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East Central Europe: liberalism gone missing – or just never there?

Refugees welcome hashtag

Spread of #refugeeswelcome 3 September 2015

This commentary on liberalism and the responses to the refugee crisis in East Central Europe was co-authored with James Dawson.

 Images from Hungary showing security forces turning tear gas and water cannon on refugees from behind a newly fortified border will come as little surprise to many observers of East Central Europe.  The government of Victor Orbán has systematically exploited the refugee crisis to ramp up a long-standing rhetoric of nationalist intolerance and consolidate its grip on power by passing a raft of emergency powers, further eroding Hungary’s once robust legal checks and balances. Such actions have drawn a storm of international opprobrium – including harsh criticism from the governments of Austria, Croatia and Serbia, all of which have taken a more humane and pragmatic approach to managing the influx of refugees.

Few criticisms of Hungary’s actions have come from neighbouring EU states in East Central Europe still widely seen as front runners in liberal political and economic reform. Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic initially opted to close ranks with Orbán to head off the European Commission’s proposals for compulsory quotas. Wrong-footed and exasperated by the sudden re-discovery of liberal compassion on the part on Germany and other West European governments, leaders ranging from Slovakia’s social democratic prime minister Robert Fico to Poland’s newly elected conservative president Andrzej Duda provoked astonishment in Western European capitals by conceding that they might take a handful of those fleeing the war in Syria hand-picked on the basis of their religion. Poland has lately broken ranks by responding to pressure from Berlin, Paris and Brussels to sign up to quotas, yet even the deal’s supporters doubt it will ever be implemented against a backdrop of consistently hostile public attitudes towards refugees in the region. As one social media visualisation graphically showed, widespread use of #refugeeswelcome stopped abruptly at the old Iron Curtain. Such stances have been widely lambasted as hypocritical, ungenerous, lacking in compassion, and contradicting the long-term interests of East Central European states themselves.

Yet just a decade ago these same former Eastern bloc countries acceded smoothly to the EU on the basis that they had fulfilled the Copenhagen Criteria as ‘functioning liberal democracies’. Why has liberalism, once a rallying cry for pro-European leaders from Warsaw to Sofia and a condition built into the EU’s demanding  pre-accession acquis, suddenly gone missing when it is needed most? Read More…

Populism: Europe’s coat of many colours


Photo: Henning Mühlinghaus CC BY-NC 2.0

The politcal challenges thrown up to the status quo in Europe in the aftermath of global recession and the Eurozone crisis has prompted a surge of media and think-tank interest in the concept of populism.

Although a notoriously slippery term – and one often used in a loose, disparaging sense to describe demagogic promise-making by unsavoury extremist outsiders – most academic researchers concur with the definition of the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde: an ideological construction that sees politics as dominated by immoral and collusive elites who do down a homogeneous and unsullied People – sometimes by promoting the interests of undeserving minorities.  Populists thus offer themselves to electorates as truth tellers, tribunes of the People and righters of wrongs.

However, as populism is famously a ‘thin ideology’ whose basic construct needs to filled in and filled out  with political ballast from elsewhere. For this reasons populism seems chameleon-like. It can assume many political colourations: from the (much studied) extreme right through regionalism, free marketry and radical left populism.

The academic study of comparative populism and the sense that populist movements have been the main beneficiaries of the politics of austerity triggered by the global recession of 2008-9 are brought together in a new collection edited by Takis S. Pappas and Hanspeter Kriesi European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession (ECPR Press, 2015).

ecpr bookThe book assesses the political impact of the Recession by examining pre- and post-crisis fortunes of 25 populist parties in 17 European countries, which are grouped in five regional clusters: Nordic (Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland); North European (France, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland); Southern Europe (Italy and Greece); and Central and Eastern Europe (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia); and the ‘Anglo-Celtic’ pairing of the UK and Ireland.

In Nordic and Northern Europe countries and – with the rise of UKIP – the UK the main populist challengers are radical right or anti-immigrant parties, in Southern and Eastern Europe populism is a more mixed bag comprising conservative-nationalism, radical leftists, technocratic market reformers and hard-to-categorize anti-corruption movements. Read More…

East European democracy: Sliding back or hollowed out?


2010 Fidesz fahaz MSZP sator” by Czank Máté – Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

For some time analysts and commentators have understood that all is not well with democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. In the immediate aftermath, the region defied a raft of predictions that the dislocating effect of economic reform and resurgence of nationalist traditions would lead to a Latin American style breakdown of democracy. Democratic change and marketization were – certainly compared to other parts of the post-communist world – peaceful, quick and far-reaching, with the EU membership achieved within a relatively short time.

Indeed, much conventional wisdom has it, that the incentive of EU membership ‘leveraged’ politicians and electorates in some CEE states away from illiberal and nationalist politics. In short, while CEE democracy might have been short on civil society and public engagement and high on corruption and inefficiency, it seemed consolidated and safe.

All this seems to have changed since EU accession. Commentators looked for and quickly found ‘backsliding’ in Poland in 2005-7 as short-lived minority government headed by the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which included two small populist-nationalist parties as coalition partners, took office. And post-transition fears of breakdown seemed belatedly to come true with onset of the Great Recession in 2008-9 and the landslide victory in Hungary in the 2010 parliamentary elections of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz.

Orbán’s subsequent use of his huge majority to rewrite the Hungarian constitution, strip back checks and balances and entrench his party in deep in the state, media civil society are well documented, as are his questioning of liberal democracy and formulation of a deeply illiberal nationalist project for the future of Hungary.

But discussion of the wider malaise seemingly gripping democracy in CEE has often been stronger on sounding the alarm and itemizing symptoms than on analysis.  Indeed, the term ‘backsliding’ was so loosely applied  that it covered phenomena ranging from the rise of right-extremism to difficulties negotiating coalitions.

Much writing has simply boiled down to the idea that development across the region simply can be understood as Hungary writ small.  Hungary’s illiberal political turn was a ‘cancer’ spreading to the rest of the region and Orbán, to quote the Guardian’s Ian Traynor simply the most prominent example of a new breed of ‘democratically elected populist strongmen …  deploying the power of the state and a battery of instruments of intimidation to crush dissent’.  Some journalists painting a bigger picture (or airing common geo-political concerns) preferred the term ‘Putinization’.

But such broad-brush treatment would never do. Anyone who knows the Czech Republic, for example, would see a democracy disfigured by corruption, disengagement and distrust. But neither its assertive head of state, president Miloš Zeman, nor ambitious billionaire populist newcomer Andrej Babiš quite fit the bill of a Czech Viktor Orbán. A nationalist turn, a new constitution, a dominant ruling party or a spectacular breakthrough by the extreme right. None of this is on the Czech agenda – or indeed quite  on the agenda elsewhere in CEE.

Clearly a much better comparative take on how to understand the travails of CEE democracy is called for, capable of embracing the political realities of both Prague and Budapest and all points in between.

And in an article in latest issue of Global Policy the Hungarian political scientist and political economist Béla Greskovits has now offered precisely this. Read More…

Havel: For young radicals or middle aged and middle of the road?

Václav Havel has lent his name and inspiration to many events and movements. His dissident writings have been translated into Arabic, serving as point of reference for activists and thinkers contemplating entrenched but brittle authoritarian regimes.

 More expectedly, perhaps Havel’s is a liberal oppositionists in Putin’s Russia which – as Havel himself suggested in later life – has seen communist structures morph into a new repressive structures.  So it’s no surprise to see a Guardian commentary by Natalie Nougayrède that flags Havel and the Central European dissident movement as inspiration for young, radical left movements that have emerged in Western and South Europe.

It’s a balanced piece, which notes the obvious differences between normalisation era Czechoslovakia regime and the far more open and competitive political and social systems of Western Europe.  The typewriter and carbon paper technology of 1970 and 80s samizdat is also clearly a world away from networked and internet-based communications of the early 21st century – even for those fighting authoritarian regimes thumb drives and encryption software have replaced clandestine printing and duplicating.

And Nougayrède is surely right when she suggests Václav Havel is in some ways an unlikely source of inspiration for Podemos, Syriza and similar movements (themselves often the products of mash-up of various heterodox Marxist traditions, Trotskyist, Maoist, Euro-communist etc)

 The sharp critique of Western societies Havel expressed in his writing of 1970s and 1980s as somewhat less extreme version of a single impersonal technocratic mass civilization mellowed after the fall of communism into a pragmatic, if critical, acceptance of conventional parliamentary democracy, capitalism and the European Union.  Havel’s disdain for party politics and big scale economics also saw him quickly outmanoeuvred after 1989 by opponents, on both left and right, who realised more quickly than he did both that parties were necessary workhorses of democracy and that voters’ concerns about economic security and prosperity needed addressing head on. Read More…

Why Czechs need Jim Hacker as well as Sir Humphrey

The rise of Slovak-born tycoon Andrej Babiš and his anti-corruption movement ANO in the Czech Republic has been greeted more with dismay than delight, as a harbinger of the oligarchisation of politics and the flagging of Czech democracy. But the arrival of a billionaire populist on the scene need not deal a fatal blow to Czech democracy and may be seen, in hindsight to, have provide impetus for change.  But does underlines that any reconstruction of the state needs to run in parallel with the reconstruction of politics and the emergence of a new, more settled form of democratic party politics.

 Democratic politics is a moving target. The long term success of any programme to rein in the corrupt abuse of power arguably depends not only its ability to diagnose and treat current ills, but to anticipate the way democratic politics is moving. The danger is that changing nature of political and party landscape will run ahead of the reforms intended to regulate them, which are, in part,  a response to a political era dominated by ODS and ČSSD that is now receding.

In 1990s the Czech Republic opted for specific form of democracy foregrounding the role of political parties.  The Czech Constitution makes competition between parties the cornerstone of the country’s democracy. Legislation and Constitutional Court rulings  specify in detail some they should organise and operate to play this role. Parties are supposed to be voluntary associations of members open to society, which mobilise, include and educate citizens and transform partial interests into different, competing visions of the public good

The reality of Czech party politics, although oriented towards ‘standard’ Western European parties, has, of course, very differently. Parties have typically been closed rather than open; attractive to limited numbers of citizens; organisations with largely passive paper membership rather hotbeds of political activism; collusive rather than competitive; and deeply vulnerable to capture by corrupt vested interests. With the possible exception of the Communists (KSČM) and Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL)   the country’s political parties seem shell-like bodies, which de facto are loose alliances of elite groups and political professionals, overlapping more with the worlds of business and public administration than with the life of grassroots communities. Although constitutionally and legally privileged, Czech parties are, in many ways, weak organisations. Read More…

Czech Republic: How bad is Babiš?

An article about billionaire Czech politician Andrej Babiš by UK-based think tankers Andrew Foxall and Ola Cichowlas   of the Henry Jackson Society on the website of Foreign Policy has set the cat among the pigeons. Indeed the highly critical portrait  has sufficiently enraged the Slovak-born finance minister and deputy prime minister, whose ANO movement came second in the 2013 election and now tops the polls, that he has threatened to sue.

The broad thrust of the piece on the Czechs’ ‘oligarch problem’ is a familiar one: that Babiš’ has accumulated a dangerous concentration of economic, political and media power, including expanding newspaper and TV holdings and influence he can wield over public broadcasters; that are huge potential conflicts of interests between his business empire political role (shifts in government policy on bio-fuel have been cited as an obvious example); and that his own personal, professional and business background raise questions about his democratic credentials.

With a Communist family background, he made a pre-1989 career as official in communist-era foreign organisation dealing the petro-chemicals, had contacts with communist-era secret police, which registered him as an informer (wrongly a Slovak court has ruled  – although appeals are ongoing).  His post-1989 business career has been criticised for the possibly legally dubious separation of the original (state-owned) Agrofert company from its Slovak parent and left unanswered questions about foreign-registered companies and funds – and political favours -which helped build up business empire.

Veteran Prague-based business analyst James de Candole does an excellent job here summing up this issues and Czech-speaking readers could do worse than read Tomáš Pergler’s meticulously researched biography.

The FP piece, however, does a less good job. Read More…

Czech populist goes from Dawn to dusk: but do members matter?

Observers of Czech politics have recently been tickled (if not exactly surprised) by the implosion of the small populist party Dawn of Direct Democracy founded by motor-mouthed Czecho-Japanese businessman Tomio Okamura. Most of Mr Okamura’s 14 parliamentary grouping decided to jump ship because, they say, their leader has been neglecting grassroots recruitment.

And you can see what they mean: 15 months on from pulling in 342 339 votes (6.88%) in the October 2013 elections the party has grand total of nine members. Modest by even the low membership figures for Central and Eastern Europe – most of Dawn’s own MPs are not even members of the party they sit, although admittedly some are actually members of another small protest party recycled for the purposes of getting Dawn’s electoral challengeon the road.

It’s not, of course, an oversight but was a deliberate ploy by Okamura to keep tabs on the party he founded and – thanks to the generosity of the Czech taxpayer – its now not immodest resources. Indeed, his hefty consultancy fees charged to the party were a bit much even for the loyalists on the party executive (which officially consists of five people, although only three – including Okamura himself – are identifiable from the party’s website).

There is supposedly a political element to the split beyond just a fallout over power and money: the splitters have finally concluded that Mr Okamura’s over the top anti-Islamic rhetoric (bizarre in a country where there are a grand total of 3352 Muslims according to the 2011 census) including appeal to supporters to boycott kebabs and walk pigs in the vicinity of mosques was too much. Okamura is also known for his virulent rhetoric stigmatising the country’s rather larger Roma minority, but these seem to have passed the dissident MPs by. Perhaps unsurprisingly. The new, more respectable party they apparently planned work would, they hoped, be working with, none other Marine Le Pen (courtesy of the supposed contacts of one of the minor parties in the alliance). Mme Le Pen is no doubt scanning headlines Czech press in anticipation.

In truth both Okamura and his erstwhile supporters seem headed for the political scrapheap, already piled high with debris of umpteen new, would-be and never-were parties, as well as a few more sizeable. But as Dawn turns to dusk, it’s hard not see the Mr Okamura as in some way an impressively modern, if loathsome, political operator: a marginal figure who seems effortlessly to have reinvented as lifestyle guru and purveyor and packager of Japanese culture for the Czech consumer; self-made business tycoon, pontificating on start-ups on the local franchise of Dragon’s Den; a would-be Czech Berlusconi promising to run the state like a business; and finally – when that pitch was taken by a real tycoon in the person of Czecho-Slovak billionaire Andrej Babiš (interestingly another outsider in terms of ethnic identity), as mouthy and aggressive populist laying into minorities and elites with alacrityin a manner reminiscent  of the Czech Republic’s only truly successful far-right politician, Miroslav Sládek and his Republican Party of 1990s.

Mr Okamura is also in the vanguard of party organisation – or, rather non-organisation. The super-low membership ‘personal party’ something of an emerging trend in Europe. Holland’s Geert Wilders is the one and only member of the anti-immigration, anti-Islamic Freedom Party, making Dawn a mass organisation in comparison. Both have worked out that cash, showmanship, a few hired hands and whole lot of publicity can go a long way to substituting for grassroots members and ‘real’ party organisation – at least as far as getting into parliament is concerned. The days of Mr Sládek when a hard-working populist demagogue actually had to go on the stump, endlessly touring small town Czechia to build up a grassroots following are long gone.

And it’s here the real issue lies.

Read More…

Use your Ed? How I put Miliband into Number 10 (just)

I’ve long been a fan of 270Soft’s election simulation games: President Forever allowing you to replay US presidential contests (including primaries) both historically and for 2016 and Prime Minister Forever which translates the format for British general elections.

There are also versions for Canadian, Australian and German parliamenary elections.  So I was delighted to get an early release of Prime Minister Infinity, which allows you to simulate the forthcoming UK general 2015 election with party and strategy of your choice.

The game is essentially an exercise in positioning and managing and deploying resources – realistic enough many political scientists would say – which entails framing your platform and picking your campaign themes; targeting your leader’s campaigning, debate preparation and issue knowledge; and planning your advertising. Needless to say Events-Dear-Boy can intervene  and you also get to spend of your precious time and resources spinning good or bad news.

Anyone familiar with President Forever and its spinoffs will find the game quick enough  to pick up, although options and gameplay have become more complex compared to the earlier Prime Minister Forever –  especially with the provision for much more detailed constitutency-level campaigning. Few real political devotees would probably mind this, although it makes for a longer a game (2-3 hours) and anyone serious political geeks could probably spend a couple of days carefully scanning the marginals and the polls before plotting their next move (the game has daily turns from early January untill May 5 Polling Day.

Anyone not familiar with the 270.soft stable of games will probably have steeper learning curve or might want to have a crack at President Foreover where you have a mere 50 states, to range over rather than 650 constiuencies, although PM Infinity does provide helpful regional summary which simplify your task a bit.

Relishing a challenge and wanting to have a real chance of power, I stepped into the shoes of Ed Milliband with the computer playing the part of the other parties (including a small rather unrealistic bloc of Independents who I probably should have turned off at the start – they eventually won four seats). Read More…

Comrade Baggins? When Middle Earth met Middle Europe

It’s not difficult to Christmas shop for my nephew.  Any of an array of Hobbit-branded products drawing on the latest New Zealand -filmed Peter Jackson blockbuster franchise would do. I settled on a DVD, a map of Middle Earth and a poster-sized calendar.

But – to borrow Timothy Garton Ash’s quip about Central Europe–tell me your Middle Earth and I’ll tell you who you are.

An interesting meme has been doing the rounds of the Czech internet in the past year: a review (or so we are told) of The Lord of the Rings published in 1977 in the (then) central organ of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Rudé právo denounced Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece as a work of thinly disguised bourgeois and imperialist propaganda:

The Kingdom of Evil belching smoke and ash is transparently located in the East.  The working class, uniting to build heavy industry by the sweat of its brow, is depicted as revolting and evil orcs. (…) Those living the West – overflowing lands of milk and honey – the elves (that is the aristocracy), men (bourgeoisie) and hobbits (farmers) on the other hand live a prosperous life (although it is not explained how they get it) and their only problem is the ‘threat’ from the East.

The ‘forces of good’ are represented by a set of representatives of these reactionary circles… Their leader is Gandalf, a spreader of reactionary ideologies, which keep the population in ignorance and fear of progress. (…)

Small wonder then that Saruman, the defender of the oppressed and friend of progress, is branded a traitor and his stronghold is destroyed by a band of fanatical reactionaries. When he spread socialism to the Shire he is caught and subject to punishment without trial by the hobbits supported and paid by the capitalist powers of Gondor… But socialism cannot be destroyed by throwing its relics, not even its most sacred relics, into the fire. Hold out against encirclement by your reactionary neighbours Mordor!

It was not entirely clear if the review is real. As it turned out it was a clever pastiche. No date, scant referencing and no trace of in the archives. And, of courses, rather too much of hint of tongue-in-cheek for the notoriously humourless Rudé právo.

But that’s beside the point. It is exactly what Rudé právo could, or should have written about Lord of The Rings in mid-1970s. Moreover, the pastiche does seem to have drawn heavily on real Communist-era article published in Poland in 1971.

Because Communist regimes did have a problem with Tolkien and particularly with Lord of the Rings. Read More…

Eastern Europe 25 years on: catching up or catching cold?

25 years on from the fall of communism, the Wall Street Journal recently told its readers, Central and Eastern Europe is still playing catch-up. The reasons are mainly economic and infrastructural. Too little growth by the standards of the Asian tigers. Too few high speed rail links. Not enough motorways. Viktor Orbán bossing it over Hungary in an ever more worrying project of illiberal transformation. A bad subsidy habit fed by an indulgent EU. A Middle Income Development Trap waiting to be sprung. And –when did this ever happen before? –  progress that “ has fallen short of what many of its citizens had hoped”.

 But we shouldn’t be too harsh. The WSJ is not particularly well known for the quality of its CEE  reporting. And this occasion it’s absolutely right: Central and Eastern Europe is playing catch-up. The politics of catch-up, rather than geography or culture or post-communism, are probably what define the region best. If it wasn’t catching up, it wouldn’t be Central and Eastern Europe.  Historians of East Central Europe such as Andrew C. Janos or  Ivan Berend have long been preoccupied by the region’s long-term efforts to push its levels of socioeconomic– and political – development into line Europe’s core West European states –  although they have sometimes bluntly simply spoken of “backwardness”.

 The post-1989 project of European integration and enlargement, although more usually referred to in terms of ‘convergence’ or ‘Return to Europe’ is also all about one catch-up – and a very ambitious form of catch-up: overcoming deeply rooted east-west divide, which as Janos and others have noted, predates the Cold War division of Europe.  Enlargement and integration – and liberal reform in CEE generally –been sold politically on the basis that the poor, historically peripheral societies of CEE will (and after a painful process of adjustment) reap the full benefits of prosperity, social welfare, democracy and freedom enjoyed by core West European societies that had the good luck to stay out of of the Soviet zone of influence after WWII.

 If, in the long term, integration fails to deliver, there may be significant consequences both for the EU and for the fate of democracy and liberal institutions in Central and East European countries themselves.  As recent developments in Hungary show, liberal and democratic reforms are not irreversible or consolidated as once thought or hoped. If the European project fails to deliver catch-up – or the Western model CEE was busy catching up on with proves exhausted and unattractive – it will exacerbate both centrifugal pressures in the EU and erosion of democracy in some or all of CEE. There is the uncomfortable possibility that in his nationalistic rejection of liberalism, Viktor Orbán may be a leader rather than a laggard as far as the future direction of the region is concerned –  the Central European vanguard of the revolt against a broken Western model that Pankaj Mishra sees rippling out  from Asia. Read More…


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