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Until 1989, communist parties were hegemonic throughout the Central and Southeast European region. With the downfall of communism in the course of 1989–1990, new challenges, opportunities, and problems have presented themselves. In the years following 1989, two states – Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia – broke up into their constituent parts, ten of the resulting fourteen states were admitted into NATO and eight of them also joined the European Union (EU). States in the southern tier continue to be affected by corruption, cronyism, and monopolization of the media. But, prior to 2010, most observers were optimistic about the prospects for states in the northern tier to continue to build liberal democratic states. However, since May 2010 in Hungary and since October 2015 in Poland, there have been tendencies of backsliding, with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán even proclaiming his intention to build and maintain an illiberal de-facto one-party state. Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán have followed the same playbook – restricting and, in Hungary, taking over control of, the media; establishing party control of the judiciary; and playing the patriotic card, while ostracizing gays and lesbians. Religion remains strong in most of the region, with religious affiliation even gaining ground in Bulgaria since 1989.
After high hopes in the initial post-communist years after 1989, disenchantment became noticeable in some sectors of the local populations in Central and Southeastern Europe. Among the problems which have alienated portions of local publics are the weakness of the economies (especially in Southeastern Europe), the monopolization of the media by new elites, and difficulties in building up constitutional orders, although in each case there are those who benefit from the persistence of these problems. In Catholic countries, especially but not only in Poland, abortion has figured as a pivotal issue, with the Catholic Church pushing for legislation to be binding on all citizens, both Catholic and non-Catholic. Differences in the present state of affairs reflect, in part, differences in the pattern of the breakdown of the communist system, from one state to the other, in particular between transitions engineered from above and transitions pushed forward from below.
In June 1991, Croatia declared its independence from the moribund Socialist Federated Republic of Yugoslavia and immediately had to fight a defensive war against local Serb insurgents and the Yugoslav People’s Army, which enjoyed the support of Serbia throughout the four years of war. Franjo Tudjman, head of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), served as president of Croatia from 1990 until his death in 1999 and dominated Croatian politics during those years. Corruption, cronyism, and nepotism were earmarks of the Tudjman era. However, after his death, there was a new start, with the erstwhile opposition party, Ivica Racan’s Social Democratic Party (SDP), winning the election of 2000. The office of prime minister was now strengthened at the expense of the presidency, thus converting the Croatian system into a typical parliamentary system. In December 2003, the HDZ returned to power, and since then the SDP and the HDZ have alternated in office. Among the challenges which Croatian governments have faced since the end of the war in 1995 have been the rebuilding of destroyed and damaged homes and infrastructure, the reintegration of those Serbs who have remained in the country, the fight against corruption, and the endeavor to join NATO and the European Union (EU). This dual endeavor was rewarded when Croatia was admitted to NATO in July 2008 and to the EU in July 2013.
The transition of Serbia and Montenegro may be said to have begun in 1987, when Slobodan Miloševic, a banker-turned-politician, seized power in Serbia. Miloševic subsequently put his own people in charge in Montenegro. Although there were other players, Miloševic was the key player in igniting war in Croatia (1991–1995) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992–1995), supplying local Serb insurgents with weapons and training. By 1992, Serbia (including Kosovo) and Montenegro were united in a common state. But after the war, both Montenegro and Kosovo sought independence. Montenegro achieved independence in 2006, while Kosovo obtained its independence in 2008. Serbia continues to wrestle with history, with some Serbs refusing to acknowledge that, as a collaborator with Adolf Hitler, Serbia’s leader during World War Two, Milan Nedic, was complicit in war crimes. Both states wrestle with unemployment, while the European Values Study for 2008 found that Serbs were well below the European average for confidence in their parliament.