The Rise of the Radical Right in Eastern Europe: Between Mainstreaming and Radicalization

The Rise of the Radical Right in Eastern Europe: Between Mainstreaming and Radicalization

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Winter/Spring 2017 edition of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs (Volume 18, No. 1), available for purchase from Georgetown University Press. For a PDF of this article, click here.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the idea of a liberal, democratic Europe has expanded to include many formerly communist states. Yet the advent of democracy in East-Central Europe has not arrived without conflict, and fundamentally undemocratic tendencies have developed—namely, the rise of the radical right.

With the EU’s eastern enlargement in 2004–2007, the process of political transformation in Eastern Europe seems to have reached a conclusion.1 The role of the radical right in the consolidation of democracy was marginal to nonexistent; in the words of Cas Mudde (in 2005), “Racist extremist parties are not really a major political force in Central and Eastern Europe. Indeed, if compared to their ‘brethren’ in Western Europe, they look somewhat pathetic: (far) more extremist, but (far) less successful.”2

Today, the picture looks different: far from the sidelines, the radical right’s influence has extended to major parties in the region, and various governments have adopted parts of the radical right’s agenda, as the current governments in Hungary and Poland illustrate. While in general the same can be said about Western Europe, this article argues that the radical right in Eastern Europe adds a particularly pervasive challenge to the democratic order in a number of countries and to the region’s politics. This is evident—and shall be elucidated step by step after a conceptual clarification and mapping of the phenomenon—by the radical right’s ideological extremism, electoral volatility in the context of under-institutionalized party systems, and captivation of the mainstream discourse in Eastern societies, which are most sympathetic to the radical right’s message.

Mapping the Radical Right

Right-wing radicalism is understood as an ideology in which a myth of a homogenous nation lies at the core; it is a romantic and populist ultranationalism that challenges the concept and reality of liberal and pluralistic democracy and its underlying principles of individualism and universalism. In other words, this ultranationalism radicalizes inclusionary and exclusionary criteria of a primary “us group,” typically “the nation,” such as ethnicity, religion, and/or gender. While this definition does not include an explicitly antidemocratic stance, such as a fascist political order, it places the radical right at the ideological margin of the political spectrum in liberal democracies.3

But the ideology is not a homogenous block itself. In line with most research on the subject,4 this political family is differentiated into ideological variants, ranging from outright antidemocratic or fascist-autocratic (here: extremist) to ethnocentrist but not explicitly antidemocratic to religious-fundamentalist versions. For Eastern European democracies, it has been suggested to distinguish fascist-autocratic from nationalist-communist ideologies, depending on the radical right’s point of reference to interwar fascist or right-wing authoritarian regimes such as Horthy’s in Hungary or to nationalist-communist regimes as they evolved in Ceauşescu’s Romania.5 However, with a growing historical distance to 1989 and the retreat of communist ideology, such a distinction has become increasingly difficult to uphold. The Romanian case illustrates the problem of making such distinctions, for significant parts of the radical right have embraced both the legacies of Ceauşescu and the interwar fascist leader Antonescu since the 1990s.6 Hence, such a category seems superfluous for Eastern Europe, and whether the radical right embraces a traditionally “left-wing” economic program or not is of secondary importance here. An overview of the world of the Eastern European radical right since 2000 is presented in Table 1.7

Moreover, the radical right can be distinguished by actor type, ranging from party to nonparty manifestations such as movements and subcultural milieus (see Table 1). Even though each organizational type follows its own approach to institutional political power and public resonance, these groups may overlap in their membership and join forces on various occasions in practice. Thus it is significant to note the extent that parties and movements collaborate or whether a party demarcates itself from a movement to appear more respectable

Ideological Extremism

Ideologically, the Eastern European radical right challenges both the new liberal-democratic order, including the EU, and the state socialist system that preceded it. Typically, these parties’—as well as these movements’—philosophies are characterized by a troubled or antithetical relationship to democracy. They proclaim nostalgia for the old despotic regimes and the ethnic and territorial conception of national identity that prevailed under them following the nation-building struggles before and after World War I.8 Many of these groups adapt symbols of the fascist movements and regimes of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Hungary’s Arrow Cross movement and Romania’s Iron Guard and the Romanian Legion. Furthermore, territorial revisionism is high on the agenda of many of these parties and movements. The Czech “Republicans” (SPR-RSČ), now electorally defunct, demanded that their country should fit the borders of the former Czechoslovakia, within which only a “homogenous” population would have the right to reside.9 In Romania, the Greater Romania Party (PRM) promotes interwar borders as a way of demanding the annexation of Moldova; in the meantime the Orthodox Church has taken over some of the PRM’s agenda. While the party has largely disappeared from the electoral map, movements such as Noua Dreaptă continue to mobilize for the territorial revisions.10

The desire for change is particularly intense in Hungary. The Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIÉP) and the Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) both attack the Treaty of Trianon and publicly imagine Hungary within its Habsburg-era borders.11 The Slovak radical right attempts to mobilize its support by arousing fears of the alleged Hungarian expansionism, which it portrays as the line of the Hungarian official policies rather than of the radical right, thereby intimidating the Hungarian minority in Slovakia at the same time. Meanwhile its leaders celebrate fascist politicians of the interwar and World War II period:12 the newly established Kotleba Party, which together with the Slovak National Party (SNS) entered the Slovak parliament after the election in March 2016 with more than 8 percent each, is led by a maverick politician in love with World War II uniforms.

Table 1

Major Radical Right Actors in Eastern Europe since 2000



Subcultural Milieus

Extremist right

(fascist-autocratic right, often incl. racism or xenophobia)


Ataka (BG)

Jobbik (HU)


Kotleba (SK)




Magyar Garda (HU)




Neo-Nazis (all)

Skinheads (all)

Blood and Honour (all)

Autonomous Nationalists
(CZ, PL, SK)

Ethnocentrist right

(racist or xenophobic right
but excluding fascism)




Radio Maryja (PL)





Neo-Nazis (all)

Skinheads (all)

Religious-fundamentalist right (incl. xenophobia)




Radio Maryja (PL)

All-Polish Youth (PL)

Note: Parties in bold are those with electoral success (elected into national parliaments at least two times) or government participation.



DS: Workers’ Party; EKRE: Estonian National Conservative Party; ERL: Estonian Nationalist Movement; KDNP: Christian Democratic Party; LPR: League of Polish Families; MIÉP: Hungarian Justice and Life Party; MÖM: Hungarian Self-Defense Movement; MS: Matica Slovenska; ND: New Right; NSS: New Free Slovakia; NO: National Resistance; NOP: Polish National Rebirth; ONR: National-Radical Camp; PWN-PSN: Polish National Union; PRM: Party for Greater Romania; RN: National Movement; SNJ: Slovak National Union; SNS: Slovak National Party; VL: All for Latvia!; VR: Romanian Cradle; ZChN: Christian National Union


BG: Bulgaria; CZ: Czech Republic; EE: Estonia; HU: Hungary; LV: Latvia; PL: Poland; RO: Romania; SK: Slovakia

In Poland, the radical right has been heavily influenced by religious fundamentalism. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the antiliberal ideologue Roman Dmowski postulated that only Catholics made good Poles.13 A number of parties and movements picked up the message after 1990, most notably, the League of Polish Families (LPR), now a minor party. Initially, it gained the support of Radio Maryja, an ultra-Catholic station that regularly broadcasts traditionalist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic speeches to millions of listeners. In the meantime, Radio Maryja switched its support to the Law and Justice Party (PiS), which also absorbed LPR members and voting support.14 In all these countries, the Roma minority serves as a scapegoat for all kinds of social and political ills and is subject to acts of terrorism by radical right movements such as the Hungarian Guard in Hungary.

The current situation is heavily influenced by divergent nation-building processes in East and West. In contrast to those in Western Europe, most Eastern European nations did not emerge in conjunction with a bourgeois revolution, a strong liberal movement, or the establishment of liberal democracy.15 Almost all of Eastern Europe was subject to multinational empires, i.e., the Habsburg, the Russian, and the Ottoman Empires. The dominant pattern was the emergence of a national identity without the nation-state, i.e., an ethno-cultural nationhood, and the establishment of a nation-state along with rapid democratization after World War I which was soon to be replaced by authoritarian dictatorships in the interwar period and communist regimes after World War II. These region-specific legacies, shared by most countries in Eastern Europe, are relevant to the radical right.16 Moreover, while in Western Europe immigrants take the role of scapegoats, these are not readily available in Eastern Europe;17 instead, national minorities and neighboring countries take this position. As Rogers Brubaker pointed out, many post-socialist nations could be characterized by a “triadic” configuration of nations between nationalizing states, the existence of national minorities within the new states, and the existence of “external homelands.” It is in this arena where ongoing efforts of nation building tend to override other issues; they, more than other factors, help explain the mobilization of the radical right.18

Electoral Volatility and Street Politics

The ideological extremism coincides with limited and highly volatile electoral appeals and frequent opportunities for radical right parties when voter dissatisfaction spreads. Here, another set of historical legacies comes into play. Compared to Lipset and Rokkan’s idea of “frozen” party alternatives in the West,19 a very different kind of “freezing” occurred in the East with the disappearance of democracy and party competition in the interwar and postwar eras. The party systems in the entire region today are characterized by low levels of voters’ party affiliation and unstable cleavage patterns,20 as well as low levels of party membership—the average membership for all Eastern European countries around 2005 was 3.04 percent of the electorate, as compared to 4.64 percent in Western Europe.21 This data reveals that, in general, Eastern European party systems are significantly under-institutionalized and thus function as fertile grounds for new and radical parties to succeed. In addition, we must contrast the left and right mainstreams in Eastern Europe to those in Western Europe. In the East, nationalism is not confined to the far right sector of the political spectrum but constitutes part of the mainstream itself; numerous survey data show a level of xenophobia in the East that is markedly higher than that in the West.22

Consequently, as Table 2 shows,23 the overall support for radical right parties in national elections in the region is significantly lower than in Western Europe. Moreover, while fluctuations exist in East and West, those in Eastern Europe are more dramatic than those in the West. For example, since 1990 the French Front National has regularly yielded between 12 and 15 percent (except for 2007) and the Austrian FPÖ received between 17 and 27 percent in each national parliamentary election in the same period. In contrast, the only Eastern case of a radical right party mobilizing more than 10 percent in two consecutive elections is the Hungarian Jobbik in 2010 and 2014. Finally, while in nearly all West European countries, the same parties have run in each national election since the 1980s, Eastern Europe is characterized by a frequent coming and going of such parties. The average life span of an Eastern European radical right party, measured by at least 1 percent of the vote in at least two national elections, is just ten years.24 The only party in the entire region that consistently received more than 3 percent in all national elections since 1990 is the Slovak SNS.

Table 2

Radical Right Election Results in Selected National Parliamentary Elections in Eastern Europe and Western Europe, from 1990

Results for chambers of deputies (% average for 5 years)

Eastern Europe







Czech Republic





Slovak Republic



































Western Europe







Note: The Western European radical right comprises parties in the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Inconstancy at the polls does not translate into political irrelevancy, once the radical right’s interaction with its political environment is taken into account. The scenario of volatility does not apply to the far right ideology; instead, a remarkable persistence can be observed in two ways. First, in the absence of relevant parties, the radical right agenda is carried on by a plethora of movements and other organizations against the backdrop of generally high levels of xenophobia in all these countries.25 In many countries, these movements stage racist protest events, often directed at the Roma minority, and affect local politics in extreme ways, as the Hungarian Guard’s anti-Roma activities show. An analysis of movement activities across the entire region revealed an increase rather than decrease after the countries’ accession to the EU, as the overview in Table 3 suggests.26

Moreover, in Poland and Romania, religious actors emerged as the torchbearers of radical right thinking; in both countries, the dominant religious tradition is closely intertwined with national identity.27 But there is a difference: In Poland, the radical wing of Catholicism, or national Catholicism, most notably the network led by Radio Maryja, operated independently of and at times in opposition to the Church while in Romania the Church itself assumes a leading role in furthering key elements of the radical right agenda.28

Impact: Radicalizing the Mainstream Instead of Mainstreaming the Radical Right

The other and more consequential version of continuity in the face of volatile radical right parties has been the adoption of their agenda by other political parties, in particular, but not excluded to, the mainstream right. As research demonstrates, most radical right parties in the region mobilize support along an ethno-cultural or ethno-nationalist cleavage and are helped by a wholesale lack of a cordon sanitaire among the mainstream, except in the Czech Republic.29 The countries’ EU membership, despite manifold implementations of the acquis communitaire before 2004, has not severely constrained the room for maneuver of the radical right.

Instead the radical right was invited to join various national governments in a coalition relatively soon after the introduction of democracy: Romania (1994–1996), Slovakia (1994–1998, 2006–2010, and again in 2016), Poland (2005–2006), and Latvia (since 2011). In Bulgaria, the radical right has supported a minority government (since 2009). In most countries the most obvious success of the radical right has been a shift in the political agenda to the right along the ethno-cultural cleavage.30 But as the cases of Hungary and of Poland reveal, government participation in itself was unnecessary for such effects: the shift happened as a result of strategic adjustments of the mainstream right if the radical right was large enough to reach “blackmail potential” (Sartori). This finding is in line with research on Western Europe, where the presence of the radical right in government is not a necessary condition for a right-wing shift in immigration policies.31 But unlike in Western Europe, evidence suggests that the Eastern European radical right in government or in cooperation with other parties did not result in a mainstreaming of the radical right but instead in a radicalization of the mainstream. In other words the primary effects of the radical right are not the passing of particular laws or policies, but rather the radicalization of public discourse on minority and related issues and in lasting programmatic shifts of mainstream parties, such as the PiS in Poland, Smer in Slovakia, GERB in Bulgaria, the center-right parties in Latvia (Unity, ZRP), and Fidesz in Hungary (see Table 4).32


In Eastern Europe, the agenda of the radical right has reached the mainstream. In the course of the transformation process, the radical right’s ultranationalist agenda initially appeared rather marginal, but constant calls for a strong nation did not subside with democratic consolidation. Rather, they traveled across the political board. Instead of a convergence of the radical right across Europe, this article has shown that almost thirty years after the end of the Cold War there are distinct differences between East and West when it comes to the politics of the radical right and that the roots of recent developments in the East precede various European crises, such as the refugee crisis of 2015 or the financial crisis of 2008. Owing to a region-specific confluence of factors, the radical right in Eastern Europe has profound effects on the workings of democracy despite it being electorally weaker and more volatile than in Western Europe.

Overall, the radical right in Eastern Europe has contributed to political changes that run against the assumed linearity of the various processes of transformation since 1989, most obviously the politicization of national and minority issues and the deepening of ethno-cultural conflicts. Advances in human and minority rights are frequently challenged by the radical right and undercut where these translate into mainstream politics. Hence, the quality of democracy is negatively affected wherever such rights are violated. Pressure and aid from Western Europe may have extinguished the most obvious perils of “Leninist legacies” in Eastern Europe, as Kenneth Jowitt presaged in the early 1990s,33 but EU membership and democratic institutions prove insufficient to quell the anti-liberal and anti-minority actions and rhetoric of the radical right. In whatever organizational form and independent of high election results, the radical right’s anti-systemic course in the context of young democratic regimes with under-institutionalized party systems and unresolved ethnic cleavages, makes for a continuous challenge to the new political order.

Michael Minkenberg is a professor of political science at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) and the former Vice President for International Affairs at the European University Viadrina.


1. “Eastern Europe” here refers summarily to countries usually grouped as east-central Europe, southeast Europe, and the Baltics, i.e., EU member countries that formerly had Communist regimes or were part of the Soviet Union. See Michael Minkenberg, ed., Transforming the Transformation? The East European Radical Right in the Political Process (London: Routledge, 2015).

2. Cas Mudde, “Central and Eastern Europe,” in Racist Extremism in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Cas Mudde (London: Routledge, 2005), 269.

3. Michael Minkenberg, The Radical Right in Europe: An Overview (Gütersloh: Verlag Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2008); idem., “From Pariah to Policy-Maker? The Radical Right in Europe, West and East: Between Margin and Mainstream,” Journal of Contemporary European Studies 21, no. 1 (2013): 5–24.

4. See, e.g., Elisabeth Carter, The Extreme Right in Western Europe: Success or Failure? (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005).

5. Ishiyama, “Historical Legacies and the Size of the Red-Brown Vote in Post-Communist Policies,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 42(4):485–504.

6. Radu Cinpoeş, “Right-wing Extremism in Romania,” in Right-wing Extremism in Europe: Country Analysis, Counter-Strategies and Labor-Market Oriented Exit Strategies, ed. Ralph Melzer and Sebastian Serafim (Berlin: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2013), 169–97.

7. Updated version of Table 2.2 in Minkenberg, Transforming the Transformation.

8. See Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

9. See Miroslav Mareš, “The Impact of the Czech Radical Right on Transformation and (De-)consolidation of Democracy after 1989,” in Minkenberg, Transforming the Transformation, 206–223.

10. See Gabriel Andreescu, “The Emergence of a New Radical Right Power: The Romanian Orthodox Church,” in Minkenberg, Transforming the Transformation, 251–277; Radu Cinpoeş, “Right-Wing Extremism in Romania.”

11. András Biró-Nagy, Tamás Boros, and Zoltán Vasali, “Hungary,” in Melzer and Serafin, Right-Wing Extremism in Europe, 229–254.

12. See Ol’ga Gyárfášová, and Grigorij Mesežnikov, “Actors, Agenda, and Appeal of the Radical Nationalist Right in Slovakia,” in Minkenberg, Transforming the Transformation, 224–248.

13. See Brian Porter-Szücs, Faith and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity and Poland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), chap. 9.

14. Rafal Pankowski, The Populist Radical Right in Poland: The Patriots (London: Routledge, 2010).

15. See Hobsbawm, Nationalism.

16. See Michael Minkenberg, ed., Historical Legacies and the Radical Right in Post-Cold War Central and Eastern Europe (Stuttgart: ibidem, 2010).

17. Christiane Barnickel and Timm Beichelt, “Shifting Patterns and Reactions—Migration Policy in the New EU Member States,” in East European Politics and Societies 27, no. 3 (2013): 466–492.

18. Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

19. Seymour M. Lipset and Stein Rokkan, eds., Party Systems and Voter Alignments: Cross-National Perspectives (New York: Free Press, 1967).

20. Herbert Kitschelt, Zdenka Mansfeldova, Radoslaw Markowski, and Gábor Tóka, Post-Communist Party Systems: Competition, Representation, and Inter-Party Cooperation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Lenka Bustikova and Herbert Kitschelt, “The Radical Right in Post-Communist Europe: Comparative Perspectives on Legacies and Party Competition,” in Minkenberg, Historical Legacies, 29–61.

21. Calculation based on Table 1 in Ingrid Van Biezen, Peter Mair, and Thomas Poguntke, “Going, Going . . . Gone? The Decline of Party Membership in Contemporary Europe,” European Journal of Political Research 51 (2012): 28.

22. See Figure 2.1 in Minkenberg, Transforming the Transformation; Bartek Pytlas, Radical Right Parties in Central and Eastern Europe: Mainstream Party Competition and Electoral Fortune (London: Routledge, 2015).

23. Updated and amended version of Table 2.3 in Minkenberg, Transforming the Transformation.

24. Own calculations based on election returns since 1990; see

25. See endnote 19 and various contributions to Minkenberg, Transforming the Transformation.

26. From Tables 15.2 and 15.4 in Minkenberg, Transforming the Transformation.

27. See John Anderson, Religious Liberty in Transitional Societies: The Politics of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

28. See Pankowski, The Populist Radical Right in Poland; Andreescu, “The Emergence of a New Radical Right Power: The Romanian Orthodox Church.”

29. See Miroslav Mareš, “Czech Militant Democracy in Action: Dissolution of the Workers’ Party and the Wider Context of This Act,” East European Politics and Societies 26, no. 1 (2012): 33–55; Michael Minkenberg and Oliver Kossack, “Conclusions: Actors, Interaction, and Impact in Comparison,” in Minkenberg, Transforming the Transformation, 348–359.

30. See Bartek Pytlas and Oliver Kossack, “Lighting the Fuse: The Impact of Radical Right Parties on Party Competition in Central and Eastern Europe,” in Minkenberg, Transforming the Transformation, 105–136.

31. Cas Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 278–285.

32. From Table 15.4 in Minkenberg, Transforming the Transformation.

33. Kenneth Jowitt, “The Leninist Legacy,” in New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction, ed. Kenneth Jowitt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 284–305.