University of St Andrews
The tired label of ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ for Belarus surfaced again across the western press in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election in this country. US President George W. Bush’s national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, came up with this moniker in 2005. Since then this label has been repeated time and again with rather little thought paid to its actual meaning. Because it is the sixth election Belarus’s strongman, Aljaksandr Łukaszenka, is ‘contesting,’ the label was personalized according him the supposedly unique distinction of the ‘last dictator’ on the continent.
Unfortunately, this is more a case of wishful thinking than a reflection on the political reality on the ground. The majority of successor states founded in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union failed to establish working democratic systems within their frontiers. Sticking to the continent’s geographical boundaries, without any doubts, Azerbaijan is Europe’s most odious dictatorship, though awash in oil money that for a time bought the country ‘respect’ in the west. Yet, Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, unlike Belarus. In 2003, within a single family, power was successfully transferred from the gravely ill dictator to his son, Ilham Aliyev. (Łukaszenka openly desires to be succeeded by his youngest son, who in 2020 is a mere 16.) In this manner the country became a de facto monarchy. After the Panama Papers revealed that they run Azerbaijan as a personal fiefdom, the following year, in order to keep things better within the family, the post of First Vice President was created for Aliyev’s wife, Mehriban.
Most of the territory of the Russian Federation is located in Asia, yet, the overwhelming majority of the country’s population (78%) live in Europe. At 110 million inhabitants in Europe, Russia is the continent’s most populous country. Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, half a decade after Łukaszenka. Both leaders are almost of the same age, the latter born in 1954, and the former two years earlier. Subsequently, Putin liquidated the tripartite division of power in Russia, and got the oligarchs under his thumb. In line with the Bolshevik principle that those win elections who count the votes (na vyborakh pobezhdaet tot, kto schitaet golosa), Putin has stayed in power to this day. The west awoke to the dictatorial nature of Putin’s rule only in 2020. In this year the constitutional referendum in favor of Putin allows him to stay in power at least until 2036, when he turns 84.
By any stretch of imagination, neither Serbia, nor Albania remind regular democracies. Serbia’s populist President, Aleksandar Vučić, began his political career as Minister of Information in genocidaire and ethnic cleanser, Slobodan Milošević’s, last government. As both Prime Minister and President Vučić has continuously held to power in Serbia since 2012. During the time he seized almost full control of the Parliament and the mass media. For the sake of maintaining stability in the western Balkans, the European Union tolerates this undemocratic situation and continues with the preparations for opening accession negotiations with Belgrade, though in 2019 Serbia actually signed a free trade agreement with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. Similarly, in Albania, since 2013, power and control of the economy has been increasingly concentrated in the hands of a single politician, Prime Minister Edi Rama. He heads Albania’s Socialist Party, whose roots go back to the communist period. As a result, the popularity of the communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, is now on the rise in this party and across the country. It is no surprise then that in Serbia, where Milošević is still very popular, Vučić publically praises his former boss.
Yet, both Albania and Serbia learn from none other than the European Union’s own member state, that is, Hungary. The country’s former leading democrat and anticommunist, Viktor Orbán, has ruled continuously for the last decade as Prime Minister. His program has been a xenophobic and irredentist mixture of nationalism and populism. With effective control of the Parliament, Orbán liquidated the free mass media, curbed the independence of the judiciary, and introduced a Russian-style oligarchic system of patronage and control in the economy. These unprecedented developments prompted some to dub Hungary as the EU’s ‘first dictatorship.’ Nowadays, the Orbán regime actively embraces interwar Hungary’s dictator, Miklós Horthy, and antisemitic rhetoric.
After 2015, Poland’s own victorious populists-cum-nationalists have successfully emulated the Hungarian model. They improved on it, in contravention of the Constitution, by making the victorious party’s chairman, Jarosław Kaczyński, the effective ruler of Poland. Polish President and Prime Minister take orders from Kaczyński, who likes referring to himself as ‘a mere MP.’ Like in Hungary, the government seized control of judiciary and now aims at silencing the last remaining independent mass media. These developments, often legitimized by the Catholic Church’s hierarchs, already earned the country the sobriquet of a ‘Catholic dictatorship,’ which previously had belonged to Franco’s Spain. Kaczyński openly proposes that his aim is a dictatorial system, as established in interwar Poland by military strongman Józef Piłsudski. Piłsudski had also given orders to President and Prime Minister, while remaining in the shadows. Kaczyński’s party colleagues tend to humor him by likening the chairman to Piłsudski. Yet, unlike the interwar dictator, Kaczyński and his party embrace antisemitism.
Last but not least, when no one was looking, and then when Brussel’s attention was turned to the increasingly problematic member states of Hungary and Poland, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boiko Borisov has been busy building a similar populist-cum-nationalist dictatorship in the country since 2009. Initially, corruption has been the main problem after Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007. It was a clear sign that a Russian-like oligarchic system of economy had already been firmly in place. Under Borisov’s watch, to this day Bulgaria remains the EU’s most corrupt country, which resulted in the dismantling of the rule of law. Unsurprisingly, like in Albania and Serbia in the case of Hoxha and Milošević, Borisov openly praises his former boss, or communist Bulgaria’s dictator of three decades and a half, Todor Zhivkov. Yet, Brussels and foreign observers somehow fail to see that Bulgaria’s autocratic political system is a dictatorship. However, this summer rampant corruption revealed in the wake of the pandemic, caused many Bulgarians to protest in the streets and call for an end to ‘Borisov’s dictatorship.’
How many dictatorships then in today’s Europe? I would propose that at least three full-fledged cases can be observed in Azerbaijan, Belarus and Russia. The labels ‘hybrid’ or ‘autocratic’ regime are euphemisms that conceal the ugly truth that a given country has almost become a dictatorship, which is the case of at least two non-EU polities (Albania and Serbia), alongside the whooping three EU member states (Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland). It would be possible to include Kosovo in the second group, however, the responsibility for the country’s political system and sovereignty still rests in the hands of NATO and the EU. Hence, I exclude Kosovo from this article’s purview. Last but not least, with the recent assassinations of investigative journalists in Malta and Slovakia, it is of import to monitor the precarious state of the freedom of speech and the independence of judiciary in these two countries.