Eastern Europe Fearful For Democracy, But Hope Persists

The Guardian reported that “thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, today’s eastern Europeans are fearful for the future of democracy, skeptical of government and the main political parties, and distrustful of the media, according to a new survey.”

Jon Henley, Europe Correspondent for the Guardian, recently shared some of the worrying findings from the British data company YouGov’s poll of “12,500 people in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia, published by George Soros’s Open Societies Foundations”.  Madeline Roache, for Time, added that “more than 60% of the 12,500 people polled in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia said the rule of law was under attack. And in six of the seven surveyed countries, most respondents said democracy was under threat in their country, a threat most felt in Slovakia (61%), followed by Hungary (58%).”

The authors of the research noted a variety of ‘alarming’ findings, including the concerns surrounding the legitimacy of domestic ballots in places like Bulgaria, where Roache reported that “more than three-quarters of respondents said their elections were “not free and fair.” Large numbers of respondents also reported that their freedom to protest was under threat. Most Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Slovakians and Poles said they feared negative consequences if they criticized the government in public, and more than 60% in every country said the justice system was under siege.” 

Although this evidence highlights worrying findings that must be taken seriously, the report also contained positive findings for civil society. Time reported that the YouGov report “found strong support for civil society throughout the region. In every country polled, the overwhelming majority of respondents agreed that organizations like charities and universities should have the right to criticize governments. The results are especially notable in Hungary and Poland where, despite a slew of state efforts to curb certain freedoms, citizens are strongly connected to civil society. In Hungary, a noteworthy 71% of respondents said academic institutions should be able to criticize the state”. The Guardian added that “only 17% of respondents across all seven countries opposed the work of NGOs.”

According to the Guardian, the authors of the YouGov report stated that “our results demonstrate that where the establishment has failed citizens, civil society is perceived as a trustworthy counterpart,” adding, “the survey found widespread civic engagement, particularly among people aged 18 to 22 (commonly referred to as Generation Z), and 23 to 37 (millennials), as well as optimism about their ability to change things for the better”. 

The authors further commented that women in particular are the “driver[s] of positive change,” with the Guardian reporting that young women are “markedly more tolerant, compassionate, open to diversity and optimistic about achieving progress than young men” adding: “more than half of 18- to 22-year-old women said they thought LGBT groups should be more protected, for example, compared to only 31% of men. Similarly, significantly higher proportions of young women than young men thought refugees and immigrants should be given greater protection.” 

This reflects the role women have played, and continue to play, in shaping a more inclusive world. This reinforces the way in which women can lead the continued evolution of democracy in the modern world, in particular by dismantling inequalities and generating transformation across a number of spaces across the globe. 

I do question the concerning perceptions of men towards social inclusion, and to what extent this has or has not evolved among the younger generations. It would be interesting to understand in greater detail the origins of these perceptions. However, this is not to position a binary discussion, more to acknowledge those tenacious figures continually shaping and supporting other communities, and to ask why this is not mirrored by all, regardless of gender. 

Nevertheless, this does also showcase the potential for younger generations to disrupt public discourse. The ‘snowflake’ notion is distant from what is evidenced in the findings. These findings suggest a changing world, with much work still to be done, but above all, there is hope. As Patrick Gaspard, President of the Open Society Foundations, said, “People believe their voices can make a difference; and that, when it comes to progressive values, the young are leading the way forward”.

Jonathan Stephen
Follow me!