Three decades since the dismantlement of the Berlin Wall, a new report by the Open Society released this week gauges the attitudes of people born either side of 1989 from Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria on matters of democracy and their hopes for its future. Some of the answers make for sobering reading but others offer an encouraging glimmer of optimism.
The worrisome findings first: Democracy is considered to be imperilled across all countries. In every country bar Germany over 60% think that the rule of law is under threat and just over half of all younger generation respondents polled think that freedom of speech is similarly threatened in their own countries. Only a quarter of over-40s think that the world is a safer place now compared to 1990 when half of the continent bared the fresh scars of dictatorship and conflict.
In a surprising and concerning development, nearly a fifth of Germans do not think their elections are free or fair. Digging deeper into the numbers, the poll found that 80% of AfD voters endorsed this statement. These results suggest that a growing number of German citizens that don’t believe in their country’s democracy are prepared to vote for a party that seeks to subvert if not abolish it.
Considering the current trend of populism and nativism across Europe this may not come as a total surprise. Further dissection of the data reveals that distrust of the mainstream media and public information ranks even higher. For example, only 21% of Slovaks to 34% of Czechs - the highest percentage in the East - trust these sources. Germany fares a bit better at 40%, but hardly encouraging, particularly as fake news and disinformation over the refugee issue has played into the hands of the German far-right.
Finally, an underreported movement of people that seems to trouble citizens of the former Eastern Bloc is emigration. As many as 67% of Romanians are worried about people leaving their country. This is unsurprising knowing that between 1989 and 2017, 20% of Romanians have gone, making it the country with the second-highest diaspora in Europe according to UN estimates. Bulgarians and Hungarians are a notch behind at 65% and 62% respectively. Every second Pole, Slovak and Czech citizen shares this fear. EU freedom of movement has afforded a range of opportunities for work, study and remittance support to family back home but also contributed to a critical shortage of skilled workers, declining birth rates and shrinking societies which paradoxically allow a fear of immigration to take root.
Now, the good news: A defiant spirit of dissidence is on the rise. This is embedded in the deep belief that civil society and academia should be independent and be able to hold government to account. 50% of Czechs to 72% of Bulgarians think that NGOs and charities should be allowed to criticise the government (in between 70% of Poles, followed by 66% of Romanians, 64% of Germans and Slovaks, Hungarians at 55%). Furthermore the majority of Poles, Bulgarians and Hungarians think that civil societies should not be more regulated and controlled by government – they see it as the corrective to an overbearing political class.
Academic freedom is treasured. A majority of respondents declared that academic institutions should have more scope to criticize the government with over 70% in each country expressing support, reaching 82% in Bulgaria. The results in Hungary are noteworthy especially in the current political context where ruling party Fidesz is waging a battle to curtail the freedoms of academic institutions such as the Central European University (CEU).
Finally, there is a shared sense of solidary across the region to the traditionally marginalized groups at home: people on low incomes, older people, disabled (between 50 and 90 percent). The youngest generation represent a progressive avant-garde, exhibiting a broad approach to social justice, one significantly more inclusive than that of their elders toward ethnic minorities, LGBT groups, refugees and immigrants. Given that this is a generation with a remarkable potential to mobilize – exhibited by recent mass demonstrations in all countries - they can influence change on a large scale.
Though pessimism is rife as populism continues to beguile, these findings should not viewed through too gloomy a lens but rather as a call to action. Evidently the young generation sees the multiple threats to democracy all around but are increasingly standing firm against them and even extending the hand of solidarity towards new minority groups. But it is a vanguard only for as long as the people are present. The key task ahead for these countries as well as the European Union is to tackle the continuing brain drain of the youngest generation that could see central and eastern Europe lose their brightest hope for change.
Goran Buldioski is director of the Open Society Foundations’ Berlin office and a co-director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe.