline through low birth rates and emigration. Orbán has unfolded an ambitious and popular family policy involving the nationalization of IVF clinics and generous loans and tax breaks for newlyweds and large families—mothers with four or more children do not pay income tax. Effectively, communist natalist policies have been revived in the name of post-communist nationalism. Orbán has also granted citizenship to more than one million ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, Serbia, and Ukraine, creating a Fidesz-led diasporic civil society in “Greater Hungary.”

Yet emigration patterns do not clearly map onto national preferences for anti-liberal politics. Between 1989 and 2017, Latvia lost 27 percent of its population, Lithuania 22.5 percent, Croatia 22 percent, and Bulgaria 21 percent. (At current rates of emigration the UN predicts that Bulgaria will lose another 27 percent of its population by 2040.) But the Baltic and eastern Balkan states are more liberal than Poland and Hungary. Although nativism is present, it has not become the dominant tenor in national politics. In Bulgaria, a pro-EU protest movement became the second-largest party in parliamentary elections this spring, and the country’s departing prime minister, Boyko Borisov, has emphasized that he wants the country’s “Euro-Atlantic orientation to be seen clearly.” Romania, a fifth of whose inhabitants have left the country since 1990, has been gripped not by strongman politics, but by fervent anti-corruption efforts and pro-Brussels protests. By contrast, Poland and Hungary, where illiberalism has advanced the farthest, have some of the lowest net emigration rates in the region.

Migration therefore shapes nativist politics, but does not suffice to explain the wider crisis of liberalism. Exclusionary policies on immigration are being pursued in most European countries (with some notable exceptions, such as Portugal). Yet despite general anti-immigrant sentiment, it is only in the United Kingdom, Poland, and Hungary that nationalist governments have actively turned away from the European Union, and only in Budapest and Warsaw that open season has been declared on liberal civil society and the rule of law. Kaczyński and Orbán are special among Europe’s nationalists not for their chauvinism, but for their authoritarian actions against domestic opponents and the EU.

Both Law and Justice and Fidesz pursue what they see as a truer break with the past than the mirage transition of 1989. Common to both parties is the belief that a historic task has befallen them, and that the end of communism was only the beginning of the road to national liberation. Krastev and Holmes don’t pay attention to the Eastern European right’s ambivalence about 1989, largely because they do not think illiberals have historical or political views worth studying. In their view, nativism in the region “has its origins in political psychology, not political theory” and is “therefore emotional and pre-ideological.” “Illiberalism in a philosophical sense,” they argue, “is a cover-story meant to lend a patina of intellectual respectability to a widely shared visceral desire to shake off the ‘colonial dependency.’” But anti-liberal nationalism in Eastern Europe is more than an outburst of uncontrollable passions. The fact that these ideas were formed during the transition decade also suggests that illiberal democracy is a purposive project, something not just reactive but with clear ideological goals of its own.


The revolt against liberalism began to stir in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as growing fractions of the Polish and Hungarian right started demanding a harder break with the past. Orbán’s first premiership from 1998 to 2002, when Fidesz ruled together with the agrarian conservative Independent Smallholders’ Party, was marred by Holocaust revisionism, racism against Roma populations, and support for Jörg Haider’s far-right government in neighboring Austria. Since Hungary kept recording solid economic growth and entered NATO in 1999, the cabinet’s right-wing policies were quickly forgotten in Western capitals. But a narrow loss to the socialists in the 2002 election left Orbán embittered and convinced that reformed communists throughout Hungarian society had conspired to prematurely end his tenure. Massive European funds unlocked by entry into the EU in 2004 flowed to a group of liberal politicians around center-left prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, an economist who had been head of the Hungarian Young Communist League in the 1980s. During the transition, Gyurcsány and his old comrades made a small fortune running pop-up consulting firms with names such as CREDITUM Financial Consultant Ltd. and EUROCORP International Finance Inc. By the mid-2000s they were regulars at Davos. While elite refashioning and economic opportunism was common everywhere in Eastern and Central Europe, these links made it easier for Orbán to portray Soviet communism and European liberalism as successive forms of external rule.

As in Hungary, the constructive role of reformed Polish communists in smoothing the political transition to liberal democracy ultimately radicalized the right. In 1997 conservative thinkers first began to call for a “fourth Polish republic” to replace the third iteration that had followed the end of communism. Four years later, Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński founded Law and Justice, promising a radical purification and political renewal of Polish society. The two nouns in the party name should be taken at face value. The Kaczyńskis’ aim was to use the full force of executive and legislative power in pursuit of a final reckoning with the “contaminants” of state socialism. For many years, Poland’s constitutional court restricted efforts to purge state institutions and civil society of anyone with communist associations, a process known as lustration. This protection received support from EU laws protecting personal dignity and privacy. When Law and Justice first came to power in 2005, however, it took lustration to a new level. A law was proposed that would have required 350,000 civil servants, journalists, academics, teachers, and state managers to declare past political associations, no matter how mundane, on pain of losing their jobs. Widespread resistance from Poland’s progressive elite against this deeply intrusive purge helped push the Kasczyńskis out of power in 2007 in favor of the liberal pro-European Civic Platform led by Donald Tusk.

This failed first attempt at a wholesale purification of Polish society forms the backdrop to Law and Justice’s renewed assault on the country’s judiciary since 2015, which has attracted more international attention. Lustration and the meaning of the rule of law has been central to Polish politics. But Law and Justice’s illiberal agenda was not, as Krastev and Holmes would have it, a reaction against Western imitation. It is precisely the desire of Polish illiberals for a more thoroughgoing expunging of the communist past, at the cost of ignoring EU protections, that has led them to stack the country’s courts and attack progressive civil society. As in Hungary, the very thing that made the transition from communism to liberal democracy so peaceful—its negotiated character—has provided an insurgent nationalist right with a powerful accusation of original sin. In this turncoat myth, 1989 was not a clean handover but a massive elite whitewash. What is at stake is not Western identity, something about which Poles have never been in doubt, but rather who is fit to join a purified Polish nation-state.

Ultimately, Polish and Hungarian opposition to EU norms and civic rights has not produced, as it has among Brexiteers, a corresponding desire for economic sovereignty. Brussels’ financial faucet has simply been too lucrative to resist. Even as Orbán has dismantled liberal institutions during the last decade, he has drawn vast amounts of EU funds to feather the nests of a loyal oligarchy of tycoons and agro-entrepreneurs tied to Fidesz. Conservative nationalists in Poland have also raked in material support from a political and economic union whose influence they routinely attack. This insensitivity to political behavior is the result of the EU’s inert long-term funding structure. North-South divisions that flared up during the Eurozone crisis did not impede hundreds of billions of euros in structural and cohesion funds from flowing from West to East during the 2010s. Between 2007 and 2020, Eastern European member states received €395 billion ($480 billion), half of which went to Hungary and Poland.

Just how difficult it has become to restrain illiberalism within the Union’s intergovernmental structures became clear at the end of 2020. As EU leaders opened a new stage in their fiscal integration by preparing an unprecedented €1.8 trillion stimulus package, Budapest and Warsaw nearly derailed the negotiations. Objecting to a mechanism that would tie funding to their observance of the rule of law, Poland and Hungary threatened to veto the entire EU budget for the next six years. Fidesz and Law and Justice laid claim to this largesse based on their prerogatives as member states; illiberal governments turned out to be fluent speakers of the language of law and treaty rights. Ultimately the standoff was defused through a last-minute “interpretative declaration” ensuring that the rule of law sanctions mechanism must be approved by the European Court of Justice before it can be applied. It is uncertain if such measures will be taken soon, if at all. For the time being, funding will proceed to be disbursed with relatively few strings attached. The struggle between liberals and illiberals in Eastern Europe will continue on its main battlefield: political, legal, and cultural institutions. As Strajk Kobiet, the nationwide women’s strike against Law and Justice’s abortion ban in October 2020, showed, this is an acute and important fight. What seems beyond dispute, however, is the character of the region’s economic model.


Since 1989, Eastern Europe has been one of the world’s favored zones for market expansion. Krastev and Holmes understand regional backlash against Western liberalism as a psychological reaction. But a different kind of backlash argument is made by Philipp Ther in Das andere Ende der Geschichte. A renowned German historian of Eastern Europe, Ther’s collection of interlinked essays examines the promises of 1989 in a critical light. He recognizes that the nativist right has a “coherent worldview, which can be characterized as a cluster of promises of protection and security.” In his view, however, the new nationalism is a reaction less against imitation than against the exposure of entire societies to the vicissitudes of the world market.

Using Karl Polanyi’s idea of a “counter-movement” against the self-regulating market, Ther argues that the rapid transition from state socialism to free-market capitalism triggered an impulse towards self-protection. Signs of popular distress became visible in elections in several countries in 1993–1994. Polish and Hungarian voters elected center-left cabinets with substantial ex-Communist personnel, but this brought little protection. Polish privatization slowed but never ceased. In Hungary, the new government soon pushed through a more savage austerity package. A different course was taken in Bratislava, where Slovak leader Vladimír Mečiar didn’t just break with the neoliberalism of his Czech colleague Vaclav Klaus, but split the unified Czechoslovak state into two parts. In every respect, the years of Mečiarizmus in 1990s Slovakia were a harbinger of contemporary illiberalism, combining populism, nationalism, and protective welfare to mask an increasingly autocratic government. It was due to Mečiar’s arbitrary rule that Slovakia was not deemed fit for NATO entry and joined the organization five years later than its Central European peers.

The transition to free markets was made difficult by the local weakness of liberalism’s preferred agent of capitalist transformation, a property-owning bourgeoisie. Sociologists Iván Szelényi, Gil Eyal, and Eleanor Townsley described this challenge as one of “making capitalism without capitalists.” Western European funds initially prioritized market expansion over democratization: from 1990 to 1996 just 1 percent of the European Union’s international aid mechanism for former socialist states went towards building civil society. But as markets advanced, the middle class remained anemic. Thirty years later, the benefits of the free economy have been very unequally divided; income gaps between city and countryside are wider in Eastern Europe than anywhere else on the continent. Yet the ubiquity of free-market thinking in the region is an accomplished fact. In the famous July 2014 speech that set out the need for Hungary to adopt “illiberal democracy,” Orbán predicted that “societies founded upon the principle of the liberal way to organize a state will not be able to sustain their world-competitiveness in the following years, and more likely they will suffer a setback” and announced, “we are searching for . . . the form of organizing a community, that is capable of making us competitive in this great world-race.”

Yet it would be wrong to ascribe this conversion to global capitalism entirely to Westernization. Eastern Europe had been orienting itself transnationally long before 1989. In 1989: A Global History of Eastern Europe, James Mark, Bogdan Iacob, Tobias Rupprecht, and Ljubica Spaskovska leave no doubt that Eastern European elites’ interest in capitalism preceded their embrace of democracy. Reformist bureaucrats under late socialism looked above all to East Asia. The successes of Deng Xiaoping’s China were an example for Gorbachev’s perestroika. In the 1980s, Polish and Hungarian market-oriented reforms were modelled partly on South Korea, whose authoritarian capitalism had achieved high levels of economic growth. (The interest was reciprocal; in early 1989 South Korea’s first democratic president, Roh Tae-Woo sweetened the establishment of diplomatic relations between Seoul and Budapest with a $125 million loan.) Even the opponents of socialism found free markets without democracy much more attractive. Mirosław Dzielski, a Catholic philosopher who seemed destined to become the first post-communist prime minister of Poland, admired Chilean neoliberalism; his premature death in October 1989 ended the hope of a “Polish Pinochet.”

Eastern Europe didn’t just take other regions as its telos. Its transition in the 1990s became “a new global script” for African, Latin American, and Asian countries to follow. Ruling elites and oppositionists from Mexico to South Africa and from Burma to Kyrgyzstan used Eastern Europe’s political democratization and economic liberalization as a lodestar. In time, Eastern Europeans graduated into a position where they could offer their own experience as advice to others. In 2003 the architect of Poland’s neoliberal reforms, Leszek Balcerowicz, toured Washington DC to suggest how the United States should overhaul the Iraqi economy. During the Arab Spring, Lech Walesa visited Tunisia “to tell them how we did it” in the words of Poland’s then-foreign minister Radosław Sikorski, who flew to Benghazi to provide counsel to the Libyans overthrowing Gaddafi.

The fact that Eastern Europeans eventually acted as ambassadors of the West solidified the belief that 1989 was a long overdue return to a natural cultural home. But that turn had been initiated long before the end of communism. In the 1970s and 1980s Czechoslovak, Polish, and Hungarian elites and dissidents steadily abandoned anti-imperialism and socialist solidarity with the Third World, and emphasized their “common European heritage” instead. This focus on high European culture had clear anti-African as well as anti-Islamic overtones. In 1985 the Hungarian minister of culture declared that “Europe possessed a cultural heritage . . . a specific intellectual quality—the European character.” On a visit to Budapest two years later the Spanish king Juan Carlos was shown the ramparts that Habsburg troops had seized from the Ottomans in the 1686—a Communist celebration of Christian Europe’s fight against Islam. Observing the ferocity of the Afghan mujahideen, Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu warned that the Islamic world was “a billion strong and they are fanatics. A long term war can be the result.” Meanwhile Romanian exiles attacked Ceaușescu himself as a foreign ruler who had foisted a “tropical despotism” on their country. The dissident Ion Vianu wrote in 1987 that

Romania today resembles an African country more than a European one. Which are the visible elements of the joining of the “Third World,” of the world of the “South?” The disorganization of public life, the administration’s inability to maintain its activity at the level of one from the Old Continent; the state of roads, the squalor in the streets . . . empty stores, the generalized practice of graft; the police’s arbitrariness; here are the features that remind me of Haiti . . . It is significant that the Despot feels at home in Africa . . . Romanians with Western ideals are some sort of silent majority in today’s Romania.

Before communism ended, a new culturalism had taken hold among many Eastern Europeans. This growing identification of their countries as European and Christian laid the foundations for the later “re-bordering” of Europe against African and Middle Eastern migrants.

In the long run, 1989 therefore sealed off certain influences while deepening others. No analysis of illiberalism, or defense of liberalism, can omit an explanation of how elements of openness and closedness coexist today. How else to make sense of Hungary, a state that strongly repudiates the liberal idea of an open society, but remains firmly connected to the transnational European car industry as well as the military networks of Atlanticism through EU and NATO membership? Orbán has further complicated the question of his international allegiance by sustaining close ties with Russia and with Chinese state capitalism by turning Hungary into the regional hub for Huawei’s efforts to expand 5G technology across Europe. Budapest is also the terminus of the Belt & Road Initiative’s Balkan railroad that runs from the Greek port of Piraeus through Belgrade. The construction of this freight railroad costs 2 percent of GDP, making it the largest infrastructure project in Hungarian history.

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March 2020, Hungary closed its borders to entry by all non-citizens. Orbán was granted emergency powers by parliament. But although a few citizens were arrested for Facebook posts critical of the government’s public health efforts, most of his emergency decrees were economic in nature. He designated a large Samsung factory in the town of Göd as a special economic zone. Formerly a manufacturing plant for television screens, it now produces batteries for electric vehicles. While Hungary was under lockdown, the only foreigners allowed into the country were 300 South Korean engineers tasked with completing the accelerated opening of a second battery plant. Korean conglomerates have recently moved into Hungary and Poland, establishing themselves as the main battery suppliers to the European car industry. With Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Renault clamoring for batteries, the Polish government also waived its quarantine requirement to let specialists from LG Chem continue work on a massive plant near Wrocław, a €2.8 billion project backed by the European Investment Bank. Thirty-five years after Eastern European economists looked to Seoul as a model of authoritarian capitalism, South Korea’s chaebols are entering the region in force. Meanwhile, Hungary’s educational reorientation is proceeding apace: three years after expelling Central European University and the Open Society Foundation from Budapest, the city announced its plans to host the first European campus of Shanghai’s Fudan University. These trends provide a suggestive glimpse of what the future may hold. Instead of dramatic deglobalization, we will likely see nationalists construct closed societies undergirded by open economies: a globalization without globalists.

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