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About the Project “Populism and New Conservatism in East and West: Socio-Economic and Political Patterns at the Beginning of the 21st Century”

1. Relevance of the Topic

Although populism as a political current is not a new phenomenon, it has developed into a serious challenge for democracies by the beginning of the 21st century. As “a political strategy through which a personalistic leader seeks or exercises government power based on direct, unmediated, non-institutionalized support from large numbers of mostly unorganized followers”, modern populism hardly knows any geographical boundaries, with its representatives found in such varied settings as the authoritarian states in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as well as the established Western democracies. While populism has seemingly few ideological restrictions—being used by left-wing, right-wing and centrist movements—it has more recently and most successfully become associated with right-wing parties and movements. Important examples in Western as well as Eastern Europe include the reelection of PiS and Fidesz governments in Poland and Hungary as well as the growing popularity of AfD in Germany, the National Rally in France, the Northern League in Italy, Freedom Party in Austria, or the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands.

As a result of such electoral success, right-wing populism represents a key area of research for social scientists interested in explaining both the emergence of this phenomenon and its real-life political incarnations. Explanations emphasize the processes through which the emergence of new markets and professions, coupled with welfare state retrenchment and the decline of many traditional occupations, ignited a process of ‘precarization’ and fears of such precarization among lower and middle classes in the West; furthermore, a deepening gap between North and South intensified migration. The COVID-19 and related social and societal changed clearly demonstrate the need in simple decisions among people and voters both in West and East.

In Central and Eastern Europe, widely-held initial hopes for fast economic development and growing wellbeing were not realized. On the contrary, the growing inequality and insecurity of everyday life resulted in frustration and resentment, which, in its turn, led, from the 2000s on, to the strengthening of right-wing populists. These and other deep economic and social changes in the contemporary societies in the West as well as the East helped make a significant part of the adult population susceptible to  populist discourses on migration, social policy, economic development, and foreign policy. Furthermore, populism benefited from the development of the new media, which created opportunities for manipulating public opinion through fake news, bots and content targeting on an unprecedented scale.

2. Aim of the Project

The aim of the project to be realized in 2021-2023 is to create an institutional partnership to help those researchers from the Freie Universität Berlin (FUB) and the Higher School of Economics in Moscow (HSE) that study different aspects of populism to establish or develop co-operations. The project continues a fruitful history of cooperation between the FUB and HSE that has most recently materialized in a joint “Double-Degree” Master Program. Wishing to expand our cooperation from teaching to research, this project focuses on a topic that brings us together to work on the empirical analysis of populism through a broad range of topics outlined further below. This way the project intends to reach the second important goal, namely integrating the younger generation of FUB and HSE scholars (doctoral students and young PostDocs) into the academic network already established between leading researchers on both sides and thus promote the inter-generational transfer of academic excellence and make the cooperation sustainable. The third goal is to enable the access of the younger academic cohort to professional events and networks of researchers working on related areas at other European universities and research institutions. The realization of the two latter goals would be fully in the sense of Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s slogan “Exzellenz verbindet”.

Central and innovative aspects that we wish to develop and the issues we wish to address are the following:

1.    How populism connects to established ideologies such as, most notably, conservatism and then translates into concrete policies. We are particularly interested in whether and how other concepts, such as illiberal conservatism, developmental statism, and economic nationalism can combine with populism in explaining the policies of political forces that break with established rules of policy practice and more generally with liberal market democracy.

2.    We are also interested in the link between populist political parties and wider social movements or civil society actors with which they cooperate or build alliances. From the transnational perspective, we are interested in the linkages between populist political parties that emerge across Europe.

3.    Finally, we are interested in whether and how certain populist policies help stabilize or undermine authoritarian regimes/societies with a limited access order.

The project will first of all help involve into a common project the younger generation of researchers at both universities as well as participants from third-party institutions (European universities and research institutions focusing on related issues). Thus, we aim to discuss some critical questions related to the theme of the project and establish a new academic network of young social scientists with the support of the more experienced and connected senior colleagues. The project will facilitate the collaboration of researchers from different generations.

We are particularly interested in involving the younger generation of scholars working at our universities in all project stages. Junior scholars have participated in drafting this project proposal and will take part in organizing the workshops.

Most importantly, the project will involve also other younger generation representatives by giving junior researchers the opportunity to develop publications and research topics, alone or together with the tenured staff. By closely developing these publications and topics over the project’s time span in close cooperation with the other team members, the junior researchers will be best equipped to have by the start of their post-doctoral trajectory a growing number of publications.  

 The project consists of the following steps.

3. Project Steps and Time-Table

1) The project members mentioned below will first write short position papers on topics that fit their research expertise. The position papers are viewed as initial state-of-the-art statements; they will contain formulations of core questions and starting points for further debate with suggestions of possible co-contributors.

2) Second, we plan to organize three workshops and – between these workshops - research stays at the partner university for a total of eight researchers (four researchers from each institute, up to one month per researcher). The visiting researchers will participate in interim brainstorming sessions, evaluate the project’s progress, form collaborative task groups, and work on joint publications. We plan to have up to four papers in international journals by the end of the project as well as one special issue proposal.

The first workshop will focus on discussing the position papers and posters of the third-party participants. As a result, we will have established an initial pool of themes and ideas. The workshop will also serve as the starting point for discussing further steps, which include building small teams of researchers (potential co-authors) from both partner universities and the third-party institutions to work on common topics. Visiting researchers from both universities between the workshops will also help setting up teams of co-authors. The preliminary results of cooperative projects will be discussed in a second workshop to take place in Moscow. There we will evaluate the progress and discuss how the outcomes of the project will be published and/or presented in any other form. After a second round of mutual research visits the research teams will meet in Berlin for a third and final time to discuss the results of the projects and further prospects.

Thus, the workshops will serve as meeting points to establish, promote and foster the established bilateral and multilateral co-operation and networks. The three workshops (fall 2020, summer 2021 and spring 2022) will address the following broad topics.

a) Berlin (Spring 2021): “Variety of Populisms in Europe: East meets West?” Presentations of all position papers, brainstorming and the formation of prospective research teams on selected topics.

b) Moscow (Spring 2022): “Migration and International Policy under the Pressure of Populist Politics”. Preliminary agenda: presentation of the preliminary results and the discussion of possible publications at the HSE annual international conference.

c) Berlin (Winter 2022/2023): “The Populist Challenge in the Economic and Social Policy”. Preliminary agenda: presentation of the final results, discussion of future plans of cooperation.

The workshop announcements will be posted on the websites of both universities and advertised in the social media to attract several PhD-students and postdocs from European centers of excellence interested to share their ideas and possibly join the authors of one of the position papers in preparing a journal paper.

Our budget includes funds for covering the participation costs of up to three such researchers per workshop. Besides, some funding is reserved to cover fees for open access journals submissions as well as organizational costs.

4. Description of the Project

In the first stage, the project will be divided into 8 topics.

4.1 Socio-Economic Policies: Populist or Conservative? How Populism Fairs Against Alternative Concepts in Explaining the Return of the “Strong State” Paradigm (Chairs: Katharina Bluhm FUB and Mihai Varga FUB)

4.2 Populism and the Role of the New Media in Its Formation (Chairs: Prof. Wolfgang Muehl-Benninghaus HSE and Anastasia Kazun HSE)

4.3 Populisms and Social Movements in Post-Soviet Comparison (Chairs: Christian Froehlich HSE and Dina Rosenberg HSE)

4.4 SME and Entrepreneurship Policy: Is Statism the New Appeal of Populism? (Chairs: Alexander Chepurenko HSE and Ulla Pape, FU Berlin)

4.5 Populism and Conflicts over Migration (Chairs: Julia Glathe FUB and Salavat Abylkalikov, Aleksandr Byzov HSE)

4.6 Foreign Policy Populism and Its Post-Soviet Challengers: The Contested Nature of Political Mobilization qua International Politics (Chair: Sebastian Hoppe FUB)

4.7 The Role of Elites and Ideas in the New Populist Policy (Chair: Andrei Yakovlev HSE, co-contributor: Anton Kazun HSE)

4.8 Populism as a Strategy of Authoritarian Survival: A Post-Mortem for Turkish Democracy in Comparison with the Experience of Post-Soviet Countries (Chair: Ekim Arbatli, HSE;co-contributor: Anton Kazun, HSE)


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