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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > March 2016 > Rolling back freedom

Rolling back freedom

The young democracies of Central Europe are threatened by their leaders

One after another the narratives that prop up belief in western liberal democracy have fallen. Ideal financial system? Not after the 2008 crisis and the euro. Military superiority? Iraq and Afghanistan have put an end to that. Effective politics? See gridlock in Washington DC and arm-twisting in Brussels.

Now the final, perhaps most fundamental, narrative risks unravelling. The supremacy of liberal democracy is rooted in the triumph of 1989: the liberation of Central Europe from the Kremlin’s authoritarianism; Václav Havel emerging from prison to become President in Prague Castle; the successful transition to democracy via European Union membership and the security blanket of Nato. Central Europe is the beacon for aspiring reformers across the world. In 2008, the World Bank published a report, “Unleashing Prosperity,” which concluded that the “Visegrád Four”—Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic—had created “stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities,” “functioning market economies” and had “the ability to take on and implement effectively the obligations of (EU) membership.”

Yet today we are faced with a Hungary whose Prime Minister says he intends to build an “illiberal state,” a Czech President who attends anti-Muslim rallies with the far right and a Polish leadership that declares the media should do the government’s bidding. Throughout the region, the judiciary, media and civil society are under attack, while a newly belligerent Russia is looking to re-impose itself.

What has gone wrong? What does it mean for the future of the EU and the continent’s security? What can and should be done?

One sign of the extent of the reversal is that the country leading the rollback is Hungary, whose “goulash communism” was the most ideologically and economically lax in the Soviet bloc. Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister, was a high-profile, prowestern, pro-democracy dissident back in Soviet times. Some thought him another Havel, but since coming to power in 2010, Orbán has acted to ensure that he will always have it.

First, Orbán rushed through changes in the constitution enabling him to place loyalists in the Constitutional Court. Since then, 11 out of the 15 judges have been appointed by his party, Fidesz, without any consultation with the opposition, opening the way to place Fidesz members at all levels of the judiciary.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s March issue: Peter Pomerantsev describes the situation in Eastern Europe as the governments of Hungary and Poland turn right. Simon Tilford, from the Centre for European Reform, questions the substance of David Cameron’s EU deal and Philip Collins argues that Jeremy Corbyn is not fit for purpose. Also in this issue: Peter Kellner shows us that we are feeling more optimistic than during the last stages of the last Labour government and Jessica Abrahams explores the sexism of Valentine’s Day. Plus Justice Malala on South Africa and the Prospect Duel asks: "Should all immigrants learn English?"
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