The police came in the pre-dawn stillness of a freezing February morning in southwestern Poland , knocking at the door of a national hero who had once again become a wanted man.
There was a time when Wladyslaw Frasyniuk would have run. Before a election yielded a government determined to use the liberties and powers of a modern democratic state to snuff out independent institutions.
But it is a sleeker, subtler and, ultimately, more sophisticated version than its authoritarian forebears, twisting democratic structures and principles into tools of oppression and state control. It is also, quite possibly, far more potent and enduring than autocracies of old.
The Resurgence of Autocracy
Countries in every region of the world have suffered setbacks, in areas such as free and fair elections, the independence of the press, the rights of minorities and the rule of law. As Americans worry about the health of their own democracy, the lesson from abroad is that the decline can come bracingly fast. The democratic society that Frasyniuk fought for is in retreat, while a new breed of autocrat advances. Leaders in other countries, such as the Czech Republic, only seem to aspire to that sort of absolute authority. But wherever signs of autocracy are emerging, this much is true: they bear little resemblance to the obviously repressive methods so familiar from school textbooks chronicling 20th-century despotism.
There are no strutting soldiers in the streets or cults of personality around the great leader. Opponents and journalists speak openly and loudly, generally without fear of persecution. Instead of building walls to keep their own people in, governments construct tech-laden fences to keep supposed enemies out. Instead of economic isolation and scarcity, a gusher of foreign investment flows. And yet, ruling politicians and parties have managed to consolidate power to a degree not seen since the communist era. Elections still take place, but they are used as justification for the majority to impose its will rather than a chance for the minority to have its say.
Deemed a political enemy because it was founded by liberal philanthropist George Soros, the highly regarded institution has been a top target of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. He has denounced the CEU in speeches, and his government has passed legislation designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, for the American-accredited school to operate. But in keeping with the new style, Orban avoided shutting down the university outright — and the storm of condemnation that would come with such a move. Instead, he left the CEU dangling in limbo for nearly two years and gave himself a small measure of deniability when it opted to retreat into exile this month.
Toader this year forced the firing of a crusading anti-corruption prosecutor who was investigating top government officials. He has also helped push through legislation that independent authorities have said will severely limit the power of other prosecutors to hold the powerful to account. He served four years in a communist prison — and endured frequent beatings from guards — because he wanted his Polish countrymen to know the freedoms of democracy. But in the last three years, ever since the right-wing Law and Justice party won elections, he has watched the government use the liberties for which he fought to tighten its grip.
The election victory became a pretext for the takeover of previously independent institutions. That was enough to draw officers to his door in February — though the tactics were less conspicuously brute-force than in the old days.
If the style was new, the outcome that cold day was familiar. But this time, the blind courage of youth is gone. He knows the advantage lies with the autocrats. The Polish word for it — konstytucja — dangles from her necklace in cubed black and white letters, like a shield.
Soon after winning the elections, the party effectively took over the Constitutional Tribunal, packing the court with friendly judges. But the government has tried to force her and dozens of Supreme Court colleagues into early retirement. To Law and Justice supporters — and others in the region brandishing the will of the people as a weapon — this is how democracy is supposed to work. To the victor go the spoils. But to Gersdorf, it is a perversion of democracy — a deliberate misinterpretation of the checks on political power and the ultimate authority of the constitution.
Then, the unexpected: an October ruling by the European Court of Justice temporarily blocked the forced retirements. Local elections, meanwhile, dealt the ruling party a surprise setback. Late last month, the government retreated, introducing and passing legislation in a single day that will allow Gersdorf and her colleagues to keep their jobs. He cancelled his lease. He sold his car. He said a tearful goodbye to his mum and packed two suitcases. Then he and his girlfriend hailed a ride-share service and sped down the highway to a new life.
To leave everything and start again.
Autocracy - Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics
But they have also given autocrats like Orban a useful safety valve. Anyone dissatisfied with his government can pick up and go, with not even a passport check standing in the way of self-imposed exile. And although many have been motivated by higher wages elsewhere on the Continent, political factors have loomed large as well. Those who have left tend to be young, ambitious and educated. But it is a crisis for anyone trying to organise opposition to his rule.
Central European University is on its way to Vienna. As freedom of movement siphons off would-be dissenters, EU subsidies line the pockets of favoured government cronies. And free trade across the bloc gives Hungary the sort of powerful allies that communist governments of old could never have dreamed of. When BMW was searching for a spot to build its first European factory in more than a decade, it chose Debrecen, a tidy city of , people on the eastern Hungarian plains. Amid corn and wheat fields, a billion-euro factory will rise, further transforming a once-rundown post-communist backwater that has become a hub of German industrial might, with daily nonstop flights to Munich.
Continental politicians periodically denounce Orban as a stain on European democracy. And Orban frequently rails against EU meddling. Vladimir Ciobotaru and his wife welcomed a baby boy to the world this week. They had the Romanian government to thank. Romania is decried by watchdogs as one of the most corrupt countries in Europe and denounced by EU leaders as an autocracy-in-training.
But its economy is gaining strength — Romania saw 6. Poland and Hungary have also enjoyed rapid growth, low unemployment and — even though pay is still well below continental averages — rising wages. Their treasuries flush, Hungary has mailed cash vouchers to retirees and introduced grants for homeowners; Poland has begun paying people to have more children.
Political scientists have long theorized that growth and prosperity help sustain democracies, with the presence of a robust middle class guarding against a slide into authoritarianism. The money helps leaders keep their populations happy. It also gives them cash to burn on vanity projects, influence operations and, of course, patronage networks populated by favoured cronies. In Romania, the leader of the ruling Social Democrats — a wealthy businessman-turned-politician named Liviu Dragnea — has been twice convicted on corruption and vote-rigging charges.
Muzzling of corruption watchdogs has been a trademark of growing executive authority elsewhere in the region. In a devout nation, the mostly government-funded project has earned the ruling party credibility. Ciobotaru, for one, is a die-hard party supporter, even if few in his social circle share his views. The surgeon and his wife recently had friends over for dinner at their new apartment.
Then politics came up, with Ciobotaru arguing that overzealous prosecutors — not ruling party politicians — are the true threat to Romanian democracy. Prime minister Andrej Babis was facing a revolt. The only trouble: the doctor and her supposed humanitarian aid organisation appear not to exist. Across central Europe, newspapers and television stations have been bought up by oligarchs allied with ruling party politicians. The paper had been the favourite of Vaclav Havel — the playwright, dissident and, ultimately, president — as well as others among the Czech intelligentsia.
Before becoming prime minister last year, he was forced to put all his companies in a trust. He quit the paper on the day it was sold to Babis.
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In recent months, Kmenta said, he has been repeatedly called in for questioning by security services. They demand to know his sources and threaten him when he refuses. That, he said, is new in the Czech Republic. Meanwhile, Babis is considerably weaker than his counterparts in Hungary or Poland, and is engulfed in a corruption scandal that threatens his hold on the government.
But with all the models around him for consolidating control, Kmenta is not optimistic. Babis is a smart man, and the path to ever-greater power has become well-travelled. You can find our Community Guidelines in full here. Want to discuss real-world problems, be involved in the most engaging discussions and hear from the journalists? Start your Independent Premium subscription today.
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