World

The West is losing the battle for the heart of Europe

Once leading proponents of democracy and freedom, disillusioned former members of the Soviet Bloc are returning to authoritarian rule.

Analysis

A little over a quarter of a century ago, Europe celebrated the healing of the schism that Communism enforced on it since World War II, and which produced great tribunes of freedom.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, left, leader of Poland's Law and Justice Party, at the party's headquarters on election night in ...
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, left, leader of Poland's Law and Justice Party, at the party's headquarters on election night in October. His party's victory ended eight years in power of the pro-EU, pro-business Civic Platform. Photo: Czarek Sokolowski

Lech Walesa, the Polish shipyard electrician, climbed over his yard wall in Gdansk to join and then lead a strike in 1980 – lighting the fuse to ignite, 10 years and a period of confinement later, a revolution that couldn't be squashed. He was elected president in 1990.

Vaclav Havel, the Czech writer and dissident who served years in prison for his opposition to the Communist government, emerged as the natural leader of the democrats who articulated the frustration of the country. He was elected president of the still-united Czechoslovakia in 1989.

Romanian prime minister Victor Ponta exits the national anti-corruption prosecutors office last year.
Romanian prime minister Victor Ponta exits the national anti-corruption prosecutors office last year. Photo: AP

​Jozsef Antall, a descendant of the Hungarian nobility who opposed both the Hungarian fascists and communists, was imprisoned for participating in the 1956 revolt against the Soviet Union. And he was foremost in the negotiations to end Communist rule in the late 1980s. He survived to be elected prime minister in 1990.

These men were inspirations to their fellow citizens, heroes to the wider democratic world and were thought to be the advance guard of people who would grow and prosper in a Europe eschewing every kind of authoritarianism. Havel could say, with perfect certainty, that the Communists in power had developed in Czechs "a profound distrust of all generalisations, ideological platitudes, cliches, slogans, intellectual stereotypes we are now largely immune to all hypnotic enticements, even of the traditionally persuasive national or nationalistic variety".

It isn't like that now. Poland, largest and most successful of the Central European states has, in the governing Law and Justice Party, a group of politicians driving hard to remould the institutions of the state so that their power withstands all challenge. The government has sought to pack the constitutional court with a majority of its supporters; extended the powers of the intelligence services and put a supporter at their head; and signed into law a measure which puts broadcasting under direct state control.

​Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Law and Justice Party leader, and former prime minister, drives the government's agenda with a steady purpose: to fashion Poland into a state guided by Catholicism, free from foreign influence – whether from the western European states, or from Russia. rejecting as much of modern liberalism and western European influence as possible.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has suppressed  the leftist opposition and  the media, packed the constitutional ...
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has suppressed the leftist opposition and the media, packed the constitutional court with his loyalists and made the electoral system more friendly to his party. Photo: AP

In this quest, he sees a model in nearby Hungary. He has a close relationship with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, huddling with him for six hours of talks on January 6.

Orban was once a close ally of Antall in bringing democracy to their country. Yet, since his first election victory in 2010, he has successfully cowed the leftist opposition, suppressed the media, packed the constitutional court with his loyalists, made the electoral system more friendly to his party and clamped down hard on the activities of civil society.

Czech leader Vaclav Havel   was thought to be a member of the advance guard of people who would grow and prosper in a ...
Czech leader Vaclav Havel was thought to be a member of the advance guard of people who would grow and prosper in a Europe eschewing every kind of authoritarianism. 

Orban and Kaczynski seem to disagree on just one thing. Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin are mutually admiring: Kaczynski holds Putin's regime responsible for the death of his twin brother, Lech, then Poland's president, in a plane crash in Russia.

The Czech Republic isn't authoritarian: but the promise Havel held out for it – to be the heart of Europe, a lighthouse of freedom, civility and diligence – has been frittered away. Its president, Milos Zeman, has appeared drunk several times at televised events, and he joined a virulently anti-Muslim rally in Prague last year. More like Orban than Kaczynski, he's a fan of Putin – not a popular position with those Czechs who remember the Soviet era.

Those, for whom Havel was a hero and a model, despair of a country whose political and business elite, including many media owners, are in and out of each others' pockets. Istvan Leko, editor of the daily Lidove Noviny, told me at a recent talk in Prague that "we did not grasp what was happening. We saw ourselves as on the same side as the new politicians and as Havel; and we wrote about the Communists, and the STB [secret police], and the past. Meanwhile, the relationships between the politicians and the new business people were being quickly formed and the new time of corruption was beginning."

It's corruption, the scrambling after political power to benefit one's own or allies' business, which corrodes civic behaviour and trust. It never seems to be vanquished. Waves of new (or old) politicians come to power on an anti-corruption ticket, and too many of them stay to discover and enjoy the fruits of power. Romanian prime minister Victor Ponta​ resigned last year with numerous charges of corruption and abuse of office hanging over him. He's not alone, in the former communist world.

These governments, all members of the European Union, feel less and less loyalty to it. What little they had has been strained by the stream of refugees that has flooded the continent. Most of them have followed the early example of Slovakia, and shut their borders. The Germans have threatened legal action to reopen borders, but mass attacks near Cologne's main train station on New Year's Eve by young men of Middle Eastern appearance have weakened its moral authority. With police and politicians apparently attempting a cover-up, it has raised the level of anger at the mass acceptance of migrants in Germany itself.

In regaining autonomy with the Soviet collapse, the Central Europeans first reached gratefully for Europe and its panoply of rights. Now, they recoil from its responsibilities. Instead, they seek a patriotic spirit impatient of liberal opposition and what they see as immoral or alarming innovation from abroad, such as gay rights.

This is likely to change again. A young Polish friend, working (as so many) in Britain, told me that "the old voted for Kaczynski: we, the young, didn't vote, and that was a mistake". An opinion poll recently showed 56 per cent opposition to some of the Law and Justice government's measures. But they need a new inspiration: and they need jobs. Their provision is the largest task in the presently fading continent.

Reuters

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