Is Democracy in Europe Delivering?

Anne Applebaum joins us for the Demworks podcast, "Is Democracy in Europe Delivering?"

Next month marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Democracy looked much different in 1989 than it does today. How has democracy changed in Eastern Europe since the bold steps it took in the region three decades ago?
In this Demworks podcast, NDI President Derek Mitchell sits down with Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, analyst, professor, and historian, Anne Applebaum to discuss the current state of democracy in Eastern Europe, and what its future looks like. #Listen to this engaging #podcast as they discuss the importance of citizen participation and political awareness in democracies today.
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Derek Mitchell: Hello, my name is Derek Mitchell and I'm the president of the National Democratic Institute. In this Demworks episode we are joined by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, analyst, professor, and historian Anne Applebaum. Anne, thank you very much for joining us.

Anne Applebaum: Thank you for inviting me.

DM: Anne Applebaum is one of our most treasured commentators and writers about global affairs with a particular focus on European politics. Anne has focused much of her career on the dynamics not only of democracy but of authoritarianism, having chronicled the tyranny of the Soviet Union and books like Red Famine: Stalin's war on Ukraine, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, and Gulag: A History, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize. She is currently working on another book, this one based on her fantastic cover piece analyzing the political situation in Europe for the Atlantic, somewhat melodramatic, “Is Democracy Dying?” 

edition last October. We are sitting down just days after Poland held legislative elections and just weeks ahead of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is in that context - facing the current challenges to democracy, while assessing its continued resilience - that we sit down today.

Let me ask first... the elections in Poland. I know it's too soon, probably the one where we're sitting here right now. Your husband is a, is an MP, a European Parliament MP, and former - 

AA: He wasn't running in the elections, but he's a member of the European Parliament in Poland.

DM: So he's a Polish politician. You live much of the year in Poland.

AA: That's right. 

DM: From a distance now but also from your first-hand knowledge of what is happening now in Poland - what did the elections tell us?


Well it's funny how expectations shape your perception of events. Many people, including me, expected a real wipe out in these elections. We expected the nativist government - the ruling party, the law and justice party - we expected them to have a huge majority.  We expected them to, you know, really take over the country. Although they won... that didn't happen. In fact, they got about 43% of the vote which is big in a multi-party system but it doesn't give them a majority and as it turned out they lost the Senate. There are two houses in Poland. The Senate is, it's more like a House of Lords Senate than a U.S. Senate. It's not that powerful but, still, it was quite a symbolic loss and that suddenly makes it seem like their assault on Poland's democracy that's taken place over the last four years might not have been as successful as we thought it had been.

DM: Right. There seems to be a theme though. Over the weekend there are local elections in Hungary, as well, or at least municipal elections where we’re bonded pretty poorly in the cities and we're seeing this trend in Turkey.

AA: Very, very similar in Poland in that the Democratic opposition does very well in the cities. I mean, but trouncingly well. I mean, they get 70%, 80%. In local elections last year, I think out of a hundred and six mayoral races, and that's sort of big cities and small cities in Poland, opposition non-ruling party candidates won a hundred of those, so. it's a real difference as a real gap between the cities in the countryside in Poland. Although that wasn't the only - there is evidence of, you know, some opposition parties doing well in small towns, as well.

DM: Yeah. I think that was the same in Hungary as well. So... as you analyze what's going on in Eastern Europe and as you observe democracy and then sort of the way democracy evolves, ebbs and flows, do you see then, a pattern here that is encouraging for a pushback against sort of liberalism that we were so worried about?

AA: So the lessons that we're beginning to gather is that, you know, the reasons why anti-democratic partisan - by which, by the way, the word populist is one I'm very careful and cautious of using because it seems to mean all things to all people and I have no objection to political parties that win by trying to appeal to a popular mood or so on. My objection is to parties that want you know which take over and then immediately begin to assault the institutions of democracy, which has happened in Hungary and has happened in Poland. You know, the ruling party tried to undermine the judicial system, it tried to replace the judges, illegally, with its own judges. It just really destroyed state media and made it into a kind of propaganda tube of the ruling party in a way that's hard to describe if you don't speak Polish. But, I mean, everything from faked broadcasts to made-up stories and, you know, it's almost like a conspiracy site rather than a state broadcaster. So my objection is to that rather than to their language. It seems like, you know, one of the things that these kinds of parties learned how to do before others was to make use of new forms of media and new ways of communicating. They understood better than everybody else that fake stories move faster on the internet than real stories. They understood how to use rumor and innuendo to undermine people and then how to, kind of, multiply. It's only really now that some politicians - and by the way, I think it's really more of a coincidence that this happens in Eastern Europe rather than anywhere else and, I mean, you can see the same kinds of parties in Italy, you can see them in Austria, and goodness knows. I think the Republican Party is not that different in the United States.

We're beginning to see now, people beginning to work out what are the tactics to use against that and these include both alternative kinds of communication that seek to unite people rather than divide them.  It's, you know, it's to do with investing in quality journalism. It's to do with, you know, finding messages that can reach people who feel excluded by the political system. There are different tactics being used in different places. They didn't have an election this weekend, but there was a very interesting election a few months ago in Slovakia, and I've just met the new Slovak president, Zuzana Čaputová, where the president is now a woman who comes from a small town. She was an environmental lawyer and she was completely outside of politics, or very much on the fringe, for a very small party called Progressive Slovakia. She won the presidency by, again, appealing over the heads of the divide by trying to address the whole nation and by using green and environmental issues not in a partisan way but in a way saying, you know, this is our country and we need to take care of it, and, you know, she won. There's a priest, there was an echo of that actually in an Austrian presidential election a couple of years ago where there was a final round between a green candidate, who's now the president of Austria, and a far-right candidate and, again, his message was all about our beautiful country, we all love it, you know, pictures of the Alps. I'm being a little facetious but not entirely, there may be a way to appeal to people's sense of pride and identity without using negative language.

DM: Yeah, true patriotism, love of country -

AA:  Patriotism instead of nationalism.

DM: Right, right. In a sense, I mean, there is an alternative vision to what these folks were offering. Maybe in the past it was too technocratic that the elites were just thinking - because we say all the time, democracy needs to deliver. The irony is in Poland and Hungary it delivered economically.

AA: Very much so.

DM: But there was still something missing in terms of vision and identity or something at least the opposition at the time can play on in order to get electoral advantage.

AA: I mean, first of all, I just like this idea that the elite did this or that because, I mean, there's a ruling party elite in Poland now. There's a law and justice elite and always was, by the way.

DM: The attitude that somehow they were representing the forgotten, the people that are being left behind.

AA: This was the language that they successfully used. Whereas as I say this election that we've just had shows that they represent a lot of people but they don't represent everybody. They don’t even represent the majority. And so, to describe themselves as representing the real Poland when they don’t have a majority in the country is, you know, it's a bit much.

DM: Right, but that's, I guess, that's the strategy though. Even if they don't represent that, they play to the fear or the insecurity.  Whether it's an identity insecurity or an economic insecurity, in this case.

AA:  That's the strategy and that's what they used to - that's what they say gives them the right to change the constitution, to undermine the judiciary system and so on. I mean, this is the argument that they use. In Poland, the thing I think that's hard for outsiders to understand, is that they have used very, what we would we would call in the West, right-wing language. They talk about patriotism and Christianity and much of their campaign was anti-gay rights. Being very specifically anti-gay, anti-homosexual in a very sharp and very ugly way. At the same time their economics have been, what we would call, left-wing. So they've done a major redistribution of wealth at the expense of, I might say, hospitals, schools, investments in infrastructure. You know, and even business itself. But nevertheless, they've done a big, almost sort of Latin American style, classic form of populism. I don't mean to say that they're Nazi’s, but the expression National Socialism is is really apt here. It’s hard to find the language to push back against that. I mean, I think, particularly in a moment when as you say, there's been two decades of economic success in Poland. The last several years have been particularly good in Europe, there's been an economic boom. Partly thanks to, you know, U.S. monetary policy. The change may come when that begins to turn.


DM: If we get something wrong when those of us who promote it are interested in democracy. I mean, the issue of identity is so critical everywhere you go that you can - I mean, these countries were liberated from the Soviet yoke. I guess in some way they felt like they were asserting nationalism in those days but there's a questioning of whether they want to be Western. What is going on in terms of identity inside these countries?

AA: So these so-called populist parties, these far-right parties, have successfully appealed to people who have felt in the last decade, if not economic fear, then some kind of, as you say, fear about their identity. One very brilliant analysis was made by my friend Ivan Krastev, a very brilliant Bulgarian intellectual, who has pointed out that the really striking change in many of these countries since 1989, is not the phenomenon of immigration, which is the thing everybody talks about, but the phenomenon of emigration. Thousands of young people leaving to go and work abroad and the sense that this has given a lot of people that, you know, our country is going to be erased, we're disappearing, we're being absorbed into Europe or into the world, the global economy will wipe us out. As Ivan put it in one of his books he said, you know, in a hundred years will there be anybody to read Bulgarian poetry? Maybe not.

The spectacle in 2016 of a big wave of immigrants arriving into Europe from the Middle East somehow did trigger a deepening of that fear. Saying, “oh, well, we need immigrants because we don't have enough people to do the jobs,” didn't make people feel better who are worried about losing some sense of nationhood. So I think the parties and politicians that will do well in the region either will find some answer to that or will begin to play on increasing - you know, there are some issues that also play into people's sense of what it means to be European. One of the interesting phenomenons in Poland and Hungary, but also in France, and especially Germany, is the rise of green parties which also appeal to some kind of sense of being part of a larger community and owing something to your neighbor and so on. There's almost a competition right now between these national issues and these international issues which are both inspiring to different kinds of people.

DM: And cross-step I think was just quoted by Roger Cohen from a conference in Athens where he said, “people in Hungary are more likely to see a UFO than a refugee,” and yet they might vote based on concern of refugees or migrants.

AA: In Hungary, they've very successfully, using this threat that refugees are coming and they're gonna drown out Hungarian culture, which had some impact in a country where, particularly Hungary, where it's a very small country. They have a very unique language, nobody else seems able to learn it, they have this feeling of being all by themselves as one Hungarian friend alone in this sea of Slavs and people who speak German. So it has a particular resonance. Actually, in Poland the refugee issuereally didn't go on working which is why the government turned on the gay issue. And again, I can't underline enough how ugly this campaign was with the documentary about the gay invasion and very targeted language, somehow meant to make people afraid that they're gonna lose some sense of Polish-nedd or their Polish family. But I would point out, you know, it didn't work. It didn't succeed, at least not across the whole country. There may be a certain percentage of people who just ignored that and said, “well, we're so happy about this welfare distribution on the growth of the welfare state that we don't mind.” 

DM: Right, and was assisted by the church to some degree.

AA: Unfortunately there is a part of the Polish Catholic Church which has abandoned its former neutrality. For decades and centuries the Polish Catholic Church was a kind of symbol of the nation and even people who weren't particularly religious felt they owed it something. It had a special role all through the Communist era as a as an institution that was some kind of refuge. Literally churches were refuge but also kind of morally it was a refuge. John Paul the second was Poland's great Pope who spoke different language from the Communists and reminded people about history and so on. Unfortunately the church has now lost that status and it is seen as very partisan and it has supported the current ruling party. I'm afraid that what you may have in Poland in a few years down the line is a scenario, as in Ireland, where people really turn away from the church. A lot of people are very angry, young people are angry at that and that's sad, really.

DM: Is there a demographic divide, an age difference?

AA: There is a demographic divide. There are fewer and fewer people going to church every year. But, of course, this is another one of those issues that creates fear among people who fear that something is being lost. In a sense, they’re right, they are losing something.

DM: Well let me draw back a little bit. I mentioned early on we're just weeks away from the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and we're all focused on how much of the rhetoric is about how democracy has regressed in the last 15 years and there's a crisis in democracy as the Atlantic edition, “Is Democracy Dying?”,  one of the more melodramatic headlines. But you can say even with the regression in the past 15 years, over 30 years, the sweep has been pretty substantial towards more democratic expectation among societies. There's still democratic practice in, even if there's a liberalism and cutting down of institutions in places like Poland, and Hungary, and Czech, and such, but there is at least more of an expectation that democracy is- democratic processes should abide.

Now are you more or less optimistic about the moment we’re in? Is it a matter of mismatched expectations? Or do you feel we truly are in a crisis moment for democracy?

AA: You know, it's funny, I wrote so much about the anniversary of the fall of the wall and the end of communism at the 25th anniversary that I feel a little burned out at the 30th anniversary. I've been asked to write some things and I've been somehow staying away from it. I think it is still true that when you look at the past three decades and you look at what kinds of expectations we had in 1990, you can't say anything except that the last three decades had been an overwhelming success. I mean both the economic success, political success, success in terms of integrating Europe. I think the fact that the problems in Poland aren't really that different, frankly, from the problems and Italy, and the problems in Austria have a relationship to Hungary, it is a testimony to the fact that the region is actually pretty well integrated and we see now kind of similar politics, similar tactics, moving back and forth between West - what we used to call Western, what we used to call Eastern Europe pretty well. As I said and as we've already discussed, the economic growth, particularly in Poland, but also in the rest of the region is stunning. I mean this was the poorest region in the world, or one of the poorest regions in Europe and now Poland is ahead of Portugal in per capita income and, you know, catching up with others. So I think you have to look at it in the long term as a success.

I think the bigger question is whether - not so much about that region and about Europe - I mean, the bigger question is really for all of Western democracies. How are we going to cope with the rapid and revolutionary change in information technology and in other kinds of technology that have really unsettled the way in which people get and process political information, have undermined traditional political parties, have undermined establishment news organs. I think in a way that they aren’t going to recover.

The world that we knew it in which we somehow expected that there was going to be some kind of free competition between newspapers and TV and somehow the best news would win and the most accurate information would be what everybody eventually came to accept as true. I think that's not true anymore. The question is whether any of our democracies, from the United States, to the Philippines, to Bulgaria, can survive in a world where we no longer have a single national conversation? Where people live and inhabit different echo chambers? Where there's no consensus about facts? Where policy can be made on the basis of conspiracy theory? Or, rather than on the basis of rational debate? That is a question for all of us. Thirty years after 1989, that's the question that none of us would have predicted at that time. 

DM: I've read - I’m trying to think of his name - The Clash of Civilizations.

AA: Samuel Huntington.

DM: He wrote, not in The Clash of Civilizations, but another piece, about the third wave of democratization. I reread that before I started NDI about a year ago and he actually predicted this moment in a way. He said, “watch what happens in places like Poland and Hungary, watch about what happens in Russia.” He also talked about new technologies can create a challenge to democratization and democracy.

AA: The other big change is that the Internet - I mean, this may not continue indefinitely, but at the moment the Internet is now a single space. Politics is now, you know, the authoritarian regimes can play us easily in our political game as we can play in theirs. If not, more easily, because we have all kinds of rules and regulations that would prevent us from actually campaigning in Russia. Whereas the Russians have no qualms about running covert campaigns in the United States as we saw in 2016, or in Poland where they run a very effective anti-Ukrainian sort of covert campaign, or in in France and Italy where they actually support political parties with actual funding and money and I think that was probably not something anybody predicted.

DM: Yeah, they're doing a better job than political parties are at laying disinformation and rumors and such. They create confusion.

AA: They produce massive quantities of it and they understood pretty early on how easy it was gonna be, how fast it was gonna be to spread misinformation on the Internet before others did. It's a complicated thing, I think they learned a lot from sort of American political PR and then they transformed it in their way and they've now brought it back in a particularly virulent, negative form. To me that's the biggest threat to democracy. Democracy was always based on the assumption that we could have a rational debate between clearly defined groups or parties or sides. Whether it was two parties like in an anglo-saxon system or five parties like in a European system.But there was a debate and it was going to take place in the debating chamber and therefore people would be persuaded by rational argument to choose one side of the other. That's really not quite the case anymore. Whether it has been, you know, for some time. If we have large parts of the population who accept information that is completely false, which I'm afraid is the case in many countries, it's hard for me to see how we're gonna have, at least that ideal model of democracy is going to be able to persist.

DM: It's something we grapple with here and we're gonna establish a new division on digital technology and the challenge and figure out what do we need to do to harness this. Both to use it for good to try to use it in order to more rapidly spread democratic values and educate people and civics and such, as well as mitigate the harm that's done. As you say, the bad guys are ahead of us and it's sometimes harder to build something than it is to tear it down and create confusion.

AA: I also think that if I was gonna say there was one thing that was neglected since 1989 is civic education.

DM: Yeah.

AA: And this again, I think this is as true in the United States and Britain as it is anywhere else. I was thinking about the SAT this is the test that every American child who wants to go to college has to take. You have these very anodyne SAT questions. Maybe there should be a SAT section on the U.S. Constitution. Why don't we have that? That would force everybody to study for it but the fact that we don't even consider that, it's not even really part of the curriculum is really quite odd. How do you expect people to be upset when politicians defy the Constitution if most people don't even know it? I mean this was one of the surprises in Poland, it turned out that some percentage of the Polish population was very understood, was committed, cared a lot about the concept of judicial independence. Quite a lot of people were mystified by it. They never thought about it, nobody taught them about it in school. They don't have the kind of cult of the Supreme Court like we have in the United States. It hadn't occurred to them that it mattered and they really hadn't been taught it.

DM: Yeah. There’s a complacency, I think, that’s set in.

AA: I think that's it. There was a complacency, you know, that if you have an election, you have a democracy. But, of course, democracy is a very delicate, complex system, and people need to be taught to think about it all the time. A lot of people are not, kind of, it is very unnatural for them to accept the idea that they should lose gracefully. It doesn't come naturally to people and teaching that as part of an educational system is something that - I mean, I know for a fact it wasn't done in Poland, but I also know that it's not done in Britain. It’s not as big a part of the British curriculum as it should be either.

DM: I think you've in the United States there's a complacency about citizenship. We talk about ourselves as, citizenship is the most important job that we have and yet we don't get trained for that job.

How bullish are you about Eastern Europe? The thing we all have to understand is expectations need to be managed. Things will go forward and back and there are a lot of cultural and mindset changes that need to occur in order to allow for the kind of democratic way to be accepted. You are very realistic about these situations... how do you feel now?

AA: I don't think Eastern Europe should be treated as a separate category from the rest of Europe or indeed from the West. It so happens that a couple of anti-pluralist or anti-democratic ruling parties have won there but you can see that problem in other parts of the world. I'm not especially negative about Eastern Europe. My fear is about all of us.

DM: Yeah, I completely agree. We're all in this together in a way. We can be inspired by the leader of Slovakia and what she did there. This is the great thing of what we have done. We sort of planted seeds and people are building on it - for better or for worse - and now we're getting inspired in return by people marching in Hong Kong, or in the streets of Moscow, or pushing back. 

AA: So, that's the other side of the story. Okay so ‘democracy is terrible and it doesn't work and we can't agree and it's sloppy and it's inefficient.’ And then when you don't have it then you get governments that are even more corrupt and even more inefficient and even more brutal. And we see the result of this in Hong Kong, this extraordinary new wave of protests, you know, very sophisticated, making use of all kinds of new technology, avoiding the use of a leader just so that they can move in unexpected ways to fool the police. You see in Moscow where democracy has been dead for two decades. Recent marches in Moscow and protests in Moscow have been about local elections, we want fair local elections. It's not even about the presidency. It's about, ‘we would like a Moscow City Council that has real people on it and not people who've been effectively appointed.’ Almost everywhere where you don't have democracy, you have an equal amount of unhappiness. It's a strange moment where the democracies are in trouble but the autocracies are in trouble too.

DM: People want a voice. I don't think it's ever dead anywhere because people have a natural desire to have a say in their affairs.

AA: People want a voice and they want some sense of justice, that the state they live in is just and there's some element of fairness in the system. That just re-emerges however much you suppress it, it re-emerges almost everywhere. 

DM: Let me ask you one last thing as I think we’re over time. So, I want to ask you to say something about, From a Polish Country House Kitchen which was your cookbook about Polish cooking. Where did that idea come from?

AA: It was a fun project. A friend of mine, Daniele Crittenden, came to visit me in Poland. We went to restaurants and I made dinner for her. She had been in Poland previously in 1990, I think, and this was 2005 or something. She said, “you know, there's been a revolution here, somebody should record it because there had been this total transformation in Polish cooking.” There was a communist era then there was a sort of new capitalist moment when you had a lot of stuffy French restaurants in Warsaw. Then there was this new era when you began to have new Polish restaurants using new kinds of ingredients and traditional food and so on. So, we thought we would write a cookbook that showed that. In other words, this sort of new Polish cooking- lighter, healthier, more interesting.

DM: What’s your favorite recipe?

AA: My favorite Polish recipes are soups. There's one called zurek, for example, which is based on sour bread with this kind of sour broth. It tastes like nothing else and it's a very specific Polish taste.

DM: I'm hungry. All right, for another time we will taste the soups.

Ann, thank you so much, and thank you listeners for joining us.

I’m Derek Mitchell and this has been DemWorks. Thank you for listening.