Editorial

A Thematic Issue about Central and Eastern European Societies

in The International Journal of Social Quality
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  • 1 PhD Researcher, International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Netherlands novakova@iss.nl
  • 2 International Association on Social Quality, Netherlands vandermaesen@planet.nl

Days after the European Union resolved a dispute with Poland and Hungary over a rule of law mechanism that threatened to halt the bloc's €1.8tn budget and coronavirus recovery fund, the clash between the two sides is widening. Both countries saw opinions go against them in the EU's top court yesterday. What began as a confrontation over democracy and the law, moreover, is fast becoming a culture war. … Despite having a liberal-minded urban youth, Poland and Hungary remain, overall, more socially conservative than many western European societies. For both ruling parties, appeals to family values are popular with their rural, older voter base. But evocations of traditional values also create a narrative that obscures the true nature of the showdown with Brussels and western EU members. This is over democracy and rule of law: judicial reforms, restrictions on media and erosions of checks and balances that help PiS and Fidesz to entrench themselves in power. Instead, the two parties can claim to be fighting back against alleged EU attempts to impose “alien” liberal values on unwilling societies.

Financial Times, 17 December 2020

Over the past decade, the Hungarian leader has boasted of creating an “illiberal democracy” and has faced allegations of cronyism and corruption. Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has only been in power for five years but has also mounted an assault on judicial independence and rule of law in that time.

The Guardian, 9 December 2020

Bearing this division over central values in mind, this special issue steps toward an exploration of the contested region that is Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), shedding light on some of the ongoing complex societal developments that make it noteworthy.

Days after the European Union resolved a dispute with Poland and Hungary over a rule of law mechanism that threatened to halt the bloc's €1.8tn budget and coronavirus recovery fund, the clash between the two sides is widening. Both countries saw opinions go against them in the EU's top court yesterday. What began as a confrontation over democracy and the law, moreover, is fast becoming a culture war. … Despite having a liberal-minded urban youth, Poland and Hungary remain, overall, more socially conservative than many western European societies. For both ruling parties, appeals to family values are popular with their rural, older voter base. But evocations of traditional values also create a narrative that obscures the true nature of the showdown with Brussels and western EU members. This is over democracy and rule of law: judicial reforms, restrictions on media and erosions of checks and balances that help PiS and Fidesz to entrench themselves in power. Instead, the two parties can claim to be fighting back against alleged EU attempts to impose “alien” liberal values on unwilling societies.

Financial Times, 17 December 2020

Over the past decade, the Hungarian leader has boasted of creating an “illiberal democracy” and has faced allegations of cronyism and corruption. Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has only been in power for five years but has also mounted an assault on judicial independence and rule of law in that time.

The Guardian, 9 December 2020

Bearing this division over central values in mind, this special issue steps toward an exploration of the contested region that is Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), shedding light on some of the ongoing complex societal developments that make it noteworthy.

The Rationale of This Issue: Why a Focus on CEE?

Three decades have passed since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the series of revolutions that launched a Westward move of the former Eastern bloc in ideational, institutional, and politico-economic terms. Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), with the postcommunist but mostly not soviet states, was at the frontier of change in terms of spatiality and temporality alike. Many of the CEE countries labeled as “postcommunist” (e.g., Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia, the former Yugoslavia, Romania, and Poland) shared the same ideological history but differed from the soviet states because of their statehood and the consequent presence of their state apparatuses. In contrast, some of the states who formed the administrative part of the former Soviet Union are also located around Eastern Europe (such as Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Baltic States). The implications of this difference in institutional heritages remain traceable even as decades have passed, and they remain most notably in the form of various path-dependencies. Digging deeper into the precommunist history of the region, the majority of the CEE states were part of the Habsburg Empire with a center in Vienna (and hence part of the world of Western Christianity), whereas most of the EE states were historically affiliated with the Russian Empire (and hence part of the Eastern Orthodox world). Even if the CEE and EE countries entered the revolutions of the 1980s/early 1990s simultaneously, their long-durée historical differences played a role in shaping their political transitions (see, for example, Herrmann 2020 for the long-durée; and Snyder 2010 for the twentieth century overview of the regional complexities).

With one worldview of the previously bipolarized world discredited, it was largely seen as a question of time when the CEE states would integrate with the European Union (a union of already fifteen European states at that time). The consequent big-bang EU enlargement was implicitly understood as a liberal victory, a reunification of Europe, or at its minimum definition a major stepping stone to the unification of Europe. The first wave comprised the joining of the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia to the European Union in 2004, and they were followed by Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 and most lately Croatia, the former Yugoslav republic. More recently and further to the East, some former soviet republics reconfirm that a similar Westward aspiration remains unshattered, as demonstrated in the recently formed “deep and comprehensive” relations of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova with the European Union (with “association status,” rather than with “membership perspective”).

The International Association on Social Quality has a track record of working in the region, with more details available to the readers in the concluding article of this volume (systematized by Laurent van der Maesen in his “Concluding Remarks”). It was in the context of one such project, in cooperation with the National Academy of Sciences in Ukraine, that the initial idea of this special issue was born (cf. Heyets 2019; IASQ 2019; and Novakova 2017). The purpose of this issue is twofold: on the one hand, to extend the orientation of the social quality work to more CEE countries, and on the other to draw lessons from this particular economic and political context. As social quality scholars, we are convinced that outcomes of the processes in the CEE region are highly relevant to IASQ work in other contexts, especially to the ongoing Ukraine project (IASQ 2019).

With the series of revolutions in Central Eastern Europe of the twentieth century, and later in Eastern Europe of the twenty-first century—the last in Ukraine and the one possibly in the near future in Belarus—the questions surrounding the outcomes of revolution are intertwined with interpretations of the changing state of affairs in the older EU member states (former EU-15) and in the states of the CEE region (“new” EU member states, although the academic practice of calling them new members some sixteen years after joining the EU does sound odd). And their implications for those in Eastern Europe (i.e., the associated countries). These interpretations refer to (1) ideas and practices of democracy; (2) the underlying liberal assumptions behind these ideas and practices; (3) the result of these in the constitutions or the formally established conventions of states; (4) their translation into neoliberal capitalism and/or the desirability of and the modes of postsocialist capitalism; (5) the realization of normatively based orientations as per declarations about human rights; and (6) the meanings of illiberal democracy, Christian-oriented conservatism, and nationalism. Looking at these past four decades, we can point out major weaknesses in all of these interpretations:

  • The lack of a communicative consensus about these concepts and their ontological and epistemological meanings in the European Union as a whole;
  • The lack of a consensus about the similarities of and differences between the older member states and between the states of the CEE region and the overall similarities of and differences between both regions (with many hoping for the gaps to just close and to close quicker); and
  • The lack of an accepted overall analytical framework for understanding the first, for understanding the second, and for understanding their connection (IASQ 2019).

For example, the liberal assumptions underlying “liberalism” in the context of European debates at the end of the eighteenth century differ essentially from the content of the adjective “neoliberal” as understood within the context of “neoliberal capitalism.” If a political constellation of democratic states can aspire to values and conventions emergent from the liberalism of the eighteenth century, than the concept of “illiberal democracy” is a contradiction in terms. This is not the case with “neoliberal capitalism” because the adjective is not derived from liberalism, but from capitalism. And the kernel of capitalism refers to utilitarian-individualistic assumptions (Westbroek et al. 2020). The adjective is aimed to give a specific qualification of capitalism: this can be more or less liberal in the sense of the operationalization of these utilitarian assumptions.

Back to the empirical developments, some fifteen years after the revolutions, the CEE region successfully integrated “with” (or “into,” to be more precise) Western structures: the European Union, NATO, and even the OECD. This integration represented a success story for liberalism. However, in this context liberalism refers to various things simultaneously, which at times are difficult to disentangle from each other. Fast-forward to today, over thirty years after the revolutions, and a sense of a political crisis has penetrates this region with an ever-increasing salience and touches upon its political, cultural, and economic dimensions. And it is a crisis of liberalism. An erosion of the rule of law on the one hand and the rise of “antisystemic” radicalization on the other appear to be the common denominators, although they have taken various local forms. Antiliberal radicalization found strong support among those who feel left behind by the advancement of (neo)liberal globalization, a process global in its nature but particular in how it is embedded in its regional expression, which in our cases comes in the contest of the European Union. These people have been joined by those who feel that their traditional values are threatened by cultural liberalism.

As a result, now, three decades after the rupture with its totalitarian past, the region is showing signs—all over—of increasing support for authoritarian populism. It would be an easily tempting strategy to simply blame the development divide or the fact that the socioeconomic gap between the former East and West did not close as quickly as many had hoped. Nevertheless, as highlighted during the EU budget crisis last year, the repercussions of this divide clearly surpass the level of simple socioeconomic questions. The disagreements over what rule of law should mean—and the fierce opposition by CEE member states to a rule-of-law conditionality—reflect a rift of a different kind. On the institutional level, a radicalization of political leadership in various states has led to strong disagreements about values which EU states were previously more or less all in agreement about. At the societal level, there is a divide in cultural mores, one that has given rise to such an open radicalization of the political leadership in various CEE states. If we are to believe the Eurobarometer, then an East–West divergence persists in citizen beliefs about what priorities and policy turns their governments should have and take, or what issues should be of major concern to their leaders. All of this leads us to one key question.

What Is Happening in the Societies in Central and Eastern Europe?

It should be noted that the current “liberalism” crisis in the former East is deeply connected with the crisis of the “model” in the West, yet it has taken a different turn, as it is rooted in deeper historical legacies, on the one hand, and ongoing global changes, on the other. “Model” is used here in quotation marks because there was no (and there is no) Western model per se, neither in theory nor in practice. Numerous scholars (from the West and the East alike) have indeed argued that we can speak about a model, but in doing so have only objectified and reified this confusing and erroneous use of language (Herrmann 2020). Externally, the region has been subject to several external shocks: the global financial crisis, the sovereign debt crisis within the European Union, and a great deal of anxiety about immigration at a time of growing precarity). These are shocks that have led to democratic backsliding elsewhere too (Lührmann and Lindberg 2019). But the reaction to these shocks has been distinct within the social terrain—meaning the personal, interpersonal, and collective circumstances—of the so-called “newer EU member states,” especially in the Visegrad group of countries.

The scholarship on CEE now pays an ever-increasing attention to studying the illiberal turn (e.g., Fagan et al. 2020; Waldner and Lust 2018), democratic backsliding (Cianetti et al. 2018), right-wing authoritarian innovations (Enyedi 2020), and ethnopopulism (Vachudova 2020) in the region. However, the symptoms of a crisis ought not to be conflated with the crisis itself. The erosion of what was believed to be values shared EU-wide is not the crisis itself,and the rise of support for illiberal populism that enables the authoritarians to get a grip on power is not at the root of the crisis. These are mere symptoms of the crisis, which unfolded at a deeper level. It is a human tendency to conflate the symptoms and causes of a crisis over time: it just becomes too tempting to do so (Jessop and Knio 2018). That might explain why studies are devoted largely to the symptoms, with much less attention going to the crisis itself and its societal roots.

A distinction between political liberalism, economic liberalism, and cultural liberalism is often appreciated as illuminating within mainstream political science. For example, following Jan Kubik (2020), political liberalism or liberal democracy is a political system in which “the rule of the majority is constrained by a system of checks and balances, most crucially the rule of law.” Second, cultural liberalism is a “social philosophy, a type of culture or social imaginary in which the value of individual choice and the right to individual self-determination and reinvention are central.” And economic liberalism, by contrast, in its phases since 1980s labeled as neoliberalism, refers to “an economic program or regime that asserts the power of markets as the most efficient panacea for economic and social ills” (Kubik 2020). Heterodox perspectives deem such arbitrary distinction as detrimental to the study of a phenomenon. In political economy, most economics is inherently political, while the political and the economic are inherently intertwined with the cultural (Sum and Jessop 2015). From a societal perspective, social quality scholars make instead a distinction between the four dimensions of societal circumstances—in the context of several conceptual and analytical frameworks—offering a possibly more appropriate alternative (IASQ 2019).

On a related yet analytically unrelated note, attributing this crisis to the process of catching up with the West has gained much traction in recent years. Some scholars point out that the transformation process of CEE is as yet incomplete (Morys 2020), while others, on the contrary, highlight a crisis in the actual direction of the transition (Appel and Orenstein 2018). For some the crisis has not to do with the supposed model per se, but rather with a mismatch between high expectations, based on often unrealistic popular beliefs about the model, and the outcomes of the transitional process for parts of the population. In their thesis about how liberalism became “the god that failed in CEE,” Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes (2020) claim that the pre-1989 antagonistic relationship between two alternative models of societal development was replaced by a relationship between the imitated and the imitating—a relationship in which many shared a positive myth rather than a realistic assessment of the Western model(s). Once the unfounded optimism of 1989 evaporated, simultaneous feelings of trust largely vanished on both sides, too. In recent years, this myth about the West has been replaced with another myth across CEE—a much less appealing one about the decaying West. In that sense, the crisis of liberalism is a part of a cultural counterrevolution (cf. Krastev 2019; and Zielonka and Rupnik 2020) ongoing in the region of Central Eastern Europe—a region that in three decades underwent changes more rapid and more drastic than any undergone by Western societies. In the words of Timothy Garton Ash (2020), the former Eastern world post-1989 underwent a historically unique process of attempting to convert a fish soup back into an aquarium, while nobody could empirically know whether that was even possible. Furthermore, it should be noted here that this sui generis transformation experiment started at the end of the twentieth century, a century that has in the CEE region been much more dramatic than in Western Europe. The two “isms” between and after the two world wars left irretrievable changes on the societal fabric of this region, which has poignantly been labeled as “bloodlands” (Snyder 2010).

This special issue will zoom in on the contested CEE region, with a focus on several societal factors that make it distinct from the perspective of social quality. It aims to explore the current societal context of the transition, which will be approached from the perspective of changes in the social quality of daily circumstances and by using case studies from the region, especially from the Visegrad group (V4) of states: Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Several instances in recent years have highlighted a gap between the older EU member states and the V4 states to such a degree that these became the face of the “troublemakers” with illiberal tendencies in the European Union. Most recently, the claim of the Hungarian leadership that “my rule of law is not your rule of law” opened an EU-wide dispute over the understanding and enforcement of rule of law. Hungarian and Polish leaders brought the negotiations over the EU multiannual budget to a stalemate, threatening to veto any resolution that did not take their view of this “shared value” into consideration. Previously, the Visegrad group made headlines when it sued the European Commission in a protest against the Union's openness to migrants during the refugee crisis. When faced with the uneasy task of choosing which case studies to include, preference was given to these four “troublemakers.” So geographically speaking, the case studies in this special issue focus predominantly (though not exclusively) on the societies of these V4 countries.

Last but not least, in view of the social quality scholars’ interest in lessons to be drawn from the above context, especially with regard to the ongoing IASQ project in Ukraine, one article is devoted to this theme, thereby enlarging the scope of this issue.

A Social Quality Toolbox and the Complexities of the CEE Context

Thematically, this issue uses the social quality toolbox to dive into the complexities of the CEE context. Together, the articles open an empirical investigation into the V4 countries via an exploration of four dimensions of societal complexity. They will look at the socioeconomic dimension, the sociopolitical dimension, the sociocultural dimension, and the socioenvironmental dimension. It remains a rather tentative exploration, because this frame of reference is relatively new.

Several leitmotifs appear across the articles: (a) the extent to which people are able to participate in soci(et)al relationships under conditions that enhance their well-being, capacity, and individual potential—and the issue of the participation gap; (b) the persistently low levels of trust in society and its impact upon all four dimensions of social quality; (c) societal polarization with strong links to the previous two points; and (d) the changing global landscape, where liberal democracy is no longer a “there-is-no-alternative” kind of scenario for development. Taken together, the articles accentuate the necessity to strengthen the conditional factors of social quality theory: especially social inclusion and social cohesion and their various domains. In the context of social quality theory (SQT), social inclusion concerns the nature of membership of societies, while social cohesion is the primary means of developing interhuman relationships, connections, and relations. The articles speak to and explore the core domain of the latter, which is “trust in people and institutions,” and the core domain of the former, namely, “participation,” which on an individual level gives people a sense of ownership and social responsiveness in their lives and on a societal level it makes democracy work.

In other words, and as elaborated in the closing article, the case studies presented in this issue examine the state of affairs of SQT by looking at observable realities in the above-mentioned socioeconomic and sociopolitical dimensions. The lack of SQT's attention to “participation,” however, poses a new challenge (as does its lack of attention paid to “trust” in society, which is an interlinked but analytically distinct concept). The elaboration of the concept and praxis of social trust is basis on which to examine the recent trend in CEE countries of an increase in what can be termed “illiberal economics,” “illiberal politics,” or “illiberal democracy,” as well as the decline of “the rule of law,” a trend that is evidenced by the fierce debates ranging in the countries themselves and between the countries and their Western counterparts in the European Union.

It is in this context that the first article presents the framework of SQT in order to pave the way for a new type of analysis and a new type of research. In this article, the social terrain mapped by the four foundational factors of social quality is laid out. It looks at the relations of these factors to four areas: formal institutions, social cohesion, social inclusion, and social empowerment, the latter being a result of the developments in the previous three areas. It raises a pertinent question: why is it that, three decades after a revolution, a country can rank well on the indicators standardly employed for evaluating the outcomes of political transition and yet have a public that does not seem to share such an optimistic appraisal at all? In answering this question, the article seeks to explore some of the paradoxes in studying transitions, especially the tendency in the relevant scholarly literature to ignore “the social,” to limit its scope through narrow definitions, or to compartmentalize any study of sociospatial context. In a case study from Slovakia, Zuzana Reptova Novakova suggests ways in which paying attention to “the social,” defined as the extent to which people are able to participate in societal relationships under conditions that enhance their well-being, capacity, and individual potential, can shed a different light on the transition or transformation of societal realities. Slovak society is an interesting case: just a few years ago, the importance of democracy to the citizens there was lowest among EU member states.

The second article, which looks specifically at the reciprocity between the sociopolitical dimension and the sociocultural dimension, speaks strongly to the leitmotif of social cohesion. Or, to be more precise, it examines the lack of it, which resulted, in this case, in strong societal polarization. In a case study from Poland, where the fierce civic protests of 2020 highlighted strong cleavages among members of the public, Michał Gulczyński claims that such levels of civic engagement, unprecedented since the beginning of the democratic transformation, are in fact a by-product of this polarization. His question about the roots of the current polarization takes the reader deeper into the process of the intertwining between an uneven geometry of “economic development” and deep-seated cultural and ethical concerns. Once the common goals bonding Polish society—civil rights, a market economy, accession to the European Union and NATO—had been achieved, a large part of it rejected liberalism on different fronts: economic liberalism, the unannounced cultural change resulting from the transformation (cultural liberalism), and to a degree, political liberalism too, as highlighted in the ruling party's authoritarian grip and a lack of respect for rule of law. The author explores how the type of welfare benefits expansion pioneered by the controversial illiberal party in power impacted upon and reinforced the sense of social recognition, a constitutional factor of social quality, strengthening the related conditional factor of social inclusion. Also examined is how this enabled the party to stay in power while also pursuing a change from the “rule of law” to the “rule by law.” Under the framework of social quality, each of the conditional factors contributes to the concretization of the social by enhancing the related constitutional factor: social cohesion, for example, enhances social recognition. This article maps the socioeconomic and sociocultural foundations of this cleavage, showing how Poland's most authoritarian frontrunner party (PiS) exploits the deficits in both social cohesion and (consequently) social recognition by deploying polarizing and nationalist rhetoric, on the one hand, and by the “redistribution of dignity,” on the other.

An article by Ferenc Bódi and Ralitsa Savova approaches the basis for the rise of support for illiberal authoritarianism in society from a different perspective. In their case study from Hungary, they reflect on some of the specific sociocultural images and attitudes that underpin the political narrative in a society that was socialized into a dictatorship. In this third article, they highlight elements of the history of Hungary as a part of the CEE region, as without this knowledge it is quite difficult to understand what populations in this part of Europe have undergone up until the present. With this background, the reader can better understand the nature of the current developments in and between the four societal processes relevant in social quality theory and analysis. If a successful transformation of a political regime requires a new legal system, a new economic system, and a new social value system, the latter will always be influenced by past events. Or to be more precise, latter will always be influenced by the interpretation of those past events and the narratives that are evoked therein, including the disappeared multiethnic milieu, radical depeasantization, a social value crisis, and the sociocultural impact of paternalism. Recognizing the lack of an accepted overall analytical framework for understanding the impact of these processes on CEE and their role in the overall East–West divide within the European Union, the article presents some food for thought in conceiving Hungary as an authoritarian party aristocracy that relies on the paternalism of a population socialized under previous regimes while also relying—at least as far as the middle class is concerned—on access to EU funds.

A subsequent case study by Nicole Horáková takes us back to the domain of social cohesion, a domain strongly interwoven with questions of trust in society. The essence of social cohesion is human engagement, as it is the primary way in which to develop healthy relationships among individuals. Greater participation in society—and hence in the realization of the social—is correlated with higher levels of trust. A transfer of trust to state and government institutions is an important characteristic of modern societies. Yet, postcommunist countries are generally characterized by low levels of trust in society. The populations of Central Eastern European countries lack trust in state institutions and in democratic structures. In this article, the author sets out to explore the reasons that led to this palpable loss of trust. In an attempt to explain the decline in trust in the contemporary Czech Republic, a notorious case in this regard, this article adds another piece to the puzzle, explaining the reasons for people's trust and mistrust in political intuitions. This article enriches the social quality perspective on this important aspect of the socioeconomic, the sociopolitical, and the sociocultural dimensions of societal life by bringing historical, cultural, and institutional elements to bear in its analysis. It breaks down the elements of trust in political parties, political institutions, and leading political representatives. Although it focuses on the case of the Czech Republic, it also discusses Central and Eastern Europe more broadly, raising multiple questions for SQT in relation to the region, including about the adequacy of the social quality indicators of social cohesion and the need for their further elaboration in view of the specific regional context.

An article by Tadashi Hirai follows on the leitmotif of trust, examining the interplay between participation in societal development and low-trust contexts and arguing that the nexus between participation and trust plays a key role in societal processes toward democracy. Although this specific case study is not per se focused on the CEE region, there are sound theoretical, practical, and methodological reasons for including it in this issue. It adds a broader theoretical perspective on participation as the kernel of social inclusion, one that goes beyond the context of the CEE countries themselves. The world of development interventions has for some decades been dominated by the participation imperative, but the impact of low trust in society upon the outcomes of an intervention has not received much attention—and even less so when it comes to the difficult context of postcommunist countries with historical experiences of “organized” participation. To demonstrate the quality of participation and its relevance to trust, this article looks at an example from Eastern Europe, where trust is even lower than in the CEE region: Ukraine. It then proceeds to offer a comparative study of several different contexts with varying levels of trust in the West, East, and further East, so as to robustly illustrate the impact of trust on the quality of participation. Hirai presents some of the many views on participation—the manipulative, the passive, the instrumentalist, the consultative, the functionalist, and the interactive—and then explores different interpretations of the concept of participation and related praxis. Interpretations of the concept range from those that really enhance people's well-being, capacities and potential, all the way to those that are more stringent and top-down in nature. Finally, he connects the outcomes of his analysis of participation as a domain of social inclusion with trust as a domain of social cohesion. He argues that this nexus plays a key role in societal processes which pave the way for (acceptable) democratic institutions, attitudes, conventions, and values. This exercise could contribute to a future application of the social quality approach (SQA) (in light of the IASQ work on Ukraine), in that it highlights an indissoluble connection between the sociopolitical dimension and the socioeconomic and sociocultural dimensions. More fundamentally, to the extent that “a form of participation” is essential to social quality, this exercise could yield significant insights into the relevance of trust to the quality of participation.

The last article, by Gracjan Cimek, steps out of the framework of studying societies. Instead, his article offers a look at the CEE region from the perspective of external circumstances. As discussed earlier in this editorial, the transitions from 1989 onward unfolded in a sort of unipolar world, in the sense that there was only one model for successful societal development at hand. That is obviously no longer the case today, with the changing global landscape where liberalism in all its meanings is no longer the only imaginable scenario. Other models have emerged, showcasing their successes in advancing the conditions of life of their societies, still via economic growth but in other politico-economic modes of being. As a result, the “go West” or stagnate is no longer an imperative for CEE societies. Combine this with the transatlantic rift and the decreasing relevance of Europe on global stage, the question of which geopolitical actor to be aligned with now has crucial implications. In this context, this study presents the impact of the changing world order on the situation of Central and Eastern Europe. It zooms into the characteristics of geopolitical conditions and their impact upon the region, within the emerging multipolar order, manifested in the various developmental projects such as the 17 + 1 format, the Belt and Road Initiative, and the Three Seas Initiative. These reflections deliver a departure point for thinking about the impact of structural conditions on the global scale upon further societal developments in the region and upon how these structural changes feed into the growing animosity toward the EU, a phenomenon which most Central European countries are a part of. This article aims to present more insight into cross-country political and economic processes determined by sociopolitical and socioeconomic national processes—and especially by national sociocultural influences on the interpretation of the reciprocity between international and national determinants.

This issue ends with extensive concluding remarks by Laurent van der Maesen, the director of the International Association on Social Quality, incorporating the elements of a mosaic brought forward in these six articles into the wider framework of IASQ work and delivering points of departure for strengthening social quality theory and the social quality approach. Due to the long persistence of the Iron Curtain, a completely free, open, and critically embedded debate about similarities and differences between the two regions and the meaning of these was nipped in the bud. As hinted upon in the six articles of this special issue, the ascension of CEE countries into the European Union is perceived by many within the region as the possibility or the necessity to imitate the Western European model of governance. But there was never and is no “Western model.” There are many societal approaches in the older EU member states, which are determined by historical pathways of each country. And many from the Western region perceived the new connection with CEE countries as the insertion of an undifferentiated whole of “postcommunist states.” In this context, the concluding remarks introduce the earlier studies on CEE countries through the lens of social quality, as drawn between 1999 and 2010; some of the more recent elaborations in SQT and the social quality approach between 2010 and 2015; and the currently ongoing research projects related to the CEE region at the IASQ. All the preceding articles of this volume are examined as additions to social quality as a conceptual and analytical framework as well as in the context of a wider procedural framework.

Social Quality as a Theoretical Framework: Previous IASQ Work

This frame of reference was elaborated in the IASQs’ (2019) working paper 17, which is available on IASQ's website, where, with help of the distinction between four dimensions, we may pave the way for applying the same analytical framework consisting of SQT and the SQA to all relevant processes in each dimension. This will deliver the point of departure for connecting the various outcomes of these processes within and between these dimensions. An earlier example of the application of this procedure can be found in the study about the transformation of the field of “societal complexities” in Ukraine in the past decades (Novakova 2017). Usually, these dimensions are approached by scientific disciplines in a separate way, one that reflects implicit irreconcilable ontological assumptions. This prevents interdisciplinary connections with regard not only to ontology but to epistemology and thus methodology as well. This means that we wind up with a disorderly amalgam of fragmented knowledge and interpretations. The ambition of SQT and the SQA is to go beyond this lack of interdisciplinarity (Westbroek et al. 2020) .

In this thematic issue, particular attention is devoted to the sociopolitical and the sociocultural dimension. It concerns the question how interaction of some of the processes unfolding in these dimensions belonging to the field of “societal complexities” contribute to the current liberal democracy crisis in the CEE region.

Interpretations about Common Perspectives

If lessons are to be drawn from the democratization and “Westernization” experience of Central and Eastern Europe, their prime space for application would be in the Eastern Europe of today, the countries where repeated revolutionary waves kept striking at a different temporality (with the last in Ukraine and one possibly in the near future in Belarus). In this context, an empirical example of the related fundamental confusions can be traced in the modes of work of the European Commission's “Support Group for Ukraine.” In its 2017 Report, the European Commission explains (based on the work of the Support Group) that:

Ukraine has continued to undertake political and economic reforms in numerous key sectors, in the context of its political association and economic integration with the EU. It has also continued to successfully address significant macroeconomic imbalances. Through policy dialogue and financial assistance, the EU, in collaboration with international partners, has supported measures notably aiming at improved governance, in the fight against corruption, judiciary reform, public administration reform and decentralization. Continuous emphasis has been placed in support for the implementation of the Association Agreement. (EC 2017: 16)

The Agreement refers to the Lisbon Treaty of the European Union, which was signed in March of 2000. In other words, it functions as the EC's frame of reference. In Article 2 of the Treaty, the emphasis is placed on such values as “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.” The Agreement also refers to Article 3 of the Treaty, aiming at the establishment of “an internal market. It shall work for the sustainable development of Europe based on balanced economic growth and price stability, a highly competitive social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress, and a high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment” (IASQ 2019: n. 32). This frame of reference and thus the reporting by the European Commission is of interest because both documents combine facts, suppositions, and desirable and realistic but also seemingly unrealistic political ambitions. The concepts in Article 2, for example, refer to an amalgam of highly different theories and practices that are not based on a comprehensive understanding of the essence of the four societal dimensions outlined above.

The working method of the European Support Group in Ukraine demonstrates the lack of a comprehensive vision about Ukraine. In a completely eclectic way, it presents separate, admittedly interesting, examples of renewal of the four societal dimensions from different countries. But the differences between these countries—expressed in the context of their own societal development and transition (via-à-vis the four dimensions)—are not discussed or analyzed. An interesting example from France concerning the socioeconomic dimension and an interesting example from Italy concerning the sociopolitical dimension are put forward in a piece of advice offered to Ukraine. But both examples can be referring to contrasting principles. This can be multiplied by a factor of one thousand, which will undoubtedly guarantee chaos (IASQ 2019). The essential differences between the member states of the European Union (as stated in the study by the European Social Observatory on Social Policy) result in such a situation that “the cooperation between Member States is characterized by increasing mistrust, or even outright conflict” (Vanhercke et al. 2016: 9). Conflicts can be resolved. But with this in mind, the ostentative lack of application of an acceptable analytical framework by the European Support Group for Ukraine and the legalization of this lack by the European Commission cannot stand the light of day.

This intellectual and policy attitude was already commonplace in the context of the European Union in the beginning of the twenty-first century. The Lisbon Treaty was infected by a dominant European stream of neoliberalism. This was a reason for the start of the social quality theory and approach (Beck et al. 1997). That start was applauded in circles of the European Commission, because it could be a “productive factor” for economic progress: “This European form of economistic reasoning placed all other policies in a handmaiden position to the economic and that is the way it stayed” (Van der Maesen et al. 2012: 22).

But let us get back to the story of Central and Eastern Europe, referring back to the societal histories and outcomes of the older EU-15 member states to an impressive sociopolitical movement trying to cope with processes in the socioeconomic dimension in a balanced way. The European Union at that time paved the way for applying the neoliberal World Bank agenda for the Central and Eastern European accession countries. This was a policy that was not in accordance with these histories. The Grand old Lady of social policy in Hungary, Zsuzsa Ferge, warned that “the weakening of the existing approach [in the EU member countries] in the accession countries may antagonize their citizens [of the first countries] who may then use the accession countries as scapegoats. If the EU members do not follow the monetarist recipe [as applied in the accession countries] the gap will grow between Eastern and Western Europe. The accession countries may decrease the level of their public commitments, and they may create new institutions such as a two-tier, disintegrative system of health or education” (IASQ 2019: note 24). She expressed her concern about the maintenance of a genuine welfare benefit system, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. Some years later, the Hungarian scholar Ga˙bor Juha˙sz concluded that “the rationalization and simplification of the [applied] open method of co-ordination [by the European Union] also has the potential to decrease the importance of particular fields [health, income security, education etc.]. This could weaken EU's influence on national social policies of its members states” (IASQ 2019: n. 25). With the help of the application of social quality indicators, Ferenc Bódi and colleagues demonstrated in their recent study of four Central Eastern European countries, that employment possibilities and fair income are of a huge concern for those living there. This main aspect of the socioeconomic dimension influences negatively upon the processes in the three other dimensions of the CEE countries (IASQ 2019: n. 26). Such an excursion into the history of the accession process demonstrates again the lack of a consensus on the essential assumptions underlying the building of the European Union and one concerning the related logically built analytical framework.

With all this background in mind, we invite you to enjoy reading Volume 10 (2), a special issue on the political transformation processes in Central and Eastern Europe three decades after the start of their express route toward democracy and capitalism.

References

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    • Crossref
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  • Vachudova, M. A. 2020. “Ethnopopulism and Democratic Backsliding in Central Europe.” East European Politics 36 (3): 318340. doi:10.1080/21599165.2020.1787163.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Van der Maesen, L. J. G., and Walker, A. (eds). 2012. Social Quality: From Theory to Indicators. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Vanhercke, B., Natali, D., and Bouget, D. (eds). 2016. Social Policy in the European Union: State of Play. Brussels: Etui.

  • Waldner, D., and Lust, E. 2018. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science 21 (1): 93113. doi:10.1146/annurev-polisci-050517-114628.

    • Crossref
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  • Westbroek, J., H. Nijhuis, and van der Maesen, L. J. G. 2020. “Evolutionary Thermodynamics and Theory of Social Quality as Links between Physics, Biology, and the Human Sciences.” International Journal of Social Quality 10 (1): 5786. doi:10.3167/IJSQ.2020.100104.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zielonka, J., and Rupnik, J. 2020. “From Revolution to ‘Counter-Revolution’: Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe 30 Years On.” Europe-Asia Studies 72 (6): 10731099. doi:10.1080/09668136.2020.1784394.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

The International Journal of Social Quality

(formerly The European Journal of Social Quality)

  • Appel, H., and Orenstein, M. A. 2018. From Triumph to Crisis: Neoliberal Economic Reform in Postcommunist Countries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Beck, W. A., van der Maesen, L. J. G. and Walker, A. C. (eds). 1997. Social Quality of Europe. The Hague: Kluwer Law International.

  • Cianetti, L., Dawson, J., and Hanley, S. 2018. “Rethinking ‘Democratic Backsliding’ in Central and Eastern Europe: Looking beyond Hungary and Poland.” East European Politics 34 (3): 243256. doi:10.1080/21599165.2018.1491401.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • EC (European Commission). 2017. Joint Staff Working Document: Association Implementation Report on Ukraine. Brussels: EC SWD.

  • Enyedi, Z. 2020. “Right-Wing Authoritarian Innovations in Central and Eastern Europe.” East European Politics 36 (3): 363377. doi:10.1080/21599165.2020.1787162.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fagan, A., Kopecký, P., Bustikova, L., and Pirro, Andrea L. P. 2020. “Anniversary Symposium, ‘1989 at 30 Years’.” East European Politics 36 (3): 315317. doi:10.1080/21599165.2020.1800185.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Financial Times. 2020. “EU's Rule of Law Clash Is Becoming a Culture War.” Financial Times, 17 December. https://www-ft-com.eur.idm.oclc.org/content/90ba45cc-1978-4b69-8733-a6b84f22fb6a.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Garton Ash, T. (2020) “Ako liberáli sme podcenili konzervatívny inštinkt mnohých ľudí” (We the liberals have underestimated the conservative instinct of masses), DennikN, 16 November 2020, https://dennikn.sk/2144494/historik-ash-ako-liberali-sme-podcenili-konzervativny-instinkt-mnohych-ludi/

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Herrmann, P. 2020. “The Transformation that Could Not Happen—or: There Won't Be a Clear Answer as long as We Ask the Wrong Question.” Working paper 18, IASQ. https://socialquality.org/wp-content/uploads/IASQ-Working-Paper-18.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Heyets, V. 2019. “Social Quality in a Transitive Society.” International Journal of Social Quality 9 (1): 3250. doi:10.3167/IJSQ.2019.090103.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • IASQ (International Association on Social Quality). 2019. “Ideas and Reflections about the Application and Elaboration of the Social Quality Approach (SQA) in Central and Eastern European Countries: The Case of Ukraine.” Working paper 17, IASQ. https://socialquality.org/wp-content/uploads/IASQ-Working-Paper-17-4.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jessop, B., and Knio, K. (eds). 2018. The Pedagogy of Economic Crises: Crisis Dynamics, Construals, and Lessons. Abingdon, UK: Routledge

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Krastev, I. 2019. “How Liberalism Became ‘the God that Failed’ in Eastern Europe.” The Guardian, 24 October. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/24/western-liberalism-failed-post-communist-eastern-europe.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Krastev, I., and Holmes, S. 2020. The Light that Failed. London: Penguin Books.

  • Kubik, J. 2020. “Against the Imitation Thesis: A Critical Reading of The Light That Failed by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes.” The Concilium Civitas Almanac, Volume 2. http://conciliumcivitas.pl/concilium-civitas-almanac-2020-2021-professor-jan-kubik-against-the-imitation-thesis-a-critical-reading-of-the-light-that-failed-by-ivan-krastev-and-stephen-holmes/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lührmann, A., and Lindberg, I. L. 2019. “A Third Wave of Autocratization Is Here: What Is New About It?” Democratization 26 (7): 10951113. doi:10.1080/13510347.2019.1582029.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Morys, M. 2020. The Economic History of Central, East and South-East Europe. London: Routledge.

  • Novakova, Z. 2017. “Four Dimensions of Societal Transformation: An Introduction to the Problematique of Ukraine.” International Journal of Social Quality 7 (2): 129. doi:10.3167/IJSQ.2017.070202.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Snyder, T. 2010. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic Books.

  • Sum, N. L., and Jessop, B. 2015. Towards a Cultural Political Economy: Putting Culture in its Place in Political Economy. Northampton, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Vachudova, M. A. 2020. “Ethnopopulism and Democratic Backsliding in Central Europe.” East European Politics 36 (3): 318340. doi:10.1080/21599165.2020.1787163.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Van der Maesen, L. J. G., and Walker, A. (eds). 2012. Social Quality: From Theory to Indicators. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Vanhercke, B., Natali, D., and Bouget, D. (eds). 2016. Social Policy in the European Union: State of Play. Brussels: Etui.

  • Waldner, D., and Lust, E. 2018. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science 21 (1): 93113. doi:10.1146/annurev-polisci-050517-114628.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Westbroek, J., H. Nijhuis, and van der Maesen, L. J. G. 2020. “Evolutionary Thermodynamics and Theory of Social Quality as Links between Physics, Biology, and the Human Sciences.” International Journal of Social Quality 10 (1): 5786. doi:10.3167/IJSQ.2020.100104.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zielonka, J., and Rupnik, J. 2020. “From Revolution to ‘Counter-Revolution’: Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe 30 Years On.” Europe-Asia Studies 72 (6): 10731099. doi:10.1080/09668136.2020.1784394.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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