Safeguarding Europe "Citizens against the mafia": a slogan at a 2018 rally in Sofia. Bulgaria, against legal ammemdmends, depriving citizens of access to justice. Photo: Tihomira Metodieva - Tihich.

Safeguarding Europe

Illiberal governments attack civil society because it is able to control them, argues professor Balazs Trencsenyi, Head of the Department of History at the Central European University in Budapest, in conversation with BlueLink’s Executive Еditor Dr Pavel Antonov

Balazs Trencsenyi, presenting the newly published book A History of Modern Political Thought in East Central Europe, Volume II: Negotiating Modernity in the ‘Short Twentieth Century’ and Beyond. The volume provides synthetic overview and unique insight into the history of modern political thought in East Central Europe during 1968-2018. Authors Balazs Trencsenyi, Michal Kopeek, Luka Lisjak Gabrijel, Maria Falina, and Monika Baar apply a comparative approach that goes beyond the nation-centred studies prevalent in the field, and challenge many conventional assumptions about the history of modern European culture and politics. Photo: BlueLink

This interview reflects upon the outcomes from the Remembering Europe: Civil Society Under Pressure Again project. implemented by BlueLink, with support from the Europe for Citizens programme of the European Union. It enabled historians, political/social researchers, civil society practitioners and journalists from to compare collective memories from the pre-EU era to contemporary pressure against civil society in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and other member states. The focal event of this research was a workshop, entitled Civil Society Ostracism Before and After EU Accession – And How To Deal With It, held in Budapest in December 2017. How has the perception and analysis of pressure against civil society evolved since then?

The situation is obviously getting worse and worse. There are already serious crisis symptoms in the EU, the countries in its Eastern periphery, and globally. It is not by chance that many NGOs are under serious pressure – not only in Hungary but also in countries where democracy is working much better. But it is difficult to identify a certain group of countries as problematic. The trend is global.

What we started observing already in 2017 has now become more obvious. Different circles of people, including Western foundations, Eurocrats, or diplomats, now realize that conferring the task of funding NGOs by national political systems is murderous for civil society. There has to be more EU involvement in how the NGO sector is protected, funded and kept alive. This task cannot be left to the member states, especially not to the ones openly breaking liberal democratic norms. This was something that participants articulated when we organized our [Civil Society under Pressure Again] 2017 workshop. Now I started hearing it from people who are closer to decision making. There has to be more understanding of the interconnectedness of different “battlefields”. In some ways, our authoritarian enemies are much more transnational today than the “good guys”.

For long, especially in the West, people believed that if things work well in their countries, then the probably the system is working elsewhere as well. People were very unlikely to move out of their comfort zone. But more and more of them are forced to do so today. Partly because their comfort zone is shrinking. And partly because they probably realize that if a house is burning next door, then someday the fire will come to your well-kept garden as well.

It is not that easy any more to behave in a way that if, for example, in the Netherlands things look fine, we do not care about what’s going on in Bulgaria. Problems became more transnational and people began realizing that they have to act transnationally. The problem with European decision-making is that the road from realizing this to creating viable policies may last for a decade. And while this is happening there may not be a European let Union left if we are truly unlucky.

How does EU’s past compare to contemporary pressures against civil society?

Our discussion went way back beyond the time frame of the EU. We were trying to see how civil society as a concept and as a phenomenon could be historicised especially in relationship to the state. We looked at how the relationship between civil society and the state evolved in different contexts, and how we need to rethink our understanding of civil society if we place all this into a historical framework.

‘Civil society’ is a term that we are using today as a shortcut for different kinds of organisations, in more bureaucratic language. But historical evidence brings up a very uncomfortable truth: that civil society is not necessarily democratic. This was something that we tended to forget after the 1980s. Before and right after the regime changes there was symbolic and political investment into Central European civil societies. They were perceived as some sort of “parallel polis” that would create a positive transformation – in contrast to the totalitarian or post-totalitarian state.

A poster used at a 2015 counter-Pride demonstration in Sofia, Bulgaria, adding the EU’s symbol to a holocaust-era antisemitic propaganda art, depicting the “greedy Jew” as a threat to the traditional family, surrounded by national flags and a slogan, reading: “Let’s protect children from debauchery”. Photo source: Public event on Facebook

What we are seeing now is that civil society is a very ambiguous concept. We see civil society movements today which pursue illiberal and antidemocratic dynamics although they mobilize democratic energy. We can take for example the so called ‘populists’ or historically the various Völkisch movements. This has an impact on how we are thinking of civil society initiatives. Civil society needs to be very carefully studied and very attentively reframed – as a scientific object but also as a social actor. We have to be very careful not to believe that any kind of voluntary action of concerned citizens is by default leading in a good direction. This does not mean of course that we need to abandon this framework altogether.

Of course the aim is not to demobilize society. We are all in agreement that there is a very serious need of actually mobilizing society. In Hungary we see strong apathy and depoliticization on many levels. And that creates a perfect scenario for authoritarian power-grabbing. If people don’t care, or if they just protect their own private sphere, then the public sphere is eroded and it is easier to turn them into pariahs in their own country.

At the same time we must face it that those whom we are competing against are also relying on civic energy, on voluntary work, on transformative projects by common people. Alternative movements are competing for followers, for resources, for visibility.  Thus people often get strange ideas of what politics is about. Very often they are tricked to believe that the best political system is where there is no liberty whatsoever – except liberty for them.

These opposing forces seem much more coherent, unifying around conservative values, religion, family, profit… and against the notion of “evil liberalism”. They aspire a reframing of what is known as common European values. Has Europe learned its historic lessons from the aftermath of First World War a century ago?

We should deal with things not because there is an anniversary but because we feel that they have a real impact. With the First World War it’s quite clear that its memory and heritage is more present in today’s societies than we tended to believe a decade ago. This is not news for somebody living in Hungary because the period after the First World War has been a key element of historical memory: used by all political elites in different ways; thematized by the school system; and on experiential level. Most people have family histories related to the WWI, often involving members of the family coming from outside of the current territory of Hungary. Without any nationalistic pretension, it is a fact of life that reflects people’s and families’ memories.

Arrival of the Hungarian delegation on on June 4, 1920 for the signing of the treaty of Trianon, which left Hungary landlocked, within 28% of its pre-war teritory. Photo: Wiki Media/Public Domain

The effects of WWI are felt on many levels, even if sometimes they are covered by other labels. If you ask Hungarians what affected them most, they would say Trianon (The Treaty of Trianon was the peace agreement of 1920 that formally ended World War I between most of the Allies of World War I and the Kingdom of Hungary – a successor states to Austria-Hungary). Many today would not even associate Trianon with WWI. Fellow-historians have argued convincingly that in Hungary Trianon has overshadowed the memory of WWI, which in its time was much more traumatic. Beyond some heroic memory from big battles fought somewhere on the Italian front, people do not recall much. The number of victims, social dislocation, scarcity, starving and social dysfunction which happened, especially during the last two years of WWI, are completely erased from memory. Trianon is framed popularly not as something caused by the war but as something caused by external “Great Powers” who dismembered Hungary. This narrative may be psychologically understandable but is politically and culturally very problematic because if is pushing away the sense of responsibility.

Such escaping from responsibility is observed in other countries as well. Bulgaria is probably another good example. Of course the winners and the losers from the war have very different dynamics. In other societies the WWI is perceived the other way around: its traumas are erased by the “success story” of the post-war reconfiguration. But the term ‘success story’ is always very ambiguous: if you come from Romania, the story of heroic struggle for unification erases an extremely traumatic experiences, such as: the German occupation of Bucharest; the military loss which was very heavy; the social loss; and also the much less unanimous support for the creation of Greater Romania than the official narrative would have it.

So both the winners and the losers from the war tend to play down their traumas and deep social cleavages it caused, in exchange for a compressed heroic story of triumph or heroic suffering. This creates a certain matrix that will be repeated to an extent during the Second World War as well, where all East Central European nations tend to frame themselves as victims, never as perpetrators. And of course there is a very similar narrative about Communism: there again we were just victims and we didn’t have anything to do with it. The Orbánist Hungarian Basic Law recently codified this narrative as part of the constitutional order. This ‘othering’ of responsibility creates a perfect matrix for putting the responsibility on the European Union since 2000. To say: “it is only some external actors who are playing with us”.

Both the victim complex and ‘othering’ of responsibility that you have described, contribute for the spreading of nationalism. Are you worried by an analogy with the interwar period?

One of the discussions is whether the paradigm shift towards radical nationalism was actually happening after WWI. There are strong indications that it had actually happened before it. In Western Europe, think of the Action Française; or in the Eastern – of radical nationalist movements like the Polish Endecja, which were challenging the previously existing liberal democratic components of 19th-century nationalism. The romantic nationalist ideology of the mid-19th century presumed that if everybody could cultivate his/her national identity there would be some sort of global harmony coming out of it.

By the end of the 19th century this vision was abandoned. The turn of the century was a time of post-imperial nations and new “scientific” paradigms, such as scientific racism and eugenics. People did not believe any more that you can cultivate parallelly different national identities. They started believing that nationalism is about competition over resources, in biological terms as well, the survival of the fittest, and so on. All this was already there before WWI. What the war actually did was a very strong demonstration for the population that this kind of radical nationalism is something that affects their daily life too. What was a daydreaming for intellectuals at 1900, talking about social Darwinism, was a terrifying reality during the war.

Indeed, if you have to feed a population which is starving and you have to decide whom you feed and whom you don’t, then you are actually establishing eugenic principles. Or when you are going to a territory and start to sort out which groups are to be supported to persist there, you are biologizing politics.  Territorial expansion, population switch, or territorial exchange become part of a learning curve for the whole society. It demonstrates that this sort of biological nationalism can go out of the theory books and into reality.

There is a stronger comparative dimension to the interwar period than we usually tend to agree.

Usually the narrative is that the interwar period was by default autocratic, and I would contest that. Hungary and Bulgaria may not be good examples because they are the most obvious losers from the war, but in other countries of the region you can actually compare the early post-war period to some extent to the early post-1989 years. There is a stronger comparative dimension than we usually tend to agree.

There was a brief moment in the early 1920s when it seemed that liberal democracy was the name of the game which the whole world was going to play. There were different kinds of elites coming out of the WWI, experiencing this radicalization and the new type of nationalism, but still believing that it was an anomaly, and that enlightened democratic nationalism was to return. Which had elements of emancipatory functions. Elites were actually cooperating with civil society, integrating certain civic initiatives. This also coincided with liberal economic policies linked to stabilization. This also coincided with the self-determination principle. Of course we shouldn’t overstretch this because many other regions of Europe were not affected fully, but it seems that there was a momentum of liberalism after WWI.

Yet, by the early 1930s liberalism was definitely gone. By this time the only democratic country left in Eastern Europe was Czechoslovakia. Every other country in the region was by then experiencing an autocratic regime with some interludes: short moments of restoration of democracy followed by coup d’etat.

But can we legitimately compare the state of civil society today to the one pre-EU period, and if yes is today’s civil society better equipped to withstand non-democratic pressures?

There are some parallels, such as the loss of “liberal consensus” and the rise of authoritarian and nationalist propensities. On the one hand they are culturally and politically coded in the culture of society – partially exactly because of the interwar tradition, but also going deeper into the relationship of nation-building and democracy. But there is also a socioeconomic component: we are talking about societies which are close to the center but they’re not central. That is why they often feel as being passive participants or passive objects of big economic transformations…they do not feel that they have their own voice or their own agency. And very often the reaction to this kind of ambiguity is a nationalist counter reaction.

Another recent anniversary was from the 1968 Prague Spring. It symbolizes the aspiration of many East Europeans during the mid 20th century to Western values. Now that their countries have joined the EU, can the Union’s core values be of any tangible help for civil society under pressure?

The strongest common intellectual and political heritage of the EU’s founding moment, that had a lasting impact, was a learning curve stemming from the interwar period when there was an ideological civil war in almost all European societies to one extent or another – either actual or symbolic. Post-WWII European unification was built on the understanding that the EU should have a political system that is self-controlled and self-limiting. This vision imposed self-constraint on the political elite, whereby they did not destroy their political competitors even when they are in a power position. because they can imagine being in a different situation when things turn the other way around, and they will be in opposition. This consensus has been shaping political culture of Western Europe.

But in East Central Europe as well there were some moments of cultural deliberation about a “self-limiting” revolution, exactly in the context of 1956, 1968 and 1981. This phenomenon was partially in dialogue with the similar Western discussion, and partially a local development. Many of these critics of the communist regime stressed that there was no way back to the interwar period. They were envisioning a transformation that would create structural boundaries off self-limitation even for the victorious post-revolutionary elites, partially because most of these vision of transformations did not envisage the total disappearance of the Soviet pole. This heritage was there and it had a certain impact on the post 1989 transformation. As a result, we did not see bloody transformations in most of these countries. Romania is an exception and of course Yugoslavia is an exception in a different way. But in most cases the regime change was happening relatively peacefully exactly because of this internalization of self-limiting.

The collapse of the agendas of liberal democratic transition after 2000 also eliminated the craving for consensus. It created new political elites which say that it was a mistake that the revolution was not bloody.  Viktor Orbán recently said that if Hungary first conservative government had had constitutional majority in Parliament then everything would have been fine: they would have erased all their enemies and he – Orbán – would not have been necessary. This is of course the complete falsification of history because back in 1989 most of the key players in the political elites were agreeing that whatever power you hold in the short run, you are not supposed to use it to destroy your political enemies. This shows exactly how far Orbán departed from the spirit of 1989, and even from his own erstwhile self. Had the first conservative government of Hungary in 1989 tried to crush the opposition, one of the first possible targets would have been the radical young Orbán.

Had the first conservative government of Hungary in 1989 tried to crush the opposition, one of the first possible targets would have been the radical young Orbán.

In the context of reemergence of super-majoritarian and power-maximizing political projects, civil society becomes the principal battle ground. Because in the absence of potent opposition parties, they hold the controlling functions. Civil society structures in some ways are rooted much deeper in society than political parties. In the post-transition context of Eastern Europe political parties are not mass parties. These are usually parliamentary parties which, if cut off from their resources and power structures, are easily corrupted and blackmailed. This is what we have seen in Hungary over the past 8 years.

In contrast, some of the investigative journalists and civil society initiatives are able to check the power-holders much more efficiently. Which is why they are the main targets of the campaigns we are witnessing in many countries of the region, and in Hungary in particular.

This journalistic article was published as a part of the project “Remembering Europe: Civil Society Under Pressure Again”, implemented by the BlueLink Foundation with co-funding from the EU’s Europe for Citizens Programme. No responsibility for the content of this article could in any way be attributed to the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency and the European Commission. All responsibility for the content lies with the BlueLink Foundation.