Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, central and eastern Europeans believe that democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law are under threat, according to a poll conducted by British data company YouGov and published in a report by George Soros’s Open Societies Foundation on Nov. 3.
More than 60% of the 12,500 people polled in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia said the rule of law was under attack. And in six of the seven surveyed countries, most respondents said democracy was under threat in their country, a threat most felt in Slovakia (61%), followed by Hungary (58%).
The poll also revealed widespread concerns about the legitimacy of domestic ballots, especially in Bulgaria, where more than three-quarters of respondents said their elections were “not free and fair.” Large numbers of respondents also reported that their freedom to protest was under threat. Most Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Slovakians and Poles said they feared negative consequences if they criticized the government in public, and more than 60% in every country said the justice system was under siege.
Trust in the government and mainstream media is “evaporating,” the report said, with clear majorities in almost all countries reporting that they don’t trust mainstream media to report the news fairly or honestly, or governments to release accurate and unbiased information. Most people surveyed in Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary and Germany said they didn’t trust the mainstream media, and just over half said they did not trust government statements. But in most countries, people over the age of 40 who remember the fall of the Berlin Wall were more likely to say media coverage has improved over the last 30 years.
On the other hand, the report found strong support for civil society throughout the region. In every country polled, the overwhelming majority of respondents agreed that organizations like charities and universities should have the right to criticize governments. The results are especially notable in Hungary and Poland where, despite a slew of state efforts to curb certain freedoms, citizens are strongly connected to civil society. In Hungary, a noteworthy 71% of respondents said academic institutions should be able to criticize the state, revealing the extent of the public’s opposition to the country’s illiberal trends, such as ruling party Fidesz’s attempt to limit the freedoms of 14 academic institutions.
Despite what the report called a “widespread collapse of trust,” many younger people — particularly Generation Z (people aged 18 to 22) and millennials (and 23 to 37) — said they believe they can influence politics and improve society. These age groups are more likely than older groups to want support for refugees, immigrants, and the LGBTI community. The report hailed Generation Z the “avant garde” due to their “remarkable capacity to mobilize effectively, navigate the information landscape, and harness social media.” Young women, the report found, were the main drivers of “positive change”, more confident in their capacity to effect positive change on a large scale and more tolerant and compassionate towards minorities.
“People believe their voices can make a difference; and that, when it comes to progressive values, the young are leading the way forward,” said Patrick Gaspard, president of the Open Society Foundations.