When Maria Snegovaya, a doctoral candidate in Columbia’s Department of Political Science, started researching the rise of the radical and populist right in Eastern and Central Europe back in 2013, she had no idea just how globally relevant the topic would become. Then, three years later, radical and populist right movements gained unexpected prominence in both Western Europe and the United States. “On a personal level I’m horrified by the developments, but on a scholarly level I’m happy because there will be more opportunities,” she says.
Snegovaya, who is originally from St. Petersburg, had planned to go into finance. She was also in the middle of pursuing a candidate of science degree in economics at the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Russia when she won a visiting fellowship from Harvard’s Davis Center for the 2009-10 academic year. That is when her career changed course. “I was so amazed by the intellectual dynamics at Harvard,” she says, “that sometimes I felt like my brain was overflowing with ideas just sitting in the lecture hall.” The environment stimulated her to such an extent that she decided “to pursue academia in a serious way.” Snegovaya returned to Russia, and, while completing the last year of her program at HSE, applied to U.S. doctoral programs in political science. She enrolled at Columbia in the fall of 2011, flying back to Russia a month later to successfully defend her HSE dissertation on religion in Ukraine and its impact on market labor attitudes.
After two years at Columbia, Snegovaya, by this point a regular columnist for the Russian business daily Vedomosti,* wanted to broaden the scope of her expertise beyond Russia. She and her adviser, former Harriman Director Timothy Frye, decided that for her dissertation she would investigate the political success of radical and populist right movements in Eastern and Central Europe. “Ironically enough, I discovered that the success of the radical and populist right was made possible by the earlier choices of left parties,” says Snegovaya.
After the collapse of the Communist bloc in 1989, many radical left and post-Communist parties decided to shift to the center of the political spectrum. “They became typical social democratic parties in the Western sense,” says Snegovaya, explaining that many such parties tended to weaken their ties to labor unions. They also often implemented unpopular market and austerity reforms, leaving traditional leftwing constituents to feel abandoned. “The policies ended up alienating the weaker and poorer population segments; those who were losing from globalization,” says Snegovaya.
The right-leaning parties noticed the shift, and came in to fill the void. In turn, as the economic situation for these alienated voters declined, they were more likely to adopt rightwing attitudes. “Radical right parties such as Jobbik in Hungary, played into these sentiments,” says Snegovaya. They promised to protect workers from the detrimental impacts of globalization, to create jobs, and to kick out immigrants and Western multinational companies.
In the summer of 2016, thanks to the support of the Harriman Institute’s Padma Desai Summer Fellowship, Snegovaya was able to test out her theory by running experimental surveys in Hungary and the Czech Republic. “The advantage of experimental surveys over traditional ones is that they allow you to approach the causality of an issue in a more rigorous fashion,” she explains. In an attempt to gauge whether or not frustrations with the left actually radicalized people, Snegovaya spent the summer running experiments in both countries. The results demonstrated just what she had suspected—in Hungary, where there was no radical left party, people with extreme views tended to drift to the right, while in the Czech Republic, where the radical left remained strong, extreme voters tended to drift to the left.
“I think my research has very important policy implications,” says Snegovaya. “The ability of left parties to reestablish their credibility in the face of their constituencies may substantially weaken the radicalization of these systems.”
* Since then, Snegovaya has become a frequent TV and radio political commentator and a contributor to news outlets such as New Republic and the Washington Post. You can listen to her discuss the recent protests in Russia in the inaugural episode of Expert Opinions, the Harriman Institute’s new podcast on EurasiaNet