WROCLAW, Poland — The police came in the pre-dawn stillness of a freezing February morning in southwestern Poland, knocking at the door of a national hero who had once again become a wanted man.
There was a time when Wladyslaw Frasyniuk would have run. As the daring and profane bad boy of Solidarity, Poland’s underground pro-democracy movement, he had lived as a fugitive from the smothering grip of the communist state security services, jumping from trains, fleeing along rooftops and speeding away on motorcycles.
But that was long ago. Back before the authoritarian regime he was fighting came crashing down, unleashing a new era of freedom in 1989. Before a 2015 election yielded a government determined to use the liberties and powers of a modern democratic state to snuff out independent institutions. Before Frasyniuk came to realize that history doesn’t travel in only one direction.
“Everything that my generation accomplished,” said Frasyniuk, a revolutionary in his 20s who has become a dissident once more in his 60s, “has made it easier and easier for this government to consolidate its control.”
Autocracy is making a comeback, seeping into parts of the world where it once appeared to have been vanquished.
But it is a sleeker, subtler and, ultimately, more sophisticated version than its authoritarian forebears, twisting democratic structures and principles into tools of oppression and state control. It is also, quite possibly, far more potent and enduring than autocracies of old.
After decades of steady expansion of rights and liberties, the pro-democracy watchdog Freedom House has recorded sharp reversals, with the share of nations dubbed “free” declining since 2007. Countries in every region of the world have suffered setbacks, in areas such as free and fair elections, the independence of the press, the rights of minorities and the rule of law.
As Americans worry about the health of their own democracy, the lesson from abroad is that the decline can come bracingly fast.
It has in Central and Eastern Europe, a region that, three decades ago, was at the vanguard of the last great act of the 20th century: the triumph of liberal democracy over dictatorship behind the Iron Curtain. Led by young activists like Frasyniuk, Poland and its neighbors ushered in the supposed end of history.
Today, the region is on the front lines of history’s march in reverse. The democratic society that Frasyniuk fought for is in retreat, while a new breed of autocrat advances.
“It’s not autocracy. It’s neo-autocracy,” said Cristian Parvulescu, dean of the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration in Romania, a country that critics fear is trending away from the rule of law. “It’s not democracy. It’s post-democracy.”
Freedom House democracy scores
Some governments in the region, such as Hungary’s, are deep down the road toward indefinite one-party rule. Leaders in other countries, such as the Czech Republic, only seem to aspire to that sort of absolute authority.
But wherever signs of autocracy are emerging, this much is true: They bear little resemblance to the obviously repressive methods so familiar from school textbooks chronicling 20th-century despotism.
There are no strutting soldiers in the streets or cults of personality around the great leader. Opponents and journalists speak openly and loudly, generally without fear of persecution. Instead of building walls to keep their own people in, governments construct tech-laden fences to keep supposed enemies out. Instead of economic isolation and scarcity, a gusher of foreign investment flows.
And yet, ruling politicians and parties have managed to consolidate power to a degree not seen since the communist era. Supposedly independent institutions — including courts and prosecutor’s offices — have become instruments of political control. Newspapers and television stations are bought up by friendly business executives and dutifully preach the government’s line. Elections still take place, but they are used as justification for the majority to impose its will rather than a chance for the minority to have its say.
“In every respect, it looks like Europe. But you don’t actually have the freedoms that makes Europe what it is,” said Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian human rights scholar and president of the Budapest-based Central European University (CEU). “It’s new political technology.”
His university has been a victim of that innovation.
Deemed a political enemy because it was founded by liberal philanthropist George Soros, the highly regarded institution has been a top target of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He has denounced CEU in speeches, and his government has passed legislation designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, for the American-accredited school to operate.
But in keeping with the new style, Orban avoided shutting down the university outright — and the storm of condemnation that would come with such a move. Instead, he left CEU dangling in limbo for nearly two years and gave himself a small measure of deniability when it opted to retreat into exile this month. The U.S. ambassador to Hungary, David B. Cornstein, used that ambiguity to blame Soros, not Orban, for the exit.
Orban, considered the architect of the region’s new autocratic model, has boasted of his desire to replace outmoded notions of liberal democracy with “illiberal democracy.”
Others who stand accused of turning their countries away from basic freedoms deny the charge and insist that, in 21st-century Europe, it can’t even be done.
“There’s a principle of irreversibility. Once you reach a certain standard of democracy and human rights, you can’t go back,” Romanian Justice Minister Tudorel Toader said.
He spoke in an interview in his office across the street from the “People’s House,” a 1980s-era marble monument to dictatorial megalomania — and now the seat of Romania’s parliament.
Toader this year forced the firing of a crusading anti-corruption prosecutor who was investigating top government officials. He has also helped push through legislation that independent authorities have said will severely limit the power of other prosecutors to hold the powerful to account.
But autocracy? Hardly, he says.
“People have the freedom to choose where to travel, where to live, where to work. These are things that people didn’t even dare to dream about under communism,” said the former law professor who is now seen by critics as an archenemy of the rule of law. “A Romanian can take a plane and go see the Statue of Liberty. You can’t turn him backwards.”
That is what worries Frasyniuk.
He served four years in a communist prison — and endured frequent beatings from guards — because he wanted his Polish countrymen to know the freedoms of democracy.
But in the past three years, ever since the right-wing Law and Justice party won elections, he has watched the government use the liberties for which he fought to tighten its grip.
The election victory became a pretext for the takeover of previously independent institutions. The country’s membership in the European Union was transformed into a shield against charges of oppression and a foil in Poland’s long-standing quest for sovereignty. Its integration into the global economy — and the fast-paced growth that has come with it — put money in people’s pockets, overriding more abstract concerns about the rule of law.
Frasyniuk became a successful businessman after communism’s fall. But Law and Justice’s rise brought him back to the streets.
An anti-government protest in June of 2017 led to a brief scuffle with police and an investigation with which he refused to cooperate. That was enough to draw officers to his door in February — though the tactics were less conspicuously brute-force than in the old days.
“Authorities used to treat people like me in a serious manner,” Frasyniuk said, a note of wistful disgust in his voice, his mischievous blue eyes gleaming. “They broke down doors and threw you to the ground.”
If the style was new, the outcome that cold day was familiar. Frasyniuk was handcuffed behind his back and led away, a throwback to a time when he had “golden miles membership” at his local police precinct.
“I’m proof,” he said, “that you can get a complete historical cycle in one lifetime.”
Still fit but graying at age 64, he is again on the front lines of a freedom struggle.
But this time, the blind courage of youth is gone. He knows the advantage lies with the autocrats.
In Poland, winner takes all
Just about every day this year, Malgorzata Gersdorf has put on a power suit and shown up at Poland’s Supreme Court, a modern glass building framed by faux-copper columns, etched with the scales of justice, in Warsaw. Her fellow judges recognize her as the court’s leader. She works in the chief justice’s chambers.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, 69
Law and Justice
2005 - 2007, 2015 -
A lawyer and onetime lieutenant of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, he wants to return Poland to its conservative Catholic roots.
Moves toward autocracy
The government has taken over the judicial system, politicized public media and campaigned against NGOs.
But the government declared her retired in July.
“It’s a difference of interpretation,” Gersdorf said matter-of-factly this fall during an interview in her office, where a fine old grandfather clock ticks away. “Mine is based on the constitution.”
The Polish word for it — Konstytucja — dangles from her necklace in cubed black and white letters, like a shield.
But she doubts its ability to protect her.
The right-wing, populist Law and Justice party has followed a path to remake the Polish courts, arguing that the last vestiges of the communist era need to be purged — even though holdover judges have already gone through a rigorous screening process.
Soon after winning the 2015 elections, the party effectively took over the Constitutional Tribunal, packing the court with friendly judges. Then it moved on to the National Council of the Judiciary, giving itself final say over a body that, as Poland’s arbiter of judicial independence, had been relatively free of political influence.
Finally, it took aim at the Supreme Court.
Constitutionally, Gersdorf’s term as chief justice runs until 2020. But the government has tried to force her and dozens of Supreme Court colleagues into early retirement. It has sought to replace them — and to fill dozens of newly created seats — in a process that has been boycotted by nearly all of the nation’s judges and denounced by European authorities.
“It’s all been completely different than what you teach your students about what law is,” said Gersdorf, a professor before she became a judge. “At first, we got so dizzy, we all got sick.
“Now we’re used to it. Now we never say, ‘Well, they can’t do that,’ because, the fact is, they can do anything.”
To Law and Justice supporters — and others in the region brandishing the will of the people as a weapon — this is how democracy is supposed to work. To the victor go the spoils. And those include control not only of the courts but also the constitution, prosecutor’s offices, public media, intelligence services, the civil service and other supposedly independent constraints on executive power. Hungary’s government has even cracked down on civil society organizations with the justification that NGOs helping refugees were never elected to anything.
In this view, defenders of judges or bureaucrats or nonprofits are blocking the majority’s desires and using seemingly principled stands to mask their grievance at having been bested at the polls.
“Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose,” said Malgorzata Zuk, a party activist and Warsaw lawmaker. “Sadly, there are some people who will never accept the results.”
But to Gersdorf, it is a perversion of democracy — a deliberate misinterpretation of the checks on political power and the ultimate authority of the constitution.
“It’s a very dangerous direction,” she said, one that ultimately leads to “the destruction of the Polish justice system.”
The government didn’t try to stop her from showing up to work, knowing, perhaps, that to do so would provoke a clash. But with protests dwindling and options for halting the government’s takeover seemingly at their end, Gersdorf had all but accepted she would soon be ousted.
Then, the unexpected: An October ruling by the European Court of Justice temporarily blocked the forced retirements. Local elections, meanwhile, dealt the ruling party a setback.
Late last month, the government retreated, introducing and passing legislation in a single day that will allow Gersdorf and her colleagues to keep their jobs.
Gersdorf’s hopes have been vindicated — at least for now.
“In general, Polish society loves freedom,” she said. “It will rebel.”
Europe enables Hungary
When two lead dancers with the fabled Bolshoi Ballet company decided to defect during a U.S. tour in 1979, their escape from Soviet minders at a packed Los Angeles auditorium required daring, luck and precision-timed choreography.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, 55
1998 — 2002,
A former anti-communist dissident, the right-wing populist has been described as ‘a hero’ by former Trump guru Steve Bannon.
Moves toward autocracy
The government has taken over prosecutors’ offices and other supposedly independent institutions, consolidated control of public and private media and criminalized help for refugees.
When Balazs Kadar, a 26-year-old dancer, decided this summer he had had enough of Hungary’s repressive government, he visited an employment office and was told he could have a job in Germany by the following Monday.
He canceled his lease. He sold his car. He said a tearful goodbye to his mom and packed two suitcases. Then he and his girlfriend hailed a ride-share service and sped down the highway to a new life.
“Some friends said I shouldn’t leave Hungary — that I should stay here and fight if I want it to be different,” said Kadar, who is tall with Justin Bieber-esque looks. “But this is the easiest way. To leave everything and start again.”
The E.U.’s free movement rules were intended to maximize flexibility in the labor market, giving workers the chance to move anywhere on the continent in search of a job.
But they have also given autocrats like Orban a useful safety valve. Anyone dissatisfied with his government can pick up and go, with not even a passport check standing in the way of self-imposed exile.
Since the prime minister came to power in 2010, hundreds of thousands of people have left the country in one of the biggest migrations of Hungary’s recent history. And although many have been motivated by higher wages elsewhere, political factors have loomed large, as well.
“The problem is not only the wages,” said Agnes Hars, senior researcher at Budapest’s Kopint-Tárki Institute for Economic Research. “It’s the whole environment that makes people depressed.”
Those who have left tend to be young, ambitious and educated. That’s not a problem for Orban, who pulls his support from the less educated, poorer and older segments of society. But it is a crisis for anyone trying to organize opposition to his rule.
“There’s no protest in Hungary, because people can emigrate instead,” Hars said.
It’s not only individuals. This summer, the Soros-funded Open Society Foundations — which advocates for a free media and the protection of minorities — moved to Berlin amid an onslaught of government harassment. Central European University is on its way to Vienna.
Kadar decided to move after spring elections confirmed Orban’s third straight landslide victory had given him a parliamentary supermajority. Kadar didn’t feel he could stay in a country where the government was so hostile toward gay rights, so disdainful of the arts or so stacked in favor of one man and his allies.
“Now we know things will never change,” said Kadar, a classical dancer by training who took a job stocking a warehouse in southwestern Germany.
As freedom of movement siphons off would-be dissenters, E.U. subsidies line the pockets of favored government cronies. And free trade across the bloc gives Hungary the sort of powerful allies that communist governments of old could never have dreamed of.
When BMW was searching for a spot to build its first European factory in more than a decade, it chose Debrecen, a tidy city of 200,000 people on the eastern Hungarian plains. Amid corn and wheat fields, a billion-euro factory will rise, further transforming a once-rundown post-communist backwater that has become a hub of German industrial might, with daily nonstop flights to Munich.
Continental politicians periodically denounce Orban as a stain on European democracy. And Orban frequently rails against E.U. meddling. But between Europe’s corporate giants and Orban, there’s a low-cost love affair.
“Business expectations are at record levels,” gushed German-Hungarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce spokesman Dirk Wölfer.
Under Orban, he said, “the investment climate has been constantly improving” with a corporate tax rate that’s “unbeatable.”
He scoffed at concerns over human rights or the rule of law, and described attempts by the E.U. to hold Hungary to account as “an irritation for the business community.”
“At a certain point, the companies can tell the politicians, ‘calm down,’ ” said Laszlo Posan, a member of Orban’s party who represents Debrecen in the Hungarian parliament. “Companies feel good in Hungary. They don’t let politicians distract from reality.”
Romania spreads the wealth
Vladimir Ciobotaru and his wife welcomed a baby boy to the world this past week. They had the Romanian government to thank.
Liviu Dragnea, 56
A wealthy businessman, Dragnea has been convicted of electoral fraud and corruption charges.
Moves toward autocracy
The government has forced out top prosecutors and sought legal changes that critics say could keep other anti-corruption watchdogs off the trail.
Ciobotaru is a surgeon, which, until recently, meant a salary that came nowhere near the minimum wage in any Western European nation. Even by Romanian standards, it was paltry, the equivalent of less than $600 per month. He and his wife shared a cramped, single-room apartment, and the idea of starting a family seemed impossible.
Then the government doubled Ciobotaru’s pay.
The couple moved to an airy new apartment. They’re thinking of buying a car.
“I’m so happy,” the 32-year-old said. “This gave me the security to have a child.”
The pay hike for doctors — the vast majority of whom are public sector workers — has also given a measure of security to Romania’s government.
Romania is decried by watchdogs as one of the most corrupt countries in Europe and denounced by E.U. leaders as an autocracy-in-training. But its economy is gaining strength — Romania saw 6.9 percent gross domestic product growth last year — and the government in Bucharest has managed to maintain its popularity in part by spreading a bit of the newfound wealth.
Poland and Hungary have also enjoyed rapid growth, low unemployment and — even though pay is still well below continental averages — rising wages. Their treasuries flush, Hungary has mailed cash vouchers to retirees and introduced grants for homeowners; Poland has begun paying people to have more children.
Political scientists have long theorized that growth and prosperity help sustain democracies, with the presence of a robust middle class guarding against a slide into authoritarianism.
But these European governments are proving that democracy’s economic dividends can also be used as a tool to cement power.
The money helps leaders keep their populations happy. It also gives them cash to burn on vanity projects, influence operations and patronage networks populated by favored cronies.
In Romania, the leader of the ruling Social Democrats — a wealthy businessman-turned-politician named Liviu Dragnea — has been twice convicted on corruption and vote-rigging charges. It was amid subsequent accusations of even greater graft that his government ousted the nation’s top fraud prosecutor and pushed legislation that experts say will keep other investigators off the trail.
Muzzling of corruption watchdogs has been a trademark of growing executive authority elsewhere in the region.
“There’s a contagion effect,” said Elena Calistru, who leads the Romanian civic advocacy group Funky Citizens . “Our guys have seen that it’s worked for Poland, and it’s worked for Hungary. Now they’re trying to do the same.”
And many Romanians don’t seem too bothered.
Romania is still the E.U.’s second-poorest country, with large segments of the population scratching out a meager living in the agrarian countryside.
But in Bucharest — a capital city that was leveled and rebuilt in dreary dictator style under the communists — there’s now a bit of bling: posh dance clubs and shopping malls with enough glitz to rival any in the West.
Meanwhile, the world’s largest Orthodox cathedral is rising near the city’s center, with plans to top it with Europe’s biggest bell. In a devout nation, the mostly government-funded project has earned the ruling party credibility.
Ciobotaru, for one, is a die-hard party supporter, even if few in his social circle share his views.
The surgeon and his wife recently had friends over for dinner at their new apartment. Then politics came up, with Ciobotaru arguing that overzealous prosecutors — not ruling party politicians — are the true threat to Romanian democracy.
Their guests left before the main course.
Prime minister owns presses
Prime Minister Andrej Babis was facing a revolt. He had vowed that the Czech Republic would never accept a single refugee, but in September parliamentarians were barraging him with demands to make an exception: Couldn’t the country take 50 Syrian orphans?
Prime Minister Andrej Babis, 64
The second richest man in the Czech Republic, Babis has said he wants to run the country like a corporation.
Moves toward autocracy
Journalists say they are under increasing pressure not to investigate the prime minister, who is facing a swirl of corruption allegations – including that he had his own son kidnapped as part of a cover-up.
Then came a stirring piece in Lidove Noviny — the country’s oldest newspaper — that seemed to bail him out.
Written by a Czech doctor with long experience on war’s front lines, it argued that the orphans would be better off left exactly where they were.
The only trouble: The doctor and her supposed humanitarian aid organization appear not to exist. And the piece had come to the paper straight from the office of Andrej Babis, who also happens to be Lidove Noviny’s owner.
“It became completely clear that Babis feeds the paper stories that are in his interest,” said Petra Prochazkova, who covered wars in Chechnya, Afghanistan and beyond for Lidove Noviny during a 26-year career — and who uncovered the deception around the supposed doctor. “The newspaper is complicit.”
In the days of Soviet client-states, the media were state-run and the Communist Party’s control was total.
Today, it’s the power of capitalism that gives politicians outsize influence over the press.
Across Central Europe, newspapers and television stations have been bought up by oligarchs allied with ruling party politicians.
In some cases, the oligarch and the politician are one and the same.
Babis, the Czech Republic’s second-richest man, purchased Lidove Noviny in 2013, just as he was launching a second career in politics.
The paper had been the favorite of Vaclav Havel — the playwright, dissident and, ultimately, president — as well as others among the Czech intelligentsia. Babis’s purchase, which included a mass-market daily, a television station and a radio station, instantly made him one of the nation’s biggest media barons.
Before becoming prime minister last year, he was forced to put all his companies in a trust. He has denied exerting influence over any editorial content, and the papers’ editors insist that Babis doesn’t meddle.
But they also argue that reporters are deluding themselves if they think the media are different from any other business in which the owner has an interest.
“If journalists are just realizing the newspaper is owned by [Babis’s company] Agrofert, five years after it was bought by Agrofert, they’re being naive and stupid,” said Jaroslav Plesl, editor of another paper in the Babis empire, the mass-market Mlada Fronta Dnes.
Prochazkova said her paper had gradually begun to echo Babis’s nationalist and anti-refugee views. But it wasn’t until the scandal over the story on Syrian orphans that she admitted it to herself. “I was given freedom to write what I wanted, so I turned a blind eye to what was happening,” said Prochazkova, who has since resigned.
Jaroslav Kmenta, a former investigative reporter for Mlada Fronta Dnes, didn’t wait. He quit the paper on the day it was sold to Babis. He and the paper’s former editor now work at a small start-up magazine that produces hard-hitting investigations — including ones focused on the prime minister.
In recent months, Kmenta said, he has been repeatedly called in for questioning by security services. They demand to know his sources and threaten him when he refuses. That, he said, is new in the Czech Republic. “There’s now constant pressure on us — pressure for every story we write,” he said.
For now, the Czech media are seen as freer than those of other countries in the region. Meanwhile, Babis is weaker than his counterparts in Hungary or Poland, and is engulfed in a corruption scandal that threatens his hold on the government.
But with all the models around him for consolidating control, Kmenta is not optimistic. Babis is a smart man, and the path to ever-greater power has become well-traveled.
“Just wait a few years,” Kmenta said. “This is only the beginning.”
About this story
This story was reported from Wroclaw and Warsaw in Poland; Budapest and Debrecen in Hungary; Bucharest in Romania and Prague in the Czech Republic. Michael Robinson Chavez, Gergo Saling, Andras Petho, Magdalena Foremska, Ladka Mortkowitz Bauerova and Ioana Burtea contributed to this report.
Photo credits: Viktor Orbán (Getty Images), Andrej Babis (AP), Liviu Dragnea (AP), Jaroslaw Kaczynski (AP)