Thursday, October 12, 2006

more gloom

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Ex-communist countries

Europe's fraying fringe

Oct 12th 2006
From The Economist print edition

Time to worry about the governments of eastern Europe—especially with Russia in the wings

BAD, weak, timid government in Europe is, sadly, nothing new. And few outsiders are in a position to preach to the countries of the east, which have so wrenchingly changed since the collapse of communism, and are now the continent's fastest-growing part. But their continued growth needs more reform, and that, crucially, depends on better government.

Travel the ex-communist region between the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas, and, sadly, you will not find one united, modernising government. Instead, there is sleaze and racism in Slovakia's government, eccentricity and petulant incompetence in Poland, an admission of blatant lying by Hungary's prime minister, and no government at all in the Czech Republic. Throughout the region, communist dictatorship has all too often given way to incompetence and corruption, not the yearned-for freedom and the rule of law.

Decades of totalitarian rule damaged the way people in power think and behave; and the harm has not been repaired. Getting into the European Union and NATO transformed parts of national life in the new member states, but left swathes untouched, particularly bits run by the state. Schools and universities, for example, are vital for the shift to an economy driven by brainpower instead of cheap labour, but they remain state-run, rigid and mediocre.

Eastern Europe's remarkable political failure (see article) matters not just because of economics. Weak, deceitful, clownish, boorish, squabbling, thuggish and corrupt politicians in the east risk destroying the flagging enthusiasm of west European voters for further enlargement of the EU. Yet the “European perspective”, as the bureaucrats call the chance of membership, is the one thing tugging the bruised and battered countries of ex-Yugoslavia towards peace and co-operation. Without it, conflicts will flare up unchecked, at best local, at worst turning into wider conflagrations.

Heavyweights in the wrong ring
The ex-communist countries still have some heavyweight politicians and officials—but they are not in power. Some are on the lecture circuit. Others have gone to well-paid but peripheral jobs in Brussels. They stand out there, but would be even better heading home to sort out the mess. Toomas Hendrick Ilves, vice-chair of the European Parliament's foreign-affairs committee, has just run successfully for president of his native Estonia. Others should follow his example.

If better leaders would help, so would better role models. Central European countries have tended, consciously or not, to look to Austria, and so politicised their civil services and encouraged cosy links between business and government. (The Baltic states, by contrast, have looked to the more open, transparent Nordic countries, such as Finland—with spectacular results.) And Western Europe could do more. The mean-minded protectionism aimed at the ex-communist countries has undermined belief in the fairness and neutrality of European rules. Why can rich countries' banks move capital freely throughout the single market, when poor countries' plumbers and dentists may not sell their services where they like?

It is tempting to argue for patience. A middle class is developing; minds are opening; piecemeal reforms are continuing; the division of the continent is healing. The latest shenanigans may be unpleasant, but are they not just teething pains in young democracies?

Perhaps. But now there is another factor: Russia. The past week has seen more signs of Russia's slide into state-sponsored gangsterism (see article). Whether as a direct result of this or not, Russia's best-known independent journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered on October 7th (see article).

Russian menace and muscle change the geopolitical rules for the Soviet Union's former satellites, both those sheltered by the EU and NATO and those outside. In one sense Russia is still weak: its state institutions are bloated and incompetent; its population is collapsing, its economy woefully dependent on natural resources. But it increasingly has the ability to create mayhem in what the Kremlin terms the “near abroad”.

Russian oil-and-gas companies have bought up large chunks of energy industries in eastern Europe and are trying to buy more. When Russia seemed weak and friendly, that was a minor worry. Now it is a big one. Business footholds can soon become political bridgeheads, which coupled with weak politics creates a vulnerability to Russian influence-peddling and mischief-making. A new cold war? Not yet. But eastern Europe's drift and complacency have never been riskier.

Copyright © 2006 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

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