The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Ukraine crisis may reinvigorate Eastern European democracies

Countries are now focused on Russia vs. Europe, rather than internal corruption

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, and Polish President Andrzej Duda shake hands after talks in Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 22. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)
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“This isn’t a war of two armies; it’s a war of two worldviews,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his May 9 address to the Ukrainian people and to the world. Indeed, over its three decades of independence, Ukraine has consolidated a competitive democracy, while Russia has entrenched an autocracy.

Ukrainians’ democratic views are inspired by the European Union, which promotes a set of liberal values — including the rule of law and civil and political rights. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime, on the other hand, promotes an alternative “Russian world” political vision that embraces cultural conservatism and relies on authoritarianism. Putin has justified the war as necessary to bring Ukraine “back” into the fold. Ukraine, meanwhile, resists and continues its quest for European integration.

The Baltic states are also worried about Russia

Ukraine’s fight for its own European future has inspired Eastern European governments, most of whom have pledged support for Ukraine and actively lobbied for a strong E.U. response. But Ukraine’s resistance may also produce an indirect effect on Eastern Europe’s democracies, by shifting their attention from political corruption at home and toward the clash of worldviews Zelensky invokes.

Pledges to root out corruption have a long history in party politics in Eastern Europe. But political science research suggests that so much emphasis on political corruption may have weakened parties and lowered trust in democratic institutions — and, in turn, helped fuel populism in Eastern Europe’s democracies. Russia’s war in Ukraine now appears to be inspiring a debate on European vs. Russian world values that could strengthen parties and politicians who propose value-backed policies. This shift could reinvigorate democracy.

A focus on corruption hurts democracy

Political corruption has been at the crux of Eastern European politics since the late 1990s, when a messy transition to the market economy produced politically powerful oligarchs. In the 2000s, Eastern European electorates got fed up with incumbents and started voting for unorthodox newcomer parties, which often quickly disappointed them. International organizations and many voters saw anticorruption policies as crucial to strengthening the rule of law and improving governance and economic performance.

However, a growing body of political science research shows that the focus on political corruption and anticorruption policies had unintended effects. Major anticorruption campaigns may aim to clean up politics, but research on such campaigns in Western and Eastern Europe, China and Latin America shows that they also end up increasing political cynicism and bolstering the perception that politics is rotten to the core.

For example, judicial anticorruption campaigns that jail politicians on corruption charges increase legislative party switching and electoral volatility, both of which destabilize party systems. In a recent paper, we argue that when corruption is the most salient issue in political discourse, the overall stock of conspiracy theories increases. Some voters who are well-informed about the real conspiracies often exposed in political corruption investigations start embracing other, baseless conspiratorial narratives. The line between fact and fiction becomes blurred. Political competitors then lob “deep state” conspiracy accusations at one another — and the conspiracy-laden political discourse undermines democratic competition and invites the rise of populist politicians.

Is Russia headed for a return to Stalinism?

So when the primary political battle is over corruption, we argue, democracy suffers. Eastern European countries bear the scars of this battle — populist politicians, democratic backsliding and low trust in institutions have affected many of these newer democracies.

Will the Europe vs. Russia battle change this mind-set?

A shift toward political competition structured around “Europe vs. Russia” could be a way out of the political quagmire. Like Ukraine, the post-Communist countries that joined the E.U. and NATO in the 1990s and 2000s were eager to move out of Russia’s geopolitical sphere of influence. They have experienced interference in their domestic politics, energy policy blackmail and disinformation campaigns coming from Russia, but their integration in Euro-Atlantic institutions has protected them from an invasion.

Estonia’s prime minister, Kaja Kallas, has explained her country’s staunch support for Ukraine’s fight in inspiring speeches about the contrast between European freedom and Russia’s “imperialistic dream.” Even in traditionally pro-Russian Bulgaria, the government has supported Ukraine, emphasizing that Bulgaria is a strong E.U. and NATO member and does not want the region to return to being a “vassal appendage” of Russia.

Eastern Europeans who now take pro-E.U. and pro-NATO positions for geopolitical security reasons may start paying more attention to issues commonly associated with a pro-European orientation. Such issues include gender equality, social equality, civil and political rights and even environmental justice.

We already have evidence that illustrates the move from geopolitical orientations to democratic attitudes. Russia’s 2014 geopolitical aggression in Ukraine produced a shift in popular support for Europe across Ukraine’s regions — and Ukrainians with a pro-European orientation are also more likely to hold democratic attitudes. Research on the 2020 antigovernment protests in Belarus, likewise, shows that participants who held pro-E.U. and anti-Russia views tended to hold more democratic attitudes.

The war in Ukraine is already leading to greater awareness of Russia’s interference — through disinformation and other means — in Eastern European countries. This focus is also likely to create pro-European majorities across the region, perhaps with the exceptions of Hungary and Serbia.

Broad calls for “de-Putinization” and “anti-rashism” — a term denouncing Russian neo-fascism — help unite people against aggression and authoritarianism. As most Eastern Europeans affirm that they belong with Europe, we can expect these pro-E.U. majorities to develop a stronger commitment to European democratic values. If parties want to connect with these voters, it follows that instead of debating which party and politicians are most corrupt, parties would be more successful if they turned to strengthening core European values and interests.

Check out all TMC’s coverage of the Russia and Ukraine crisis in our new topic guide: Russia and its neighbors

In Bulgaria, for example, attention has recently shifted from corruption investigations of the previous government and toward energy policy debates on how to wean Bulgaria from Russian gas supplies.

In sum, the war in Ukraine has made Europeans more aware and appreciative of the difference between “Europe” and the Russian world. Policy debates along this axis may gradually edge out tit-for-tat allegations of political corruption in Eastern European elections. And this trend seems likely to strengthen Eastern European party systems and democracy.

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Maria Popova is an associate professor of political science at McGill University. Find her on Twitter @PopovaProf.

Nikolay Marinov is a professor of political science at the University of Houston. Find him on Twitter @nikolayvmarinov.

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