Stars and soggy bottoms
A new-year salvo of bouquets and brickbats
STAR in the making: Toomas Hendrik Ilves, president of Estonia. Suave, savvy and cynical, this Swedish-born, American-educated political heavyweight has returned from a big job at the European Parliament to put his pint-sized country on the map. Whether delivering the West’s message to Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia (“Misha: just shut the **** up”), charming George Bush, or hobnobbing with Carl Bildt, his Swedish foreign-minister chum, Mr Ilves had a flying start in 2006 and will be the ex-captive nations’ best spokesman in 2007.
Biggest disappointment: Poland’s Law and Justice government, which wasted most of 2006 in political intrigue. The dropping of a popular prime minister, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, was an unforgivable display of jealousy by Law and Justice’s party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. His own lacklustre and devious performance in the top job has since highlighted his predecessor’s merits. Poland’s prickly and incompetent foreign policy is a black hole in the heart of Europe.
Most worrying trend: Between the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas there is not a single strong reforming government. Drift, muddle and sleaze were the hallmarks of 2006. Internal and external pressure ought to bring better government—but in some countries political meltdown is a serious danger. Russia’s divide-and-rule policy, of flattery, cheap gas and bribes, is nobbling Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovenia. Post-communist elites are wired for quick deals and personal gain, not long-term national interest. The Kremlin knows this.
Politics of the gutter award: Given jointly to Ferenc Gyurcsany, prime minister of Hungary, for admitting that his government had lied, and for turning a blind eye to police brutality; and to Hungary's opposition leader, Viktor Orban, for cynical populism and mystifyingly authoritarian socialist-style policies.
Unsung heroes: Another joint award, to Gediminas Kirkilas, Lithuania’s prime minister, whose minority administration has surpassed all expectations; and to his old friend and ally, the conservative opposition leader, Andrius Kubilius. A rare example of personal friendship and patriotism surmounting party interest.
Loser: Abandoned by the West, and with a defeatist political elite unable to look beyond Russia, Moldova is sinking. If any post-communist country faces real collapse, it is this one. Nothing seems to be working in its favour, save that its neighbour, Romania, has just joined the EU.
Eurocrat of the year: Andris Piebalgs, the EU’s energy commissioner, a sparkling advertisement for the post-communist countries’ political abilities. Unlike most of his fellow commissioners, he understands both the technicalities of his brief and its political dimensions, and has the nerve to take on the powerful energy lobbies in Europe’s biggest countries who are as contemptuous of politicians as they are cowardly towards Russia. Clone him.
Most clubbable country: Slovenia, post-communist Europe’s most prosperous state, has joined the euro-zone, proving that the common currency need not remain an “old Europe” club. A cautious sort of place: Slovenes talk like Estonians, but act like Austrians.
Soggy bottom: Croatia’s sullen and obstructive approach to pluralism, media freedom and the rule of law remains an alarming pothole on the road to further EU enlargement. Nobody wants to upset the murky and convenient status quo.
Symbolic triumph: Radek Sikorski, Poland’s defence minister, switched his ministry’s entire wine order to Georgia. If the Georgian wine industry gets its act together on quality control and deliveries, that will be the tipple of choice to celebrate 2008.
Big question: East-west migration. The worst-governed ex-communist countries have lost a million people or more to emigration. Now local job markets are tight, and wages are rising, but not enough to attract many migrants back. The opportunities and the quality of government are still so much better in western Europe. Until that gap narrows, worries of depopulation in the east, and overcrowding in the west, will grow.