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By Vedran Dzihic

It seemed to be a wonderful dream of a world and particularly Europe reaching the end of history (Francis Fukuyama) and entering an era of everlasting liberal democratic peace. In some parts of Europe it worked out quite good, at least for a period of time. Championing the successful winners in the race towards the end goal of democracy in 2004 during the first big bang enlargement was nice and promising. Closing one European eye on some losers waging wars in Former Yugoslavia or permanently lagging behind like Moldavia or Belarus for example was rather frustrating.

The global economic crisis has revealed the fragility of the political and socio-economic systems and jeopardized a democratic consensus. As Jan Werner-Müller has recently put it in Foreign Affairs “democracy is struggling: nearly all the countries that joined the EU during the last decade are experiencing profound political crisis.” 25 years after the end of the Cold War, initial euphoria about democratic change in many countries of the East and Southeast has given way to growing mistrust in political institutions and political representatives, and an increasing disaffection with democracy itself. This wide-ranging disaffection is due to the weak performance of political systems and a rather weak output of the regimes, be it in political, social or economic terms, be it in terms of more justice and equality. Politicians seem not (any more) able or willing to deliver tangible results to their voters. Harking back to Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote that democracy was “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, politics thus produces no or too little goods “for” the people.

Thus, the situation in (some parts of) Europe is rather dramatic, with some major challenges and conflicting trends portraying a picture of a rather divided than continent united in peace. There is even a risk of European parts drifting apart, having one part of Europa dedicated to liberalism, democracy and openness and another one embracing authoritarian values and illiberalism. As Michael Ignatieff put it recently in New York Review: “A new political competitor to liberal democracy began to take shape: authoritarian in political form, capitalist in economics, and nationalists in ideology.”

With the general crisis of democracy in the inner circle of democracies we face an emergence of grey-zones between democracy and authoritarianism and even new forms of authoritarianism in some parts of Eastern and Southeastern Europe. Classical authoritarianism seeks for an absolute obedience, is directed against individual freedoms and liberties and always ready to use repression against opponents. New authoritarian regimes are chameleon-like – they are able to adjust to new circumstances, they have institutionalized representation of a variety of actors and they even incorporate some democratic procedures like elections and thus create a structure resistant to change.

Looking at the peripheries of Europa might help us illustrate this assumption. The peripheries are zones of anger (as Sloterdijk has put it), where the perceptions of Europa and general values are in a constant flux with no finality in sight. It is precisely in the peripheries that we see competing and conflicting narratives of Europe and more generally conflicting narratives about the regimes best suited to rule. The one is basically oriented towards liberal and democratic values and another one heading towards authoritarian values. In between lies an explosive mix of uncertainty. There are many examples to illustrate this rift, be it Ukraine, Hungary, countries of the Western Balkans or even Bulgaria. As we have seen in the Ukrainian case, the drifting apart of parts of the country in terms of narratives about Europa quickly translated into violent division of the country creating facts on the ground that are – probably – here to stay (see Crimea). Parts of the Western Balkans are also an interesting place to look at. Here we have fragile states with no solution for internal ethnic conflicts and disputes while at the same time regimes with strong (male) rule are emerging, pairing populism and nationalism with quite of the empty rhetoric of reforms and Europeanization. Hungary that is, at least according to its Prime Minister Orban, embracing “illiberal democracy” and limiting some fundamental freedoms, or Bulgaria with constant parallelism between protests, elections and new governments not able to deliver what population seems to want are further examples of fundamental changes going on in Europe nowadays. To make my point – in Eastern- und Southeastern part of Europe, not to speak about Russia or Turkey, in a region that went through more than two decades of democratization, we are witnessing new challenges to democracy and emergence of grey zone semi-authoritarian regimes, which – under the guise of democracy – limit individual freedom and reduce liberties.

“What is going on?”, asked Radical French philosopher Alan Badiou two years ago. “Of what we are the half-fascinated, half-devastated witnesses? The continuation, at all costs, of a weary world? A salutary crisis of that world, racked by its victorious expansion? The end of that world? The advent of a different world?”

We don’t know what is going on, but we all feel and fear that some pieces of our free world as we knew it since 1989 are falling apart. Are we facing a completely new era where the core values and achievements of open societies will continue to stumble? Or will the crisis help revitalizing democracy and proving that radical democracy thinkers underlining the need for a constant renegotiation and struggle for the sake of democracy? In any case, instead of the end of history we see it rewritten before our eyes. A fascinating and dangerous exercise we may say.

Vedran Dzihic is an Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, School of Advanced International Studies, John Hopkins University in Austria. His research project focuses on Limits of Democratization and Europeanization posed by ethno-national politics in the case of the Western Balkans. Since 2008 he has been senior researcher and Chief of Party of the project Transformation and Democratization of the Balkans POTREBA and a co-leader of a project on the state of democracy in Serbia. Since 2005, he has been the Director of the European Think-Tank CEIS (Center for European Integration Strategies).

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