ASU professor awarded Davis Center Book Prize

By

Matt Oxford

Following the 1989-1990 fall of communism in Eastern Europe, new prodemocratic governments were formed after free elections. However, over the following 30 years, there has been a “rising support for the populist right in Eastern Europe.”

What has caused this rise in radical right parties in Eastern Europe? Is it fueled by prejudice and xenophobia or as a reaction to ascending minority groups?

Arizona State University Associate Professor Lenka Bustikova’s new book "Extreme Reactions: Radical Right Mobilization in Eastern Europe" takes a deep dive into these topics.

The book was recently named as the winner of this year’s Harvard University Davis Center Book Prize awarded by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES). The award, which will be presented at the ASEEES annual convention on Nov. 7, is given “annually for an outstanding monograph published on Russia, Eurasia, or Eastern Europe in anthropology, political science, sociology, or geography in the previous calendar year.”

Bustikova, who is part of ASU’s School of Politics and Global Studies, spoke with ASU Now about her recent book.

Question: Why did you choose to focus specifically on the radical right mobilization in Eastern Europe? How might it differ from Western Europe or the United States?

Answer: I was deciding on a dissertation topic in graduate school. My adviser, Herbert Kitschelt, wrote a prominent book about the rise of the far right in Western Europe. At that time, most of the scholarship on Eastern Europe viewed unreformed communist parties as the major threat to democratic consolidation. I wanted to shift attention to the rising threat of nationalism, which was simmering under the surface. At that time, it was an understudied and a marginal topic. 

There are two major differences between Western Europe/United States and Eastern Europe. Far right mobilization in Western Europe — and to some degree in the U.S. — is associated with immigration. In Eastern Europe, the out-group is composed of minorities settled in for centuries with full voting rights. 

The second difference relates to the pace of minority accommodation. In the West, expansion of minority rights has been a long, protracted process. In the East, the ascendance of minorities to power and recognition coincided with democratic liberalization in the early 1990s and was almost instantaneous.

Q: You define a radical right party as a "single-issue party that occupies a niche, extreme position in the party system, and is either nationalistic and/or socially conservative.” What do you think is behind the rise of these types of political groups?

A: The short answer is minority accommodation. I view radical right parties as a largely reactive phenomenon. In the book, I detail the process by which the acquisition of political power and demand for rights by ascendant minority groups precipitates a backlash. Radical right parties capitalize on feelings of discontent towards politically assertive minorities and with the governmental policies that yield to their demands. Variation in how minorities are accommodated by the government explains the electoral successes and failures of radical right parties. 

Q: The focus of this book was limited to postcommunist democracies. What makes those countries more vulnerable than longer-established democracies?

A: New democracies are more vulnerable than old democracies, but their citizens also understand what is at stake. Established democracies have many advantages, such as institutionalized party systems, wealth, entrenched rule of law, and independent civic society organizations. Reliance on advantages can result in complacency, however. Global tectonic shifts are now more observable in the East. In my view, it is a preview of what is about to unravel in the West: collapse of the traditional left and right political divisions, instantaneous responsiveness driven by new forms of communication and volatility. Nonetheless, crisis also results in innovation, such as the emergence of alternative forms of representation, new forms of civic participation and new strategies to facilitate democratic resilience. 

Q: Do you think that the growth in radical right parties endangers the democratic institutions they are in?

A: Yes and no. It can be a safe outlet for grievances and can force mainstream parties to pay more attention to neglected issues. Radical right parties are born in political convergence, but, once they emerge, they contribute to polarization. They endanger democracies if their radical agenda is weaponized by radicalized mainstream parties. Niche parties are too small and politically weak to subvert political regimes. The danger originates from the mainstream parties.