FIGHTING ILLIBERALISM: THE ROLE OF AWARENESS RAISING PROJECTS
Bogdan Mihai RADU [a] [b] (ORCID iD : https://orcid.org/0000-0003-4450-9311)
Analele Universității din București. Științe Politice [Annals of the University of Bucharest. Political Science series]
Illiberalism recently became a favorite catchphrase of several political actors around the world. Although not necessarily precise, the term conjures alternative understandings of democracy, by contesting the inherent need of a democratic political system to be intimately tied to liberal values. This lack of precision is often instrumentalized to boost popular support for taking measures leading to discrimination and resisting or even fighting pluralism. This text aims to familiarize the reader with the existing conceptual debates surrounding the concept of illiberalism, while also offering a glimpse into the causes responsible for its popularity. Theoretical knowledge is then juxtaposed with information regarding an awareness raising project aiming to fight illiberalism in countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The conclusion stresses the need for communication and education campaigns regarding the perils of illiberalism, especially in the more fragile democratic contexts of post-communist Europe. Citizens need to be aware of how illiberalism endangers democracy and have at their disposal mechanisms for raising awareness regarding illiberal measures taken by various governments.
Keywords: illiberalism, Central and Eastern Europe, post-communism, democracy, awareness-raising project, civil society
This is the inaugural piece for the journal’s new section Academia and civil society, coordinated by Bogdan Mihai Radu (Faculty of Political, Administrative and Communication Sciences, Babeș-Bolyai University Cluj-Napoca, Romania, firstname.lastname@example.org). In this section, we offer a space for the brief presentation of civil society projects relevant for the study and practice of democracy and democratization, and in which scholars and civil society stakeholders cooperate or use each other’s expertise to produce new knowledge (e.g. databases, methodologies, analyses) and/or instruments (e.g. awareness-raising campaigns, policy recommendations, monitoring and reporting tools) that aim to contribute to good governance processes, to increasing civic culture literacy especially within democratizing or authoritarian societies, to higher levels of public accountability, or to answering specific needs of vulnerable populations. Each project is placed in the context of larger scientific debates relevant for the project’s specific goal. The new section attempts thus to make more visible and open the conversation on an area of knowledge production on which we reflect less in contemporary political research, even if, as scholars, we may often (and often unconsciously) use data and methodologies generated through such projects.
Illiberalism recently became a favourite catchphrase of several political actors around the world. Although not necessarily precise, the term conjures alternative understandings of democracy, by contesting the inherent need of a democratic political system to be intimately tied to liberal values. This lack of precision is often instrumentalized to boost popular support for taking measures leading to discrimination and resisting (or even fighting) pluralism. This text aims to familiarize the reader with the existing conceptual debates surrounding the concept of illiberalism, while also offering a glimpse into the causes responsible for its popularity. Theoretical knowledge is then juxtaposed with information regarding an awareness raising project aiming to fight illiberalism in countries of Central and Eastern Europe: Responding to illiberal vectors in the Black Sea Region (RESOLVE). The conclusion stresses the need for communication and education campaigns regarding the perils of illiberalism, especially in the more fragile democratic contexts of post-communist Europe. Citizens need to be aware of how illiberalism endangers democracy, as well as have at their disposal mechanisms for raising awareness regarding illiberal measures taken by various governments.
Context: Illiberalism as a concept
For a while now, references to democratic decline, erosion or backsliding permeated the vocabulary of research alarmed by seemingly serious setbacks of democracies (Diamond & Plattner 2015; Cianetti & Hanley 2021). Within the wider debate on democratic malaise, particular attention is given to the spread of illiberal discourse and practices that hinder the quality of democracies. While intuitively appealing, as a term indicative of purported malfunctions, illiberalism can be difficult to define, unless its depiction is linked to its counterpart: liberal democracy.
Several examples clarify this conceptual tie. According to Sajó & Uitz (2021, 977), “[i]lliberalism emerges from the systemic neglect and disparagement of liberal practices; it does not recognize the crucial importance of liberal values and institutions, but does not deny them in a systematic way either.” In a similar vein, for Halmai (2021, 813) illiberalism takes issue with “the values of political liberalism: human rights, justice, equality and the rule of law, its commitment to multiculturalism and tolerance […].” Thus, while on balance illiberalism is not opposed to democracy per se, it does contend its liberal dimension, paving the way for shattering restrictions of rights and liberties. A characterization of illiberalism where the emphasis is placed on actors is offered by Lührmann & Hellmeier (2020, 8) in whose opinion: “[t]he illiberal actor – political leaders, governments, political parties, civil society groups, individuals – is one who is not wholly and fully committed to the norms and institutions that exercise control over the executive and uphold civil liberties and the rule of law.” Then again, writing about Poland’s illiberal turn, Kubik (2012, 80) approaches illiberalism “as a political option that is based on three principles: (1) populism, (2) (organizational) antipluralism, and (3) ideological monism”.
The inclusion of populism in the characterization of illiberalism is not arbitrary. Populism too is averse to the liberal side of democracy (Mudde 2021) and the co-occurrence between the two phenomena is not unusual. Employing a populist discourse can become instrumental to illiberal leaders in legitimizing their position and in obscuring the damage they inflict, by acting as actual protectors of democracy (Lührmann & Hellmeier 2020). The proximity between illiberalism and populism is also visible from the perspective of projecting alleged perils that put society or community at risk: “Representing the world (or at least “others”) as threatening and boosting status loss fears is the favourite tool of populists in maintaining power and generating illiberalism” (Sajó & Uitz 2021, 982). On a related note, examples of illiberal leaders’ insistence on salient topics with a strong divisive power are not difficult to find; such is the case of Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán’s diligence in pointing that the liberal approach to issues like multiculturalism, immigration and same-sex marriage is defective, hence the efforts to cultivate a strongly conservative stance around these matters (Plattner 2019).
To the extent that illiberal derailments of democracy are constitutive of countries’ overall dynamics (alongside utterly authoritarian setbacks, stagnation or democratic advancements), capturing illiberal instances can be subsumed to general evaluations of democratic performance. Such are the comparative assessments of democratic functioning and freedom observance, regularly issued by international organizations and research institutes (for recent accounts see for example Lührmann et al. 2019; IDEA 2019; IDEA 2021; Freedom House 2021). When emphasis is placed on particular contexts, regional or country-based studies allow the in-depth analysis of illiberal politics/ policies nested in specific settings. For instance, recent developments turned Central and Eastern Europe into a fertile area of illiberalism research (Stanley 2019; Cianetti & Hanley 2021; Halmai 2021). While Hungary and Poland are the likely front runners of such analyses, due to their particularly virulent take on illiberal enterprise (see for instance Krekó & Enyedi 2018; Drinóczi & Bień-Kacała 2019), worrying trends were also found in the Czech Republic (Hanley & Vachudova 2018).
From a different perspective, Glasius (2021) suggests that focusing on actual illiberal practices rather than states as units of analysis enables a clearer empirical assessment of illiberalism. Such practices cover a wide spectrum of actions that curtail the rights and freedoms, including “[…] patterns of interference with legal equality, legal recourse or recognition before the law; infringement of freedom of expression, fair trial rights, freedom of religion, the right to privacy; and violations of physical integrity rights” (Glasius 2021, 339). Alternatively, Sajó & Uitz (2021, 980) highlight the purposeful nature of illiberal actions that “seek to shrink the space of reasoned public debate: they suppress critical voices, restrict civic space, and assert control over the media and academic freedom.”
As illiberalism becomes manifest in various areas of the world, the newer democracies of the post-communist region seem particularly marked by worrisome trends. What makes this region susceptible to illiberal derailments? In 2017, the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy set out to find out what is the root cause of illiberalism in Central and Eastern Europe. To this end, they interviewed five leading experts (NED 2018). Here are briefly their positions, which are also synthesizing the major arguments that are present in different forms throughout the specialized literature on the topic.
Ivan Krastev, from the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, argues that post-communist illiberalism does not have a proper ideological root. For him, illiberalism’s roots are in the change brought about by the end of the Cold War. At that moment, many former communist countries adopted democracy and market economy under the supervision and with the support of western liberal states. In other words, countries in Central and Eastern Europe embarked on a journey of fundamental transformation by imitating other countries perceived as champions of democratic performance. As Krastev notes, frustrations come from both the inherent inferiority perceived by the mimicker and the need to be constantly evaluated by those who created the original model (i.e. Western European countries, the EU, the US). It follows that, this imitation game was eventually imagined as threatening national sovereignty.
Anna Grzymala-Busse from the University of Stanford, UK, holds mainstream parties responsible for the increasing popularity of illiberalism. According to her, in the early days of democratic transition, the mainstream parties did not offer the space for public and substantive debate on the process of political and economic transformations that were implemented, but rather they constructed liberal market democracy as the only way ahead. Later on, the same political elite who initiated reforms proved to be corrupt and ethically unsound. As a result, less frequentable parties seized the moment, and infused most political debates in the public sphere with overdoses of populism, giving thus many people the illusion of restoring ownership of their own polity. Under the guise of national saviours, these parties often compromised the functioning of democratically created institutions and, essentially, captured the state. FIDESZ in Hungary and PiS in Poland are most often quoted examples of such strategic yet cynical behaviour.
Péter Krekó from the Political Capital Institute and ELTE University in Budapest, Hungary, sees the root causes of illiberalism in Central and Eastern Europe as part of the global trends emphasizing identity politics. For example, in a rather successful effort to discredit progressive liberal values, the Hungarian government champions a political culture predating democratic transition and emphasizing a certain value hierarchy in the detriment of egalitarianism or autonomy. When such ideas are circulated in a landscape characterized by low political (and social) trust, by lack of political efficacy and by weak institutions, illiberal thinking gains significant ground. Although Krekó notes that civil society has been mobilized against rising illiberalism, its efforts were often rendered ineffective because illiberal states aimed to circumvent them.
Wojciech Przybylski from Visegrad Insight and Res Publica Foundation in Warsaw, Poland, considers that frustration with the pace of development in post-communist countries makes the public susceptible to authoritarian models. Although economic development has been rather sustained in all Central Europe, ideas of “not catching up with the West,” often orchestrated by illiberal political players, have gained more ground, and have been actively supported by foreign players such as Russia, interested in destabilizing Central and Eastern Europe.
Dimitrina Petrova, human rights activist and Program Director of SOS Children’s Villages, Bulgaria, considers that the new strategies for socio-economic status mobility and elite formation are responsible for the resurgence of nationalism and illiberalism. In other words, the 1989/1990 regime change was motivated, among many other factors, by the unfairness of the communist system. However, this was replaced by a system that is increasingly perceived as being also unfair. The population is aware and discontent that in the new system elites are corrupt and that meritocracy is nowhere to be seen. From this perspective, the situation does not differ much from what people experienced during communism. Initial enthusiasm with the fall of communism partially avoided a return to authoritarianism, but younger generations have a keen sense of the unfairness characterizing their societies. They do not trust the newly formed elites. At the same time, they may see in illiberalism a way out of this conundrum.
This brief overview of the root causes of illiberalism in Central and Eastern Europe depicts a rather complex mechanism of resisting liberal democracy, while seeking, for the lack of a better term, justice. Post-communist citizens have been repeatedly traumatized from many directions. They were threatened and controlled by their communist regimes. They were made insecure and frustrated by democratic transitions that were essentially resented as unfair, as they created a new corrupt political and economic elite often lacking legitimacy. They were constantly evaluated against other European, “more superior,” people. Their feelings and emotions are further assaulted by a nationalist discourse – and, especially in Eastern Europe, nation states have rather short and precarious histories – that emphasizes imminent threats to their very survival. The lack of debate and low levels of civic education vis-à-vis what liberal democracy actually is, an overemphasis of individualistic materialism leading to lack of solidarity, rising levels of fake news and disinformation, and constant international influence from non-democratic countries such as Russia or China further complicate this puzzle. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that certain people are becoming susceptible to populist illiberal messages.
Awareness raising projects in the fight against illiberalism – a case study
The previous section showed that, in relation to Central and Eastern Europe, illiberalism can have deep-seated foundations, tightly linked to the often troublesome journey these countries had throughout their democratic transition and consolidation. It is difficult to predict the outlook of the illiberal trends already set in motion, much less to devise the remedy that would reverse this route. However, being alert about illiberal developments and raising awareness about its dangers is well within our reach. These are the basic premises that ground the RESOLVE project discussed in this section.
RESOLVE (Responding to illiberal vectors in the Black Sea Region) is a project financed by the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation (BST) and implemented by the Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD) at Babeș-Bolyai University, in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. CSD has been already actively involved in projects developed in or addressing issues related to post-communist democracies for many years. RESOLVE is its first project focused specifically on illiberalism, and it targets Armenia, Georgia, Hungary, the Republic of Moldova, Poland, Romania, Ukraine and Turkey.
The main goal of this project is to create a safe space for engaged citizens to debate on topics related to illiberalism. While academic research projects usually use complex conceptualizations and measurements of different phenomena, RESOLVE aims primarily to offer citizens a toolkit for understanding illiberalism. For this purpose, its major objective is to communicate in lay terms what illiberalism is and why it has negative consequences for democracy. At the same time, the project offers interested individuals a secure cyber space where they can voice their concerns regarding political e-/involutions in their countries. The main attribute of this secure cyber space is that users can post messages in a completely secure and anonymous way, thus not having to fear eventual consequences from over-zealous public authorities trying to control civil society, journalists or whistle-blowers. The project also encourages initiatives to raise the alarm when governments adopt abusive measures through which different groups are discriminated against. After a message is sent to the project’s team, it is analysed by experts in/on the country/countries to which the situation refers. Then, an operative team is in charge with spreading the word within networks of engaged democratic citizens in the whole Black Sea area. To finetune these tools, as well as to understand better the needs and expectations of the potential users, the pilot phase also included workshops with students and civil society activists. After this phase was completed, the secure cyber space and the toolkit remained publicly available at https://www.alert-dem.org/.
The toolkit for understanding illiberalism is one way in which RESOLVE aims to familiarize the broader population with complex political science concepts. After conducting a review of the available scientific literature in the field, RESOLVE team member Toma Burean operationalized illiberalism into ten dimensions: (1) discourse, (2) checks and balances, (3) education, (4) elections, (5) political participation, (6) multiculturalism, (7) freedom of opinion, (8) economy, (9) international relations, and (10) tax policy and social protection. Each of these dimensions was broken into specific indicators and then, for each indicator, real-life examples of illiberal measures from the RESOLVE countries were identified. For example, for the dimension connecting illiberalism with international relations, potential indicators were hostile attitudes towards the USA or the EU, or provocatory positioning vis-à-vis historical rival neighbouring countries, often by introducing references to ethnic conceptualizations of the nation. This operationalization and de-construction process involved significant deliberation within the RESOLVE team, as well as through workshops and debates with various stakeholders. Consequently, the illiberalism toolkit (available at https://www.alert-dem.org/illiberalism_toolkit/) is now a fairly nuanced instrument for identifying and recognizing illiberal tendencies in several countries from the Black Sea region, and may serve as resource for civic education.
While the project cannot directly counteract illiberal tendencies of specific governments, it can contribute to raising awareness about such processes, and eventually create popular pressure leading to higher levels of public awareness and scrutiny. RESOLVE is not yet as popular as its creators thought it would be, but there are positive signals from civil society activists in the target countries. These stress the importance of creating a platform for sharing information regarding the most recent instances of illiberal policy making. Although those wanting to raise an issue can do so by email, by writing to the project team on Facebook or by using the dedicated secure platform, the latter is yet to become more popular. For reasons related exactly to its reinforced security, the secure platform is not 100% user friendly. To make it more useful for the targeted audience, as well to make it better known, a campaign that aims to raise awareness about its existence is currently ongoing.
There are several things to note when it comes to the project’s implementation and impact. First, during workshops with students and civil society and through the regular meetings of the project’s team, it became obvious that there is an increasing need for awareness-raising projects, especially in the sphere of political transformation in more recent democracies. In post-communist countries, democracy is still a concept that needs to be internalized by the society. Consequently, information on what democracy is needs to be made available to the broader population. Although much has been written on democratic transition and consolidation, very little of the academic discourse actually trickles down to the average citizen. Consequently, the illiberalism toolkit that the RESOLVE team created aims to familiarize people with a rather abstract and complicated concept (i.e. illiberalism). In implementing the project, the team observed that there is dire need for operationalizing concepts at the core of the political and economic system; otherwise, citizens may not form a correct and accurate understanding of what democracy, liberalism, human rights or freedom actually mean. Moreover, core concepts of democracy may be confiscated by illiberal and/or populist regimes, leading to polarization in society. For example, construing minority rights as a threat to the majority or even to national sovereignty, as it happened, for example, with sexual minorities in Hungary or Poland, may have created the impression that minority rights are not essential in a democracy.
Second, by interacting with students from several universities, the RESOLVE team observed that young people are keener to find out more about the political systems they live in, while at the same time being more reflexive about the shape and content of the societies they live in. In the Black Sea region, young people who are in their 20s have already been living in democracies all their lives, even if those democracies are not perfect. As such, it is possible that they are more aware of and more interested in the shape that their polities take. Throughout the implementation of the project, it became obvious that young people are/should be? the most important target group, because of both their willingness to find out more about democracy and their openness to new ideas, as a result of their socialization in democratic systems.
Third, when implementing multi-country projects of awareness-raising, it is critical to take local context into account. When the RESOLVE team popularized the newly constructed illiberalism toolkit, it observed that illiberal issues differed from country to country. For example, minority rights were at stake in Hungary, Poland or Romania, religious freedom was at stake in Georgia, and overall respect for human rights was problematic in Turkey. Not all countries face illiberal threats along the same lines. It then becomes very important to adapt awareness-raising messages and campaigns on the perils of illiberalism to the ever-changing local context.
Fourth, education for democracy has not always been a top priority in post-communist countries and commitment to liberal values in teaching civic education even less so (Feșnic 2015; Bădescu et al. 2017). In this context, when understandings of what democracy is and is not among the population are frequently incomplete, it is important to trace the effect of fake news on these understandings. In many of the RESOLVE countries, deliberate disinformation was frequently used as governmental strategy. For example, Viktor Orban’s discourse on the dangers associated with incoming migration or his attack on businessman and philanthropist George Soros, who founded the Open Society institutes network, transmitted a signal of fear in a large segment of the population, which then embraced his illiberal ideas. Therefore, it is essential to not only inform the population effectively about what liberal democracy is and how it functions, but also identify the sources of disinformation.
Not least, implementing a raising awareness project on illiberalism in countries of the Black Sea Region can be challenging, especially given the fast dynamics of discourse change and the specificities of each local context. Nevertheless, communicating abstract ideas and complicated concepts developed in academic research to the broader population should become a priority for civil society and scholars alike.
Illiberalism seems to be a particular way of doing politics that represents a global threat. Nevertheless, post-communist countries are perhaps more prone to fall victim to it because neither their institutions, nor their prevailing political culture have yet been built strongly enough to resist its assault. It is very important that citizens are made aware of the threats that illiberalism poses, and that they have at their disposal various channels for expressing their discontent. It is up to those actively seeking improvements in the quality of democracy to create networks of engaged stakeholders that have the ability to bring those issues to the fore. While exposing a problem is not the same with finding its solution, it is still very important for ideas to circulate and for people to have a safe space where meaningful debates on the quality of democracy can be held. Awareness-raising projects are therefore key in creating democratic political culture, especially in countries undertaking democratic transition or consolidation. There is pressing need for academic debates to be circulated among the broader population. In order to do this, scholars and civil society activists could work together in making sure that abstract concepts and ideas are communicated effectively, while, at the same time fighting disinformation.
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Daniela ANGI (ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-9049-2608) is researcher at Babeș-Bolyai University. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, Poland. Her main research topics include civil society and the related issues of social capital and civic engagement, youth activism and educational policies. Most of her research activity and publications revolve around the impact of values on civic participation and the construction of civic values through socialization within family and school-settings. email@example.com
Bogdan Mihai RADU (ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-4450-9311) received his PhD in Political Science from the University of California, Irvine. He is a senior lecturer in Political Science at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj, Romania. His research interests revolve around issues interconnecting religion and politics. One of his recent publications, titled To Clash or Not to Clash? Religious Revival and Support for Democracy in Post-Communist East Central Europe (Bucharest: University of Bucharest Press, 2016) focuses on the relationships between religiosity and support for democracy. More recently, he started to investigate how political culture influences attitudes towards foreign policy. He is committed to interdisciplinary approaches and the combined use of empirical and interpretive methods. firstname.lastname@example.org
DECLARATION OF CONFLICTING INTERESTS
The authors are part of the RESOLVE project team presented in this article.
This work was developed as part of the project entitled Responding to illiberal vectors in the Black Sea Region (RESOLVE), funded by the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation (BST), contract no. 20.072.RO32.1.
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RADU, Bogdan Mihai, and Daniela ANGI. 2021. Fighting illiberalism: The role of awareness raising projects. Analele Universității din București. Științe Politice [Annals of the University of Bucharest. Political Science series] XXIII(2): 271-285. https://doi.org/10.54885/EYSN5383