In the beautiful old Romanian city of Timisoara a short stroll south of Liberty Square will bring you to a nondescript old building. Entering through a bar will bring you into the apartment-sized Museum of the Communist Consumer. It is a fascinating throwback to a different, communist world. To a life of fear, control and vinyl records. Not far from here, in December 1989, Timisoara was declared the first Romanian city free of communist control. It was, what everybody believed to be, the dawn of democracy in Romania.
Timisoara today is unrecognisable from what those of us old enough to remember 1989 recall. But the past three decades have not witnessed democracy blooming in the central and eastern European countries that shed the burden of communism in 1989. Almost every post-communist state in the EU wears heavily the legacy of decades of authoritarian control.
In recent years Poland and Hungary have been subject to an official EU procedure (article 7) to suspend certain membership rights over concerns they are violating core democratic principles. Values such as judicial independence and upholding the rule of law, that were once viewed as sacrosanct, are now subject to interpretation and debate.
In countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania the links between corruption, organised crime and populist government have polarised societies, weakened trust in public institutions and fed a narrative that often places the EU as an external foe to national interests. Post-communist countries combine openly (and proudly) against the loudest advocates of the EU’s democratic principles. These are problems evident on both the right and left of the political spectrum. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. But this is why communism still matters in Europe.
When the EU rushed to embrace the majority of these post-communist states in 2004 it was viewed, as the then German chancellor Gerhard Schröder noted, not as an expansion of Europe but as welcoming home “states that are part of Europe and have always seen themselves as Europeans; the new members have in fact returned to the European fold. Their accession was simply the next logical and necessary step in the unification of Europe.” It was to be a new dawn for freedom and peace in Europe.
Corruption of democracy
The reality, however, is that the one true success of enlargement – rapid economic growth in central and eastern Europe – is being overshadowed by a corruption of the very democratic principles the EU was founded to protect.
History always matters. In the case of many of those states marooned behind the Iron Curtain in 1945 the eerie echo of communism is reflected today in a politics defined by three characteristics. The first characteristic is the continuation of the archetypal “strongman” who shoulders the responsibility of protecting the national interest. Under the guise of saving the nation from external foes – migrants, the EU, old George Soros – this classic type of populist controls all the main levers of the state with the ultimate goal of sustaining a centralising, personalised power. This is illiberal democracy born of the embers of communist-style total control.
The enlargement of the EU has resulted in a perverse set of circumstances
The second trait is the overwhelming corruption of power, whereby the axis of political control, big business (both legal and illegal) and state media forms a type of top-down power based on mutually beneficial outcomes. These outcomes – power, profit, prestige – are sustained no matter what the cost to the public. It is classic crony capitalism, with an eastern edge, restyled for the Netflix generation. It is also a wholly inclusive power supply – you are either “in” or “out”.
Third has been the framing of these states as “victims”, as second-class citizens of the EU increasingly being bullied by an out-of-touch Brussels-based elite. Central and eastern Europe, this narrative goes, must be allowed to find their own way to further development. In reality, this strategy enables political leaders to target societal change (migrants, gay rights, perceived liberals) as a threat in the hopes of maintaining their conservative power base. Increasingly in states such as Poland, the real divide is now between urban and rural voters, between young and old.
The enlargement of the EU has thus resulted in a perverse set of circumstances. The billions of euro in EU financial aid that flows eastwards each year sustains national governments that care not a jot for Brussels’s core principles. The millions of (mostly) young people who have left central and eastern Europe have unwittingly contributed to the further polarisation of post-communist societies by hollowing out the key demographics that usually spur social change. EU decision-making – even on fundamental issues such as climate change – is now held hostage to post-communist demands for more financial support. “Show me the money” is their new mantra.
What places like Timisoara really need is not another monument commemorating communist times. Perhaps a new Museum of the Post-Communist Consumer would be more apt. And amid the shining images of cavernous shopping malls, smartphones and disposable fashion could be a section shared with the communist consumer. But this display would be empty. A vacuum where equal rights, the rule of law, judicial independence and basic democratic principles should be. This is Europe. Where communism won.