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Does Eastern Europe have lessons for Brexit Britain?

Photo Bob Harvey, CC BY-SA 2.0,

In the aftermath of the EU referendum a number of Central and South East Europeanists wrote blogs reflecting on possible parallels between Brexit and break-ups of multinational socialist states like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in early 1990s.

There are certainly parallels to be drawn.  They lie, as Catherine Baker notes, often in the political dynamics of exiting a large multi-national structure: the desire of smaller nations (Scotland) to ‘exit the exit’; the woes of asymmetric federalism, where nations ina multinational union have varying degrees of autonomy; the changeable nature of public opinion; the EU as a symbol of modernisation and liberalism (the ‘March for Europe’, and the normalisation of  radical positions through by media coverage – and now social media ‘echo chambers;.

Scotland’s (now much more likely) exit from the UK – as noted in the lead-in to #indyref – had echoes not only of Yugoslavia’s disintegration or Czechoslovakia’s ‘Velvet Divorce’ in 1992 but also – more distantly, but perhaps more pertinently –  of the dilemmas faced by small, newly independent Central European states emerging from the Habsburg Empire in 1918. 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…

>Ljubljana diary


I arrive at night Ljubljana’s Jože Pučnik Airport (newly renamed after the dissident and statesman, who led the anti-communist DEMOS coalition and founded what is today the centre-right Slovene Democratic Party – just ejected from office in parliamentary elections). We’re then whisked by minibus in pitch darkness in the direction of Slovenia’s capital. I try to imagine picturesque mountains and well tended , frosty fields outside, although breakneck narrow roads and the minibus’s driver’s juggling of fag, mobile and steering wheel tends to distract.
20 minutes later we’re dropped off near the station. It’s looks pretty unprepossessing , but after I’ve walked a couple of streets things get neater and better tended and I am in a street lined with imposing 19th century banks and hotels. Then, suddenly, I am in Prešeren Square, the heart of the city. It’s draped all over with blue and white Christmas illuminations and, slightly less magically, filled with oompa music . There are some open air stalls and bars and I treat myself to Carolian sausage and a honey brandy (medica) to psyche myself up for the search for my hotel Three minutes later I am already there. Ljubljana is indeed small.

Viewed in daylight, my initial impression is that Ljubljana that has the look and pace of a Austrian or Scandinavian regional capital albeit with some architectural gems and government ministries unexpectedly thrown in. My Slovene colleague at the University of Ljubljana has been incredibly helpful and I have interviews to do and a translator to help out recruited via the local student union. First port of call is Slovenia’s pensioners’ party DESUS, where I meet both the party’s General Secretary and it 2002 presidential candidate Prof Anton Bebler, whose flawless English and political science background make for a very smooth and interesting interview. (Slovene academics, I later discover, often make the transition to politics, not infrequently acting as independent expert nominees for ministerial posts).

The headquarters of Slovenia’s main labour federation is, understandably, a smaller and more compact affair than the vast echoing trade union HQ I visited in Prague last month, But it also seems busier and more business-like – Slovenia is the most unionized country in CEE and, although membership rates have slipped – is still a force to be reckoned with. The representative of Slovenia’s pensioners’ trade union who are kind enough to make time for me despite being are on a tight schedule, are clear and informative. They also ask me some good questions at the end. Next day at the Slovene pensioners’ federation, my translator- who has more experience with arts and cultural events than issues of interest aggregation – has a much more challenging time, especially when discussion turns to the political structure of Socialist Slovenia’s highly complex, multi-layered brand of self-managing socialism. Luckily, she is resourceful and clever enough to cope and I am (just about) well informed about socialist Yugoslavia to follow it all. Terms like ‘self-managing community of interests’ are now part of my (very limited) Slovene vocabulary. Going over my notes and the diagram my interviewee helpfully drew for, I realise that such legacies are indeed central to what I’m interested in.

Making an early New Year’s resolution to learn some proper Slovene, I head off to buy a dictionary and a grammar for foreign learners. All the bookshops, bar one, seem to be owned by Mladinska knijga but, in any case, there’s a good (if expensive) selection of both. There’s also an interesting selection of English language books on politics and current affairs mixed in with the Slovene language ones. Later I’m very pleased to meet political blogger Pengovsky and over lunch I learn inter alia that Slovenes are, as I had suspected, big readers and bad drivers and, that electoral appearances aside the the Slovene right has never enjoyed the social and political traction it has elsewhere in CEE. There are , admittedly, bitter arguments between Slovenes about the moral and political status of the wartime communist partisan movement and collaborationist domobranci , but a Slovene lustration law or a flat tax reform would be about as likely as a snow flake in July.


Before meeting to colleagues at the Social Sciences Faculty, I still have a little time to kill. I feel a a bit guilty just walking round the Old Town seeing the sights, so as the rain sets in I set off for the Museum of Contemporary History, which is just outside the city centre in grounds of the Tivoli park in a small chateau-cum-palace. By the time I get there, the skies have darkened and the rain is pouring. I’m dripping wet and also the only visitor. They switch on the lights and multi-media displays especially for me. There’s a special exhibition about Slovenes in the First World War as well a permanent exhibition about the Slovenia’s ‘s 20th century history. I am struck by the intensity of the propaganda drive to attach Slovenia to the emergent Yugoslav state in 1990s; the fact that even the most radical Slovene nationalists seem not to have contemplated independence (perhaps Slovenia, like Slovakia was then too small and too poor); and the slightly odd jumps from darkly condemning post-war crimes of the Tito regime against political opponents to celebrating Slovenia’s industrial achievement in 1960s and 70s.

The exhibition culminates with a room commemorating the Ten Day War in 1991, when Slovenia’s territorial forces and police put up unexpectedly stiff resistance to the Yugoslav Federal Army’s brutal, but ill-coordinated (and ultimately short-lived attempt) to keep them in the disintegrating Yugoslav federation by force. A multi-screen documentary tells the story through well cut archive footage interspersed with interviews. It is emotive and manipulative in places – there is a broader and much grimmer political outcome to think of – the Ten Day War as the overture to wars of Yugoslav succession) but every new country needs a founding narrative, and as these things go, seems one that stands up. As I watched the scenes of tanks pushing aside bus barricades and angry crowds chanting ‘okupanti‘ at soldiers at passing armoured vehicles, it all struck me as eerily reminiscent of August 1968 in Czechoslovakia – and, of course, Czech failure to resist after Munich September 1938 is still an open wound. I suppose the Czech equivalent is the Velvet Revolution, but can (and has) been dismissed as the overdue collapse of a rotten regime, rather than an active national project.


I turn up at Pučnik airport an hour before my 7am flight. I needn’t have bothered. The usual security and passport checks take a grand total of 20 minutes, boarding takes place 10 minutes before take off. There are various coffee bars in the recently modernized airport, but they are all closed. I sit and sleepily re-read Sherlock Holmes for a while. Most of the passengers sensibly appear at the departure gate five minutes before boarding. The Adria Airways jet, is like Slovenia itself, is small and comfortable but unflashy and unfussy. At Gatwick we walk for 25 minutes to get to passport control.

>Americano and electoral reform, please


Having read as much on neo-corporatism and downed as much coffee in one afternoon as was healthy, I turned, as you do, for a bit of light relief to the Slovene electoral system. As a very interesting recent conference paper by Danica Fink-Hafner makes clear, there is (at least to Visegrad-minded ignoramuses such as me) a whole unknown history of (failed) electoral reform in Slovenia with not a few uncanny parallels tothe Czech electoral reform saga of the 1990s, that politicians in Prague now seem intent on reviving for a new decade: main centre right party tries to push for a more majoritarian system; all kinds of reform variants then fly around as parties and politicians sense high stakes are in play, before the Constitutional Court steps in to shoot them down and, when the dust clears, we are left with a slightly less proportional form of PR. Of course, referendums play a key in Slovenia that most Czech politicians (even those theoretically in favour of allowing national referendums) would probably blanche at.

>Slovenia: the red, grey and the (sort of) green


Well, slightly contrary to expectations, the left bloc of parties in Slovenia has squeezed a narrow victory: the Social Democrats (SD) are now the new main party of the left, narrowly out polling the incumbent centre-right Slovene Democrats (SDS). The once dominant Liberal Democracy (LDS) and its trendier breakaway Zares will play supporting roles as junior coalition partners. Most strikingly, however, the Slovene pensioners’ party DESUS has almost doubled its vote from 4.04% to 7.45% and gains an extra 2 deputies in the 90 seat lower house. They have straightfowardly said they will ally with the winner of the election – i.e. the left – whose more redistributive policies have, in any case, historically been more their cup of tea. This interest-based pivotal politics of being friend to left and right for the right political payoff, has some echoes of the game played by Peasant Party in Poland. However, its is large increases in funding for the pension system , rather than agriculutal subsides, that DESUS is interested in harvesting, somewhat to the discomfort of the thoroughly modern lefties of SD, LDS and Zares.

The main causalities of the election seem to be the Christian New Slovenia (NSi) party, who may just squeeze in once right-wing inclined expat votes are counted. Elsewhere Slovenia’s Youth Party (SMS), part of the European Federation of Greens, got into parliament, but as part of a joint list with the Slovene People’s Party (SPP), a member of the centre-right Christian Democrat-led European People’s Party and member of the outgoing right-wing government. Presumably, this reflects SPP agarian origins as a peasant party and some kind of shared concern with nature and countryside. Green-agrarian coalition have previously featured in Latvian, Croatian and (briefly) Czech politics. On the other hand, perhaps it’s a marriage of convenience. Two other Green lists completely bombed.

>Slovenia: Knickers to PR


Romanian and Bulgarian electoral reform not exciting enough for you? Are you, like me, getting a bit bored with that McCain-Obama thing in… er what’s that country called again , – and gearing up for Slovenia’s forthcoming parliamentary poll? If so, you’ll certainly like the detailed explanation of Slovenia’s open-list PR electoral system, which seem to have echoes of the Finnish and Estonian systems, in Sleeping With Pengovsky. Though not too lively at first glance – bare breasts and women’s knickers on the title banner, my just eyes glazed over – once you get into it and there’s plenty of plenty of interesting stuff on Slovene politics for political scientists to gawp at.

>Slovene elections: Centre-right and Pensioners to consolidate hold on power?


Slovene blogger Pengovsky offers a sardonic overview of Slovenia’s election campaign and the Patria arms ‘scandal’ (alleged bribery of PM by Finnish arms manufacture). As elsewhere in the region, there will be polarization between main parties of left and right. Unlike elsewhere in the region, minor parties will have a role to play. The pseudonymous Pengovsky – who seems to be a journalist – reckons the current centre-right coalition will shade it, despite have overreacted to the Patria allegations and the Pensioners’ Party (who currently hold the Defence Portfolio and are ‘playing stupid’) will gain votes and increase their political importance, perhaps even becoming the second largest coalition partner.

>Slovene PM plays the grey card


Prime Minister of Slovenia, Janez Jansa, reports Slovenia News, received representatives of the Pension and Disability Insurance Institute of the Republic of Slovenia and the Slovenian Federation of Pensioners’ Organizations ’ to discuss options for improving the social position and social inclusion of pensioners. He want to improve the social condition of future generations of pensioners and pointed out that on taking office his government had index-linked pensions and was planning to increase the capacity of retirement homes, but ‘the Government is also looking into certain measures that could be implemented in the context of reducing public spending’ (unspecified). Circle well and truly squared then. What’s the date of the next parliamentary election?*

Citing more or less directly from the EU active ageing strategy – Jansa adds that he wants to promote the social inclusion of older people and draw on their knowledge to advance national goals.

* 9 October 2008

>Croatian ‘greys’ set for strong election result?


As the Croatian elections approach, the government – the Javno website reports – quickly pays off 2.037 billion kuna owed to earmarked for the settling of debts to 462,888 members of the pensioners’ fund – the proceeds of privatizing the the T-TH telecoms company. Presumably this is intended to shore up the vote of the ruling HDZ and perhaps dish the Croatian Pensioners’ Party (HSU). HSU polls suggest may again cross the 5 per cent hurdle needed to enter parliament and could even finish third, gaining 7-8% of the vote 8-10 seats in the 150 member legislature, although as the HSU has been quite politically close to HDZ in the past this might, in fact, prove counterproductive. It may send a signal that a strong ‘grey’ party enables pensioners to gain what the political system would otherwise deny them. The HSU claims 47,000 members and – like Die Grauen in Germany – also have a youth section apparently comprising some 20% of this membership.

Elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia , Euro2day notes quoting the FT, Slovenia’s DESUS – European’s most succesful ‘grey’ party – seemed unafraid of elections, having backed the (successful) rival presidential candidate to that nominated by centre-right coalition of which it is a member. It was said they might may not back the government in a vote of confidence, but in fact the DESUS leadership unanimously opted to do so. A huge (by Slovene standards) recent demonstation of up to 70, 000 trade unionist demanding higher wages and better social standards suggests a social climate in theiry favourable to DESUS, which perhaps explains why it might be tempted to become a semi-detached member of the coalition. DESUS and HSU recently held a meeting in Zagreb passing on good wishes to each other, exchanging experiences and unveiling (long-running) plans for a congress of European pensioners’ parties to be held in Ljubljana.

My own paper trying to begin to make sense of Europe’s small pensioners’ parties now appears on the web on the site of the conference on minor parties I am going to in Birmingham next week: an overview of what’s out there and some hypotheses – derived from a large-ish literature about party formation – about why they are relatively successful in places like Croatia, Slovenia, Holland and Israel. Unfortunately, I have yet to come up with decent analytical strategy to unpick a mass morass of possibly relevant factors, so it is – as one of my colleagues kindly put it – still a piece of ‘exploratory political science’.

>Slovenia: ‘erased’ still face hurdles to regularize status

>Slovenia News reports on that country’s latest, attempt to regularize the position of citizens of ex-Yugoslav republics living in the country (since before the break-up) of the federation. It seems complex and less than generous or straightfoward

“Government Adopts Law on the Erased

Ljubljana, 30 October
Government adopted on Tuesday amendments designed to regulate the status of persons from the former Yugoslavia who had permanent residence in Slovenia on 23 December 1990 and have lived here since.
However, they will be eligible for permanent residence rights only if they had asked for permanent residence before but were denied the request, Interior Minister Dragutin Mate told the press.The law has the purpose of regulating the status of the so-called »erased«, the people from the former Yugoslavia who were crossed out of the permanent residency register in 1992.The applications would be processed on a case-by-case basis. The applicants would have their permanent residence status reinstated retroactively, but only from the day that they first lodged such a request.The relevant proceedings would be launched solely on the basis of individual applications, which need to be submitted three months from the day of entry into force of the amendments.The applicants will have had to live in Slovenia since 1990 with gaps of no more than six months except if the absence was due to medical treatment, job or study.Minors will be able to obtain permanent residence permits if they were born in Slovenia, have lived here since birth and at least one of the parents has permanent residence.Applications may be turned down if applicants were convicted of a serious crime or if they were members of the Yugoslav National Army (JLA) who did not respond to the Slovenian request to join the territorial defence.The solution would be introduced with amendments to the constitutional law for the implementation of the basic constitutional charter on the independence and sovereignty of the Republic of Slovenia.According to Mate, this is “the most appropriate way to finally resolve the status of citizens of successors to the former Yugoslavia.”The centre-right coalition parties expressed support for the motion, as they advocate the case-by-case approach. As Slovenian Democrats (SDS) deputy Branko Grims told the press, this is the only realistic way of resolving this issue. “