Headshot of Robert Austin
Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies

Robert Austin: Is nationalism a good thing?

We’ve all heard it: “The fall of the Berlin wall sparks a new era for Eastern Europe”. But recently, this has been put into question due to the rise of nationalism in Eastern Europe. It is invariably followed by “the hopes and dreams for Eastern Europe have not been fulfilled”.

Can pan-nationalism and democracy co-exist? Is it reasonable that countries have some degree of nationalism? Recently, nationalism has earned itself a bad reputation since it opposes itself to liberalism, to the point that some news agencies have characterized it as a form of fascism. With ‘illiberalism’ on the rise, fears of its destructive consequences are rising too.

However, at the International Issues Discussion (IID) forum at Ryerson University on 20 November 2019, Prof. Robert Austin of the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies spoke against this pessimistic view. He said: “if you make a checklist of what was [expected] in 1989 and then look [ahead] at 2019, things look pretty good”. Prof. Austin refuted the common “fascist” narrative of contemporary events in Central and Eastern Europe and explored the trends developing in those countries.

The first portion of the talk presented a broad overview of the current and emerging political landscape in Europe. Looking specifically at the impacts of the 1989 revolutions, Prof. Austin discussed the long-term implications of the European “Refolutions” – revolutions based on a wide acceptance of reform rather than a violent overthrowing of power – of the late twentieth century as well as their distinction from previous European transitions of power. He emphasized that Central and Eastern European countries, even today, are extremely pro-European Union. They are, however, anti-Brussels and are dissatisfied with the bureaucratic process.

To illustrate this, Prof. Austin looks at Hungary, since it is often falsely reported that the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is anti-EU. Prof. Austin pointed out that, in fact, Orbán uses the EU to maintain stability within his country. Transfer payments from the EU have allowed Orbán to keep local oligarchs satisfied while engaging in public projects. This is the case with most EU countries in Central and Eastern Europe since they are net beneficiaries of transfer payment.

The talk then focused on a few case studies to explain the rise of populism in a more concrete way, including Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia as well as Germany and the Balkan states. One issue that cuts across all the countries is depopulation. Increasing numbers of young, highly educated people are leaving their countries in search of greater opportunities. The resources put into their education are now benefiting other countries rather than their own, thus prompting a response in the form of populism. In addition, Prof. Austin emphasized the role of the 2008 financial crisis in the rise of populism because it “laid bare the failures of liberalism”. In 2008, the Hungarian government was bankrupt, and the socialist government admitted that their widespread corruption contributed to this situation. As a result, the “pure people” wanted a change in their government. Orbán’s government took power in 2010, partly as a response to the economic crisis.

The talk ended, however, on an overwhelmingly optimistic note. Life in Central and Eastern Europe has decisively changed for the better, with people doing better than ever under the previous communist regimes. Other nations proved that democracy and nationalism can coexist, with a thriving civil society keeping nationalism from becoming self-destructive. Despite this, the European project, albeit being in a significantly better condition than most might believe, needs to address the loss still experienced in corrupt regimes in the Balkans, with their rise of violent nationalistic sentiments serving as the biggest threat to current European stability.

Though the rise of populism seems to foretell a collapse of the liberal model, Prof. Austin sees populism as a reinvention process. The people want to invent a unique governance model that suits their interests. Therefore, despite having masked their true democratic goals, he sees hope for Eastern and Central Europe because their goals are aligned with those of the democratic world order.