Rise and Resilience of Populism in Eastern Europe

Over the past decade, a number of European populist parties have become increasingly competitive in key votes, and in Eastern Europe, these parties have not only come to power but also remained in office in consecutive elections. In this interview series, we will interrogate some of the main drivers and impacts of populist mobilization in Eastern Europe.

The series is hosted by Dr. Tsveta Petrova and the European Institute at Columbia. It is made possible with the support of the Erasmus + Programme of the European Union. The views expressed in this series are those of the speaker(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Institute or the EU Commission.

The podcast is available to listen on SoundCloudSpotify, and Apple Podcasts.

With the support of the Erasmus + Programme of the European Union

Populism and Party System Change in Europe

Professor Milada Vachudova introduces the concept of ethnopolulism and discusses how political party competition in some member states of the European Union has shifted to issues of identity, as a result of and to the benefit of ethno-populist parties defending “the people.” Such polarization, she argues, goes hand in hand with democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland; a somewhat different dynamic, however, is playing out in the Czech Republic, where liberal mobilization brought down the former ethno-populist incumbent. Professor Vachudova concludes by discussing the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the strategies and popularity of ethnopopulists in Europe. 

Speaker: Milada Vachudova is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and member of the core team of the Chapel Hill Expert Survey (CHES) on the positions of political parties across Europe.

On European Populism and Democracy

Ivan Krastev speaks about the relationship between democracy and populism, arguing the latter is the outcome not of the failure of the democratization of European societies but of its success. He further discusses the unintended consequences of the five revolutions that have shaped the current state of democracy in the post-WWII West. Looking to Central Europe, Krastev argues that at the core of the populists’ claim to legitimacy is a revision of the legacy of 1989 — these nationalists see the fall of communism as a “revolution betrayed” by cosmopolitan intellectuals. In successfully excluding anticapitalist discourse, the latter liberals opened space for political mobilization around identity issues that fueled the rise of populism.

Speaker: Ivan Krastev is a political scientist, the chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, and a permanent fellow at the IWM (Institute of Human Sciences) in Vienna. He is also a founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the board of trustees of the International Crisis Group, and was a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times (2015-2021).

The Contradictory Democratic Beliefs of Populist Citizens

Professor Maurits Meijers discusses how European citizens who embrace populist beliefs view and participate in their countries' democracy. He argues that they support key democratic principles and institutions but tend to hold more majoritarian conceptions of democracy. He also finds that they are dissatisfied with political parties as institutions of political representation and are willing to sacrifice long-term democratic regime quality for better short-term policy representation.

Speaker: Maurits J. Meijers is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Department of Political Science.

Gender and Anti-Gender Politics in the Populist Moment

Professor Elżbieta Korolczuk discusses the latest phase of the struggle around gender equality in Poland in the 2010s. She offers a novel conceptualization - developed in her recent book with Agnieszka Graff, Anti-Gender Politics in the Populist Moment - of the relationship between the ultraconservative anti-gender movement and right-wing populist parties, examining the opportunistic synergy between these actors. She argues that the anti-gender rhetoric in Poland is now structured as a populist discourse and is best understood as a reactionary critique of neoliberalism as a socio-cultural formation.

Speaker: Elżbieta Korolczuk, PhD is a sociologist working at Södertörn University, Sweden. She also teaches at Gender Studies Centre at Warsaw University and the Institute for Advanced Study, Political Critique in Warsaw.

Populism as a Rejection of (Neo-)liberalism

Professor Mitchell Orenstein discusses how Central Europe’s post-communist dependence on foreign capital constrained countries in the region into following (neo)liberal economic policies and how after the global financial crisis, populist parties in the region began to break from the (neo)liberal consensus, “thickening” their populist agenda to include an economic program based on a conservative developmental statism. This particular form of economic nationalism that emphasizes workforce activation, natalism, and sovereignty has also gone hand-in-hand with attempts to attract investments from Eastern authoritarian states, further illustrating the connection between Central Europe's development strategies and the region’s sources of foreign capital.

Speaker: Dr. Mitchell A. Orenstein is Professor and Chair of Russian and East European Studies at University of Pennsylvania and Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

A Look from the Supply Side

Dr. Maria Snegovaya discusses how the evolution of the post-communist party systems facilitated the rise of nationalist populism. She argues that the centrist shift of the ex-Communist left parties along the economic policy dimension (and their implementation of austerity reforms, which led to growing disenchantment with neoliberalism) made the left’s traditional blue-collar constituencies receptive to the redistributive appeals of populist right parties.

Speaker: Dr. ​​Maria Snegovaya (PhD, Columbia University), Postdoctoral Fellow at the Kellogg Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Virginia Tech; Visiting Scholar at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University; Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

The Civic Embeddedness of Hungary's Fidesz Party

Professor Béla Greskovits discusses how the Fidesz party accumulated social capital and translated it into political capital and electoral success in 2010. The Civic Circles Movement, founded by Fidesz’ leader Viktor Orban after he lost the 2002 parliamentary elections, has been militant in terms of its hegemonic aspirations and collective practices as well as massive in terms of its membership and activism. It offered new frames and practices for Hungarians to feel, think, and act as members of an imagined community centered on the Nation, Christianity, and anti-liberalism.

Speaker: Dr. Béla Greskovits is a University Professor at the Department of International Relations and Department of Political Science of Central European University, Vienna and Budapest.

The Ambivalence of Polish Populism

Professor Ben Stanley discusses the evolution of the populist movement and affiliated parties in Poland in the 2000s and 2010s. He argues that while its rhetoric and economic policies have empowered social groups that felt excluded from post-1989 reforms, the nativist cultural policies and the politicization of the institutional infrastructure by the Law and Justice party have also militated against the pluralist understanding of politics in the country. 

Speaker: Ben Stanley, PhD is an Associate Professor at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Warsaw and Visiting Fellow at the University of Sussex.

The Social Coalition Behind Poland’s Law and Justice Party

Professor David Ost discusses the social bases of the electoral bloc behind the Law and Justice government in Poland, which originally sought the revival of “traditional” values in the country and the strengthening of the state to enforce them but after the global financial crisis, also began to speak about the suffering inflicted on the “Nation” by economic (neo)liberalism. By 2015, Law and Justice was thus drawing support from 1) traditional conservative Catholics, demanding that PiS empower the Church and embrace anti-progressive old social norms; 2) secular nationalist intellectuals, committed to "Polishness" and a greater place for Poland in Europe; as well as 3) workers who support Law and Justice for its economic promises and policies, its efforts at fighting the insecurity and inequality of Poland's peripheral capitalism.

Speaker: Professor David Ost teaches politics at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York. He is currently a member of the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.