With good reason, Central Europe has become a laboratory for civil opposition. Orbán in Hungary, Kaczyński in Poland, Erdoğan in Turkey and, increasingly, Dragnea in Romania have removed so many checks and balances from their democracies that even calling them illiberal may soon give way to simpler, more familiar terms.
From a strategic point of view, staging traditional street protests comprised of citizens shouting their discontent has not proven successful. Therefore, activists in Central Europe are developing new forms of opposition. Below are examples of how civil society has kept the spirit of resistance alive despite the growing dangers of dissent.
Poland -- how to mend fences broken by destructive foreign policy
When the now infamous Holocaust Bill was passed, Poland’s diplomatic ties with Israel took a turn for the disastrous. Diplomats, academics, activists and ordinary citizens who have invested years into the careful crafting of bridges between Poles and Jews have reacted. First, the Polish Righteous Among Nations published an appeal for delicacy and diplomacy in newspapers around the world. Next a commemorative gathering brought hundreds to the Warsaw railway station from which thousands of Jews were forced to emigrate in 1968. Social media initiatives (#NieWMoimImieniu -- not in my name) have announced that the government does not represent its people’s views. Finally an important NGO published "10 Steps towards Dialogue," a short guide to action for those who believe in building, not breaking the ties between Poles and Jews.
Hungary -- how to rebuild conditions for legal elections
Hungary’s official stance on women is that they should retreat into domestic life and stay away from politics. The underlying rhetoric is that women cannot understand the intricacies of politics anyway. As parliamentary elections approach (this April) the ruling party is campaigning in districts redesigned to favor them, using media and outdoor advertising to which the opposition have no access. With practices like these in plain sight, the likelihood of a proper vote counting procedure seems small. Enter “Let’s count together!” -- a recently launched, all-female initiative of the Hungarian European Women’s Forum Association (MENOK). So far 1300 women have volunteered to count votes cast across the country. Unaffiliated politically, these women hope to act as witnesses and safeguard the legal counting of votes as well as to challenge to notion that women have no political role to play in Hungary.
Romania -- how to maintain pressure without voicing dissent
In Romania, where the president Liviu Dragnea has restructured his party and maneuvered a strategic ally onto the PM’s seat, voicing dissent can be risky business. On the night Dragnea secured his grip on power, three protesters shouting slogans against him were arrested. Civil society has therefore perfected the art of the wordless protest. Since mid-December, every day at noon, scores of people in Sibiu, Transylvania, have gathered in the “Corruption-free Zone” in front of the local Social Democrat Party office to stare at the building in silence, holding a #vavedem banner [Romanian for “We can see you”]. The idea spread to 15 other towns and cities across Romania, including Bucharest and other European capitals where activists support the rule of law in Romania.
Turkey -- how to inspire action by facing violence
"The intertwined nature of masculinity, political culture and women’s oppression is nowhere clearer than in undemocratic political systems,” writes Turkish publicist Bilge Yabanci. And nowhere in Europe is this tendency more visible then in Turkey, where President Erdoğan has declared that motherhood is women's first priority. Erdoğan further encourages marriage over education for women, and prescribes that every woman in Turkey have at least three children. He also proposes to limit abortion rights, the morning-after pill and caesarean sections. In response, the women’s movement has been fearless in leading the opposition’s efforts to rally the people against him. They relentlessly take to the streets, despite increasing violence both in the public and private spheres which is inspiring new forms of activism and women’s resistance springing up all over the country.
As Central Europe struggles to digest leaders who have learned how to hack the democratic system, its resisters have grown creative and cunning in finding ways to play the long game. By pooling tactics, perhaps dissidents can help regrow a democratic backbone that will be stronger the second time around.