Grim eastern politics put into context
By Edward Lucas
What makes the EU’s new member states different?
Old democracies have extremists nostalgic for their countries’ unpleasant past (Jörg Haider), or shameless rabble-rousers (Jean-Marie Le Pen). There are sleazeballs galore; public trust in politicians is sinking, as is turnout in elections.
So why should anyone be worried in particular about the political mess in eastern Europe, where in the eight new member states of the EU, governments are at best do-nothing coalitions (Estonia and Slovenia) and at worst chaotic (Czech Republic) or outright revolting (Slovakia)?
My hunch is that the difference is less in the politics than in the context. Somewhere like Italy can afford (or more accurately, has been able to afford) weak government, because other institutions, including private and non-profit ones, make up for the state’s deficiencies. But in the post-communist world, there is both an urgent need to catch up and much less public-spiritedness and do-goodery to fill the gap left by an incompetent state.
I posed the question at a conference in Bratislava last week, called ‘Visegrad Elections: Domestic Impact and European Consequences’, organised by IVO, one of Slovakia’s several excellent think-tanks. My fellow-participants, all natives of the region, quickly pointed out other big differences.
Nasty parties are accepted in power. The rhetoric of Slovak nationalists about Hungarians, for example, or of the League of Polish Families about homosexuals, is tolerated by the governing coalitions of which they are part in a way that would be quite unimaginable farther west, where some taboos about open prejudice in public life still hold.
Post-communist countries also tend to compound all the worst features of political life in western Europe: politics is not just polarised, but also weak and corrupt. Vitriolic certainty rules: disagree with Poland’s government and you risk being called an agent of the Ukÿad (establishment). In the minds of those currently holding power that is a sinister mix of business, intelligence, politics and spookery. It may well be true in some cases, but such a catch-all explanation is impossible to falsify, and therefore risks being overused.
The media, outside Poland, is mostly dire: flimsy and biased. Serious journalism is marginal, sensationalism rules. Journalists routinely reflect the views of their papers’ ‘sponsors’. Nobody seems to mind. That’s quite different from even small western countries, where there is a plethora of serious media, both print and electronic, for anyone who wants to read it.
A final difference is historical prickliness. Despite all the progress of the past 15 years, there is a still a regrettable readiness to reach for history as a weapon. No Dutch or French politician would casually remind Germany about the Third Reich in order to make a political point.
All this is depressing. But there are two big pluses. The post-Communist countries are still highly adaptable. They dumped the planned economy in a couple of years. Then to meet the requirements of EU membership they drastically reformed the rickety DIY systems of politics and economics that sprouted in the early 1990s. No western country has gone through such a wrenching change since, perhaps, Britain in the 1980s under Mrs Thatcher.
Second, there is still a wellspring of idealism. A Czech diplomat at the conference said that he had found it hard to keep his temper when west European colleagues asked, with genuine puzzlement, why his country kept fussing about Cuba. It wholly escaped them that only 16 years ago Czechs had political prisoners, travel bans and censorship. In the most important struggle, of memory against forgetting, the east still beats the west by far.
Thursday, October 05, 2006
Grim eastern politics put into context