Moscow’s illiberal narratives in Central Europe
The Kremlin’s propaganda uses various narratives in its efforts to influence the public discourse in Central European countries.
Let us look closer to the three most spectacular of them.
When disseminating these narratives, Russian state propaganda and its local allies in Central Europe proceed from the following well-known facts:
- Central European states used to be in the USSR’s sphere of influence, but today they are constituent parts (or going to be the parts) of the collective West,
- some of these states are populated by Slavs,
- in the last decade Russia openly engaged itself in a sharp confrontation with the West.
The main goal of Russian socio-political narratives based on these facts is to distance Central European nations from the West and its integration initiatives (EU, NATO).
“The end of liberal democracy”
The first is a narrative about the inappropriateness of the system of liberal democracy for Central and Eastern European nations. The liberal-democratic concept, this narrative argues, is already overcome and obsolete, it should be replaced by another concept based on national, traditional, conservative or collectivist values. Liberal democracy is, allegedly, not a system to create optimal conditions for citizens’ free lives, democratic governance and respect for human rights, it is only a tool to project the power of larger states (USA, Germany, Great Britain, France), which harms the small European states that should therefore escape from this domination (leave the EU and NATO).
Questioning liberal democracy as a system in Central and Eastern Europe also aims to ex-post relativize and de facto deny the results of the successful process of political transformations after the collapse of communist regimes, including participation in the European integration process.
To discredit liberal democracy, the Russian propaganda machine uses different clichés such as the unbridled Euro-bureaucracy (the “dictate of Brussels”), conspiracies on the alleged homosexual lobby that changes Europe into “Gayrope” and the activities of “multicultural” circles that want to destroy European culture and Islamize the old continent. Liberal democracy, according to the Russian narrative, is less efficient and more corrupt than governance by a strong leader.
Russia is trying to find weaker elements inside the liberal-democratic community in Central Europe to destroy the political system from within. These efforts are based on the fact that, given the peculiarities of historical development, there are actors in Central European societies who would like to play an active role in destroying the liberal democracy – radical nationalists, right- and left-wing extremists, ideological successors of the communist regimes, etc.
The second narrative, which is actively used by Russian state propaganda in Central and Eastern Europe, is a narrative about the peculiar role of Slavic nations and their need to establish the closest possible mutual relations, which should fundamentally influence their further development, the organization of their societies and their international commitments. Central in this concept is, of course, Russia, which is allegedly the leader of the Slavic world and protects all Slavic nations.
The idea behind Slavic solidarity is the notion that ethnicity (in particular the linguistic and cultural distance between nations) is more important than the choice of a certain type of social organization and alliances with other states. According to this concept, the states created by Slavic nations should stay geopolitically closer to Russia, no matter what political regimes exist in these countries themselves or in Russia. Therefore, the democratic states of Central and Eastern Europe with Slavic populations should move closer to the authoritarian, undemocratic, Russia with great power ambitions, but not to the democratic states of the West created by the Anglo-Saxons, Germans, Romans and other nations.
In Slovakia, this narrative finds a certain response because of long-held beliefs agreeing with this theory. One of the most important advocates of this position is Ľudovít Štúr, a prominent person considered to be formative of the linguistic and cultural identity of the Slovak nation. In his work Slavdom and the World of the Future, Štúr focused on Slavs and Slovaks, and concluded that the optimal and the only meaningful option for all European Slavs, including Slovaks, who did not have their own independent states in the course of history, was joining Russia and de facto dissolving inside the Russian nation – with the adoption of Russian as an official language and conversion to Orthodox Christianity.
It was paradoxical that a person who was (and still is) considered the personalized epitome of Slovaks’ efforts to sustain their national existence, eventually proposed such a solution, which, if implemented, would lead to Slovaks’ gradual disappearance as a separate ethnic entity with their specific language, culture and historically inherited confessional characteristics. The state of affairs nowadays is, however, absolutely different: Slovakia is a sovereign democratic state, a free society and part of the West. Like the overwhelming majority of European Slavic nations Slovaks decided at the end of the 20th century that their future is linked with the exceptionally successful European integration and the Transatlantic partnership, both of which are based on prioritizing universal values (freedom, democracy, open society) instead of linguistic proximity and ethnicity..
Slovakia, along with Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Croatia, is now a member of the EU and NATO after the successful implementation of internal democratic reforms. Slavic Montenegro has recently joined NATO, it is also preparing to join the EU. Slavic Macedonia is now negotiating its full-fledged membership in NATO and preparing for negotiation with the EU. Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are on their own way to establish closer relations with the EU.
The fact that the idea of the Slavic brotherhood today serves (as it has often served in the past) the purpose of masking the brutal imperialist intentions of one country, contrary to the real national interests of Slavic nations, is demonstrated by Russia’s policy towards Ukraine, which in 2014 became the object of open aggression for its people’s support for democratic reforms and participation in European integration. This aggression, however, did not deter Ukrainians from continuing to move towards the united Europe, where they will be partners of other Slavic as well as non-Slavic nations.
“The self-interested predator West”
The third, “geopolitical” narrative used by actors of Russian state propaganda in the Central European region is a narrative about the self-interested West, the aim of which has always been (and still is) to subordinate small Central European nations for political or economic gains. The whole process of post-communist transformation in Central Europe after the collapse of communist regimes is presented here as a purposeful process led by the West to gain dominant positions, conquer local markets, control natural resources, and deprive Central European states of national sovereignty. The small and medium-sized Central European countries in this narrative are almost defenseless victims of foreign power ambitions and interests, left to the mercy of Western political and economic predators.
The main aim of this narrative is to promote the idea that Central European countries’ sovereignty is immanently limited, rendering Central European nations unable to decide independently about their own lives. The narrative suggests that Central Europe is condemned to be subordinated to stronger international actors and that the region’s Western orientation in external relations is harmful for the affected nations.
This narrative, however, has considerable limitations in terms of its persuasiveness. It is perhaps even more distant from reality than the previous two. Thanks to reforms that Central European nations have implemented before and after joining the EU and NATO, with the direct support from the West, the lives of citizens in these countries are now more comfortable than ever before in history. People in Central Europe live in free societies, in stable democratic states with guaranteed borders and balanced relationships, with functional economies, the possibility to study, work and live wherever they want and to make use of the results of remarkable technological and social innovations provided by the West. Thanks to the enormous supply of foreign investments, Western know-how and financial assistance from the EU in the pre-accession and transition period, Central European economies are today incomparably more powerful than in the past.
Slovakia is a good example. When Slovakia entered the EU in 2004, the country was at 57% of the EU average in terms of GDP per capita. After 15 years of membership in the EU, this indicator grew to 77%. This shows better than anything else how false the narrative about the selfish West is.
Grigorij Mesežnikov is a political scientist, president of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) in Bratislava. He has published expert studies on party systems’ development and political aspects of transformation in post-communist societies, illiberal and authoritarian tendencies, populism, radicalism and nationalism in various monographs, collections and scholarly journals in Slovakia and other countries. He regularly contributes analyses of Slovakia’s political scene to domestic and foreign media.
Further related publications of Grigorij Mesežnikov
Mesežnikov, Grigorij – Pleschová, Gabriela: Testing Democratic Resolve in Slovakia in: “Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence” (edited by Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig). Washigton, D.C.: National Endowment for Democracy – International Forum for Democratic Studies 2017 – http://www.ivo.sk/buxus/docs//vyskum/subor/Testing_Democratic_Resolve_in_Slovakia.pdf
Mesežnikov, Grigorij – Gyárfášová, Oľga: Slovakia’s Conflicting Camps in: “Journal of Democracy”, Volume 29, Number 3 July 2018
Mesežnikov, Grigorij: Populist, Illiberal and Authoritarian Challenges to Democracy in Slovakia in: Florian Bieber – Magdalena Solska – Dane Taleski (eds.): “Illiberal and authoritarian tendencies in Central, Southeastern and Eastern Europe”. Bern – Berlin – Bruxelles – New York – Oxford – Warszawa – Wien: Peter Lang, 2018.