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Expecting too much of Central Europe?

Brief commentary by me below written for on politics in the V4 and how Havel’s vision has been realised on partially  – and sometimes in unexpected and unwelcome ways.  Also accessible in Slovak and Polish.


Expecting too much of Central Europe?

By Dr Seán Hanley, senior lecturer at University College London´s School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES). Havel’s warning about our most dangerous enemy not being dark forces of totalitarianism, but our own bad qualities deserve attention today – but from Europe-wide audience, writ…

Democracy in Eastern Europe – an institutional bet gone wrong?


Image: rkarkowski CC0 Public Domain

It is now commonplace to observe that democracy in Central and East Europe (ECE) is not in rude health.

But despite a plethora of commentary on ‘democratic backsliding’ and ‘illiberal democracy’ and an uptick of academic interest in topics such as ‘de-democratisation’, ‘de-consolidation’ ‘democratic regression’, this is little agreement on the nature the problem – and still less on its causes.

An interesting light is cast on the issue is cast by Luca Tomini’s book Democratizing Central and Eastern Europe: Successes and failures of the European Union, which is interestingly poised between the optimism of the post-accession period and the pessimism and fearfulness about the region’s democratic development of today.

Tomini’s argues that

democratic consolidation is  best understood as the absence or prevention of authoritarian backsliding rather than the expectation that democracy is here to stay and that the key to the process was so-called horizontal accountability: the extent to which governing elites’ ability to concentrate power or plunder the state is held in check by institutions and norms. 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…

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…

Is ‘Scotland’s Future’ from Central Europe’s past?

Scottish Flag - detail

Photo: Endrick Shelleycoat via Wikimedia Commons

In a special guest post Kieran Williams reflects on the lessons for the SNP’s project of Scottish independence to be learned from the making and unmaking of Czechoslovakia.

The Scottish government’s glimpse of the future in an independent state was a trip down memory lane for those of us who remember the breakup of the Central and East European federations.

To be sure, the White Paper released on 26 November is a far more thorough and thoughtful rationale than anything that could be composed as the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia unraveled. It is also relies more on inclusive civic principles – statehood desired as a means to a fairer and more competent administration – than on the discourse of national destiny heard in the former Soviet bloc twenty years ago.

But here and there amidst the 650 answers of ‘Scotland’s Future’, I caught a strong whiff from the archives of Central Europe, in particular of Slovakia, a country easily compared to Scotland owing to almost identical population size (5.3 million), exceptionally large proportion of university graduates, highland-lowland range, and so on. I was reminded in particular of documents like the ‘61 Steps to Slovak Identity’, released in October 1990 by lawyers and economists of the ‘Sovereign Slovakia’ Initiative, and the manifesto of Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) for the 1992 election, the last held before Czechoslovakia was dissolved. Read More…

EU Czechs and balances

Karel Schwarzenberg Photo: Henrich Boell Stiftung

I’m sitting listening to Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg. I look up occasionally at the map on the wall and wonder what projection it is. Europe seems big and fat compared to the more politically correct/geographically accurate cartography I usually see.

But that’s kind of appropriate. Schwarzenberg is, after all, speaking to me – and the rest of a Chatham House lunchtime audience –on the record about the role of smaller EU member sin the post-Lisbon Treaty.

It’s interesting to see Schwarzenberg in person. Presentationally, he conforms to the media stereotype of distracted aristocratic anti-politician:  he looks tired, sports a crumpled-looking bow tie and speaks at  an ambling conversational pace with an unplaceable Central European accent.

 I’ve never bought into all the noblesse oblige hype surrounding Prince Schwarzenberg whose TOP09 party is one of the mainstays of the Czech Republic’s centre-right government and may yet become the dominant force on the Czech right. But a couple of minutes listening quickly highlights that he  has the state of the EU and European politics carefully and subtly thought through.

 The small state angle is a classic Czech motif dating back to Masaryk and beyond, (although as chair William Wallace dry comments the Czech Republic is one of the ‘bigger small countries’ in the Union) but Schwarzenberg uses it to good effect.

 Although it had always had a few small members, until the 2004, he argues, the EU had always functioned – and actually functioned quite well – as a big nations’ club. Eastern enlargement had changed all that bring in an influx small new CEE states, most of which lacked the economic wherewithal to join the Euro.

In harmonious tandem

Paradoxically, however, expansion to 27 upped the power of bigger states, who gained from drive to create more workable decision-making structures, which resulted in the Lisbon Treaty.

 The need for speedy action in current crisis had upped the power of bigger over small states. Indeed, in some sense the euro crisis had made EU governance a tandem of two big states – read France and Germany. (This, Schwarzenberg noted was kind of appropriate given that Maastricht and the Euro were essentially a Franco-German political compromise intended to anchor and clip the wings of a re-united post-Cold War Germany – the contradiction of introducing a common currency without adequate economic governance had been left unaddressed, setting up the current crisis.

 Big states bossing it might be an effective (and necessary) way of running things post-crisis– and the EU had never exactly been run democratically since its foundation – But a big state-driven EU was aggravating an already acute trade-off between efficiency and legitimacy, opening up the democratic deficit (although he didn’t use the term – I have ‘citizenship gap’ in my notebook).

All non-EU traffic turn off here?

 Moreover, the distinct politics of the Euro crisis management being decided by the 17 Eurozone members, splitting the Union into two bloc: although no one had an interest in Euro meltdown, on certain issues the 17 might act as a bloc against the other ten members. As the 17 were likely to adopt steps towards further political/economic governance integration, a two-speed Europe was opening up. As on a motorway, those moving slowly and gradually falling behind might, he suggest, be tempted to turn off at the nearest exit.

 So small states needed some new channels to participate (I presume both in their own interests and for the sake of EU legitimacy, although this didn’t get mentioned). But what channels? One would be to operate in flexible informal blocs. Visegrad (despite having one Eurozone state and three non-Euro states) worked well did similar Nordic, Benelux and Baltic groupings. Another was to be useful and effective especially in niche role: the Czech Republic’s special mission was to be a promoter in human rights – its diplomats had been active over Burma, Cuba. Eastern partnership and the Western Balkans (‘a powder keg’) were also spaces to watch.

 Rather refreshingly Schwarzenberg offered to grand vision or or clear blueprint offered for EU reform. Just the thought – in response to a question from the Swiss ambassador – that the Union had in the fullness time to find itself way to a Swiss style arrangement, but with member states retaining the trapping of traditional statehood (like national armies) for the sake of legitimacy and as part of a system of checks and balance. Democracy mattered less than balance.

Nevedieť, kde je Slovensko, to je také ...

 The Q and A also tracked back to the question of a dual EU with discussion of an inner (Euro-)zone and outer core of members with roughly Danish level of integration. Intriguingly, we didn’t get to hear where the thought the Czech Republic should or would end up, although geography and economics ruled out British style debates about more extensive disengagement.

Overall, it was surprisingly sceptical take for a politician associated with the liberal ex-dissident europhile centre of Czech politics. Indeed, in its basic diagnosis, it didn’t seem that far removed from some of views you could hear Václav Klaus express, at least in his more cautious days in 1990s.

Still, I guess we’re all eurosceptics now.

Slovakia, in case you wondered, was not mentioned once.

>Wordle-izing Slovakia’s centre-left


And, as I know you’ve all been lying awake, wondering about the politics of Central European social democracy, here’s a quick Wordle-ization of the prgramme that Robert Fico’s Smer is serving up to the Slovak electorate for their also forthcoming elections – as in the CR from an eroding position of strength but as a dominant and incumbent party, rather than the kind of hard hitting opposition you wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night in the middle of a tricky EU presidency.

Compared to their Czech colleague Smer’s programme throws up a lot less in the way of concrete policy, stresses the words ‘Slovak’ and ‘state’ an awful lot – suggesting a more nationalist note (as frankly you would expect) as well as the party’s name. The spread of key words also suggests greater emphasis on the politics of anti-crisis and the country’s position in the world economy.

>A tale of two Slovakias


SSEES marks the 20th anniversary of November 1989 with two contrasting Slovak speakers – a nice touch, as the fall of communism in the Czechoslovakia is so often reduced to events in Prague. The Magic Lantern, Václav Havel, speech from the balcony of the Melantrich building, vast crowds packing Wenceslas Square, more crowds crowds jangling their keys in unison at rallies on the Letna plain to ring out the change of regime. Dozens of local transitions get forgotten as does and a fully fledged Tender (or Gentle) Revolution (Nežná revolúcia) in Slovakia. Similar, but different to the Velvet Revolution played out in the neighbouring Czech lands
The first visitor to SSEES is Fedor Gál, Slovakia sociologist, researcher, opposition activist and (latterly) film-maker and media entrepreneur, who is presenting his new documentary Dobré ráno, Slovensko (Good Morning, Slovakia) which chronicles the last days of the regime, the revolution and first six months of 1990 as the Public Against Violence movement Gál chaired (see photo below) started to be bruisingly pushed aside and internally fracture under the growing pressure from Slovak nationalism, some of it animated by ill concealed anti-semitism. Gál left to live in Prague in 1992, but is still well known enough to drawn an audience of 60-70. Most, as I later discover, are young Slovak and Czech students, though almost none from SSEES curiously enough.

Things get off to a bad start when, after opening remarks, it becomes clear that the English language version of the film won’t play. We can, however, show it in Slovak, which is OK for around 80% of the audience and perhaps a blessing in disguise as the English version is overdubbed, rather undermining its effect, rather than subtitled. The film, however, is powerful and well made and in the Q and A that follows Gál shows himself to be a magnetic and charismatic speaker. If you wondered why he was a revolutionary leader, this would answer your question. The questioners are all young, the question all in Czech or Slovak, self-translated in English. Everyone agrees that communism-nationalism-and-populist social-democracy are all part and parcel of the same illiberal conundrum that plays to the lowest, materialistic and most provincial inclinations of the Slovak and Czech populace and still haunts the region. Why did thy not handle things more smartly? Boli sme blbí, Gál tells his listeners in a line you feel he’s probably used before. But given the revolutionary avalanche of events and the fact he bowed out of politics almost two decades ago, that’s perhaps a more than acceptable answer.

Showing up in the grander circumstances on 17 November itself to give a lecture, Slovak Prime Minister, Robert Fico represents precisely that Other Slovakia (my phrase) that Gál and his listeners so dislike. We had expected a bland speech, but characteristically Fico decided to deal with controversial issues bluntly and head on: not everything under communism had been all bad -welfare standards were higher and teaching in universities ‘more systematic’; there had been privations and bureaucracy – he himself had had to queue through the night to book his honeymoon to Malta; the revolution was not a cause for unbridled celebration as the ‘tribunes of the revolution’ didn’t deliver on promises of fairness and freedom and hacked away a lot of ordinary people’s social certainties in their pursuit of economic and party self-interest (until the arrival of R. Fico and Smer, you understand. Politically, this is some extent a necessary move as in 1989 Fico was a member of Communist Party of Slovakia (having joined in 1987) working at the Institute of State and Law of the Academy of Sciences, although on the other hand some Czech Social Democrats have similar backgrounds as bright young things in the late socialist nomenklatura and don’t feel the need for such a ‘balanced’ assessment of the old regime.

The main achievement of the revolution in this rather interesting Fico-ean interpretation was that it opened up the way for an independent Slovakia and for further economic modernization, although an over dependence on car construction for export would entail an economic strategy based on high public spending in these days of global recession, partly to invest in education.

In the Q & A Fico switched to Slovak, ostensibly for the sake of not being misquoted or misunderstood by the Slovak media in not quite perfect English, but presumably also because he knew he was going to say something worthy of that night’s TV news. There were three questions to which he gave long, unfazed confident answers, perhaps being Robert Fico he could guess what he was going to be asked: the quality of Slovak higher education (admittedly poor, too many universities, too much local pride at stake); what would he do if he were a Slovak Hungarian (cherish and protect his own culture and learn to speak perfect Hugarian); and did he think there was a trade-off between freedom and prosperity (no but golden plated freedom could be a bit costly – Slovak officials weren’t well resourced enough to deal with too many freedom of information requests).

My sympathies were, it must be said, not with Fico, who made a more convincing case for himself on his last visit in UCL in 2006. On the other hand, he has turned out to have played the smarter political game and, as one leading specialist on Slovak politics, reminded me after afterwards it is a sign of progress to have ‘bog standard left-wing politics’ dominating the Slovak political scence not the more paranoid and dangerous nationalism of the Mečiar era – a period oddly absent from Fico’s speech – albeit suffused with a bit of dodgy nomenklatura nostalgia for social cosseting of the normalization era.

The text of the speech doesn’t seem to be on the net yet, but extracts from YouTube can be seen here. Gál’s film (broken down into 14 short episodes) can be seen (in Slovak) here.

Update: A video of the full lecture has now appeared on the UCL-SSEES website here.

>Slovakia: New social services law highlights creeping statism


Slovak daily Sme reports on an amendment to the Law on Social Services passing through the Slovak parliament supported by the ruling centre-left Sme that obliges regional authorities to take social services from public providers (preferably ones they have established themselves) and only then, if there is no capacity to, use private/third sector providers. Social services clients can opt for non-state providers but lose care allowances, if they do (some choice). Opposition deputies criticized the amendment as denying choice and suppressed civil society/the third sector. Doubtless there are a few counter-arguments about cost, quality and risks of commercialization, but the Slovak system seems in striking contrast with the recently reformed Czech Social Services law, which seeks to diversify the range of providers within a new toughened up inspection framework and add in offer some element of client/customer choice. Slovak regional authorities protest they simply don’t have the cash to run social services properly, although lack of resources is also a problem affecting the new Czech system.