Perhaps more often than it is actually correct to point out, civil society is considered to be a prerequisite for democracy. Usually the notion of civic participation is embedded in the causal relationship between the two (Chambers, Kopstein 2001:837). This is particularly true when we examine the approaches towards the civil societies of Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries. In these cases the remarkable deficiencies in democracy are frequently explained by weak and underdeveloped civil societies that are the result of communist legacies of the region (Pop-Elches, Tucker 2013:46). There are two main reasons why civil societies in CEE are deemed weak (Mudde 2007:227). First, the strength of civil societies in CEE is often viewed in the context of late-communist era revolutions, thus exaggerating the viability of civil societies in the past and underestimating their current strength. Second, the civil societies in CEE are often compared to the Western Europe (WE). This view excludes the part of civil society that might be considered uncivil, but perhaps idiosyncratic to the CEE countries. This essay seeks to examine the characteristics of uncivil society in CEE in the context of right wing extremism (RWE) aiming to explain social and political appearance and causes of such tendencies in comparison to WE.

As the belief that a vibrant civil society is a necessary condition for a viable democracy clearly illustrates, civil society is usually regarded as something essentially positive. When the widest concept of civil society is used and it is thus defined to encompass everything that does not belong to the public and private sector, the approach to civil society as something purely positive is strongly normative (Mudde 2007:214). An unbiased view of civil society must also include the uncivil part of civil society. The notion of an uncivil society demonstrates vividly that participation alone is not enough to foster liberal democracy or any other idea of universal well-being. It is the nature of participation that matters. This is clearly illustrated when we consider groups that promote hate towards different groups, such as RWE organizations. They are part of civil society and definitely an example of citizen participation, but such groups nevertheless act against the development of truly liberal democratic society. Hence, a distinction between democratic civility and particularist civility can be made (Chambers, Kopstein 2001:841). The former describes a society where all citizens receive the profits from participation, whereas in the latter case only the members of a particular group benefit. In this view, perhaps the civil society in CEE can be described as a particularist rather than democratic civility when compared to the WE.

Some light may be shed on this distinction when we further examine the differences in RWE between the two parts of the continent. The most obvious reason for the formation of organizational RWE is probably the spread of anti-immigration attitudes. This is quite obviously true in case of WE, where the anti-immigration sentiment is generally at the top of the agenda of RWE movements. The resistance to immigrants in WE rose substantially in the years around the collapse of Eastern bloc and although it has largely leveled off, some believe that we can now witness the emergence of antipathy towards immigrants in CEE (Coenders et al 2009:146-147). However, there is probably no such convergence in anti-immigration attitudes since CEE countries have not experienced an influx of immigrants comparable to that of WE. On the contrary, immigration is not a salient political issue in CEE states, but the prevalence of ethnic minority question in political arena is irrefutable. As a result of little cultural heterogenization compared to WE, most CEE countries have substantial ethnic minority populations that have not been integrated or assimilated (Koev 2013:2), thus raising a serious social as well as political issue. Probably the most evident and illustrative in this regard are the Roma people who in great numbers inhabit various countries in CEE and are far the most disliked minority in the region (Mudde 2005:181). Thus, ethnic diversity rather than immigration can explain the rise of RWE in CEE states.

Despite the apparent increase of RWE movements and attitudes in CEE, it has not received substantial scholarly interest (Koev 2013:1; Mudde 2005:161) that might be expected when we observe the attention that has been paid to the development of civil society, democracy and market in the region. In terms on public opinion, opposition to civil rights for minorities is not considerably higher in CEE than in WE states (Coenders et al 2009:160). This is particularly true when anti-immigration sentiments are considered and in this case there is almost no difference between the two regions. However, when we look at cross-national differences, some clear tendencies become evident. Proportionally, the more immigrants or minorities there are living in a country, the greater is the opposition to granting civil rights to them. This relation can be to a large extent explained by the public opinion in Estonia, Latvia and Hungary (ibid). Assessing more organizational forms by examining at table 1, there are no clear trends towards substantial RWE in any region or country in all of the three levels. The categorization in table 1 makes it difficult to interpret the public opinion in the case of Hungary where RWE is mild and in Estonia and Latvia in which cases it has no significance at all.

Table 1. Implications of RWE in ten CEE countries (Mudde 2005:163-169).

  Marginal/ unsuccessful Rather relevant Substantial/ successful
Political parties Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia Romania
Organizations Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia Hungary Poland, Slovakia, Romania
Subcultures Latvia, Romania Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovenia Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia


The controversy is probably best explained by the fact that in Estonia, Latvia, Hungary and perhaps generally in CEE states the issue of RWE has been integrated into the larger political arena (Mudde 2005:177) and thus not covered only by some niche parties as is the case in most WE. In most of the CEE countries elements of RWE discourse have been embedded in the discourses of mainstream parties, for the most part moderate nationalist and conservative liberal parties (ibid). The spillover of RWE rhetoric into mainstream politics that we witness in CEE is one of the most important threats to democracy (Chambers, Kopstein 2001:843). Today, the importance of RWE in political sphere is undeniable in Hungary, but minority issues are also clearly relevant in Estonia and Latvia as elsewhere in the CEE region. This can be again explained by the presence of considerably large groups of minorities present in most CEE countries. The development of party systems in Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria (Koev 2013:3-5) as well as empirical study has implied that the existence and success of RWE parties can be explained by presence of ethnic minority parties that promote public uneasiness among the majority when the latter are successful (Koev 2013:9). This might be the reason why mainstream parties have been somewhat compelled to adapt RWE sentiments in their agendas. As a result, smaller RWE parties are not a major political force in CEE, but rather pathetic (more radical and less successful) when compared to their counterparts in the WE (Mudde 2005:165; Minkberg, Perrineau 2007:42). Such tendency marks an important contrast between the politics of CEE and WE countries.

These developments in CEE are most frequently interpreted as a legacy of the past. If we examine the presence of RWE sentiment in mainstream politics as a result of weak civil society, it is directly connected to the post-communist context as noted previously. One of the causal relationships is that “the pervasive distrust of the public sphere under Communism has left an attitudinal legacy that severely undermines the sort of interpersonal and institutional trust necessary for civic participation” (Pop-Eleches 2013:46). This is only part of the explanation, however. Probably more important deteriorating effect to the development of a truly democratic civil society and more generally deliberative society in CEE is a result of economic hardships that the region experienced during the decade after the collapse of Eastern bloc. While CEE counties are a good example of how the emergence of civil society where RWE is not an issue is very much dependent on material factors (Chambers, Kopstein 2001:848), it has to be admitted that purely economic circumstances do not create hate out of nothing and especially in case of CEE ethnic divisions make a lot of difference in this respect (Chambers, Kopstein 2001:850). Although we may agree that the rise of RWE in CEE is a result of communist legacy to some extent, this post-communist argument does not explain the lack of certain patterns of RWE among the countries that experienced very different forms of communism.

Going further back in time provides perhaps a better explanation to the question of why the minority issue is so relevant in mainstream politics in CEE states and not in WE. Most of the countries that exist in the CEE today emerged figuratively speaking from bottom instead of being forced upon from above like WE states. The Versailles system that created most of the CEE countries introduced the principle of nationalities that in practice meant majority rule even in multiethnic states (Lukic 2010:48-49). This could explain different public attitudes that have eventually led to the inclusion of RWE notions in broader political sphere. The logic that explains the emergence of CEE states might equally explain their weak civil societies. It can be argued that in CEE political society came into existence prior to civil society which kept the latter weak whereas in WE civil society emerged afterwards and thus developed independently (Mudde 2007:225-226). The practice of nation state and weak civil society in CEE results in a situation where minorities are widely unaccepted and disfavored thus creating a politicized issue on a larger scale that is in WE countries with some exceptions rather an insignificant question.

It might not be always obvious that deliberative democracy and civil society require more than just any kind of civic participation. This might explain the deficiencies of CEE states is these areas. The region does not lack civic participation as such but the civil society in CEE might work in a way that promotes RWE tendencies. The issue of RWE in CCE is not a result of immigration but rather a reaction to the evident presence of many unassimilated ethnic minorities. This is apparent in public opinion and has led to a situation where notably mainstream parties have adopted a discourse of RWE that in WE is an issue covered by niche parties. To an extent this can be explained by the communist era and the following economic hardships of CEE but a more credible justification is provided by the formation of the CEE states that followed a nation state logic which is present even today.

References

  1. Chambers, Simone, and Jeffrey Kopstein. “Bad civil society.” Political Theory 29.6 (2001): 837-865.
  2. Coenders, Marcel, Marcel Lubbers, and Peer Scheepers. “Opposition to Civil Rights for Legal Migrants in Central and Eastern Europe Cross-national Comparisons and Explanations.” East European Politics & Societies 23.2 (2009): 146-164.
  3. Koev, Dan. “Interactive party effects on electoral performance: How ethnic minority parties aid the populist right in Central and Eastern Europe.” Party Politics (2013): 1-11.
  4. Lukic, Reneo. “The emergence of the nation-state in East-Central Europe and the Balcans in historical perspective.” Central and Southeast European Politics since (1989): 39-63.
  5. Minkenberg, Michael, and Pascal Perrineau. “The radical right in the European elections 2004.” International Political Science Review 28.1 (2007): 29-55.
  6. Mudde, Cas. “Civil society.” Developments in Central and East European Politics (2007): 213-228.
  7. Mudde, Cas. “Racist extremism in central and eastern Europe.” East European Politics & Societies 19.2 (2005): 161-184.