Hybrid democracy in Central Europe

It is a recurring pattern that political concepts originating in Western Europe become adapted and reinterpreted in (East) Central Europe. The process was described in detail in Trencsényi et. al. (2016, p. 4), who argue that “political modernity in East Central Europe is related to the idea of a temporal and spatial lag and the imperative of following the already existing models of the ‘civilized West’.” This results in an ‘eternal debate’ between local cultures and imported ideas.

As Erika Gottlieb argues (2001, p. 47), the depiction of the democratic ideals of the French revolution in some 19th century utopian texts is an example of Western democracy seen as a political utopia in Central Europe, a desired state of affairs being only a few steps away, but constantly staying on the horizon. At the same time, utopian and other political texts in the 19th century often highlight the problematic aspects of democratic societies especially in contrast to regimes centred around benevolent, enlightened rulers (e.g. György Bessenyei, The Voyage of Tariménes, 1804), or focusing on the problems arising out of the immaturity of masses (e.g. Imre Madách, The Tragedy of Man, 1862).

The East Central European region may be seen as a liminal territory in between East and West, showing signs of both Eastern and Western patterns of power relationship (for details see Jenő Szűcs, The Three Historical Regions in Europe), a hybrid between democracy and authoritarianism. Both utopian and dystopian texts of the region represent this hybridity, and so does the interpretation of these texts, which often result in the hybridity of political ideas. As Bozóki and Sükösd argue (2017, p. 77), hybrid political ideas in Central Europe have “bridged or even blended allegedly incompatible ideologies and created new texture… These ideas came close to utopian thinking in that their representative proponents tried to find a non-existent third way between clear-cut models.”

There are great variations in the geographical or cultural definition of Central Europe (for details see Iva Dimovska’s previous blogs here and here), and it may be analysed not only as a physical space but also a virtual/imaginary (quasi-utopian) area marked by an awareness of and a longing for “democracy” and a more just society (at least within the intellectual elite), combined with a parallel awareness of permanent deprivation of it because of several reasons (backwardness, belatedness, foreign domination etc.). Péter Hanák (1989) talks about a diffuse region, arguing that utopia and reality keeps blending in this region. Hanák also refers to Milan Kundera, claiming that the region in the geographical centre of Europe belongs culturally to the West, but politically to the East. It is also a significant feature of the region in the 19th and 20th centuries that it is comprised mostly (though not exclusively) of small nations with distinct national cultures living in the brink of large empires (cf. Bibó 1946) – the  boundaries of the region often depend on the political structures of the neighbouring areas. Under such circumstances, nationalism for most part of the 19th century served as an important modernising force, yet the small nations living in the threat of non-existence have easily turned against each other. Such conflicts are often fuelled by mutual non-understanding: while from a distance the region may seem relatively uniform, great differences in language result in difficulties in cultural transfers, and elites turn for inspiration more often to Western Europe than to their Central European counterparts.

Zsolt Czigányik

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