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Havel’s warning about our most dangerous enemy not being dark forces of totalitarianism, but our own bad qualities deserve attention today - but from Europe-wide audience, writes Seán Hanley.

By Dr Seán Hanley, senior lecturer at University College London´s School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES).

Havel’s warning about our most dangerous enemy not being dark forces of totalitarianism, but our own bad qualities deserve attention today - but from Europe-wide audience, writes Seán Hanley.

In January 1990, making one of his first visits abroad as Czechoslovak president, Václav Havel addressed the Polish parliament. He called for Central European nations to come together in what would later become the Visegrad Group. There was, Havel told listeners, a historic opportunity for the region to remake itself in an era when freedom and democracy were irreversibly in the ascendant.  With their unique experience, he reflected, they might even be a source of ‘swift and daring solutions’ for the post-Cold War world.

A few months after the first Visegrad summit, in summer 1991 Havel put pen to paper to imagine the kind of democracy that might emerge in the region. He looked forward to self-confident societies with stable, grassroots-based political parties; decentralised institutions and a strong local civic society; prosperous mixed economies driven by a new class of local entrepreneurs; well-kept public spaces, modernised infrastructure; and active welfare states to help the minority of citizens affected by unemployment or illness. The future Central Europe would, Havel anticipated, be firmly anchored in the European Community, perhaps even using a common European currency, and would serve as bridge to the nations of a disintegrating Soviet Union.

Half-realised hopes

A look across the V4 today shows that Havel’s hopes realised only in part.  The region has enjoyed strong economic growth, with Poland and Slovakia, in particular, blazing a trail, although FDI and privatised state firms have overshadowed local entrepreneurs. The social costs of transformation, especially for the hardest hit groups and regions, have proved higher than the Havel hoped in 1991 with only his native Czechia escaping relatively lightly. The V4 states have, in unlike their Baltic and Balkan neighbours, held together relatively big and broad welfare states. Income inequality levels are no greater than those common in Western Europe, while  Slovakia and Czechia have near Scandinavian levels of egalitarianism. However, outside booming capital cities, living standards even for middle income groups far behind those in Western Europe.  Catch-up and convergence with Western Europe levels of development, even in the most optimistic scenarios, is still a generation away.

Civic and transport infrastructure – since 2004 an important destination for EU funds – has improved. The region boasts some fine, if sometimes expensively built, new motorways. Public space is typically cleaner and greener.  EU membership is an established fact with goods and people moving freely across borders, as is the single currency, although three of four Visegrad states (Slovakia the one exception) have shied away from joining.

A political deficit

However, it is in politics where the deficit is largest. It was clear early on, as Havel himself  realised, that Central Europe’s civil societies were far weaker, and its states far more bureaucratic and centralized than he had hoped; political parties, as he had feared, were often hollow elite-dominated bodies, making them targets for corrupt vested interests.

A glance across the region today reveals a deeper malaise. An endlessly delayed process of government formation in Prague; deeply polarised politics in Hungary and Poland; populist parties, albeit of different stripes, governing in all four Visegrad states; presidents and prime ministers who, with the notable exception of Poland, are inclined to accommodate –and even emulate - an authoritarian Russia; a growing eurosceptic rhetoric of defending national sovereignty against Brussels and larger West European states, rejected as threatening Central Europe with everything from moral permissiveness and unwanted migration to lower quality food.  In Poland and Hungary, despite the protestations of right-wing governments in Warsaw and Budapest that they are merely misunderstood conservatives, the use of parliamentary majorities to roll back the independence of the courts, pack state agencies and create media landscapes heavily skewed towards governing parties has raised questions about whether these one-time democratic pacesetters are  regressing into semi-authoritarian political systems of the type more commonly found in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union.

A distorting mirror

All this is removed Havel’s optimistic hopes a reunited and democratic Europe based on shared values. But in many ways, the V4’s democratic difficulties also holdsup a curious distorting mirror to Havel’s liberal vision.  

Central European politicians have certainly begun to advance bold solutions drawing on their region’s own distinct experience. But these have taken the form a bilious anti-liberal nationalism framed in populist terms and a one-sided critique of West European experience of immigration and multi-culturalism. The region’s post-1989 ‘return to Europe’ has morphed into an Islamophobic rhetoric of Central Europe as a bulwark defending European civilization against a supposedly imminent tsunami of migration.

This is most clearly the case with the right-wing governing conservative parties in Hungary and Poland – Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán offers his own confrontational brand of ‘Christian Democracy’  based on a system of ‘national co-operation’ that sees little room for cultural liberalism, foreign ownership or foreign-funded NGOs in public life.  The programme of ‘positive change’ adopted by Poland’s Law and Justice party since its election in 2015 embraces similar themes– and enemies.  But elsewhere the same ideas have emerged on the left.  Erstwhile social democrats such as Czech president Miloš Zeman or former Slovak prime minister Robert Fico now reject the West European centre-left they once looked to as a model as ‘politically correct’ and too preoccupied by the rights of sexual and ethnic minorities.

The idea that a renewed civil society as would lay the distinctly Central European democracy has also morphed in unexpected ways – often becoming a prop for populist, and even authoritarian, politics. The Czech Republic’s billionaire prime minister Andrej Babiš, a former member of the economic nomenklatura, is privately contemptuous of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. But, in launching his anti-corruption party ANO in 2011, Babiš had no hesitation in appealing to the tradition of the 1989 Civic Forum  movement and, to this day insists, his top-down party is, in fact, a non-ideological citizens’ movement.  Hungary’s Viktor Orbán can stake a more credible claim to have reinvigorated grassroots politics, relaunching the right in 2002 as a genuinely mass Civic Circles movement with a rich vein of local activity ranging from youth clubs to historical commemorations.  But it was a conservative, right-leaning civil society – and, since 2010, one that has been nurtured by state funding and government support as part of a top down ‘system of national co-operation’. Uncompliant or unacceptably liberal NGOs  and institutions have been cut off from funding or stifled using a variety of regulatory, tax and national security pretexts.

V4 citizens have, of course, taken to the streets in more bottom up ways. Poland and Hungary have seen mass movements against conservative governments’ attacks on the independence of courts, non-governmental institutions like the Central European University and access to legal abortion.  Slovakia has seen mass movements for clean government twice in the decade -  first in 2011-12 over the corruption networks revealed by the ‘Gorilla affair’, and more recently over the links between politicians and organised crime highlighted by the killing of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. Such movements show that Central Europeans are not always merely be passive spectators or extras in their own political drama and recall the élan and optimism of the 1989 revolutions.  

But, while they can block overreaching governments or force a minister, or even a prime minister, to step down, their real effect can be limited.  Central European politicians know that, after a well-timed tactical retreat, they can usually ride out mass protest in cities provided their support stays solid in the countryside and their parties remain entrenched in business and the bureaucracy.  Here citizen politics acts as an alarm signal and an emergency brake on corruption and authoritarianism, but not much more.

Expecting too much

Perhaps in the end we expected too much of Central Europe – and thought too much of Western Europe.  Many of the democratic strains in the V4, can also be found but in older European democracies.   Populist parties rule the roost in Greece and Italy – and seem set to overhaul traditional parties in Spain; euroscepticism is rift;  immigration is contested across Europe, although in V4– as most migrants find Central Europe unattractive as anything other than as a transit route West - the debate is hypothetical; many mainstream West European politicians are prepared to pragmatically strike a deal with the Kremlin. Political scientists have started to warn that even established Western democracies could be vulnerable to democratic backsliding.

In politics Central Europe has caught up with the West only too well.  Havel warned Central European in Warsaw more than a quarter of a century ago that, in democracy, the most dangerous enemies “are no longer the dark forces of totalitarianism, with its hostile and plotting mafias, but our own bad qualities.” His words still deserve attention today -  but from Europe-wide audience.


Dr Seán Hanley is the senior lecturer at UCL´s School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES). The underlying concern of his research is extent to which East Central European democracies have come to resemble models familiar from Western Europe – and, contrarily, the possibility that the fluid, elite-centred populist politics of East Central Europe may be a harbinger of things to come in established democracies.

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