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New Open Society Report Finds Hope and Fear in Post-Soviet Europe

Europeans in the former Eastern Bloc still value democracy but are skeptical of their governments’ ability to deliver, according to new polling from YouGov and Open Society

BERLIN—Despite deep concerns about the future of democracy, suspicion of government, and widespread distrust of the media, people in Central and Eastern Europe retain a strong attachment to civil society and faith in the freedoms that brought about the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, according to a new report from the Open Society Foundations. 

The report, States of Change: Attitudes in Central and Eastern Europe 30 Years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall—which draws on YouGov polling in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia—has been published to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the 1989 revolutions that brought about the fall of the Iron Curtain. It provides a snapshot of current opinion on democracy, freedom of speech, the market economy, and the media. 

Among its top lines, the study finds large proportions of citizens in Central and Eastern Europe think democracy is under threat in their country. In six of the seven polled countries, the majority view is that freedom of speech is under siege. There are similar concerns about the rule of law with 60 percent of those polled believing it is under threat.

There are also concerns about the legitimacy of domestic ballots, particularly in Bulgaria, where more than three-quarters of respondents believe their elections are “not free and fair”; as well as in Romania (54 percent) and Hungary (52 percent). These fears co-exist, however, with strong support for the freedoms of civil society. For example, there are majorities in every country polled for the right of public organizations—such as charities and academic institutions—to criticize governments.

The polling also detects a current of optimism among Millennials (23-37 years old) and members of Generation Z (18-22 years old), mostly in regard to their ability to influence politics and bring about positive change. This is especially notable in Hungary and Poland, where, against a backdrop of state efforts to curb certain freedoms, citizens maintain a strong attachment to civil society. Polling showed that Generation Z and Millennials respondents are far more likely than older groups to want support for refugees, immigrants, and the LGBTI community.

Civic engagement is also high across the polled countries, with Millennials leading the way as the most likely group to have signed a petition over the last 12 months—with highs in Slovakia (59 percent), Romania (43 percent), and Czech Republic (38 percent). In every country polled, young people, and especially young women, are more likely than older people to say that people like them have more opportunities than they did in 1990. 

Commenting on the report and its findings Patrick Gaspard, president of the Open Society Foundations, said:

“Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this States of Change survey reflects the widely-acknowledged crisis of confidence in liberal values and democratic institutions across East and Central Europe. But it also shows us something more positive: that people believe their voices can make a difference; and that, when it comes to progressive values, the young are leading the way forward.”

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc., which polled 12,537 citizens in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia. Polling was undertaken online in August and September 2019. Together with Open Society, they also ran face-to-face focus groups in all seven countries. YouGov is a member of the British Polling Council.

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