Gerald Creed and Mary N. Taylor
In the contemporary wave of angry politics shaking the globe, eastern Europe could be seen as an epicenter. While the countries involved may be small, the number of them is noteworthy. From Lithuania and Poland, across Slovakia and the Czech Republic, through Hungary, and down to Bulgaria, the region has seen one government after another come under the political sway of insurgent politicians and new parties capitalizing on (and some would say fomenting) a groundswell of popular discontent. While varied in character, timing and specific policies, all have been designated as ‘populist” by observers and commentators, as well as by some politicians themselves. This has inspired journals dedicated to research on the region to devote special issues or sections to the rise of populism.1 We want to trouble this label. In contemporary usage the term populist is almost always ascribed negatively. This not only delegitimizes the objectionable programs currently pursued by many so-called populist politicians (to wit, ethno-nationalism and authoritarianism), but also diminishes the legitimacy of the motives and demands driving popular support for them and their programs, especially class based agendas.2 The label thus operates much like the notion of nostalgia in devaluing and dismissing what it purports to represent (Creed 2010). Indeed, the label of populism may say more about those deploying it than those described as such (D‘Eramo 2013).
According to prevailing definitions, populism is a rhetorical technique used by politicians to distinguish a corrupt elite from a virtuous people. Many acknowledge that as such, populism can be employed across the political spectrum. However, the recent and wholesale embrace of the technique by nationalist and authoritarian parties and politicians, and their relative success with it, has led to a conflation, whereby in many minds populism is assumed to be essentially nationalistic and authoritarian, as well as rightwing. Particularly disturbing is the way that widespread contemporary uses of the term have the tendency to reduce all popular/elite binaries (contrasts) to rhetorical constructions, conspiracy, or manipulation. They also tend to cast populism (whether left or right) as “radical,” in contrast to a “center,” reinforcing the legitimacy of the latter and constraining, if not disqualifying, political debate.3 Finally, current uses can obscure the specificities of the historical legacies of the terms “the people,” “populist/popular,” and of popular struggle itself. Our agenda here is to use two cases we know to flesh out the diversity of the application of the populist label, and to provide an appreciation for why intelligent citizens might find the rather strident and extreme parties now in power palatable. We seek to look beyond the label of populism to examine what is happening and why, particularly as regards the supposed role of the people (the demos) in postsocialist liberal democracy and the seeming equation of popular with accusations of populism in the political sphere. We argue that we must approach these questions with a sensitivity to historical and geographical processes and class formation. While we see what is happening in this region as part of a global trend, we focus on the specificities of this postsocialist and semiperipheral region.
Despite the introduction of representative democracy, the restructuring of the economies of formerly state socialist societies in the age of neoliberalization “turned out to be a nightmare for the overwhelming majority of people in the region” (Fabry 2015). As existing skills and infrastructure were made obsolete, and enterprises were transformed under the direction of (financial) transnational capital, class and regional inequalities opened and deepened. Large proportions of the industrial and agricultural sectors of the socialist economy simply crumbled and mass unemployment ensued (Fabry 2015). At the same time the population faced the loss of the social safety net and benefits that had been central to their wellbeing and their understanding of democracy. Disparities unimaginable in the socialist period came to mark society, while the supposed democracy that would contrast this period from that of Party rule remained elusive.
Communist successor parties, now socialist in name and character, eventually emerged as strong contenders in the new system of electoral democracy across the region. Like other parties, when socialists came to power they too became overseers of the privatization process and advanced the neoliberal project. This was accompanied by “political capitalism” in which many former communist elites or late socialist technocrats were able to acquire wealth and power through the levers of privatization (King 2001). As privatization continued these societies had less control over the assets (Böröcz 2016), and were forced to adjust their social commitments, often at the direction of foreign debt holders, the IMF or the World Bank. Membership in the EU added to the list of overseers demanding that aspiring states limit deficit spending and indebtedness.
Disciples of liberalism would contest this summary with an equally long list of positive developments in the region since 1989. Without denying those “achievements,” we believe the trajectory we outline better explains the political developments currently shaking the region. We proceed with a brief description of these political events in two cases we know best, then turn to a collection of additional factors that we think help us make sense of these developments. With that appreciation we return to implicate antipopulism in obscuring and delegitimizing reasonable sources of popular discontent.
The Emergence of Antisystemic Politics in Bulgaria and Hungary
For a full decade after the collapse of communist rule in Bulgaria, the Socialist successor to the Communist Party and a center right coalition known as the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), oscillated in power, while the Turkish minority party, the Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF), played spoiler (first allying with the Democrats, then later with the Socialists). Neither party managed to redress the devastation caused by the collapse of the socialist system, leaving the average Bulgarian disenchanted and frustrated. The first person to take advantage of this was the last tsar of Bulgaria, in exile since 1946. Just two months before the election of 2001 he formed the National Movement for Simeon the Second, and with virtually no party members, won a solid victory, receiving nearly 43 % of the vote. His administration presented a government of experts to the right of the preceding UDF government. While he managed to stay in power for a full term his party dropped to only 20 % of the vote in the next election in 2005.
The Socialist won again with 31%, but this did not restart the former oscillation with the UDF. Instead, the next election saw the ascent of Boyko Borissov and his party, Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (the Bulgarian acronym is GERB, which means coat of arms in Bulgarian). GERB received nearly 40% of the vote in 2009. Borissov was a former bodyguard of deposed communist leader Todor Zhivkov. He later served as secretary of the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior under Simeon the Second, and then as mayor of Sofia. Borissov seized upon the fight against organized crime and corruption and superimposed it on all issues, including his characterization of parliamentarians as liars and losers. His party is ostensibly a center right formation, but his government shows a personalization of politics increasingly centered on his personality and strongman image. Decisions are described as taken personally by him with a degrading of his Council of Ministers. He uses a combative vocabulary with dichotomous images of political opponents who need to be destroyed, especially the Socialists.
Borissov is now in his third term as Prime Minister, this time in coalition with the United Patriots (UP), an alliance of three nationalist parties, including the notorious ATAKA. ATAKA leader Volen Siderov rails against Roma crime, Turkification and the theft of national resources by the corrupt political establishment, but advocates a leftist economic platform (Ganev 2017). The GERB and UP coalition is also supported by yet another new comer, Trump-like business man Veslin Mareshki, who preaches patriotism, strict immigration controls, friendlier relations with Moscow and, above all, the need to “sweep away the garbage” of a corrupt political establishment” (Lyman 2017). His party, Volya (Will), got 4.15 % of the vote and 12 seats in Parliament. Together, GERB, the UP and Volya make up 56% of the current Bulgarian Parliament, and the old liberal Democrats (UDF) are not even represented.
In 2006 anger erupted onto the streets of Hungary, triggered by the release of a recording in which Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany (of the Hungarian Socialist Party--MSZP) admits lying about the state of the economy to get reelected. MSZP’s 2006 campaign had promised “reform without austerity,” but, once reelected, the party introduced radical austerity measures to stay within the boundaries of the Maastricht criteria (Fabry 2015). In return for an IMF (World Bank and EU) emergency loan in 2008, MSZP enacted public-sector cuts and other measures aimed at reducing the deficit. Fidesz, a liberal youth party in the early post-socialist era that morphed into a right wing national conservative party, then in the opposition, countered with a wildly successful anti-austerity referendum.
The 2010 elections lodged Fidesz and its front man Viktor Orbán (in solid coalition with the Christian Democratic People’s Party--KDNP) in power with a two-thirds majority, and saw the "far right" Jobbik party (Movement for a Better/Righter Hungary) enter parliament. The most consistent warden of neoliberal dependent development since 1989 (by virtue of its number of terms in power), MSZP was now marked as an arrogant and elitist agent of neoliberal capital and liberal/anti-national values along with foreign investors, funders of “civil society,” and Brussels. By 2013, MSZP's prior coalition partner, the Alliance of Social Democrats (SZDSZ), had dissolved completely. The “liberal left” was in shambles.
As the global economic crisis was taking its long toll, poverty, homelessness, and unemployment spiraled upward. In the countryside, the welfare system and liberal projects aimed at helping minorities were seen by struggling “post peasants” as favoring the “work shy,” i.e. Roma (Szombati 2018). Jobbik organized rallies (while its paramilitary arm, The Hungarian Guard, organized patrols) in depressed regions where ethnic tensions were growing, effectively suturing local experiences into a national rhetoric around “Gypsy crime” (Szombati 2018).
In 2011, the Fidesz government unilaterally rewrote the constitution, and in 2014, Orbán announced his pursuit of an “illiberal state.” State “capture” (Martin 2017) has funneled state funds (much of it from the EU) to “loyalist” oligarchs via multiple paths, paralleling Orbán’s goal of replacing the “foreign minded” bourgeoisie with a “national one.4 The party’s reelection is nearly assured by far reaching changes to electoral law and a dual citizenship law passed in 2010 granting voting rights to “over the border Hungarians,” which has secured new Fidesz supporters.5
. With theatrical flair, Fidesz seems to upset neoliberal rules , but its class politics are not much different. The government’s economic and monetary policies have lessened external vulnerability, but are very friendly to German car companies, for example, at the expense of Hungarian workers (Koltai 2018). The government intervened in 2011 to aid households with mortgages in foreign currencies, but targeted the most solvent households aiding only 10% of the third of Hungarian households that had taken out these mortgages between 2005 and 2008. The government paid back the 2008 IMF loan early (in 2012), but this symbolic defiance of dependency came with less than transparent agreements with other lenders.
Fidesz’ 2014 incumbent victory came despite assault on labor protections, shaming of the poor, criminalization of homeless, and attacks on “civil society” and the media. The party offered a more “moderate” approach to Jobbik’s “Gypsy crime,” aided by an extended workfare regime (Hann 2016), while it took advantage of the “migrant crisis” (unfolding in 2015) to solidify an anti-foreigner position. Jobbik made attempts to move to the “center,” dropping anti-Semitic language and courting Jewish leaders. The April 2018 elections awarded Fidesz a supermajority, and confirmed Jobbik as the second largest party in parliament.6
Clearly, Hungary and Bulgaria do not present identical scenarios. Ethno-nationalism has held some purchase in electoral politics in Hungary since the early years of the transition, butit was not a notable factor in postsocialist Bulgarian politics until 2005. Orbán traffics more explicitly in the discourse of national protection against foreign-minded and foreign-bodied threats, whereas Borisov relies more on the rhetoric of corruption and crime, although the latter carries a resounding anti-Roma subtext. Borisov is generally considered a supporter of the EU, while Orbán is often described as a Euroskeptic. While both GERB and Fidesz have been affiliates of the EU’s European People’s Party, Fidesz’s membership was suspended in March 2019. Borisov has been forced to resign twice as prime minster and returned each time with a different slat of coalition partners, whereas Fidesz’ 2010 supermajority in parliament began an unbroken period of single-party dominance. There are also clear authoritarian tendencies evident in the GERB government, most notably in the campaign and election processes that have gotten it reelected twice, but Borisov has not consolidated the extent of support or exerted the degree of control that Orbán has.
Both traffic, however, in the binary opposition between a virtuous people and a corrupt elite, and they seem to share a comparable, and apparently compatible, political style and character.7 Rather than accounting for the obvious differences, we use the broader similarities as a provocation to think about what might account for parallels in two significantly different historical contexts, with the expectation that such factors may operate elsewhere in the region. We look at the historical and contemporary factors that help us understand why Fidesz’s and GERB’s appeal to the people resonates at the current conjuncture. By recovering the different meanings of ‘the people’ and “nation,” and different mobilizations around them, we not only show how resonance can be built, but also why using the term populism in the way it is being used (or perhaps at all) may get in the way of understanding what is happening.
Understanding the Political Choices of the Demos
The first factor we need to attend to is the history of appeals to “the people,” and their relationship to popular mobilizations in this region. The terms in Bulgarian and Hungarian are “narod” and “nép” respectively. Nancy Ries (1997:27) refers to narod, shared across most Slavic languages, as “the Key ‘Key Word’.” As Raymond Williams’ (1976) canonical text suggests, key words are usually riddled with multiple historical meaning that sometimes intertwine in present usage. In Slavic languages narod has many meanings, from simply the people in a place, to the citizens of a country, to an ethnic group or nation, to the peasantry/folk or working people generally. It is the same for the Hungarian cognate, nép, as it is for the German volk and Italian popolo. Some of these meanings have been more ascendant in different eras.
The agrarian movement starting in 1899, was constitutive in modern Bulgarian history. The Bulgarian Agrarian People’s Union, which developed into a political party in 1901, became the strongest agrarian party in the region and under the leadership of Alexander Stamboliiski gained control of the Bulgarian government from 1919 to 1923. In this iteration, narod referred explicitly to the peasant masses, which at the time constituted around 80% of the Bulgarian population. Stamboliiski supported the notion that land should belong to the people who work it and succeeded in bringing about land redistribution by setting limits to property holdings. Although certainly guilty of strongman/authoritarian tactics Stamboliiski was hardly your typical nationalist leader, famously referring to himself as a “south Slav” when accused of not supporting Bulgarian national interests, to underline his belief in a Balkan Federation that would supersede national identities. After gaining power he took Bulgaria into the League of Nations and “in an attempt to enhance the international standing of the country took comprehensive measures to cater to the needs of minorities in Bulgaria” (Karadjov 2011: 49). He was also involved in founding the International Agrarian Bureau. Stamboliiski was overthrown (tortured and killed) by a coalition of fascists and nationalists still smarting from Bulgaria’s massive loss of territory after WWI, especially Macedonian lands. The party continued to function and was in fact one of the few parties allowed to operate under the Communist government, although not independently.
In Hungary, the “népi movement” emerged in the interwar period to challenge the government in the name of landless and land poor agrarian workers and sharecroppers, and the proletarianizing stratum of servants who emerged from this group and made up a third of the population of Hungary, and 67 percent of the peasant population (Borbándi 1989:58).8 The way the term was used reflected Hungary’s recent history. The Hungarian Republic established upon the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire at the end of WWI with only a third of the Kingdom of Hungary’s prior territory, soon fell victim to associated border issues. The subsequent and brief Soviet Republic (which espoused a policy of land collectivization) was followed by a re-entrenchment of neofeudal rule by successive Christian National governments representing the former nobility and military officers, under regent Miklos Horthy.
Hoping to avert attention from severe class distinctions, the Horthy governments focused on regaining lost territories, and instituted anti-Semitic policies in the name of developing a modern and professionally qualified “Magyar” bourgeoisie out of members of the ruling “middle class.” Two groups with competing visions of progress, népi (“of the people”) and urbánus (“urban”), fought for land reform and the franchise for those unrepresented by this regime. The népi movement expounded a vision of an agrarian Hungary of small producers, potentially in federation with other small peoples of the Danubian basin, while urbanists sought a path of modernization and industrialization according to a Western model.9
Népi was a blanket term that covered an array of personalities and efforts with a diversity of opinions about ethnicity/race and Hungariannness, including anti-Semitic expression by some, as well as varied positions on Capitalism, socialism, and Communism. Following the March Front (1937-1938) , and tied closely with the movement to found People’s Colleges, the National Peasant Party emerged in 1939, with the goal of attracting poor peasants away from fascist and national socialist formations.
In both these cases the “populists” in question challenged the predominant definitions/uses of nationalism. Dictatorial when in power, Stambolijski was an anti-war and anti-imperial federalist and internationalist. These characteristics have interesting through lines in the Hungarian “populists.” Both lay emphasis on the poorest agrarian strata in countries without a significant industrial working class, and flirted with regional political forms inconsistent with the nation-state, under conditions in which nation-state borders were in flux.10 These kinds of emphases on the people remain central in contemporary historical consciousness, and are not easily reducible to the pursuit of a Western style ethno-national state.
Another layer in the history of narod/nép shared across eastern Europe is the explicit and pervasive use of these terms by Socialists and Communists, from the widespread and varied movements across Europe, to the Russian revolutions, the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, and the practices of the Bulgarian and Hungarian state socialist governments after World War II. This people/elite binary was rooted in a Marxist analysis of capitalist society in which owners of the means of production were contrasted with those who, dispossessed from the means of production, were forced to sell their labor. The Communist governments ruling Hungary and Bulgaria after 1948 used the terms nép and narod, as their political movements had before gaining power, identifying the people as the working class. 11 Here “the people” referred explicitly to the supposedly undifferentiated masses of (erstwhile) peasants and workers committed to the building of socialism (as well as the vanguard leading them in the effort), thus, the naming of the polities after 1948 as The People’s Republic of Bulgaria, and the Hungarian People’s Republic. On the one hand, this built upon and furthered the class-based connotations of narod/nép expounded by the interwar movements, but on the other, it confounded the relevant class distinctions. The term became ubiquitous in designating institutions or units of these socialist states: the people’s army, the people’s police, house of the people, etc.12 This recent and pervasive useage likely informs the contemporary resonance of the term. Certainly the increase in so-called socialist nostalgia maps nicely onto contemporary receptivity to appeals to a people with class overtones.
Given the association of narod/nép in these agrarian societies with the peasantry, it is no surprise that the terms also became entwined with the development of romantic nationalism in the 19th century. In its Herderian formulation, the peasantry/folk (older layer of society) carried the unique characteristics --language and other social practices-- that made up the treasury of any national culture (and deserved protection by its own state). The narod/nép and the nation could thus become metonyms, and sometimes synonyms, even while alternative notions of nation existed and competed. The narod and nép of those interwar movements described previously then, might variously signify ethnic as well as class connotations, even while defying certain kinds of nationalist agendas. Similarly, the term was nevertheless used in the State Socialist period, both colloquially and officially, in ways that also pointed to the ethnos (Taylor 2008, 2009). Indeed, the Bulgarian socialist state often seemed to use narod and nation interchangeably (Buchanan 2006) and was notorious for trying to make them synonymous through ethnic homogenization policies.
The fact that the major legislative body in Bulgaria has been called the Narodno Subranie since the 19th century (with different connotations in different political regimes) perhaps puts this in perspective, as does the fact that the object of those who identified as népi in interwar Hungary were agrarian workers, while today the object of the népi movement tends to be ethnic Hungarians over the borders (although particularly those who live in the countryside) (Taylor 2008).13 An appeal to “the people” resonates differently, but likely deeply and symbolically to most members of these societies. The term “the people” may “interpolate” members of the struggling working or middle classes, or summon the idea of an ethnic group, a nation under threat, agrarian workers, “traditional peasants,” sometimes in combination, or all at once. The point is not simply that appeals to the people have been alternatively either ethnic or class, but that many connotations have co-existed in a mixture that makes the term resonate powerfully across multiple meanings, and also makes it extremely slippery. So-called “populists” in this region today work to produce its meaning via a series of cascading oppositions that rely upon and reinforce this. The people becomes equated with ethno-nation (while still connoting class) when it is contrasted repeatedly with “foreigners” (whether elite or parasitic) who are also contrasted with nation.
While “the people” has not always equated with the ethnos, and alternate understandings of the nation have also existed, the idea of the ethno-nation has been a central one in the region since the 19th century. As Maria Todorova points out, nationalism is said to have developed late in semi or non-Western regions such as this one. It is thus a derivative of the core Western standard. As late as the 1920s, Judith Irvine and Susan Gal (2000) write, Western (elite) observers were disturbed by the fact that “Macedonian linguistic diversity failed to correspond to social and ethnic boundaries in the ways Western ideologies led them to expect.” In other words, the work that has gone into making seemingly straightforward “homogenous nation-states” is heavily influenced by what Gal (2007) calls “Herdarian standardizing,” of Western origin, which posits “a unity among language, national essence, and territory.” Since their emergence as nation-states (rather than other political forms) from the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, governments and political actors in Hungary and Bulgaria, as in most other countries of the region, have appealed regularly to a nationalism based in this ideology.
In Bulgaria the constitution of the modern state was in part a nationalist liberation project against the Ottoman Empire, so modern conception of the Bulgarian nation have been defined against Turks. But the history of Western intervention in the fate of eastern Europe has made it clear that ethno-national identity matters, as the Great Powers have drawn and redrawn boundaries multiple times justified by ethnic unification. The rounds of population exchange and border enforcement were most often under the tutelage of the great powers, including the USA (Woodrow Wilson). There is plenty of historical precedent to justify agitating for more territory with an ethno-national argument, and for making sure that populations within state boundaries are homogeneous enough to deny this argument to other polities angling for territory. In a system of nations to which this region came late and with few resources, ethno-nationalism was established as an imperative for political security and sovereignty.
In the state socialist period, the idea of the nation was also mobilized in different ways in different polities. Leninism had put a focus on the nation as the scale of self-determination/development and unit of internationalism. The Soviet informed policy of “socialist in content but nationalist in form” had quite different results when there was no territorial autonomy or even distinctions for ethnic minorities as provided in the USSR. The pervasive use of a national idea in Romania ended up instantiating ethno-national identity as primary, even for those who did not think of themselves as Romanian nationalists (Verdery 1991). The long-time Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov may have been less identified with the nationalist strategy than Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu, but he still deployed it extensively (especially in a notorious assimilation campaign against Roma and Turks).
Hungary’s leaders had to perform a relatively non ethno-national position, and give up an irredentism focused on its vast former territory and the millions of ethnic Hungarians living there. In Hungary, as in Poland and some republics of Yugoslavia, the nation became one terrain of dissidents, in contrast to the Communist state and its leaders, seen by many as oppressing the nation(s) (although in different ways). The ethical civil society, or antipolitical politics that “central European” dissidents became famous for, relied on ethical positions often in contrast to the State and/or politics proper. The community so defined was a vision of the national gemeinschaft in contrast to the gesellschaft (“society”) of the Socialist state ( Žižek 1993). When the first Hungarian prime minister of the post socialist era, József Antall, stated “I am in spirit the Prime Minister of 15 million Hungarians,” he included the five million ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries along with 10 million Hungarian citizens (Fox 2003:455).14
(Ethno)nationalist motivations and justifications have thus been present in the politics of the region since the 19th century, and form part of a dynamic struggle around sovereignty, the form of the state, and the content of citizenship. Even when it is contested or resisted, as with the Agrarian government in Bulgaria (or by the form of the neighboring Yugoslavia), an opposition tends to sustain the centrality of the (ethno) national via attacks and criticism. Since few major political actors eschew the national form it can become, rather than an empty signifier, an ignorable one. While it is central to some actors, for others it is seen as the perfunctory requirement of political participation. This seems to be increasingly the case (as can be seen in some “liberal” parties’ approach to migration). In short ethno-nationalist pronouncements are expected in politics so they are hardly disqualifying for the majority of the populations, even for those who are not committed nationalists. This has rendered them somewhat less useful as a means for distinguishing and characterizing political parties. As ethno-nationalism in some form has become political common sense, a non-nationalist rhetoric has become potentially disqualifying.
This means that Bulgarians and Hungarians who have not been motivated to support nationalist parties in the past may be willing to embrace the anti-neoliberal platforms of Ataka or Jobbik even if they come in an (ethno)nationalist package. This is not to deny that supporting those parties validates and promotes ethno-nationalist policies and extremes, it is simply to point to another factor to explain why people might not see the nationalist discourse as disqualifying even though they do not condone its values. As Stanislav Dodov (2016) observes for Bulgaria, “nationalism is completely in the public’s blind spot (allowing for it to be systemic)…In contrast with the recent US elections, here this narrative was not embodied in one particular subject, but was supported openly and in different ways by virtually all players.” This is evidently even the case for Roma who are the target of much of the rabid nationalist rhetoric but still vote for parties with nationalist platforms, and the DPS which has joined in coalitions with most successful parties over the years. It has become the baseline, and thus cannot be the basis for disqualifying a politician or party. In postsocialist Hungary, while being ethno-nationalist did not disqualify a party from being legitimate, the MSZP/SZDSZ coalition’s insistence on civic nationalism, while also applying techniques of liberal diversity politics under tutelage of the EU, played right into Fidesz’s delegitimation strategy.15 It reinforced Fidesz’s ability to claim their continuity with the Communists and its own antisystem status, and assured that over the border Hungarians who were finally granted dual citizenship would support the party that had ensured it. Today Roma in Hungary, themselves victims of such ethnonational rhetoric and policy, also report fear of migrants they have never encountered.
These factors help account for why ethno-national arguments (and appeals to the people) can resonate across the region, but do not explain the recent peak in that reception in the form of the popularity of certain parties. We suggest that the ubiquitous language of the nation (and its mapping onto “the people”) be considered alongside a number of factors that together contribute to the support of parties that position themselves as antisytemic. This positioning is achieved in part through use of the aforementioned oppositions (elite/people; foreign/Hungarian; unHungarian/Hungarian, Communist;Liberal; Socialist;Cosmopolitan; Jewish/Hungarian, in the Hungarian case) that make reference not just to the behavior of various actors, but essentialize the reasons for it. Here we point to some temporal provocations.
First is simply the exhaustion of options. After 20 years of experimenting and trying various options, frustration over the repeated failures, often seen as lies, reached a breaking point. In the recent past, the lack of real choices in elections had become graphically evident. While parties in Bulgaria array across the political spectrum, the different parties in power have not pursued significantly different programs, primarily because political leaders of all stripes share the primary agenda of enriching themselves and their clients/patrons (Ganev 2007), and secondarily because requirements for EU membership have dictated much domestic policy.
This lack of real choice in the electoral sphere combined with continuing disappointment also led to an increasing withdrawal from political participation. Political apathy set in soon after the first disappointments with “democracy” in the 1990s, but it has continued to increase in Bulgaria (see Novinite.com 2018). One could argue that as rational actors have thrown up their hands in exasperation and withdrawn from participation, political outcomes are shaped more by zealots, while those determined to participate are pushed further to the extremes in an effort to find a party that can deliver. The failure of MSZP to deliver a basic degree of equality certainly reduced its popularity. While voting numbers had become quite low in Hungary, the slightly over 70% turnout in the April 2018 elections (the highest in 20 years!) suggests that the exasperation thesis is insufficient. In addition, evidence continued to mount that the brunt of these failures was being visited on the masses while a minority actually benefits. As Kristin Ghodsee (2008:36) noted “As radical income inequality becomes more and more visible, so too, may Ataka’s nationalist economic appeal to ordinary Bulgarians” (see also Taylor 2008). She is referring to the early assent of Ataka, but the same principle would continue to operate, so that the more evident income inequality becomes, the more the disadvantaged find anti-elite or antisytemic arguments attractive.
An important question then, is how the few that benefit, the elite (or system), is defined. This is closely tied to the rhetorical fight against corruption. Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index lists Bulgaria as the most corrupt country in the EU. This has justified holds on financial transfers from the EU, and is considered by many to be the main reason Bulgaria remains excluded from the free travel agreement of the EU.16 Borisov came to power with a strong anti-corruption platform, buttressed by his reputation as a mafia buster while mayor. While observers have not been impressed with his success in this arena as PM, or even his efforts (Center for the Study of Democracy 2016), his pedigree plus his constant harping on corruption as the cause of contemporary problems allows Borisov to remain an outsider and anti-systemic.
In Hungary “stolen regime change” language points to how political capitalism distributed public resources into the hands of a few people poised to take advantage of it by their proximity to the late socialist state (Taylor 2008). Fidesz claimed to be outside those networks. While the party headed the government in 1998-2002, after its 2002 electoral defeat Orbán honed its position as antisystemic in relation to the ruling forces (MSZP and SZDSZ) in parliament. Since Fidesz’ 2010 ascent, Jobbik has used the same technique. Fidesz’s thickening network of clients (which do attract claims of corruption by many) is now overtly framed as part of its project to bolster a national middle class, while the party has worked to construct itself as antisystemic vis-a-vis the EU government.
Another condition contributing to the political dynamics currently evident in Eastern Europe is the continuing disqualification of leftist alternatives as a result of the experience with state socialism, and the unsatisfactory performance of Socialist parties since then. It’s been taken as common sense that citizens of the formerly state socialist polities are anti-Communist. After all, dominant accounts of a “velvet revolution” imply that “the people” had overthrown a tyrannical and dictatorial Communism in order to join the West in a transition to democracy, which assumed a transition to capitalism in the moment when neoliberal globalization, characterized by a financialization that reduces nation-state sovereignty, was becoming dominant. Yet while something called Communism may indeed have been rejected, some of its tenets were not. East Europeans have approved of extensive state control in providing social welfare and have considered equality important at much higher levels than Western Europeans. Fidesz plays upon this with its theater of redistribution.
Antisystemic parties on the right have seemed to offer an alternative to what appears now as the blatantly false promises of liberal democracy and those connected to it, as well as an alternative to the (self)colonizing narratives of backwardness and catching up, central to the seemingly never-ending “transition.” Moreover, with the left foreclosed, restricted, or “post-political,” there seems nowhere for the dissatisfied citizen to go but further right. While the disqualification of communism and communists has kept leftist politics in the shadows, it has also required policing and a careful rearticulation of desires, with the right regularly reminding citizens of the horrors of the communist past.
While antisystem in the recent period has become increasingly appealing, it is not easily sustained once a party comes to power.17 Orbán and Borisov have been able to do so. While some of their success can be attributed to authoritarian techniques, a specific incitement that appears to have helped Orbán and Borisov maintain popularity has been the production of an ongoing “migrant crisis.” A dramatic increase in refugees into the region was evident by 2013 following the escalation of the Syrian conflict, with the number surging in 2015, including not only Syrians but Afghans, Iraqis and others as well. In 2015 Hungary had 174,000 asylum applicants. Among European countries, only Germany had more. When adjusted for population size, Hungary had 1,770 per 100,000 population, the highest of any country (Connor 2016). The numbers for Bulgaria were much smaller, “but nevertheless migratory pressure reached a historic high over the past few years. A total of 58,034 have applied for status since the first surge of the migrant crisis in 2013” (Novinite.com 2017).
Despite these “scary numbers”, both Hungary and Bulgaria are best conceived as “transit countries.” In 2014, for example, Hungary granted asylum to only 9% of its applicants, and in any case the vast majority of asylum seekers leave quickly (often after a few days) for points further West (Pardavi and Gyulai 2015). Most migrants prefer Western Europe, where they see the possibility of work, and they regard learning eastern European languages as counter to their objective. Further, “[i]n an Arabic language ‘Refugee Handbook,’ Bulgaria ranks first among countries asylum seekers should avoid. Refugees say xenophobia and Islamophobia are widespread and they try to skirt around the country…. .Public opinion is clearly against accepting more refugees into the country, as seen by attacks on refugees as well as demonstrations and political rallies against them. The message is always the same: Bulgaria is poor and Christian; we don’t want you!” (Andreev and Vaksberg 2015). As Creed (2011) has argued regarding relations between ethnic Bulgarians and Roma, there is a distinction between minorities who are considered part of the community (nashiyat, ours) and minority citizens who are not local.18 Refugees, especially Muslim ones, are worse than minorities, they are outsiders. For a country unable to provide adequately for its own population in such graphic and widespread ways, indeed the poorest in Europe, they cannot afford to support needy outsiders. At the same time, outmigration to “Europe” is a key survival practice common in both countries, and these migrants also face discrimination (Böröcz and Sarkar 2017).
While defiance of the EU’s mandates regarding re-settlement quotas signals resistance to the “liberal hegemony,” the Hungarian government’s very aggressive anti-migrant stances also work symbolically to place Hungary inside Europe. By virtue of cascading oppositions, Orbán can link the “unHungarian” left-liberals, as well as Brussels, with migrants and Roma, whose liberties and rights the former support, while also insisting that his policies are in line with European (and Christian) values. Orbán’s defiance of the EU regarding migrant settlement links with economic and symbolic concerns Hungarians have regarding EU citizenship and Europeanness, while also echoing the treatments East European migrants have faced in the core of “Europe” (the EU) (Böröcz and Sarkar 2017).
While its antisystem strategy seems to have helped Fidesz maintain power, Fidesz has had to work hard to cultivate antimigrant sentiment to the point that it appears to exist today.19 In 2016, despite claims to have the mandate, the referendum on whether Hungary should reject the quota of migrants imposed by the EU failed to attract enough voters to make it valid. As in several cases before, the lack of turnout can be read as abstention (Taylor 2008). Examples abound of Hungarians helping migrants.
Figure 1 ©Sky news
The “migrant crisis” solidified the alliance between Orbán and Borisov.20 Both put up fences.
Bulgaria began constructing a 201 kilometer fence on its border with Turkey in 2014, which was completed in 2017.21 Hungary approved and completed a 175 kilometer fence along its Serbian and Croatian borders in 2015, and trained and deployed a border hunting force along it in the following years. Orbán visited the Bulgarian fence with Borisov in September 2016 (see figure 1). Sounding increasingly like Orbán, “in January  Borisov called on the EU to temporarily seal off its border to new arrivals” (Novinite.com 2016). This “crisis” has given Orbán and Borisov an ax to grind with the EU, positioning them as defenders of the people against the system administered from Brussels.
The ‘crisis‘ has also provided opportunities for Orbán to reinforce other foreign/national binaries. Centering on the figure of finance capitalist George Soros (a Hungarian of Jewish descent, and founder of the Central European University, as well as foundations that fund a number of liberal and left organizations in the region), as a symbol of the foreign minded, FIDESZ had used this binding trope for attacks on media, NGOs, academics, civil society writ large, and the university.22 The government has also banned the “foreign minded” discipline of gender studies from being taught in Hungary.
Both of these tropes are also evident in Bulgaria. Anti-Soros rhetoric targeting foreign-funding, liberal media and civil society was prominent in official response to anti-government demonstrations in 2013: “Pro-government media and politicians marked the protesters as paid ‘Sorosoids’“(BalkanInsight 2017). In 2018 the Bulgarian Constitutional Court ruled that the EU’s Istanbul Convention on the prevention of violence against women was incompatible with the Bulgarian constitution, and a proposal to UNESCO for a project addressing gender equality in schools was blocked by the Bulgarian Academy of Science and Ministry of Education. According to some feminist activists, “[p]eople who showed up at the anti-Istanbul Convention protests ….see women’s autonomy, as well as queer and gender –nonconforming people and practices, as a threat to the Bulgarian nation in the same way that they see migrants and refugees as a threat to national integrity (Schultes et al 2019).
When the European parliament voted in 2018 to sanction Hungary for ‘flouting EU standards on democracy, civil rights and corruption,” Bulgaria joined Poland and the Czech Republic in promising to oppose any sanctions against Hungary (Tsolova 2018). In support of this decision a leader of Bulgaria’s UP (GERB’s coalition partner), said “[c]entral and eastern European countries should act in solidarity and help each other because they have common problems’” (Tsolova 2018). It is hard to argue with that.
Conclusion: The Dangers of Antipopulism
Critical Hungarian scholars from the Helyzet (Position) Public Sociology Working Group argue that the binary at work in Hungary between a liberal-left elite block, which relies on “democratic antipopulism” and the “national” elite block, which employs “antidemocractic populism,” has become so hegemonic that it seems impossible to introduce other angles into the debate (Gagyi 2016). In Bulgaria this opposition is less categorical. In the final two weeks running up to Bulgaria’s March 2017 parliamentary elections, GERB campaign chief Tsvetan Tsvetanov entreated citizens in the town of Dulovo to vote for GERB “to resist populism and the fear wrought by our opponents” (Leviev-Sawyer 2017). Here a party that has gained and retained power with populist ideas and rhetoric uses antipopulism against its opponents. The strategy may be an effort to deflect antipopulist opposition to the populist left or more extreme right-wing, rather than at its own center-right variant, or it may simply reflect an audacious effort to court additional votes with contrary positions. Regardless, both cases underline the increasing role of “liberal antipopulism” in the political field.
Antipopulism, the dismissal of the opinions and preferences of ordinary people, was a shared characteristic of political elite across the spectrum in the early period of transition. Used by the liberals who have governed these polities for most of the period, as well as by “the West,” antipopulism functions to legitimate liberals as the apt inheritors of democracy, something that may not reflect the will of the people, but must be imposed on them (at least for now). Antipopulism thus works much like Mahmud (this volume) suggests neoliberal anti-fascism operates in Italy, where it empowers fascism by delegitimizing more serious and extensive anti-fascist projects. The pointing finger of antipopulism delegitimates with the force of a civilizing discourse both those political actors and parties labelled populist (rightwing authoritarians, at present, in this part of the world) as well as regular people who, following quite democratic impulses, feel silenced by neoliberal postsocialist “democracy.” As such, antipopulism, by misnaming and making commensurable (and dismissible) an array of critiques of liberal (and neoliberal) government and governance, works as an ideological device that reinforces the hegemonic binary, while distracting from growing disparity brought about by competing blocs of elites and their governments, the loss of a counterhegemonic socialist economic bloc, and this region’s position within the EU and the global economy. In the name of democracy it conflates the popular with the populism it delegitimates, and seeks to obscure the “democractic deficit” of (neo)liberalism and (neo)liberal governance under which these populations have experienced degrees of dispossession not seen since the 1930s. This delegitimizing trick can only work for so long in conjunction with “post-political” and technocratic governance that does not address equality and distribution on different scales. Yet how can any government of a peripheralizing country begin to address these issues when the rights of finance trump state sovereignty? With no substantive choices, politics is reduced to the rhetorical, which is the wellspring of populism and antipopulism.
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East European Politics and Societies, v. 15, no. 1, 2000; Problems of Post-Communism v. 55, no. 3, 2008; Slavic Review v. 76, no. S1, 2017.↩
Kalb (2011) argues that Eastern Europe was a pioneer in the now global political “populism” that rejects “the foundations of liberal rule,” and marries ethno-national symbolism with “elements of classical leftism.”↩
Chantal Mouffe (2005), who along with Ernesto LaClau can be said to be responsible for the centrality of the approach to populism that focuses on what we call rhetorical, argues that the widespread use of populist logic today is an effect of the post political condition, marked by the tendency towards consensus at the middle and the diminution of the adversarial model of politics. This consensus can be seen for example in third way Social Democracy or technocratic governance in the period characterized by neoliberalization.↩
In this it echoes interwar government attempts to replace Jews with “Hungarians” in various sectors.↩
Over 95% of these nearly 130,000 new citizens voted for Fidesz in 2014.↩
Unlike the traditional far right, Fabry (2015) argues, Jobbik built its popularity as a “counter-hegemonic bloc against the injustices wrought by neoliberal capitalism,” not unlike Ataka in Bulgaria as described by Ganev (2017).↩
On the occasion of Borisov’s 2017 reelection Orbán congratulated him and expressed his gratitude for the excellent cooperation between them (Standart 2017). After Bulgaria assumed the rotating presidency of the EU, Borisov invited Orbán to Sofia in an effort to defuse EU tensions with Hungary.↩
This movement is generally not mentioned in histories of agrarianism in the region because it was not party oriented. In fact after 1947 it was the Smallholders Party, not the party that emerged from this movement, that joined the International Agrarian Bureau’s successor, the International Peasants Union.↩
The debate has often been reduced to anti-Semites (népi) vs. Jews (urbánus). We acknowledge that anti-Semites did exist in the former group, but the historical record shows that there were friendships (and shared underground political activity) that reached across this seemingly absolute divide, and that “conversions” occurred where people associated with one group moved to the other side (Jozsef Attila, for example). We do not wish to play down the presence of anti-Semitism, but in order to treat it properly we would also have to address the sociological conditions that distinguished the agrarian areas from the cities (particularly the capital, Budapest) that shaped the debate. We cannot do this justice here.↩
They shared the idea of a “third way” that would allow for a different kind of development for agrarian societies, perhaps between Communism and Capitalism.↩
While some suggest this may have rendered the term nearly meaningless we suggest it worked to make the term more flexible. Discussing the “normalization of language” in the case of the Soviet Union, Alexei Yurchak shows how “with increasing emphasis on the replication of form, what meanings or functions concrete texts and slogans had was becoming increasingly unpredictable; meaning was sliding in unprecedented directions”(2005:53)..↩
It should be noted that Orbán’s politics are not referred to as népi, but rather as “populizmus/populista” in Hungary.↩
Already in the late 1980s, the Hungarian government had diplomatically intervened in Romania’s “systemization” project, formally a village modernization project, but understood by many as a technique to break apart ethnic minority communities. But this intervention was after massive demonstrations, prompted by “dissidents”. The folk revival movement that had arisen in the 1970s partly from the institutional and organizational legacy of the interwar népi movement was responsible for much of the knowledge production and sentiment building behind this pressure on the government. Western observers generally lauded this “civil society” (Taylor 2008, 2009).↩
The MSZP /SZDSZ government was explicit about denying citizenship to over the border Hungarians and Fidesz (and others) then accused them of not being Hungarian. “Dissidents” of many stripes constructed the Communists as antinational already from 1956 onward, aligned as it was with the (occupying) USSR, and working against “Hungarian” culture (Taylor 2008).↩
At the time of their 2004 accession, East European states agreed to “transitional arrangements” that barred the free mobility of its citizens to work in other EU countries (a main motivator for EU membership for many) .↩
This was the Achilles heel for Simeon II, who rode a wave of anti-systemic sentiment into the Prime Minister position, and used his popular appeal to enact some liberal reforms, but that cost him his status as an outsider and his party lost the next election.↩
Ethnic Bulgarians are also vulnerable to being excluded from this category when used for village or regional inclusion, but they do not suffer the discrimination that minorities do as a result.↩
In the wake of the 2018 elections, the idea that Fidesz’s excessive pre-election antimigrant advertisements had swayed the vote was dominant in international news headlines. Certainly the media monopoly Fidesz enjoys may have done some work by now.↩
It was also a solid basis for the development of the Visegrad 4 as a counter bloc in the EU. Bulgaria did not join this bloc, perhaps because of its position as EU president at the height of the scandal.↩
Ironically, a prior fence and minefield built by the Communist government had been painstakingly removed two decades earlier↩
The attack on Soros allows almost every set of oppositions to function simultaneously. Jew/Hungarian, foreigner/Hungarian, left;liberal;cosmopolitan/Hungarian, “foreign funded” /Hungarian, foreign minded/Hungarian and foreign bodied/Hungarian.↩