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 on SoundCloud and Spotify.

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).

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 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.