Nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise in Central Europe
This is a story of a bright and talented child, leader of the pack, who took to drugs and is in trouble now. A story of a country that was the poster-child for the successful political, economic, and social transformation, but somehow and somewhere something went wrong. It is a story of Poland. Well, in fact, it threatens to be the story of the whole region.
As communism crumbled in the late 1980s, Poland had roughly the same GDP per capita as Ukraine, then a part of the former Soviet Union. Today, Poland’s GDP per capita is more than 4.5 times that of Ukraine’s. The two countries neighbor each other and share many cultural traits, owed to the mutual influence going back hundreds of years. That Poland was so much more successful in the last quarter-century is due to the simple fact that it made the right political choices, whilst Ukraine did not.
In the 1990s Poland set about to build a democratic country based on the rule of law, free and open society, and market economy. It strove to integrate into the Western world via joining the European Union and NATO, thus becoming geopolitically secure and stable, attractive to foreign investors. Ukraine did almost none of the above, opting instead for squandering its potential in a weak state, trembling and corrupt democracy, and oligarchic economy.
Geopolitically, Poland became the leader of Central Europe which coalesced into the Visegrad Group comprising also the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia. The name derives from a historic town in Hungary where the cooperation treaty was signed. Visegrad in turn became a model for political and economic success to other former communist states. With a total population of nearly 65 million, it has established itself as an area tied by investment to Germany and other Western countries, and potentially influential in the European Union.
Although the Czech Republic is still the most prosperous among the pack and enjoyed an outsized influence due to its former President Václav Havel, it was always Poland that was the leader of the region. The post-communist politics were often shaped by friendship among the former Polish and Czech anti-communist dissidents, who got into the positions of power and influence in the 1990s. Above all, the lodestar of the region was to integrate back with Western civilization and culture. Communism, and the Nazi occupation before that, held it back for half-a-century, causing decline in almost all life indicators.
Those heady days are over. Inspiration and longing was gradually replaced by anger. No matter how successful was the transformation, it also produced its losers, people concentrated in small towns, villages, and heavy-industry areas plagued by high unemployment. They had a difficult time adjusting to the new era that valued the entrepreneurial spirit, education, creativity, and self-reliance.
The transformation had its significant costs, or if you want to use ordinary language: Lots of money got stolen during privatization. Notably Slovakia and the Czech Republic excelled in creating corrupt politicians in cahoots with shady dealers and sometimes even organized crime. Viktor Kožený, the notorious Pirate of Prague, who defrauded tens of thousands in several countries, including the former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, hiding in the Bahamas, is only one of many examples.
Resentment grew into an organizing principle and new political parties in opposition to new establishment began to form in the 1990s, but came to full form only in the last 15 years. Law and Justice, the Polish political party, is one of several instances which in the last decade turned against the European Union using resentment.
Rationally, such evolution is incredible. It is the membership in the EU that is the key factor of the region’s prosperity. But many now see it as meddlesome, as an agent in opposition to traditional Polish (Slovak, Czech, Hungarian) values.
Jarosław Kaczyński of Poland, and Viktor Orbán of Hungary before him, saw an opening. They married the anger to the nascent nationalism and turned it against Brussels with a full force. Their strategy became politically successful; both have obtained majorities in parliaments and formed one-party governments, which is rather exceptional in Central Europe, known for coalition governments of several parties. Both also understand the power of institutions and public service media, especially television. Orbán is quite open in politicizing literally everything in the state and brutally subduing anything meant to hold the executive power in check. His rhetorical attacks on liberal democracy and close economic ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia have become a serious worry not just regionally, but for the entire Union.
There is no fear of Poland getting too close to Putin. Due to reasons of modern history, hatred of Russia is a constitutive value of Polish nationalism. It sometimes borders on paranoia. Law and Justice believes, for example, that the tragedy at Smolensk, in which an airplane with its President, the late Lech Kaczyński (the twin brother of the current strong man Jarosław), went down, was not an ordinary plane crash but a secret Russian plot to get rid of the anti-Russian Polish president. Suffice it to say, there is zero evidence for this. That does not matter. The new director-general of Polish Television, appointed directly by a government minister and a hardline member of Law and Justice, aims to fire all employees and re-appoint only those who pass the muster. It was reported in the Polish media that one of the criteria for re-appointment is the belief in the Russian “Smolensk conspiracy.”
In Warsaw, Jarosław Kaczyński is the prime mover, but he stays behind the scenes, manipulating Polish politics via Andrzej Duda, president, and Beata Szydlo, prime minister. That itself is remarkable in an EU member state. It resembles more a China under Deng Xiaoping, the factual supreme ruler though formally only “Vice-Chairman of the Military Commission,” than a modern European leader. And it is not only his communistic method of governance. Beyond strong-arming the public media, Law and Justice also decided to neglect a decision of the Polish Constitutional Court just because, you guessed it, the party does not like the judges named there largely by previous government.
Tens of thousands of Poles have demonstrated against these measures circumscribing liberalism. But there were also almost as numerous demonstrations of the supporters of Law and Justice in the streets. Party members and like-minded intellectuals, mostly conservative Catholics, defend Kaczyński that he is unfairly singled out for criticism while doing only what voters elected him to do, and nothing different from the previous liberal government. That is highly dubious. Many people voted for Law and Justice for many reasons and some are now appalled by the party’s naked power grab. The government’s popularity declined. And although the previous government tried within limits to influence the public media, it never attempted to rewrite the rules of the country that would secure its continuous influence and power.
Some, like Mirosław Jasinski, the former Catholic dissident, film director, and diplomat appointed by Law and Justice, say that the party only wants to return Poland to its Polish Catholic roots. The firebrand Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczykowski told a German tabloid paper that Polish values are inimical to those in Europe dictated by atheists, Marxists, vegetarians, and cyclists. Yes, those carrot-chumping chums on bicycles, they are the worst…
European Commission has launched a process of supervision of Poland’s rule of law that in the end might lead to the suspension of its voting rights in the EU. Such result is highly unlikely, as the Council would have to vote unanimously and Hungary’ Orbán signaled that he would not support it.
Law and Justice picked these fights with Europe deliberately in order to mobilize its electoral base. Orbán now fantasizes about the healthy European core in Visegrad that represents real conservative values against the supposedly empty, vapid Western Europe. Some intellectuals in the region are spreading the gospel, however ridiculous it is. And some Polish government members, like Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro and Waszczykowski himself, are picking the fight with Germany, comparing its legitimate criticism of Polish authoritarian tendencies—incredibly—to Nazi occupation. Former Czech President Václav Klaus, now great defender of Putin’s aggression, wants to stage a political comeback by pushing for the Czech Republic’s withdrawal from the EU. He regularly compares the Union to the USSR.
The new populists will not go away anytime soon. They will overreach eventually, but for the time being, aided by the refugee crisis, they ride the wave of anti-Europe nationalism and xenophobia.
Far from being a healthy core, Central Europe is proving its immaturity and the weakness of its democratic culture. The West should pay much closer attention and come up with a new strategy soon if it wants to keep the Union together.
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