Budapest, Hungary – Thirty years ago, the Iron Curtain collapsed and Central European countries (Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia) initiated their “return to the West” after nearly half a century of communist rule.
Three decades later, do Czechs, Hungarians, Poles and Slovaks feel better off? A wide-ranging study conducted by the Open Society Foundations to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall – based on YouGov research findings – sheds some much-needed light on the issue.
Some of the findings are distressing, but are part of a global trend, and not a distinctive feature of Central and Eastern Europe: growing distrust among citizens, liberal values threatened by rising populism, increasing appeal of authoritarian figures and measures, etc. And yet, “parallel to the rise of populism and the coercive political climate, a robust spirit of dissent, and a readiness to challenge those in power, persists”, write the author of the study, primarily driven by the younger generations who are slowly emerging as “a very special avant-garde” picking up the torch of their elders who brought down the Iron Curtain.
‘Democracy under threat’ in Central and Eastern Europe
In most CEE countries, a majority of the population agrees with the fact that democracy is currently under threat in their respective countries, with the highest level of distrust found in Slovakia (61%) and Hungary (58%). 51% of Poles and 47% of Czechs also share the same view.
Tellingly, most Central Europeans also believe that the most illustrative expression of democratic life – elections – don’t abide to international standards of transparency and fairness. Almost half of Hungarians and one third of Poles and Slovaks think the elections are generally not free and fair. Standing out from their Visegrad neighbours, only 21% of Czechs agree with that statement.
Moreover, more than 60% of respondents polled in every country considered the rule of law to be under threat, including in Slovakia (70%) and Poland (64%) – and slightly less so in Hungary (59%).
Other findings appear to take us back to darker times: the fear of repression. A majority of Hungarians (63%), Poles (55%) and Slovaks (51%) feel that they would suffer negative consequences in their life if they were to criticize their government in public. Once again, Czechs stand out, with “only” 41% of respondents agreeing with that statement.
Economy: Is the grass always greener on the other side?
When it comes to economic changes, Central and Eastern Europeans appear slightly more optimistic, at least at first sight. In all Visegrad countries, a minority of the population thinks the free market economy has been bad, both for them personally and the country as a whole (see graph below).
But that doesn’t mean they think it’s been good… Under the surface lies a strong disillusionment. While Poles and Czechs appear slightly more positive about their country’s transition to the free market economy, Slovaks and Hungarians remain highly sceptical, with large parts of the population (around one third) believing it has been neither good nor bad – or don’t know.
In all V4 countries, respondents are much more likely to say the free market economy has been good for the country overall, rather than for them personally, a trend that seems to illustrate the widespread – and for many, rightful – belief that they haven’t benefited from their country’s economic growth as much as other people.
A widespread distrust towards government
Central Europeans do not trust their governments, to say the least. In all the countries polled in the study (including Germany), a majority of the population doesn’t trust the news they receive from their government: Slovaks appear once more as the most sceptical (72%), followed by Poles, Hungarians (both 63%) and Czechs (60%).
The CEE populations’ distrust goes hand in hand with a widespread support for civil society actors and organizations. Support for the civil society remains high in all Central European countries, with a majority of the population agreeing that NGOs and charities should be allowed to criticize the government, including in Poland (70%), Slovakia (64%) and Hungary (55%). This support is even higher when it comes to safeguarding the right of academic institutions to challenge the government (above 70% in all CEE countries).
Younger generations lead the fight
The YouGov surveys also highlights the growing activism of younger generations, the digital natives (Generation Z), showing them leading the way in advocating and promoting a more tolerant, inclusive and democratic society. In that regard, young women stand out as the most potent force of change: 51% of Generation Z women believe, for instance, that LGBT groups should be more protected (compared to only 31% of men). A similar gender gap can be observed regarding the protection of ethnic minorities, refugees and immigrants.
This activism may be driven by a greater optimism regarding the current situation: 66% of Generation Z women in CEE countries feel they have more opportunities than people in 1990, while only half of Generation Z men share this view.
Central Europe stands at a crossroads. “The findings of this survey suggest that the countries polled are now in a dark and dangerous state, beset by fears for the future of democracy, freedom and security”, the authors of the study conclude.