Democracy in Central Europe: Under pressure? #Forum2000online

August 26, 2021

This week’s Forum 2000 Summer Special hosted Adam Bodnar, former Polish ombudsman, lawyer, educator, and human rights' activist, and Vesna Pusić, Croatian sociologist who previously served as Minister of Foreign and European Affairs. In a discussion moderated by Martin Ehl, Chief Analyst for Czech Economic daily Hospodářské noviny, they look at the state of democratic institutions 30 years after the fall of Communism in Europe.

What are the lessons learned from the crisis 2015 and now

Both experts expressed concern that the current refugee crisis will be used to stir up fear in people and serve as a political weapon. This is easier to do now than in 2015, because in Poland, for example, the government has much stronger control over information. Mrs. Pusić warns against violating international conventions on the treatment of refugees - in her view, “we are collectively questioning the rule of law.”

The EU has recently suspended money to Poland from the reconstruction fund. It will not send funds to Poland until it resolves problems with the independence of the judiciary. Although Mr. Bodnar warns against seeing this as an instrument of comprehensive transformation, it will give “strength and hope to the people fighting for democracy in Poland to survive for next two years until the next parliamentary elections.”

30 years on: young democracies are more vulnerable than ever

Martin Ehl asked our panelist what they think is a reason why our democracies are still so vulnerable. According to Mrs. Pusić, “the years where we were supposed to reach the next level in stabilizing and strengthening democratic institutions coincided with the global crisis of democracy”. Thirty years of development is a very short time. Mr. Bodnar added that in these years, we did not manage to explain the importance of democratic institutions in people’s lives. He explains that “when new leaders started to attack those institutions, people didn't think about some abstract values like judicial independence or freedom of media”. Instead, they were searching for personal benefits.

Mr. Bodnar argues that back when democracy was only in its early years, “We didn’t think about people in all of this. We thought more about buildings and roads than about stability and egalitarian vision of the society.” Poland, just like other transitioning countries, was trying to achieve the level of Western Europe at the fastest pace possible. However, this has led to the abandonment of some key democratic principles that cannot be rushed.  

Will democracy prevail in our countries?

According to Vesna Pusić, we “should always act as if democracy is in great danger. It can disappear without us noticing it.” Both panelists highlight education as a vital means of sustaining democracy, especially for future generations. People need to better understand what their rights are and what they can and should demand from their governments. Bodnar sees hope in the fact that Poles do not give up their efforts to promote democracy even when the outside world perceives Poland as undemocratic.

In this Summer Special, you will learn that:

  • If Poland wants to receive EU funding in the future, it must resolve the issue of judicial independence.
  • The Polish Government has gained much firmer control over information than it did six years ago.
  • In 30 years, the so-called new democracies have had only a short time to develop.
  • The focus on civic education in schools is showing concrete results in how people vote.
  • Weakness in institution building has brought people who doubt their worth.
  • We won't fight for institutions if we think of them in terms of personal benefits.

About our speakers:

Vesna Pusić is a Croatian sociologist and politician who served as a Minister of Foreign and European Affairs between the years 2011 and 2016. As a founding member and leader of Croatia’s People’s Party – Liberal Democrats, she was elected as a Member of the Croatian Parliament for six terms. Ms Pusić currently works as a Professor of Sociology and Political Theory at the University of Zagreb and she is the author of five books and numerous articles.

Adam Bodnar is a Polish lawyer, educator, and human rights' activist. He has held the position of Commissioner for Human Rights of the Republic of Poland since September 2015 until his removal this year. Professor Bodnar is also a former Vice-President of the Helsinki Foundation of Human Rights and he currently teaches at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw.

Martin Ehl is a journalist and author working for Czech Economic daily Hospodářské noviny (ihned.cz). He also writes a column 'Middle Europa' at Transitions Magazine (tol.org). His area of interests includes Central Europe, security and transatlantic relations, and globalisation.

This interview was recorded on the 24th of August 2021.

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