Written by Karoline Tolstrup Sørensen
Across Europe and the world, democracies are increasingly facing internal threats. This has been typified by the 2020 Capitol Hill riots in the United States, as well as the conversion of Hungary and Poland into “illiberal” democracies (Skytt, 2022; Szelényi, 2022). The leaders of these countries claim to protect traditional values and the political interest of conservative constituents with a more conservative take on democratic processes. Despite this apparent argument to simply be defending conservative voters through new interpretations of democracy, the European Parliament passed a non-binding, but highly symbolic report (Jorge Liboreiro & Zsiros, 2022) with 433 votes in favour and 123 against this September, summarising Hungarian democratic backsliding and concluding that henceforth Hungary should be regarded as “a hybrid regime or electoral autocracy” (Delbos-Corfield, 2022), in this case revealing dissonant conceptions of democracy, and disagreement on the point at which a democracy is perceived as backsliding. Accustomed to sensationalist news and ever seeking comforting truths, we tend to focus on these outrageous examples and compare other countries declining against the same measuring stick, perhaps underestimating what unfolds in other, less overtly regressing nations. In the case of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), this translates to focusing on Orban and Duda at the cost of recognising the broader Eastern European context which includes countries that, despite the above cited criticism from the European Parliament, still pass as hybrid regimes in democratic assessments and research on the subject. They have come to rest in a grey space between democracy and autocracy with nations such as Albania, Moldova, and Serbia, where they are labelled as backsliding, but what then? This simplified and sensationalist focus on ‘democratic backsliding’ during watershed elections in e.g. Hungary and Poland means that we risk losing sight of broader democratic issues across the region that are endangering human and civic rights.
In doing this, we might repeat mistakes first made when the Eastern states emerged from communist rule, many eventually joining the European Union. When Balkan, Baltic, and former strictly closed-off communist countries such as Romania, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, and Russia made efforts to implement democratic checks and balances in the 1990s, the transition paradigm was born to describe and hail the supposedly linear progress of these nations towards democracy. Caught in the euphoria of the third democratisation wave and Western triumphalism, the idea was to neatly place nations on a spectrum. This universalistic sorting disregarded historic, socio-economic, and geographical differences to singularly focus on whether the nations were coming closer or moving further away from democracy. Democratisation came to be understood as a three-step path starting with an opening in the oppressive system, moving to a political breakthrough of democratic forces to then consolidate the democratic state through institutions, elections and legislation, thus guiding the nation to eternal democracy, deaf to the political, economic, and social context of individual nations. This transition paradigm was already criticised strongly at the time by Thomas Carothers in 1997, who attempted to demonstrate that instead of accurately describing the political state of these countries, the application of the ‘transition’ phase before a fully consolidated democracy emerged came to simply serve as a cover for ‘strongmen in new clothing’ (Carothers, 1997, p. 90).
Contemporary analyses and debates of ‘democratic backsliding’ across CEE have however not heeded this warning, but seem to survive in simplifying democratic progress, applying universalistic terminology and ignoring diverse local contexts. This article therefore intends to explore the origin, purpose and practical usefulness of the backsliding paradigm in a democratically declining world, by drawing a parallel to the formerly widely applied transition paradigm and arguing how replacing one one-dimensional system with another does not address the underlying problems of generalising crudely across entire regions. Finally this article contemplates whether this two-dimensional interpretation of democratic flourish or breakdown might pose part of the challenge in reigniting democratic trust.
Democracy does not fall in one election or at the raised voice of one politician but erodes as we look away. Therefore, to not be taken by surprise, to protect the rights of all Europeans and to strengthen institutions under threat from silently regressing democracies in CEE, it is paramount that we learn from past mistakes, re-evaluate our linear understanding of democratic governance and apply it in a more nuanced approach to fashion new, sustainable solutions to the diverse challenges faced by democracy.
The rise of the hybrid regime
Freedom House’s annual report on Nations in Transit, assessing the current state of democracy in the world in 2021, showcases the allure but also the dangers of dividing nations into universalist categories of autocracies, hybrid states, or democracies in a world where democracy declines in a multitude of ways. This next section shortly outlines the background of the report related to the scientific method and ideological perspective in order to showcase the value and limitations of the report regarding this debate. Subsequently, the notable surge in hybrid regimes is presented and discussed (Smeltzer et al., 2022).
Freedom House is an American NGO describing itself as supporting ‘frontline defenders’ of democracy (Freedom House, n.d., l. 8). Their annual Nations in Transit report is a transnational assessment of democracy spanning 29 countries from central Europe to central Asia, where countries are rated on a scale from 1 to 7 in seven categories (Freedom House, 2022). The resulting democratic score of each country is the average of those metrics, consequently placing the country within one of the three categories: democracy, hybrid regimes, or authoritarian regimes (Freedom House, 2022). The Freedom House’s Nations in Transit report is thus focused on a rather narrow sample of countries, thereby excluding a global perspective, but in return granting comparable scores across Central European and Central Asian countries (Freedom House, 2022).
The Nations in Transit report opens by proclaiming 2021 as the 18th consecutive year of democratic decline in Central and Eastern Europe (Smeltzer et al., 2022, p. 1). Since 2004, the number of democracies has dropped from 14 to 10, particularly whilst, importantly for this article, hybrid regimes have flourished, their number rising from 4 to 11 in 2021, and the number of authoritarian regimes has declined slightly from 11 to 8 nations (Smeltzer et al., 2022, p. 2). In the report, hybrid regimes are identified as countries combining democratic elements with authoritarian practice, for instance featuring regular elections, but lacking the necessary checks and balances to ensure the protection of rights under the rule of law (Smeltzer et al., 2022, p. 4). This grey zone of hybrid regimes has become the largest grouping in the report, taking in countries not only making strides away from suppressive regimes towards democracy but also including nations such as Hungary, Serbia, and Montenegro, which have all ‘fallen’ from the status of democratic nations to hybrid regimes (Smeltzer et al., 2022, p. 4). Other nations labelled hybrid regimes are Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Armenia, North Macedonia, and Albania, whereof several have entered and re-entered the category since 2004, but none have managed to leave the category behind (Smeltzer et al., 2022, p. 9).
A demonstration of what is lost in this broad generalisation are the initial signs of erosion detected by keen readers of the report in less sensationalist governments. Where consolidated authoritarian regimes score lowest on National Democratic Governance, including electoral processes, the countries in the region that are stuck in the grey space or are still barely considered democracies actually all score lowest, not on Democratic Governance, but on Independent Media and Corruption. A closer read of the report also reveals underlying tendencies in nations not yet categorised as hybrid, but which score lower every year, such as Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia. Issues with corruption and the protection of independent media outlets have risen, but are lost as warning signs since the countries still score high enough to pass as democratic. This suggests that a stubborn focus on the outcome of elections in hybrid regimes and democracies is misguiding our efforts to understand democratic decline. Perhaps developing an understanding of media relations and the mechanisms of corruption would provide a more accurate picture of the fractures in otherwise ‘healthy’ looking democracies, to prevent further regression (Smeltzer et al., 2022, p. 6).
Overthrowing the transition paradigm, to instead introduce a backsliding paradigm?
The drawbacks embedded in the simplified concept of democratic progress and transition were already raised by Thomas Carothers during the third wave of democracy in the 1990s, as former communist countries gravitated towards implementing democracy by popular demand (Carothers, 1997, 2002). Carothers outlined the dangers of uncritically hailing all nations moving away from autocracy as transitioning into democracies along a linear trajectory while disregarding any local specificities (Carothers, 1997) and as opposed to motivating real democratic change. This instead actually provided a fig leaf for a ‘particular style of semi-authoritarian regime’, which simply upheld just enough democratic formalities to pass as democracies (Carothers, 1997, p. 90). The category of hybrid nations or nations in transition has again come to cover all manner of democratic or autocratic varieties, placing them in an ambiguous grey space. This demonstrates the drawbacks of focusing on nations ‘in transit’. Treating the hybrid regime as an in-between on the road to democracy is misguided when it seems to have become a destination in itself.
Carothers’ central point of contention is the underlying assumption supporting the logic of the transition and the backsliding paradigm: the metaphor of linear movement to describe democracies. Transitional democracies are perceived to either move away from authoritarian rule or towards it; this frames the development of a nation within a narrow, linear path. According to Carothers, this ideal path of the paradigm is broken into three phases: starting with an opening, where cracks appear in an otherwise solid dictatorial rule, leading to a breakthrough in which the regime collapses and a new democratic system rapidly emerges, to eventually become consolidated. Another criticism Carothers has is the focus on elections as watershed, breakthrough moments. Elections were, and still are, elevated to be the sole indicator of a healthy democracy, again demonstrating the disregard for the underlying cultural possibilities or limitations present in these transitioning countries. Following this transitional period, democracy is consolidated by the reinforcement of state institutions, regular elections etc. These three phases are seen to be universally applicable, demonstrating the failure of this model to account for the complexities and nuances of individual countries and cultures.
The backsliding paradigm is similarly built around assumptions of linear movement, perhaps indicating why political scientists Licia Cianetti and Seán Hanley have recently taken issue with it, pointing to the troubling parallels between the transition and the backsliding paradigms (Cianetti & Hanley, 2021). Exploring the subject in their article, The end of the backsliding paradigm (2021), Cianetti and Hanley argue that the sudden erosion of democratic processes in Hungary and Poland has tainted the picture of all of Eastern Europe. The entire region has been considered to be in democratic decline, when the reality is more complex. It is thus inappropriate, according to Cianetti and Hanley, to analyse CEE as a whole along the same trajectory as more extreme cases from the same region, or even to assume that all CEE countries can be understood along the same linear system of progression or regression.
To continue discussing the commonalities, both the transition and the backsliding paradigm rest on a more or less explicitly fixed outcome. The transition paradigm refers to the positive outcome of a fully consolidated democracy, whilst the backsliding paradigm anticipates the hybrid regime becoming a fully authoritarian regime. This continued universally applied systemisation means more complex dynamics involving trade-offs and nonlinear movements are overlooked. Although the force and speed of the third wave of democratisation and the spread of the transition paradigm as a positive outcome did sweep away old, deterministic ideas of democracy-building simply deeming many countries as unfit for democracy. This narrative had long been exploited to justify colonial exploitation and support for anticommunist dictators across the globe, to instead establish a more optimistic paradigm of transition, where any nation could do it and no preconditions were necessary.
In addition, both paradigms give great credit to a select few individuals in elections, granting space for trivial narratives of ‘bad people’ winning landmark, breakpoint elections or ‘good people’ opposing such elections perceived as crucial, which then fail to actually capture the slow chipping away at democratic practices. This media attention consumed with simplistic, more shallow analyses of the actions of individuals, have blinded us to appreciate the structural causes of political events. Examples here could be Andrej Babis’, nicknamed the Czech Donald Trump (Forbes, 2023), victory in the 2017 Czech parliamentary election or the entering of a far-right conservative party (EKRE) into the Estonian governing coalition, both framed in European media as decisive indicators of backsliding. The media thus moved along the pre-defined trajectory of democracy, deeming the election a breaking point and demonstration of regional decline, without seriously contemplating why 30% of Czechs supported the multi-billionaire Babis in 2017 (Tait, 2017). Contrarily, the Slovaks’ election of Andrej Kiska in 2014 and later Zusana Caputová in 2019 as Presidents was to turn the tide of illiberal tendencies across Central and Eastern Europe and represent democratic progress, reversing a backsliding track, according to the media portrayal (Cianetti et al., 2018; Cianetti & Hanley, 2021). Importantly, this interpretation misses that the Slovakian president plays a ceremonial role and thus has little influence to sway party politics dramatically, and that only 42% of voters turned out on election day in 2019 (Harris, 2019), which seems to place an unreasonable importance on one individual in one election and misses the point of more systemic issues. In the cases of perceived progress or perceived regression, media outlets grant elections decisive importance, heavily loaded with mortal dangers or uplifting promises, which the newly elected government would find hard to fulfil. Furthermore, the media’s dramatic portrayal risks fueling extreme reactions which are often overly alarmist or overly optimistic, potentially feeding additional polarisation and which fail to uncover underlying mechanisms driving struggling democracies. Given this simplified analysis which bundles together countries experiencing alternating shapes of democratic erosion under the veil of backsliding, scientists, journalists, and politicians become blind to solutions. This to a worrying degree echoes Carothers’ criticism and encouragement regarding the transition paradigm to redefine the optics through which we judge and analyse emerging democracies or nations to instead shed a more nuanced light on the diverse multitude of governments.
Diving into the ‘Twilight Zone’
To transition beyond the linear understanding of democratic development and the sensationalist focus on elections as watershed moments for democracy, Cianetti and Hanley propose entering the ‘Twilight Zone’ by analysing countries with the help of two patterns they observe in the region (Cianetti & Hanley, 2021, p. 72).
The first lens is borrowed and slightly modified from political scientist Dan Slater’s concept of careening (Slater, 2013), introduced to interpret Southeast Asian political dynamics. Careening illustrates movement that is not either democratic or backsliding but instead swerves, appears turbulent and travels from side to side. Careening describes the dynamic struggle between the two groups, who both have democratic validity but neither of which has the weight to enforce stable changes according to their ideals (Cianetti & Hanley, 2021). To constructively work in this tug of war between democratic claims, we should abandon the fatalistic image of movement to either side representing a democratic setback or great leap ‘forward’. Instead, we must recognise the reality of political struggle which will cause societies to move backwards and forwards, sometimes simultaneously. A reflection of these constantly conflicting forces could be the popular civic movements seen in Bulgaria (2013, 2020) and Romania (2012, 2017-2019) in response to overwhelming corruption and bad governance. Another example is the removal of liberal presidents and the left-populist party Smer in the Slovakian 2020 parliamentary elections (Cianetti et al., 2018; Cianetti & Hanley, 2021), although Slovakia is otherwise interpreted as a democratic beacon in Central-Eastern Europe resisting backsliding. The model of careening allows for comparison across nations in a more accurate way, which reveals commonalities and varieties to work with rather than simply banishing countries to an eternal, and meaningless, state of hybridity.
The second lens is an attempt to acknowledge the political trade-offs made between democratic values and the quality of said democracy. An example of this trade-off can be seen in the Baltic countries. Estonia and Latvia have large Russophone minorities but a trade has been made between democratic inclusion and democratic stability. The Russian-speaking minorities have consistently been excluded from democratic participation through exclusionary citizenships and language policies aimed at protecting the Baltic languages, creating social cleavages while defining party politics (Cianetti & Hanley, 2021). Consequently, feeding a Russian narrative of suppression, thereby maintaining an old feud between the Baltic states and their old conqueror and perhaps in time this democratic trade-off will ignite other challenges to the sovereignty of Estonia and Latvia. Although democratic inclusion is usually seen as a hallmark of a sound democracy, it might at times seem necessary to bend the application of the principles. Exclusion could expand to the state withholding political or electoral power from minority groups according to ethnicity, gender, class or race, to stabilise democracy and have fewer actors to rock the boat, meaning that sustainable institutions and consensus might be achieved at the expense of political pluralism (Cianetti & Hanley, 2021). This trade-off is often missed in democratic analyses, perhaps because the Baltic nations usually rank the highest amongst Central and Eastern European nations in democracy studies, thus purely figuring as a positive example of democratic progress. The Baltic nations might be ranking so highly not in spite of democratic trade-offs but because of them, having prioritised democratic stability by creating ethnic elites at the expense of more diverse participation.
Reshaping our toolkit
The aim of this article was to assess the state of democracy on a more nuanced level and look past the shadows cast by headline-makers Poland and Hungary. By embarking on a journey across Central and Eastern Europe through the Nations in Transit report, it is both clear that democratic institutions and thereby human rights are challenged but also that the method to assess and discuss this challenge is inadequate. The number of democracies around the world has shrunk to pre-1989 levels, highlighting the dangers of disrespect for electoral opponents and spreading of toxicity in political debates to the democratic public arena. Freedom House’ Nations in Transit report staggered at the historical number of nations categorised as hybrid and thus neither democratic nor authoritarian, but stuck in the grey zone. This continued tendency to collapse political societies into a narrow, linear system of development suggests that although the transitional paradigm might have gone out of fashion, it has been succeeded by a backsliding paradigm. However, it is crucial that we move beyond this way of thinking and develop more nuanced tools for understanding political societies and allow a more constructive debate about the solutions to the crisis of democracy.
Perhaps the proposed lenses of careening and trade-off will not cut it, but examining their potential would represent important steps to understand diverse political societies and their complexities, to finally overcome decades of oversimplified categorisation of nations as transitioning or backsliding. Exploring multidimensional terminology might be a place to start understanding the hidden dangers present in what might look superficially to be exemplary democracies in the Baltic or the healthy aspects of different democratically valid claims in e.g. Romania and Bulgaria, otherwise deemed backsliding, ergo losing democratic ground. These conversations are urgently needed in each of these countries, but certainly also in the European Parliament if we are to have any hope to stem the erosion of our democracies and protect the freedoms which they guarantee.