Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 August 2021
At the start of the pandemic, it looked like the biggest COVID-related threat to democracy, in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, was executive aggrandizement. This focus, however, may lead us to overlook a bigger threat to Eastern European democracy. We argue that Eastern European democracies’ original sin of state capture has been exacerbated by the rise of conspiracy theories, whose stock has only increased with the addition of COVID misinformation. Eastern European voters struggle to differentiate between the true political conspiracy that enables private interests to control the state and conspiracies without empirical basis, such as COVID denialism, world government, or political correctness as a tyrannical plot. As a result, conspiracy theories enable the state capture camp to divide the reformist opposition and maintain their grip, while simultaneously claiming that they are governing competently and in line with European values. We use an original survey from Bulgaria and a GLOBSEC 2020 cross-national survey to explore this hypothesis. Finally, we draw some theoretical implications from the empirical evidence for assessing the nature of democratic backsliding in Eastern Europe. We call for more research on the conspiracy cleavage as a factor in explaining backsliding processes.