State capture is a joint venture, not a solo act: informal networks and democratic state building

By Veronica Anghel | Bologna

In assessing the state of liberal democracy in contemporary Europe, significant scholarly and public attention has been paid to the role of leaders. Post-Communist countries in particular are often the focus of scholars who announce a ‘democratic backsliding’ engineered by populist ‘strongmen’. This article suggests that in consolidating EU democracies, such attention is disproportionate in reference to the actual de-democratising effect of the emerging ‘strongmen’. It draws attention to the systemic conditions that allow such leaders to surface, and focuses on state capture (the extraction of private benefits from the state by incumbent officeholders) as a joint-venture practice that precedes and outlives individual political lives and acts as a brake on further democratisation.


How fast we forget how young the Central European democracies are. The economic, social and human rights progress which the post-Communist countries have made in just 30 years is undeniable. And yet, the 30th anniversary  of the fall of the Berlin Wall has been overshadowed by political evolutions in some of these countries that contour the perceptions of democratic backsliding, challenges to the rule of law and freedom of speech, and the rise of far-right extremism and dysfunctional relations with the European Union (EU).

This article analyses the state of democratic state building in Central & Eastern European (CEE) states against the backdrop of the great expectations of transition. It focuses in particular on the tensions between formal institutions and informal networks of authority, and claims that the advent of democratic institutions functioned as a constraint against the accumulation of power by self-interested privileged elites, but did not fully inhibit the conditions for the same elites to seek advantages in pushing back against such institutional effects. In the long run, this turned out to be an important differentiation.

The blurry and uncertain institutional context of the early 1990s allowed for the creation of parallel competing or substitutive informal norms that ensured limited administrative functionality where the state still lacked resources to do so. The downside was that this setting of informal norms did not incentivise political elites to respect the formal rules of liberal-legal democracies. Little electoral costs followed for not doing so, as the same politicians kept moving from one official position to another. Consequently, it was not necessarily rational for them to consider any change in their behaviour.

Under these conditions, increased elite accountability to civil society and to international organisations, particularly the EU and NATO, continue to be the main enforcers for democratic state building.

What’s in a man? Power personalisation and its institutional constraints

Democratic political systems are based on formal, legally codified power and informal power. When expectations of patron-client relations prevail, this interplay is affected negatively, to the detriment of individual and institutional autonomy supported by formalised regulations. According to one definition:

“Patronal politics refers to politics in societies where individuals organise their political and economic pursuits primarily around the personalized exchange of concrete rewards and punishments through chains of actual acquaintance, and not primarily around abstract, impersonal principles such as ideological belief or categorizations like economic class that include many people one has not actually met in person.” (Hale 2014: 59)

Often, patron-client systems have a visible leader who holds the reins of power over the pyramid of personalised relations which can discretely extract state assets. Should the leader be endowed with personal charisma and engage in strong personal role crafting, they can also accelerate the process of personalisation in coverage of their country in the foreign media (Balmas and Sheafer 2014). However, strong and charismatic leaders are not sufficient to ensure the survival of such networks, and they are unlikely to be able to do so within a constraining, democratic institutional design.

A researcher’s work often comprises lengthy conversations with the actors involved in shaping the political context we live in. Our purpose is not merely to assess the present, but to unearth scenarios about the future. This often requires going back in time to understand why some of our expectations failed, and why it is that some scenarios took us by surprise. Let us take the example of Hungary as the expected front-runner of the 1989 democratic transition.

To this day, I have still to find a Hungarian politician – active or retired – who supports the otherwise popular view that PM Viktor Orbán underwent a sudden, opportunistic change of heart towards centralising state power through a constitutional makeover and enacting radically conservative politics in 2010/12, the year that brought the CEE countries back into the spotlight.

Both allies – former and present – and opponents go significantly further back in time, to the early 1990s, to describe similar tendencies in Orbán’s leadership and rhetorical style. And, more importantly, most confirm the accrual of a group of loyal politicians, experts and businessmen around Orbán who worked together towards a fusion of public and private interests since the early days of his party FIDESZ.

What observers now evaluate as state capture by political elites, defined as the extraction of private benefits by incumbent officeholders from the state, seems to have had its roots well before the outside world became aware of it. Under the veil of anonymity, a representative of the FIDESZ elite told this author that the business/politics connections were “there from the outset, although it is true that the volume [of exchanges] may have changed”.

Strong and charismatic leaders are not sufficient to ensure the survival of informal networks, and they are unlikely to be able to do so within a constraining, democratic institutional design.

He described the accumulation of domestic capital in the hands of loyal FIDESZ businessmen as a way to circumvent the EU rules and competition policies that make state ownership and state aid difficult. As such, they become ‘front men’ for building national capital. In Hungary, this and other policies are described by government members as elements of the new ‘national cooperation system’. However, this inevitably leads to corruption around the very thorny issue of public procurement.

How did this long-term development fly under the radar until 2010? Was it perhaps considered politics as usual? Regardless of their politics, none of the interviewed elite members declared that FIDESZ had been original in doing so – only better. And yet, popular opinion remains focused on the personality of Orbán himself and his effect on Hungarian democracy, as it remarks the sudden backsliding of Hungarian democracy under his leadership in the last decade.

Focusing on leaders as principals in significant changes has its merits. And yet, this perspective alone leads to inaccurate long-term scenarios, and paints too simple a view of state-building realities in post-communist CEE. By focusing on individuals, we tend to also ignore the systemic conditions that allow the emergence of regional strongmen, which are unlikely to vanish should these men disappear. We may also not pay attention to countries where the leaders are less notorious, but where conditions for accelerating the ebbs in the democratisation process are also present.

Romania also lived through its own moment of significant institutional challenge in 2012 when a legislative majority made up of the Social Democratic (PSD) and National Liberal Parties (PNL) also passed a series of interconnected laws aimed at a fast takeover of institutions that would have set in motion a similar centralisation of power.

However, the leaders of this alliance, Victor Ponta and Crin Antonescu, faltered under international pressure to carry the plan through, and in the end no significant institutional changes took place in Romania. The alliance eventually broke down and the Social Democrats continued to fight for controversial, self-serving reforms to the justice system.

The change of party leader did not amount to a change of style; Liviu Dragnea took over from Ponta (2015) and became the new regional strongman, supported by a group of faithful acolytes and a cross country web of patron/client relations. In the meantime, civil protest and pressure from the EU managed to maintain the power-sharing institutional design unchanged. Dragnea’s replacement, the new party chairman and PM Viorica Dancila (2019-) inherited these networks herself and became their patron.

Immediately after winning the 2015 elections in Poland, Law and Justice Party (PiS), a socially conservative, Eurosceptic party proceeded to change the rules of the constitutional design. Five constitutional court judges were replaced following a legislative amendment that allowed the majority to do so.

Unlike the temporary political situation in Romania, where cohabitation has impeded some of the parliament’s actions, Poland experiences the political unity of PM and President. This leaves little room for manoeuvre by means of legislative leverages.

PiS benefits from a wide support of businessmen and local politicians built up over many years, and yet most attention is directed towards Jarosław Kaczyński, PiS’s leader, who is blamed for his country’s rightward, nationalist drift and the increase of selective advantage institutions. A closer investigation of the network of relationships between businesspeople and political actors that have emerged across Poland during the transition (see Schoenman 2014) reveals the existence of a cultivated group of insider businesspeople who had also supported the left-wing governments of the past.

Hungary, Romania and Poland drew their share of attention for challenging the rule of law in order to perpetuate a certain group of elites in power, and for resisting reforms that would have tackled corruption, thus straining their relations with the EU.

Individuals have been singled out and the leaders responsible have been identified with discretion. However, other countries, such as Croatia and Bulgaria, continue to fly under the radar – this in spite of their usual close positions relative to Romania (often lower) in terms of perceptions of corruption, difficulty in conducting business, degradation of human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of elections (see the V-Dem Database, the World Bank, the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index, and Transparency International).

In Croatia, the dominant party of the transition, the Croatian Democratic Party (HDZ), continues to preside over unresolved issues, such as the corruption of the judiciary and large amounts of illicit financial outflows via crime, corruption and tax evasion.

The potential replacement of the current HDZ chairman and PM Andrej Plenković is unlikely to resolve these pending matters. EU constraints over Croatia are also likely to weaken with the probable future selection of someone from the conservative wing of HDZ as the new chairman.

30 years after the fall of Communism the formal changes introduced from above have met significant resistance from patterns of informal norm systems, which are also the sources of clientelism, corruption and networks of political patronage. 

The Bulgarian PM Boyko Borisov’s staunch pro-European rhetoric has also earned him credit with EU observers, despite mounting evidence of corruption among his circle of loyal party members as a result of their overlapping political and business interests.

Thirty years after the fall of Communism, the countries of CEE are increasingly proving to have multiple centres of informal authority which exert fluctuating degrees of influence on the processes of democratisation and state institutionalisation.

The introduction of democratic institutions – and their intrinsic formalisation of elite relationships  – clashes with persistent informal practices. In other words, the formal changes introduced from above have met significant resistance from patterns of informal norm systems, which are also the sources of clientelism, corruption and networks of political patronage.

The widespread acceptance of these informal norm systems caters for whichever presiding force finds its way into the loci of state power. By circumventing predictability, their effect is anti-competitive and anti-meritocratic, favouring those who are ‘in the know’ and have privileged access to politicians. This favours the development of ‘one-party state’ forms of political organisations, regardless of their ideological inclinations.


Boundaries between the state and the economy are a feature of democracy. Substituting formal distributive institutions and replacing them with discreet mechanisms for resource allocation poisons the roots of democratisation. In CEE, informal patron-client networks divert the positive outcomes of rational-legal norms in competitive economic markets, as well as others which we did not tackle here such as the media.

While the importance of strongmen is undeniable, focusing too much on the ‘masters of puppets’ obscures the larger picture of the pre-existent conditions for their success.

This article suggests that early evaluations of the fast-forward democratisation of the post-Communist countries were rather based on wishful thinking rather than realities on the ground. It reminds us that 30 years’ experience with democracy is not enough to achieve success.

It also claims that building democracy is a long game that requires solidarity and constraints to interlock strategically in order to deliver the legal-liberal order that the institutions brought from outside were meant to deliver.

VERONICA ANGHEL is a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University – SAIS and researcher at the Institute for Central Europe Vienna. She tweets @anghel_veronica


Hale, H. E. 2014. Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge University Press

Balmas, M., & Sheafer, T. 2014. ‘Charismatic Leaders and Mediated Personalization in the International Arena’, Communication Research 41(7), pp. 991–1015.

Schoenman, R. (2014). ‘Networks and Institutions in Europe’s Emerging Markets’, Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics, pp. 1-26. Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781139381628.001