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Changing realities in Central and Eastern Europe

15 years ago, on 1 May 2004, eight post-communist countries from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) joined the European Union (EU). The accession of Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia followed by Bulgaria and Romania only three years later, marked the EU’s biggest enlargement. Government & Opposition introduces its second Virtual Special Issue for 2019, focusing on the evaluation of political experiences in CEE after joining the EU.

The enlargement process was not only seen as advantageous for Europe by bringing to an end  a long-lasting artificial divide, but it was also assumed that the integration of the post-communist  states will be beneficial to their democratic consolidation. One of the two founding political scientists of Government & Opposition, Romanian anti-totalitarian militant Ghita Ionescu, wrote in 1972 that he believed the Eastern European states would ‘rejoin’ Europe, but that they would do so all the sooner if the European Community and its member states knew how to adopt the right policies towards them.

Without a doubt, the EU enlargement contributed to the re-unification of the continent. But “the return to Europe”, as Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the former Polish Prime Minister, called it in his 1990 speech at the forum of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, was not always smooth. The inclusion of new member states in the EU created widespread public uncertainty about its consequences for both the new members and the EU itself. On both sides, institutions, policies and even social values required adjustments.

Several scholars investigated how CEE countries experienced the transformation from a communist state towards an integral and important part of the European Union. How each country responded to the political and economic reconfigurations is undoubtedly affected by their economic circumstances, political landscape and historical background.

Contributors for Government & Opposition have been active in researching these specific aspects, comparing concrete country cases. Brian Grodsky, looking at Poland, evaluates what happened when members of pro-democracy movements entered the state after the fall of communism. He argues that institutional pressures turn prior affiliations into a liability rather than an asset. R. Daniel Kelemen evaluates how the EU addresses still existing democratic deficits within its member states. Looking at Poland and Hungary, he demonstrates that legal mechanisms may constrain but not always prevent autocratic tendencies within democratic federations such as the EU.

Comparing party systems in Western Europe and Central and Eastern Europe, Vincenzo Emanuele, Alessandro Chiaramonte and Sorina Soare show evidence of an asymmetric convergence in the levels of volatility between the two European areas and that regional distinctions are no longer significant. Caroline Werkmann and Sergiu Gherghina compare nine radical right parties in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania between 1990 and 2014 to explain the variation in electoral success. They demonstrate that consistent ideological discourse, extensive party propaganda to make their ideology visible to the electorate, continuity of party leadership and strong party organisation are key for a right wing party’s electoral success.

Besnik Pula analyses labour market institutions in Central and Eastern Europe through a comparative analysis of reforms in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia. He finds that trade unions played a key role in early institutional settlements over labour markets. Related to the labour-market but focusing on the workplace itself, Isabela Mares, Aurelian Muntean and Tsveta Petrova investigate electoral intimidation of voters at their workplace in Romania and Bulgaria. They show that workplace intimidation is important for non-programmatic mobilization and widespread in localities with only a small number of large employers.

The eastern enlargement led to new dynamics within the EU and was consequential to both the European project and the new member states. Political processes and economic impacts in this part of Europe have been extraordinary and sometimes rather challenging. Approaching the 15th anniversary of the first wave of integration of post-communist countries presents an opportunity to have a closer look at this region. Government & Opposition will continue to promote advanced research which contributes to the understanding of the changing realities in Central and Eastern Europe.

- Veronica Anghel and Adrian Favero