Reality of Post-Communist Transitions Risks Entrenching EU-Central Europe Divide

Reality of Post-Communist Transitions Risks Entrenching EU-Central Europe Divide

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, and his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, argue that new powers handed to the European Commission, allowing the EU to withhold payments of the €750bn Covid recovery package from member states that fail to meet EU standards on the rule of law, are a politically motivated attempt to target their countries. 

Meanwhile, the 2020 EU-Ukraine Association Implementation Report states that Brussels will continue to support Kyiv’s effort to overhaul its judicial system, despite the constitutional ramifications that it carries. If the EU remains to hold this contradictory approach to the issue of reform in former communist states, Warsaw and Budapest may feel vindicated in their view that they are being unfairly treated. 

Problematic relations between Brussels and the formerly communist states of Hungary and Poland remain persistent due to the continued pursuit of policy in both nations that contradicts the liberal democratic values held by the European Union — particularly those surrounding the rule of law. Both Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland and Viktor Orban in Hungary believe that such policies are essential in order to redress the survival of communist influence following the negotiated end of the regime in 1989.

In response, the EU budget commissioner, Johannes Hahn, has signalled a willingness to force through its €750bn Covid-19 recovery fund without including Hungary and Poland so long as they remain opposed to EU rule of law compliance.

Such a proposal from the EU represents a severe rebuke of the firm stance taken by Warsaw and Budapest against the newly-agreed mechanism that ties allocation of EU funds with nations’ committed respect of fundamental rights, particularly in the area of judicial independence. The Hungarian and Polish premiers say that this new power at the Commission’s disposal is a politically motivated attempt to target them as they look to consolidate their democratic transition out of the communist system.

The reality of post-communist democratic transitions in Hungary and Poland

The accession of Poland and Hungary to the EU in 2004 seemed to signify that both of these former communist states were successful in their transitions to liberal democratic political systems. Membership of the bloc was permitted after Warsaw and Budapest met the standards on democracy and the rule of law set by the Copenhagen Criteria in 1993.

However, while institutional requirements were met for EU eastern enlargement, the negotiated end to communist rule in the form of roundtable agreements meant that Hungarian and Polish communist elites remained in positions of power after the transition.

In Poland, despite an overwhelming vote in favour of the opposition movement, Solidarity, in the 1989 elections, political influence of reformed communists was preserved in the form of the Democratic Left Alliance. Under the Kwasniewski presidency, the ex-socialist leadership managed to survive the end of communism by reorienting around pro-European and pro-market policies.

The Hungarian democratisation process was also compromised as a result of the communist elite outlasting the fall of the regime. During the preparation for EU accession, emphasis was placed on consensus-building among elites rather than on legislative scrutiny of European integration policy. The manner in which state-owned enterprises transformed following 1989 shows that former communist officials were also allowed a say in Hungary’s privatisation process. Orban’s decision to renationalise pensions shows the extent of concern levelled at communist influence in the country’s market economy transition.

Warsaw and Budapest have therefore pushed forward legislation in an effort to reverse the post-1989 democratic transition processes that saw former communist officials remaining in their systems of government.

In 2019, despite a European Court of Justice ruling that overturned a law that lowered the retirement age of Supreme Court judges, the Polish government vowed to push ahead with tribunal changes, including an establishment of a chamber with the power to discipline judges.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, a new court system has been formed that limits the power of its Supreme Court on settling administrative matters, including elections and taxes.

Despite Yanukovych’s removal, rule of law reform remains limited in Ukraine

Measures have also been taken in Ukraine since the fall of the Russian-leaning Yanukovych presidency in 2014 that suggest Kyiv is facing similar issues to the Polish and Hungarian democratic transition processes.

Although Yanukovych was overthrown, the issue of entrenched vested interests within the post-1991 Ukrainian political system remains unresolved. A resistance to reform grew from President Kuchma’s encouragement of former Soviet financial industrial groups to lead the transformation of the state-monopolised economy in the mid-1990s. In an attempt to overcome forces hostile to political change, a National Reform Council was established in 2014 that brought together Ukraine’s public and private sectors.

Yet the institutionalisation of an anti-corruption strategy has experienced setbacks. Despite the formation of a National Anti-Corruption Bureau, substantial progress on reforms is limited due to the non-existent parliamentary oversight of the bureau’s functions, albeit on one occasion in 2019.

In light of these obstacles to reform efforts, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has called on international partners to support his initiative to overhaul the Constitutional Court (CCU). Similar to the view held by Orban and Morawiecki — that a fundamental overhaul of their political systems is needed to put their countries’ post-communist democratic transition processes back on course — Zelensky says that extraordinary measures must be taken against a CCU that remains under Russian influence.

Discrepancies in the treatment towards Hungary and Poland regarding judicial reform are clear. While Warsaw and Budapest stand to be omitted from receiving EU funds altogether, Ukraine on the other hand remains to receive assurances from the IMF that loans will be granted on the condition of implementation of anti-corruption legislation.

Contradiction towards reform risks deepening EU-Central Europe divisions

The risk for the European Union is found in adopting a contradictory approach to the issue of how former communist countries have confronted the process of democratic consolidation.

While Hungary and Poland face criticism from the EU for going ahead with their reforms in the area of the judiciary, the latest EU-Ukraine Association Implementation Report indicates that Brussels is prepared to support Kyiv’s planned-interference in the national constitutional court with all means at its disposal. Moreover, the European Commission announced that it will be disbursing €600mn to the Ukrainian government just as the EU-27 agreed that the legal text of the rule of law mechanism would remain unchanged at the European Council meeting in December 2020.

Contradiction on this scale may entrench an already tense EU-Central Europe relationship. Since Zelensky is set to receive significant financial as well as political backing for an initiative to overhaul his country’s post-Soviet judicial system, the firm stance taken by Orban and Morawiecki against Brussels may strengthen out of vindication of their view that their countries are being unfairly treated.

The EU now faces the prospect of isolating two of its member states and exacerbating their drift from liberal democracy, which seemed unthinkable after the bloc’s eastern enlargement in 2004.


Categories: Europe, Politics

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