The democratic views of Ukrainians are inspired by the European Union, which promotes a set of liberal values, including the rule of law and civil and political rights. The regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, promotes an alternative political view of the “Russian world” that embraces cultural conservatism and relies on authoritarianism. Putin justified the war if necessary to bring Ukraine back into the fold. Ukraine, for its part, resists and continues its quest for European integration.
The Baltic states are also worried about Russia
Ukraine’s struggle for its own European future has inspired Eastern European governments, most of whom have pledged support for Ukraine and have actively put pressure for a strong EU response. But Ukraine’s resistance may also have an indirect effect on Eastern European democracies, diverting their attention from domestic political corruption to the clash of worldviews that Zelensky invokes.
Promises to stamp out corruption have a long history in party politics in Eastern Europe. But political science to research suggests that such an emphasis on political corruption may have weakened parties and reduced trust in democratic institutions – and, in turn, helped fuel populism in Eastern European democracies. Russia’s war in Ukraine now seems to be inspiring a debate about European versus Russian global values that could strengthen parties and politicians who offer values-backed policies. This change could reinvigorate democracy.
Focus on corruption hurts democracy
Political corruption has been at the heart of Eastern European politics since the late 1990s, when a messy transition to the market economy a politically powerful product oligarchs. In the 2000s, voters in Eastern Europe grew tired of the incumbents and started voting for unorthodox newcomer parties, which often quickly disappointed them. International organizations and many voters saw anti-corruption policies as crucial to strengthen the rule of law and improving governance and economic performance.
However, a growing body of political science research shows that the focus on political corruption and anti-corruption policies has had unexpected effects. Major anti-corruption campaigns may aim to clean up politics, but research on such campaigns in western and Eastern Europe, China and Latin America shows that they also end up increasing political cynicism and reinforcing the perception that politics is rotten to the core.
For example, anti-corruption judicial campaigns that imprison politicians accused of corruption are increasing Legislative party change and electoral volatility, both of which destabilize party systems. In a recent article, we argue that when corruption is the most salient issue in political discourse, the overall stock of conspiracy theories increases. Some voters well-informed about the true conspiracies often exposed in political corruption investigations are beginning to embrace other baseless conspiratorial narratives. The line between reality and fiction becomes blurred. Political competitors then hurl accusations of “deep state” conspiracy at each other – and the conspiracy-laden political discourse undermines democratic competition and invites the rise of populist politicians.
Is Russia headed for a return to Stalinism?
So when the main political battle is over corruption, we say, democracy suffers. Eastern European countries bear the scars of this battle – populist politicians, democratic backsliding and weak trust in institutions have plagued many of these new democracies.
Will the battle Europe against Russia change this state of mind?
A move towards political competition structured around “Europe versus Russia” could be a way out of the political quagmire. Like Ukraine, post-Communist countries that joined the EU and NATO in the 1990s and 2000s were eager to break out of Russia’s geopolitical sphere of influence. They experimented interference in their domestic policy, energy policy blackmail and disinformation campaigns from Russia, but their integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions protected them from invasion.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas explained her country’s unwavering support for Ukraine’s struggle in inspiring speeches on the contrast between European freedom and “imperialist dream”. Even in traditionally pro-Russian Bulgaria, the government has supported Ukraine, stressing that Bulgaria is a strong member of the EU and NATO and does not want the region to return to being a “vassal appendix” of Russia.
Eastern Europeans who now adopt pro-EU and pro-NATO stances for geopolitical security reasons may begin to pay more attention to issues typically associated with a pro-EU orientation. These issues include gender equality, social equality, civil and political rights, and even environmental justice.
We already have evidence that illustrates the shift from geopolitical orientations to democratic attitudes. Russia’s geopolitical aggression in Ukraine in 2014 produced a change in popular support for Europe in all regions of Ukraine – and Ukrainians with a pro-European orientation are also more likely adopt democratic attitudes. Research on 2020 anti-government protests in Belarussimilarly, shows that participants who held pro-EU and anti-Russia views tended to hold more democratic attitudes.
The war in Ukraine is already leading to greater awareness of Russian interference – through disinformation and other means – in Eastern European countries. This orientation is also likely to create pro-European majorities throughout the region, perhaps with the exception of Hungary and Serbia.
Broad calls for “De-Putinization” and “anti-rashism” – a term denouncing Russian neo-fascism – helping to unite people against aggression and authoritarianism. While most Eastern Europeans affirm their belonging to Europe, we can expect these pro-EU majorities to develop a stronger commitment to European democratic values. If parties want to reach out to these voters, it follows that instead of debating which parties and politicians are the most corrupt, parties would be more successful if they turned to strengthening European values and interests fundamentals.
In Bulgaria, for example, the focus has recently shifted from corruption investigations of the previous government to energy policy debates how to wean Bulgaria off Russian gas supplies.
In short, the war in Ukraine has made Europeans more aware and more sensitive to the difference between “Europe” and the Russian world. Political debates along this axis could gradually eliminate allegations of political corruption in elections in Eastern Europe. And this trend seems likely to strengthen party systems and democracy in Eastern Europe.