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Economic, reformation and cultural disorientation

Post-communist transformations have never run smoothly and in the same direction in all the countries of the region. From the outset of the post-1989 changes, many states have struggled with corruption and the oligarchisation of politics, the high costs of often-botched economic reforms and cultural disorientation generated by the fast pace of change. But roughly until the mid-2000s the political processes, although moving at various speeds and in a variety of directions, had features recognisable from the earlier waves of democratisation. 

There was also a certain path-dependent predictability in the country-specific dynamics initiated in 1989/91. While some countries were moving closer to the ideals of liberal democracy and others were drifting away, the cast of political actors ranged predictably from the left to the right, dominant constitutional dilemmas revolved around the choice of presidential or parliamentary systems, economic debates and conflicts focused on the choice of type of capitalism and welfare state optimal for a country or – more often – a given interest group, to take just a few examples. Importantly, the liberal strands of each country’s political cultures were gaining strength, achieving in some states a rather unchallengeable – it seemed – position.

Neo-traditional subculture emergence

However, around the mid-2000s these processes stalled and many political trajectories veered off in new directions. Importantly, the rightward shift of the political scene – the most striking feature of this change – had been presaged, underpinned and fuelled by the emergence of ‘neo-traditional’ subcultures and trends in several areas of European life. 

This neo-traditionalism, related to cultural illiberalism or cultural conservatism, is characterised by the emphasis placed on outcomes rather than procedures of the political processes; protection of a (national) collective rather than an individual; safeguarding of the “traditional” social, particularly gender, roles; and an overriding concern with protecting the purity of the (national) collective against the perceived threats of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism.

In some places, such as Poland, it is also associated with efforts to privilege the religious rather than secular character of the public space. Over the last several years, such ‘re-traditionalising’ cultural tendencies, deepened by the increasingly boldly asserted right-wing ideologies, have become more acceptable in everyday lives, the media (particularly the new ones) and in political debates. More recently, they have helped to bring to the fore of the political life explicitly ‘traditionalist’ right-wing populist parties that tend to play fast and loose with democratic procedures.