Just ten years after their triumphant “return to Europe” in 2004, CEE countries are facing a very serious crisis of constitutional democracy. The crisis of constitutional democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, which coincides with the Eurozone crisis, has a specific origin. As examples from Hungary and Slovenia show, even the most advanced CEE democracies are not immune to this backsliding. In a relatively short period of time, both countries regressed from consolidated democracies into two distinct forms of semi-authoritarian and diminished democratic regimes. Particular worrying is the ease with which this regression occurred.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism, many Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries managed to “return to Europe”. For many observers, the “return to Europe” signaled the ultimate victory of democracy and rule of law over the legacy of totalitarianism in these countries. In contrast to this optimistic view, more cautious accounts argue that “democracies by their very nature are never definitely established.” Hungary recently adopted a new Constitution that directly dismantles basic checks and balances, entrenches a deeply problematic illiberal political order and undermines some of the basic principles of the EU political constitution. In Bulgaria, the institutionalization of cronyism, the subversion of stable normative frameworks and stalled state building are all leading to “post accession hooliganism,” which is further weakening an already “frustrated and disillusioned democracy.” Slovenia, one of the “success stories” of the transition, is experiencing its biggest constitutional and political crisis since its independence in 1991. It seems that only Poland has so far been able to resist the lure of authoritarianism.
As these examples of democratic fatigue, regression and backsliding into various forms of constitutional authoritarianism in Central and Eastern Europe show, the “return to Europe” is still not complete. While there has been significant progress in the development of “electoral democracy” in the region, “liberal democracy” still remains fragile and weak. Behind a façade of harmonized legal rules transposed from various EU legal sources, several cracks have begun to appear, exposing the fragility of constitutional democracy in the CEE countries.
As a consequence, CEE countries are once again displaying certain features of “lands in between” which call attention to their constantly precarious and indeterminate location on the political map of Europe. Zwischen-Europa, as some interwar German writers referred to this part of Europe, lies in the territory between the West and the Russian East and is said to have been the “unfinished part of Europe” for most of the 20th century. Its political and legal institutions were similarly “caught” in between the democratic West and the authoritarian East. As such, the “lands in between” should be an interesting case study for new literature on “competitive authoritarianism” which argues that between constitutional democracy and authoritarian rule, there are many intermediate and hybrid forms of “constitutional authoritarianism”.