Sean Hanley: 1989 is used and misused across the political spectrum

The demonstration against Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis is the largest protest since the fall of communism in 1989. We found the ideal person to talk about it. Sean Hanley is Senior Lecturer at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London. He is a political scientist specialising in the politics of Central and Eastern Europe, democracy and parties in the Czech Republic, anti-establishment parties and movements. Why is the protest constructed around the symbols of 1989? Why is corruption such a sensitive issue in CEE? How can anti-establishment parties may make democracy role less functional today than it has been in the past?

It is the biggest protest since the fall of communism and it was organised by the Million Moments for Democracy group. This movement has grown from a small student initiative. Can we draw any conclusions about the state of civil society in the country, especially in light of the fact that civil society is believed to be weak in post-communist states?

Okay. Well, I think it depends on what you mean by weak and strong. So, are we talking about the existence of large membership organizations? Are we talking about regular participation? Are we talking about protest movements that we saw in the Czech Republic? Or are we talking about the involvement of civil society in policy making?

So, we may talk about the different things that can be NGOs, which are quite influential but which don't have deep roots in society, for example. What we've seen with the protests in Prague is the ability of citizens to coordinate and get together to protest, which doesn't really require a great organizational infrastructure but does require citizens who are willing and prepared to protest. So, is civil society in Central Eastern Europe weak or strong? Well, it depends what you're comparing it with. It’s weaker than in Western Europe but stronger than, say, in Central Asia. What we see in the Czech Republic and we see elsewhere is the sudden upsurge of mass protests that indicates that Czech citizens are willing and able to take to the streets to defend democracy. But it also may suggest that other, more formal mechanisms for holding elites to account are relatively weak. So, mass protests are a kind of emergency brake. So, I think it is a kind of mixed picture and you can't reduce it to a dichotomy of being weak or strong.

There were many symbols of the Velvet Revolution, such as the place of the protest – Prague’s Letna park, and references to the past, such as the slogan “Babis, the biggest crook in Czech politics since 1989”. Why is the protest constructed around this topic? Can we say that the way in which society understands itself and in which relationships are constructed are still significantly affected by the communist experience?

Well, it's fairly common to sort of frame the political movements in terms of what happened in 1989. I mean, what this shows is that they are saying: “well, this is important, it is kind of a turning point, we have reached a crossroads, the issues are really big and comparable to those we faced in 1989”. But 1989 is used and misused across the political spectrum by both liberal and not so liberal forces. So, Babis and his political movement, which isn't really a movement, it's more like an astroturf top-down party, in 2011 said: “ Well, we need a new Civic Forum (a political movement established during the Velvet Revolution – editor) against corruption. We need a new 1989”. So, it's a common kind of frame of reference and you could see it as well in Slovakia last year: the slogans echo 1989, the banners, the jangling of keys, which is something the demonstrators did in 1989 and still do now. It's an important point of reference. So, in that sense, yes, it's a kind of legacy.

At the same time many people point out that Babis has kind of a background in the communist nomenklatura and they're saying: “well, it is a kind of unfinished revolution here that we need to finish off”. Really, it's just a way of talking about politics. So, 1989 provides a convenient kind of vocabulary and set of symbols that everyone understands, that stands a good chance of getting people into the streets and which makes the point that the issues are really serious and important. It's something that's done across the political spectrum. So, you even find echoes of it on the right and the far right and among people like Babis, who is now the target of it, but in 2011 he’s saying that we need a new revolution headed by someone like me.

It is also what I found interesting – that now both national populist and more liberal actors are unsatisfied with the revolution’s results. Is it just a symbolic reference? Or does it tell us something about the future benchmarks that will define the development of the countries in this region?

It's a good question. I think it depends on the country. I mean Babis and his ministers are saying that there's nothing wrong with Czech democracy because you can see a quarter of a million people in the streets protesting. So, you could read this as a kind of a normal emergency politics. The social movements and the protest movements are increasingly an accepted part of democratic politics and they tended to appear more as traditional parties have lost their influences in societies. We had large protests against Brexit, France had the yellow vests, so you can certainly say: “well, this is just normal protest politics”.

I think it is a bit more than just a convenient use of symbols in the Czech Republic. I think what's at stake is the quality and the shape of democracy. Czechs had a long-running conversation about what kind of democracy they want, the role of political parties, whether they're more interested in economic growth or other things like whether the morality and quality of government matter. So, I guess the Czech Republic is not in the same place as Hungary, not in the same place as Poland, but it's also not quite in the same place as some of the more settled democracies of Western Europe. So somewhere in between the sides.

Infographics: The Velvet Revolution and Breakup of Czechoslovakia

Why is corruption such a sensitive issue in CEE? All the big recent protests were caused by corruption scandals, the measures that weaken the fight against corruption, appointments of inappropriate political figures, etc. Also new parties place the issue of corruption at the centre of their agenda. What does it tell us about politics in this region?

Well, I suppose the simple answer is that there is this anti-corruption protest because there's a lot of corruption, but I think it's a bit more complicated than that. Central Eastern European societies have a combination of relatively high corruption, but also relatively open media and relatively competitive political systems. So that tends to make for anti-corruption politics.

The second answer is that standard parties, which model themselves on West European party families – left or right, have been in office and then have fallen prey to corruption. So, the voters are looking for something new. It's not enough to say I'm a social democrat or I'm a conservative. You have to offer something new and you need something which can mobilize people, and populist appeals are very good. In countries where appeals to nationalism and the ethnic nationalism don't work, you can make a very good populist appeal with an anti-corruption platform because populism is all about saying that the elite are conspiring against the people and that they're doing it because they're kind of morally bad people. So, it fits in with a certain populist construction, which is very appealing to people who want to get into politics.

I guess the other reason is that it's a convenient kind of metaphor for the limitations of politics. Politicians have difficulties delivering because we're kind of a globalized world, there's a global economy, there's a limited amount that the national state can do, especially small, relatively poor states like in Central and Eastern Europe. So, it's a convenient way of articulating a frustration with politics. It can almost be a metaphor so that even in countries like the United Kingdom, where the indicator of corruption is relatively low, people think the politicians are corrupt. They're very offended even by relatively small corruption scandals like the British MPs expenses scandal which serves a few thousand pounds. That's nothing compared to what you see further east or further south.

So, I think it's a mixture of those three reasons: 1) there is quite high corruption; 2) it can be spotted and seen quite easily, it's a useful appeal for people who are populist; 3) and it articulates a general frustration with politics and what it can deliver.

In this protest, anti-establishment populist rhetoric has been seen. All the main parties portray themselves as anti-establishment parties and it doesn’t matter if it is the ruling “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO)” or the “Pirate party”, which is in opposition. Similar trends can be found in other states of the region. Can we say that it is alternative politics which can bring genuine political change or what trends can we speak about?

It's a good point that even the protesters are in some ways quite populist and that nobody wants to identify themselves as being an insider and a part of the elite. What populism can deliver depends on the kind of populism. I guess you could say with the whole Babis experience that in fact, his rise and possibly now fall has delivered some quite important anti-corruption measures, such as an office which oversees the financing of political parties. Politicians’ finances are now much more transparent than they used to be. So, by putting the issue of corruption on the agenda, it has brought some useful change. The downside is that if we ignore, or set aside, for a moment that inherent risk of the populists gaining power and then dismantling liberal checks and balances, which hasn't happened in the Czech case, we just get into a cycle of political anti-establishment politics whereby anti-establishment forces come along, they mobilize on issues of corruption and get into power – you mentioned “Pirate party”, they haven't really been responsible for running anything other than the mayor of Prague, Pirates are outside any real power – and then they themselves become the establishment and become the kind of target. We get just a constant cycle of rejection of the establishment and that,I think, would interfere with democracy without dismantling democracy.

So, yes, in some sense the protesters in Prague have a liberal populist agenda and it's very interesting that they quoted, at the start of the demonstration, they read out the citation of the first President of Czecho-Slovakia Tomas Masaryk that we need morality in politics. And of course, this is a good thing. Who could be against morality? That lends itself to a populist construction of politics of the good people versus the bad politicians. In fact, even in the Czech Republic not all politicians are entirely bad and not all ordinary people are entirely good. So, there is a risk of a cycle of populism of a new anti-establishment parties appearing every five to ten years, becoming discredited and being replaced again, and that may make democracy role less functional today than it has been in the past.

Sean Hanley made a presentation about the emergence of anti-
establishment reform parties in Central and Eastern Europe, 2013

A lot of new grass roots parties have appeared. It sounds interesting because it looks like a sign of direction to more direct democracy. Is it? But at the same time can these parties change something? Because they don’t have enough experience and may, like “Public Affairs”, just dissolve due to lack of money. Maybe only traditional parties able to provide policies?

Well, the Czech Republic isn't going to have more direct democracy. It has some – it has provision for referendums at local level and there are a lot of referendum campaigns about salient planning issues, the siting of waste plants and things like that. There's no provision in the Constitution for national referendums. So, it would require changing the Constitution to have a more referendum-style democracy. Babis said that he wanted more direct democracy, but he's never really had the votes to deliver it. So, there isn't going to be more direct democracy.

In terms of the ability of new parties to run things competently. First of all, in some cases, new parties have been led by old faces. So, if we look at, say, Babis’s party and at “Public Affairs”, they were backed by business interests that have been around for a very long time. So, this distinction between the new and the old isn't always right. There may be a new party and new name and new organization, but more continuity than you think. In general, new parties do struggle when they're in government, they struggle to coordinate their politicians, they struggle to find ministers who can run things. It is possible for a new party to run things competently, I think, if it can recruit sufficient experts and technocrats. Paradoxically, Babis is quite a good illustration of how this can happen. He has managed to keep his party united and, although the quality of his ministers has varied, on the whole they've been fairly competent technocrats and business people. An interesting question again – whether to run a democracy properly, we need a proper party with more of continuity between elections and more of a worked-out ideology. I would tend to agree with you that probably we do in a country like the Czech Republic, but at the same time we probably need something which isn't just an effort to sort of copy Western European parties. I think in the development of the 1990s all Central European parties emulated organizations in Western Europe. Maybe we could move on from that now. So, maybe Central Europe could have more of its own faces in terms of parties.

Let's speak about democracy backsliding. In fact, the citizens have a reason to protest. You wrote that the Czech Republic fits initial patterns of Hungarian/Polish backsliding. In your new article (Foreground Liberalism, Background Nationalism: A Discursive‐institutionalist Account of EU Leverage and ‘Democratic Backsliding’ in East Central Europe) you wrote that democracy cannot be locked in as citizens and leaders can think and rethink institutional settlement so the key thing to preventing democratic backsliding in East Central Europe is engaging with the shifting political identities of politicians and voters. How can the EU do it? And can we say that the political identities of voters are changing, that they value democracy and from a long-term perspective it will become more difficult for the leaders to violate its principles?

Well, we didn't look at voters, so it would be hard to say. I mean more research would be needed. I think there is support for democracy, there is perhaps less support for what you could broadly call liberal values compared to Western Europe. I think voters in Central Eastern Europe see democracy in more instrumental terms.

I think what we really wanted to say in the article is to really point out the paradox that a lot of the people who are dismantling democracy, like in Hungary and Poland, are not bad old Communists or nationalists on the political fringes that everyone's afraid of, but people who we thought were very fairly mainstream politicians. Orban has very good opposition, credentials as communist opposition, so Kaczynski in Poland, and we kind of took them, I took them, to be the rough equivalent of mainstream conservative parties. If we look more closely, we can see that it isn't the case.

Political scientists tend to see institutions as means of providing incentives, which will kind of keep rather suspicious politicians in Central Eastern Europe under control, while some of them evolve into genuine social democrats or conservatives and then hopefully these institutions will kind of bed down and lock in. It was an idea that many researchers looked to, they thought in terms of possible locking. Some of them thought democracy had locked in, others didn't quite go that far. What we were saying is really that we need to think about institutions and actors as two sides of the same coin and we need to be aware that the mainstream, what we thought was a mainstream, can become, and some have become, the main illiberal force.

What could be done about it? We didn't come up with ready answers, but what we did think mattered was promoting liberal values and not just working out a ‘carrot-and-stick’ mechanism that would get recalcitrant governments to behave themselves and not kill institutional engineering. So we don't have a ready recipe. I tend to agree with you that we probably should be focused on not just politicians but on "ordinary people”. I think my co-author in that article James Dawson has a very interesting book called "Cultures of Democracy". He did research in Serbia, Bulgaria, and he found that the middle class interviewees that he talked to, who consider themselves to be very liberal and pro-European, in fact had some quite illiberal and nationalistic views. Also he found that Serbia, which on paper looked to be a worse democracy than Bulgaria, in fact had a more vibrant, grassroots, liberal public. I think that's the kind of thing we were saying that policy makers should look at.

Can we consider some peer pressure measures like ratings as part of the strategy to influence values? Can we suppose that the example of Hungary and Poland make Czechs or other citizens in the region more cautious about the violation of democratic rules?

I think the experience in Hungary and Poland have been noticed in Czech, also the Slovak experience has been noticed, and I think it is telling that what triggered the protests was the replacement of the Justice Minister and her discussions of "reforms" to the legal system, which is of course how things began in Hungary and Poland. Czechs have taken to the streets previously, so 20 years ago when political parties were trying to control public television. But certainly, I think the events in Hungary and Poland have registered across the region.

About your first question. Governments take it seriously. Freedom House is kind of a rating that is taken seriously. But in the end, if you're a really hardcore illiberal, you can simply say that NGOs are just part of the Soros's empire and we're going to ignore them. So I think they can have an effect if the government takes it seriously.

There are many democracy indices and they are getting more complicated and more sophisticated. But it's very hard to measure attitudes and understanding, you can do it with surveys and so on but there are certain things that can't be counted and can't be rated. So I guess they play a certain role as a signal but I wouldn't see them as a hugely powerful tool because they can just be dismissed or ignored because of the kind of organizations that produce them, which can just be dismissed as liberal enemies of conservative and right-wing forces.

The Czech Republic is known for having a low level of public trust in the EU and a strong tradition of party-based Euroscepticism. Is something changing? Or distrust of the national system doesn’t translate into trust of European union system?

I think the turning point in the Czech Republic was actually rather earlier. I think it's 2008-2009 and also the Eurozone crisis.

A couple of reasons why Czech Euroscepticism is high. The first is that there's been historically quite a large block of communist voters and the country's Communist Party was large enough to get into Parliament. It was skeptical, hostile to the integration with West European institutions. So there's a block of older left-wing voters who are Eurosceptic. Then, of course, we have the whole phenomenon of the Czech right and Vaclav Klaus who took over a long discourse of the Euroscepticism from the British conservatives and adapted it to Czech conditions. For a long time, this right-wing Eurosceptic discourse was largely ignored by right-wing voters who were on the whole favorable to the EU because they saw it as a continuation of free-market reforms. I think it seems to be the case that after years and years and years this right-wing Eurosceptic discourse has started to sort of seep into the mainstream, seep into public consciousness. So it was always there and now EU is in trouble, the eurozone is in trouble and the EU struggle to manage refugees and those other things. So I think with the Czechs, it's a mixture of left-wing Eurosceptic constituency and the availability of a very strident right-wing Eurosceptic discourse, which has started to break through and peter down into the society. We should say that very few Czechs want Czexit. This is something that's favored by radical groups on the right. But elsewhere, there are very few groups who want to go that far.

But one of the most popular slogans in this protest was "Dear EU, Don’t Feed the Oligarch.". Does it mean that participants of the protest see the European Union as an adherent, like someone who can help them to fight the national corrupt system?

 There's a pro-European thrust to the protest but I don't think that the protesters are looking to the EU to rescue them. I think that they're really doing it for themselves. I think they would be perhaps glad if the EU took a harder line against Babis, but, on the other hand, that's more or less what they are doing. So, I really think it's just a matter of them pointing to the outside world, just what kind of man they think Babis is. So, I don't think that liberal Czechs are looking to the EU to rescue them. I think the situation is a bit different from what you see in other countries where small groups of liberals and pro-Europeans want the EU to sort of step in and help them out. I wouldn't read the political situation like that.