‘Freedom and the Illiberal Zeitgeist in East-Central Europe - a Conflict-Laden Relationship’

Guest editors:

Szabina Kerenyi (CSS Budapest)
Piotr Kocyba (EFBI, Leipzig and IFiS PAN, Warsaw)
Marcin Ślarzyński (IFiS PAN, Warsaw)

In East-Central Europe, political and economic freedoms and national sovereignty were (re)gained only after 1989, following decades of struggles that regularly turned violent, including the Hungarian uprising, the Prague Spring, and the Romanian Revolution. Nevertheless, after the Communist regimes were brought down, these long-awaited freedoms have proven to be laden with conflict(s) themselves, remained elusive, and were accompanied by a long and often polarizing negotiation process about what ‘freedom’ meant in different areas of life. These debates contain but are not limited to questions of religious freedom, women’s rights, the degree of state regulation of capitalist economic systems, questions of the independence of judicial systems, or the level of desired European integration, to name a few. The results of these debates have varied throughout East-Central Europe, and with the recent growth of illiberalism (Jenne and Mudde 2012), concerns about freedom’s curtailment are rising again (Cianetti and Hanley 2021).

Regardless of this backlash against democracy, questions about the balance between power concentration, minority rights, and individual liberties remain highly salient issues (Orgad and Koopmans 2022). The challenges to the concept of freedom exposed by semi-authoritarian, ‘illiberal’ regimes have been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic (Pleyers 2020), as government-mandated public health measures often restricted or even revoked constitutionally codified individual and civil liberties. In this context, ‘freedom’ is being threatened in a twofold way: on the one hand, by (in East-Central Europe often libertarian, see Kocyba 2021) protest movements against COVID19-related restrictions, which not only demanded ‘liberty’ but also questioned liberal democracy as such (Amlinger and Nachtwey 2022). On the other hand, freedom was curtailed by the introduction of super-competencies for the executive, allowing for a quicker decision-making process in the fight against the pandemic. With reference to social-political crises such as the experience of September 11 and its consequences for civil rights, a prompt warning against the danger of ‘governmental overreach’ emerged (Bethke and Wolff 2021). Such examples can be easily found in Hungary, where the prime minister can still rule by decree, bypassing the parliament.

This special issue aims to explore various synchronous and diachronic disciplinary perspectives of the many facets of the ‘struggle for freedom’ in East-Cenral Europe after 1989. Possible topics are:

- the level of individual personal freedom can involve various perspectives of different groups. For example, how has the situation evolved for groups who have become the target of illiberal attacks (like women, sexual minorities, or migrants)? Or: how have perceptions of one’s own autonomy changed for the economically excluded benefiting from the new social redistributions, for instance?

- what changes to the political system undermine the autonomy of societal and political subsystems? Beyond the prevailing perspective of the de-democratization literature on the concentration of power, the interdependencies between the (illiberal) interventions in the democratic institutional architecture and the limitations for social diversity, political pluralism, and (former) independent state institutions should be examined more closely.

- the consequences of the shrinking spaces for civil society. Attempts at closing the space - at least in East-Central Europe - are often accompanied by increased civil society activity. However, it is not only the case that illiberal policies bring people onto the streets. The strategies and tactics of the organized civil society are also changing, adapting to the new political opportunity structures. Besides that, special attention must be given to mobilizations against populist governmental policies, as well as protests against the far right.

- similar questions could also concern the field of the press or academic freedom, even if the state theoretically has easier access here. Academic institutions are in the majority state-owned, and scientists are public employees. At the same time, journalists, albeit often working for companies, can be put under state pressure because the media outlets can be taken over by state-owned companies or government-affiliated businessmen (read oligarchs). What impact this has on independent scientists and journalists, their positionality, and the outcome of their work remains a central question.

- another potential field of examination from the perspective of (shrinking) freedom is economic development. First, East-Central Europe was witnessing the introduction of a radical free market and the shock of contentious privatization, which resulted not only in personal opportunities but also in the experience of devaluation. After increasing economic stabilization in the process of accession to the EU, a new development followed the wake of the financial crisis. Aiming at increased social transfers and framed as liberation from foreign capital and international institutions, a specific kind of state capitalism is emerging in the East of the European Union. The processes are differentiated in East-Central Europe and should be examined more closely, including the interdependencies between the restrictions on political and social freedoms and those of the free market.

This Special Issue is intended to shed light on the new lines of conflict surrounding ‘freedom’ from different perspectives and explore why, after almost thirty years of living in a ‘free society,’ restrictive tendencies seem to enjoy such great support.


Submission procedure and deadlines:


Articles, written in English, should be submitted to the editors according to the following schedule:

- Submission of long abstracts (about 800 words):  17 March 2023

- Selection of long abstracts for articles: 2 May 2023

- Submission of articles: 15 September 2023

- Provision of peer review feedback: 30 November 2023

- Submission of revised drafts: 15 may 2024

- Publication of the issue: 15 JULY 2024


Long abstracts should include the following information:

(1) A description of the topic,

(2) How the paper addresses one or more of the nodal points of the SI

(3) Empirical data and methodology,

(4) Findings


The total length of your article must not exceed 10,000 words (and not less than 8.000). Note that the word total includes references, notes, tables, figures and diagrams.



Amlinger, C. and O. Nachtwey (2022) Gekränkte Freiheit: Aspekte des libertären Autoritarismus, Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Bethnke, F. and J. Wolff (2020), “Die Corona-Pandemie als Bedrohung zivilgesellschaftlicher Spielräume” Forschungsjournal Soziale Bewegungen 33(3): 671-676.

Cianetti, L. and S. Hanley. (2021), “The End of the Backsliding Paradigm” Journal of Democracy, 32(1): 66-80.

Kocyba, P. (2021) “Die COVID-19-Pandemie als Katalysator der polnischen Impfgegnerbewegung” Forschungsjournal Soziale Bewegungen, 34(2): 311-318.

Jenne, E. and C. Mudde (2012) “Hungary’s Illiberal Turn: Can Outsiders Help?” Journal of Democracy, 23 (3): 147-155.

Orgad, L. and R. Koopmans (eds. 2022), Majorities, Minorities, and the Future of Nationhood, Cambridge: University Press.

Pleyers, G. (2020), “The Pandemic is a battlefield. Social movements in the COVID-19 lockdown” Journal of Civil Society, 164): 295-312.

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