The Real Tragedy of Central Europe

The understanding of Central Europe from over thirty years ago—as part of the West captured by the Byzantine East and represented geographically by Europe behind the Iron Curtain—has been fading away over the three decades of successful transformation. The nations of Central Europe have regained independence and restored their place in the West mostly by following prescribed directions. This was not an imitation game, yet the pace at which authoritarian rule was replaced by rule of law and democratic institutions left many, like Ralf Dahrendorf, wondering whether consolidation of democracy will not require a few more generations. The long list of success stories that followed in all dimensions of political, social and economic performance would take up a great deal of space.

At the peak of this continuum, the region has become so successful that even the first signs of democratic backsliding, corrupt schemes and centrally exploited social polarization were not considered as serious new trends but merely as hick-ups. Democracy was being feted around the world and Central Europe was enjoying the limelight. But where there is hubris, there is imprudence.

Central Europe is not, of global significance in and of itself. In any global turmoil, its prosperity is tied to Europe and its security framework depends on NATO.

The political position of the Visegrad Group in Europe, by now the most prominent regional club within the EU, has become the real tragedy of Central Europe. Although it was meant to strengthen and amplify the drive of belonging to the core of European integration, it has eventually come to represent a political backlash with a militant negotiating position. This untenable position has entrenched the region on the front-lines between their partners in the West and pressures from the East. There is a very real risk that the nations of Central Europe could succumb to the influence of Russia and China—the most revisionist powers in the world.

Central Europe is Currently at a Critical Juncture

To be fair, it should be acknowledged that many partners in the transatlantic space have not been performing all that marvellously either and several major military, economic, diplomatic or political mistakes have been made elsewhere that undercut the democratic norms and values in the region. There was, for example, Iraq. There were greedy and poor decisions that eventually led to the last financial crisis. There was the backseat steering of the EU when decision-making, concerning how to respond to this crisis, stalled. And there was this fantastic idea of the Brexit referendum. Indeed, from a larger perspective more serious mistakes were made.

Central Europe is not, however, of global significance in and of itself. In any global turmoil, its prosperity is tied to Europe and its security framework depends on NATO. It is part of a bigger whole, which also means that trouble in the region is trouble for everyone involved.

The region is currently at a critical juncture and this undefinable feeling is tangible in the societies. A recent poll by YouGov for the European Council of Foreign Relations named three distinctively different emotions expressed across the EU about the Union in the world: optimism, fear and stress. Interestingly, one can draw dividing lines between each of the Central European nations: Poland—positive, Czechia and Slovakia on alert, while Hungary—along with Greece and Italy—stressed and insecure. If Dominique Moïsi was right about replacing Huntington’s vision of a clash of cultures with the idea that emotions are the driving factors of politics, it would be reflective of the present age. The sentiments in the region are certainly not as united and hopeful as they were at the end of 1989.

The Region Never had a Genuine Debate about its Future

Therefore, instead of recollecting the unquestionable achievements of the last thirty years, ranging from the indicators of human development to flourishing prosperity, let us consider the global trends which the region has depended upon thus far and what might be its prospects for the future.

The recent scenario-based report by Visegrad Insight and the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. “Central European Futures” presented an extensive number of plausible political directions that the Visegrad Group might take in the future. Since the report was published (November, 2018), it serves as the best mental map to discuss the mostly gloomy prospects already rooted in the present day. It also serves as a loud call in the public sphere to avoid another disaster and secure past achievement.

The liberal paradigm encapsulated in Fukuyama’s beliefs helped to drive many of the reforms but, in the process, alienated democratic constituencies in whose name the reforms were carried out.

Central Europe never had a genuine debate about its future. Even in 1989, the region followed along with the zeitgeist, but the time had served it well. The liberal paradigm encapsulated in Fukuyama’s beliefs helped to drive many of the reforms but, in the process, alienated democratic constituencies in whose name the reforms were carried out.

In 2014, Marcin Król, a renowned Polish philosopher, explained this idea in his book “We Were stupid” which focused on the case of the Solidarity movement. It was a labor union which eventually led to the country’s liberation from Moscow-controlled communism to independence and later democracy (importantly in that order). The political decisions, often urgent and almost always necessary, which allowed Poland to start catching up, often resulted in the restructuring of factories and firing of those workers who were on the front-lines from the very beginning.

The region has serious challenges ahead and this time no guidance on the directions. All the choices are acceptable, except those proposed by illiberal charlatans whose common features are counter-factual narratives.

Although everyone became better off in the end, there was often insufficient effort to secure more public support for the directions set out on and even more importantly, to afterwards consolidate these achievements across critical constituencies. Where the traditional left-wing agenda abandoned its people, the new right-wing populism found a new home; not uniquely in Central Europe.

The Return of Geopolitics

Today’s illiberal manifestations are therefore part of a larger global trend in which the liberal world order is being questioned and trust in the pillar institutions undermined. These undemocratic movements also, however, have their local roots. New regimes—even those democratic in nature—always need time to mature through successive generations or else risk falling back due to the historical inertia lingering around every corner.

Additionally, an important trend that altered and now bodes for uncertainty in Europe—and especially in the V4—is the economic model challenged by demographic and technological changes. The region’s prosperity was built in short on good-quality, cheap labor. As the demographic decline is endangering those nations, the economic models have not yet upgraded enough in efficiency or innovation, and the future of prosperity is at risk.

Finally, the return of geopolitics is worth mentioning. This is an ideology of Russia that links politics not to rules-based order but to forceful land-grabs and subversive tactics. Insecurity related to the control over borders has been a major factor in the course taken by the Visegrad Group.

This overlaps with the politically exploited fear of the arrival of migrants. Along with many trigger factors, the region will be super sensitive to the above-mentioned trends over the course of the next ten years or so. As explained in detail in the report, it may split over the sentiments concerning the version of European integration if the factors pulling it apart grow in strength or if Brexit becomes a British success instead of a failure. The region may be forced into integrating more, giving up further elements of national sovereignty but gaining influence in the collective decision-making of the Union.

It usually takes a major crisis before politicians take braver steps. There is the possibility that the Union itself may break apart because of different visions regarding the security framework—with some countries preferring to keep a low profile while others more likely to pursue more experimental bilateral relations. Should it once more revolt in a peaceful desire to upgrade its democratic standards? It is also plausible as this trend has already been witnessed in the new political culture represented by the digital political groupings in Slovakia.

In any case, the region has serious challenges ahead and this time no guidance on the directions. All the choices are acceptable, except those proposed by illiberal charlatans whose common features are counter-factual narratives and a drive to centralize more power. The region will surely not be the same over the coming decades, and whether it continues to perform admirably will largely depend on the ability of its leaders to lead an open, democratic and critical debate about its future prospects, in a style and language that will not polarize but unite the people of the countries.

We invite alumni of the Aspen Young Leaders Program to present their projects, thoughts and inspiration in Aspen Review.

Wojciech Przybylski

is the editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight and president of the board at the Res Publica Foundation. His expertise includes European politics and political culture. Previously, he has been the editor-in-chief of Eurozine—a Vienna based magazine with a European network of cultural journals, and the Polish quarterly Res Publica Nowa. He also co-authored the book “Understanding Central Europe”, Routledge 2017. Twitter: @wprzybylski

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.