Friday, June 22, 2007

Dr Who?

Eastern Europe's politicians

Doctor Who?

Jun 21st 2007
From The Economist print edition

Few of Europe's ex-communist countries have strong leaders

OPTIMISTS hope that Valdis Zatlers, an orthopaedic surgeon, will grow into his new job as Latvia's president. But even his doughtiest supporters doubt that he will fill the exquisite shoes of his predecessor, Vaire Vike-Freiberga, a steely-minded émigré polyglot who ushered her small Baltic country into both the European Union and NATO.

Dr Zatlers was at least good at something: he admits collecting thousands of dollars in tips from grateful patients, on which he is now hurrying to pay tax. But he has no experience of statecraft or even of public life. His sole asset is the backing of Latvia's political chieftains, who foisted him on the country in a secret backroom deal. That may be unfortunate for Latvia. But the sadder aspect of the story is that the doctor fits so neatly into the region's increasingly dull political landscape.

Post-communist leaders were once big, internationally known figures. Lech Walesa of Poland and the Czech Republic's Vaclav Havel remain world famous. Poland's Aleksander Kwasniewski was widely admired abroad for his diplomatic skills. Reformist politicians such as Estonia's Mart Laar, Russia's Yegor Gaidar and Slovakia's Mikulas Dzurinda wowed the policy wonks with their zealous embrace of flat taxes and free-marketry.

Now things are different. Only two leaders really stand out: the presidents of Russia and Estonia. Russia's Vladimir Putin has many critics, but when he speaks, people listen. Estonia's president, the Swedish-born and American-educated Toomas Hendrik Ilves, now speaks up for all the Kremlin's former European satellites. The brainy Mr Ilves is the only senior politician in the region with real experience of Brussels (he was once a member of the European Parliament) and Washington, DC. He has the ear of George Bush: both are keen farmers (although on rather different scales), and both like the same make of Stihl brush-cutter.

Elsewhere, foreign statesmen find few weighty senior people to engage with. Ukraine's politicians are enmeshed in seemingly endless and exasperating clan warfare. Romania's president, Traian Basescu, is an ardent Atlanticist and European, but is bogged down in a spat with his country's old-guard government. Poland's ruling twins are refreshingly honest, but prickly and provincial. Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic enjoys talking but not listening. Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia presides over rapid growth and reform, but even friends find that he is better when taken in small doses.

A lot more typical are such political leaders as Slovakia's prime minister, Robert Fico, or Hungary's Ferenc Gyurcsany: wily political operators with good business ties and a populist touch. They show little interest in restarting reforms or in foreign policy. Most other leaders in the region are either past it or a bit dull.

Yet central and eastern Europe desperately needs strong government to catch up with the continent's older democracies. Unreformed public services gobble money and produce poor outcomes. The demographic decline in prospect, especially in the poorest countries, is scary; emigration is now making it worse.

The Kremlin's habitual divide-and-rule tactics also tend to work best on weak, opportunist leaders. That may prove to be a problem in Latvia, where the country's business barons are unnervingly keen to show they can work with the Russians.

When western Europe was led by burnt-out leaders such as Jacques Chirac, Silvio Berlusconi and Gerhard Schröder, the contrast was less striking. But the arrival of Angela Merkel in Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy in France and (next week) Gordon Brown in Britain casts a harsh light on the steppe to the east. It would be nice if new impressive politicians were climbing the ladder there. Sadly, the antics of the current lot seem not to inspire energetic newcomers, but to deter them.


Michael Moran said...

I am so proud of Poland and the quite unexpected strength of leadership evidenced by the terrible twins at this very moment.

I have deeply researched the history of the country - both recent and distant - for a
commissioned literary travel book I have just finished writing for a UK publisher. The thoroughly undiplomatic, even shocking and certainly powerful moral stance they have taken on the question of voting rights at the EU summit has brought tears to my eyes. How irrationally intransigent and beautifully Polish this is in these days of etiolated political correctness and selectively short memories.

After my studies in great detail of German and Russian atrocities of unimaginable horror against this heroic nation - conveniently ignored by the comfortably amoral 'forgive and forget' school - I am surprised Poles can still talk to a German or Russian. Yes, yes as an intelligent chap I know all arguments pertaining to the 'new' generation, blamelessness and lack of guilt but never forget hundreds of survivors who suffered are still in the land of the living. WW II is still a desperate present experience for them. Even today I have seen numbers of elderly Poles waiting in a dim corridor clutching tattered documents that 'prove' they were slaves under the Nazis, hoping for minimal financial compensation. And compensation for the damage to their bodies and souls, the scarred memories?

'Move on' we must, of course we must, but never let it be forgotten that more human beings died in Warsaw during WW II than in any other city in human history - some 800,000. One in five Poles died during WW II followed by the betrayal of the valiant Polish spirit at Yalta in order to placate Stalin.

Is this relevant in 2007? Of
course it is if you wish to understand modern Polish psychology. Those who suffered comparatively little in WW II or capitulated in abject cowardice before the Nazi juggernaut have little authority to pontificate.
I suggest those conveniently or ignorantly 'outraged' EU leaders read and absorb fully the tortured history of the solitary eagle that is Poland - Europe's great scapegoat - before complaining of the 'prickly Pole'.

'Lest we forget' indeed.

Michael Moran

Giustino said...


I think the lesson is that we shouldn't "placate" them again. Stalin made himself appear as if he *needed* to be placated. But it was hi scountry that was fighting for its life at Stalingrad, so why did he feel that he was owed more than the Americans and Britons were owed?

It all comes down to Western understanding of Russia. There is this idea that Russians are illogical and dangerous. You know as well as I do that they are not, but that they use that image to get what they coldy and logically set out to accomplish.

So the solution is to treat them the same as everyone else. Nothing else will drive them as crazy and they are worthy of nothing better :)