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What Went Wrong in Eastern Europe?

I first met Viktor Orban, the not-quite-dictator of Hungary, in 1989 in Budapest – and the man who introduced us was none other than George Soros.

Orban was then a firebrand student leader, anti-Communist and keen for Hungary to join the West. Soros, a Hungarian refugee who became an American billionaire, was devoting his time and money to finding and subsiding young Eastern Europeans who would lead their countries into the European Union and a liberal democratic future.

But Orban is now the prime minister of an ‘illiberal’ Hungarian government that controls the mass media and regards the EU as the enemy. In last April’s election, he portrayed Soros as the Jewish evil genius who, with the EU’s help, was planning to flood Hungary with Muslim refugees and destroy the country’s culture and identity.

That’s ridiculous, but Orban won almost half the votes and more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament. Poland, a far bigger country, now also has a far-right, ‘illiberal’ government that is ultra-nationalist and hostile to the EU (although both countries depend heavily on EU subsidies).

The extremists are not yet in power in other Eastern European countries, but similar trends are visible in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. The dreams and hopes that drove the anti-Communist revolutions of 1989 are not yet dead, but they are definitely fading. What went wrong?

These countries are among the most ethnically homogenous in the world (due to the Holocaust and the widespread ‘ethnic cleansing’ that followed both world wars). They have admitted almost no refugees, yet their politics is dominated by the fear of being swamped by them.

It’s beyond bizarre, but Bulgarian political philosopher Ivan Krastev has a persuasive explanation for it. He points out that the question “isn’t so much where the nationalism has come from, but where it’s been hiding all these years.” His answer is that it was hiding in plain sight.

During the 1970s and 1980s the nationalists who wanted independence from Soviet rule formed a close alliance with the pro-Western activists who wanted a liberal, democratic future. From Poland to Bulgaria the liberals and the nationalists worked together, and even after the overthrow of the Communists in 1989 they continued to believe (or at least hope) that democracy could accommodate them both.

Maybe it could have, but the nationalist wars that destroyed the former Yugoslav federation in the 1990s put an end to the partnership. As Krastev says, the violence there persuaded liberals that “nationalism was the very heart of darkness, and that flirting with it could only be sinful.”

So the liberals broke their alliances with the nationalists, and for a while the nationalists went very quiet. Nobody, not even Polish or Hungarian nationalists, wanted to be seen in the same light as monsters like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic.

But nationalism was the most powerful political force in Eastern Europe throughout the 20th century, and it wasn’t going to just fade away. It re-merged in the early 21st century, shorn of its liberal associations with tolerance and diversity, as a major political force in the region – and the driver behind it was what Krastev calls “demographic panic”.

After 1989 many people in Eastern Europe not only aspired to emulate the prosperous liberal democracies of Western Europe. They actually wanted to live in them, and when their countries joined the EU they acquired the right to free movement. If Poles thought that life would be better in England, for example, they could just move there and find work – and a million of them did.

Since 1989, 27 percent of Latvia’s population has emigrated to Western Europe, and Bulgaria has lost 21 percent. Hungary is not so hard hit, but it has lost 3 percent of its population to Western Europe in the past ten years – and almost all the emigrants are young, leaving behind an aging population with a low birth rate.

This is the real source of the demographic panic, but it finds its political expression in a paranoid fear that the country’s dwindling population will be overrun by immigrants with a radically different culture, particularly refugees. It doesn’t matter that there are virtually no immigrants in Hungary, and that it’s about the last place a refugee would want to go. In these matters, perception is all.

The anti-immigrant hysteria is almost universal in Eastern Europe, and it will bring more illiberal nationalist regimes to power before it is finished. The remedy, if there is one, is for the liberals to acknowledge the nationalists’ concerns and rebuild the old alliances with them without pandering to the panic.

That’s not easy to do, but it’s what every Western European democracy has actually been doing for generations. Although they’re not doing too well with it at the moment themselves.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“Since…rate”)

The Next Secretary-General: No Charisma Required

It’s not an election, it’s a Selection. And although all the countries in the United Nations General Assembly have equal rights, some are more equal than others.

Ban Ki-moon retires at the end of this year, and it’s time for the United Nations to choose a new Secretary- General. By the end of this year’s session of the General Assembly, ends in early October, we will know who it is. Which raises two questions: how do they make
the choice, and why should anybody care?

The secretary-general of the United Nations is, in some senses, the highest official on the planet, but the selection process is hardly democratic. In fact, it has traditionally been a process as shrouded in secrecy as a papal conclave.

It is the Security Council’s fifteen members who pick the candidate, although all 192 members of the General Assembly then get to vote on their choice. And even on the Security Council, it’s only the views of the five permanent members (the P5) that really count, because each of the five great powers has a veto and the others don’t.

This is why people with strong opinions and a record of taking decisive action don’t get the job. That sort of person would be bound to annoy one of the P5 great powers – Russia, Britain, China, France and the United States – or even all of them one after the other, so the entire system is designed to prevent a maverick with big ideas from slipping through.

The secretary-general must never come from one of the great powers (that might give him access to enough resources to make a nuisance of himself), and the successful candidate should not be charismatic. The final choice is usually a “safe pair of hands”, some blameless diplomat from a middle or smaller power like the incumbent, a career diplomat from South Korea who ranks 32nd on the Forbes list of The World’s Most Powerful People.

Candidates therefore tend to be relative unknowns. If you look through the current list of candidates, for example, the only two names you might recognise, even if you are a political junkie, are former New Zealand prime minister, Helen Clark, now Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, and Antonio Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal and later UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

But who is Irina Bokova, Natalia Gherman, or Igor Luksic? They are, in that order, a former acting foreign minister of Bulgaria, the current foreign minister of Moldova, and a former foreign minister of Montenegro. Well, all right, Bokova is also the current director-general of UNESCO, but you still didn’t know her name, did you?

Why so many Eastern Europeans (eight of the twelve candidates come from that region)? Because it’s Eastern Europe’s “turn” this time. That region always missed out until the end of the Cold War, because the countries of Eastern Europe were effectively under Soviet control and therefore contravened the unwritten “no sec-gen from a great power” rule.

You might also ask why Eastern Europe is a whole separate region at all, given that its total population from Poland to Bulgaria is less than the population of Bangladesh, Brazil, Indonesia or Pakistan. Same reason: it used to be seen as a separate region because it was occupied by Soviet troops and most of its governments were ultimately controlled from Moscow. History looms very large at the UN.

There is some progress. Half of this year’s candidates are female, and there is a strong feeling around the UN that it is high time for a woman to become secretary-general. There is also an attempt this time to make the process more “transparent”, but it is otherwise unchanged. The Security Council still comes up with a single candidate who doesn’t offend any of the great powers, and the General Assembly then rubber-stamps its choice.

It’s basically a civil service job, suitable for persons of cautious disposition. How could it be otherwise? You only get what you pay for, and no great power is yet ready to pay the price in terms of its own sovereignty of having a powerful independent leader at the United Nations.

What would be the point of choosing such a leader anyway, so long as the UN has no military forces or financial resources of its own? It would only lead to frustration: the secretary-general can’t act independently of the will of the great powers because they designed it that way.

The job is still worth doing, and there is never a shortage of applicants. The secretary-general can speak out as the conscience of the world when there are massive violations of human rights, and once in a while she can actually organise a peace-keeping mission to stop the horrors (if all the great powers agree).

And she becomes, by virtue of her position, the most striking symbol of that more cooperative, less violent world that most politicians, diplomats and ordinary citizens actually aspire to. But we are still a very long way from the promised land.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Why…UN”)

The Utility of Euroslaps

28 April 2006

The Utility of Euroslaps

 By Gwynne Dyer

“Sofia gets Euroslap,”shrieked the headline in the Bulgarian newspaper Trud in early April, and it was true. Olli Rehn, the European Union’s Commissioner for Enlargement, reporting to the European Parliament on Bulgaria’s readiness to join the EU next January, had said that “the jury is still out,” and that Sofia needs to do much more about fighting high-level corruption and organised crime if it hopes to get in next year.

This sort of foreign criticism provokes nationalist outrage in most countries, but the Bulgarians took it almost meekly. Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev warned that postponing Bulgaria’s entry by a year would send the wrong message to countries in the western Balkans (i.e. former Yugoslavia) that hope to join in the next decade, but he also promised to work hard to meet the EU’s standards and deadlines. And he has been working hard: in his first eight months in office, his government has passed sixty new laws. Euroslaps work.

Romania, also scheduled to become a full member of the EU next January, has done even better. Just two years ago, it was still seen as the more problematic of the two candidates, with high levels of corruption, an easily bought judiciary, and even rigged elections. But the combination of euro-sticks and euro-carrots worked so well in Romania that it is now no longer seen as a problem candidate.

Bulgaria still has some distance to go. There have been 157 contract killings in public places in Bulgaria since 2000, as gangsters battle it out over the proceeds of organised crime, and no high Bulgarian official has ever been convicted on corruption charges. But the threat to postpone its EU entry by a year is having the desired effect, and now Bulgaria is also scrambling to fix things in time.

“Enlargement”, as the EU calls the process of bringing in new members, has been an amazingly effective tool for getting the former Communist countries of Europe to root out the corrupt systems and arbitrary habits that they inherited from their former rulers. Millions of people who served the Communist states are still serving their successors today in the government, the civil service and the judiciary, but the European Union has found a way to impose reform from outside without generating nationalist resentment, resistance and sabotage.

“The heart of the EU’s enlargement policy is conditionality,” as Olli Rehn wrote in the Financial Times recently. “The conditions for membership are clear and rigorous, and…require nothing less than a top-to-bottom reform of a would-be member’s institutions and policies.” But the benefits of membership are so attractive that the candidates jump through the hoops willingly, and the system is flexible enough to allow for the occasional hiccup.

If Bulgaria doesn’t fix its justice system in time, it will almost certainly be allowed to join next January anyway, but with EU monitors to keep track of how many organised crime figures actually get prosecuted and how many corruption cases are brought against senior Bulgarian officials. It’s a bit undignified for a sovereign state to accept such supervision (which will last until the EU is satisfied that Bulgarian justice meets the EU standard), but the Bulgarians will doubtless decide that it’s worth it.

The job is almost done: with the admission of 30 million Romanians and Bulgarians next January, all of the former Soviet satellites in Europe (plus the three Baltic states, once part of the Soviet Union itself) will have been brought into the family. The EU will have grown from fifteen to twenty-seven members in less than five years, and all that remains to do to clear up the mess left over from the Communist era in eastern Europe is to bring in the “west Balkans”: Albania and the countries of former Yugoslavia.

That’s only 25 million people, but it already consists of six separate countries and the total will grow to eight if Montenegro and Kosovo get their formal independence from Serbia this year. (They are already separate in all but name.) Moreover, most of these countries are deeply scarred by the nationalist wars and massacres that ravaged the region in the 90s.

Nobody needs the EU process more than they do — except maybe Turkey, already an official candidate for European Union membership, which is also using EU standards as a justification for forcing democratic and human rights reforms on reluctant generals, judges and mandarins. But with the final goal almost in sight, “enlargement fatigue” is now sapping the will of some existing members (notably France and Germany) to continue with the process.

Hence Olli Rehn’s passionate plea to the existing EU members last month: “Our conditionality works only if it is credible. Countries have to be sure that they have a realistic chance of joining the EU — even if it is many years away — if reformist leaders are to convince their public that it is worth making enormous efforts to meet the EU’s conditions….In the (west) Balkans this encouragement is critical, given the region’s very recent experience of ethnic hatred and armed conflict….This year is the worst possible time for the EU to go wobbly on its commitment to future expansion.”

He’s right, and the “enlargement fatigue” is probably just a temporary phenomenon. But if it deprives the “west Balkans” of hope at this point, all of Europe will regret it for a long time to come.


To shorten to 725 word, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“Bulgaria…time”; and “If…worth it”)

Croatia’s Missing General

17 March 2005

Croatia’s Missing General

By Gwynne Dyer

The British, Dutch and German governments finally got so fed up with Croatia’s failure to deliver General Ante Gotovina to the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague — “I’ve been travelling to Zagreb for four years getting promises on Gotovina and we’re still not there,” said Denis MacShane, Britain’s minister for Europe — that they decided to block Croatia’s bid for European Union membership. Croatia was due to start EU entry talks this month, together with Romania and Bulgaria, but it is now on hold until it can convince Brussels that it really is trying to find Gotovina.

The Croats are furious, and much of the Croatian media is insisting that it’s all a British plot to keep their country out of the EU. Exactly why Britain would have it in for Croatia remains unclear, but nationalists in smallish countries with turbulent histories often believe that people elsewhere stay up late at night plotting against them.

And just when you thought that it couldn’t get any stranger, here comes the ghost of the Austro-Hungarian empire, shambling out of the shadows to declare its solidarity with Catholic Croatia. Other EU members that also once belonged to that officially Catholic empire — Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia — still see the Balkans south of Croatia as a wilderness full of Muslims and Orthodox Christians who cannot be trusted, and don’t really care if Gotovina ever faces trial for cleansing Croatia of its Orthodox Serbs. So they have warned the EU that if Croatia doesn’t get in, neither does Turkey.

Asked directly if Austria was prepared to block the scheduled start of Turkey’s accession talks in October, Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said: “I won’t answer on that. The topic is Croatia right now.” The threat was clear enough, but it probably won’t end in a crisis that splits the EU, because in the end Croats really do want to obey the law.

The Croats are very upset about their entry talks being suspended, but it’s not only the promise of prosperity that attracted them to the EU. Like most prospective new members in eastern and southern Europe, they have lived for many decades under arbitrary and lawless governments, and now they want to live in countries where human rights are protected and everybody must obey the law.

Croatia’s difficulty is that, unlike other EU candidates, it has recently been through a war. Much of Croatia was occupied by Serbian troops for over three years, and hundreds of thousands of Croats were driven from their homes in border areas that they had shared with the local Serbian minority for centuries. Emotions run high after something like that, and even sensible, law-abiding people can lose their balance.

General Ante Gotovina commanded the Croatian army in the 72-hour blitz that won the war with Serbia and recovered the lost territory in 1995. Some 150,000 Croatian Serbs fled or were driven from their homes, and some were massacred. Gotovina may or may not be a war criminal, but he had command responsibility during the operation, and there is certainly a case to answer.

The Hague tribunal has been seeking Gotovina’s arrest for years, but he is a war hero to most Croats, and no government until the present one was willing to him up for trial (though they pretended to be looking for him). Perhaps the current government, led by Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, is willing to hand him over in principle, but in practice it has been unable to get its own intelligence and police apparatus to help in the search.

There is no doubt that large parts of the Croatian military, intelligence and police establishments have been actively trying to thwart the search for Gotovina, and so far the Croatian government has not felt strong enough to take them on in a direct confrontation. Many people in the EU have sympathy for the Croatian government’s plight, but nobody is willing to set a precedent by overlooking such open defiance of the rule of law, so Croatia will have to wait outside the door.

It may not be for a very long time. Carla del Ponte, the UN’s chief war crimes prosecutor, will report again to the Security Council in June, and if she says that Zagreb is now really trying to find the missing general (who is not believed to be hiding in Croatia) then the bar will be lifted. “None of us are making (the surrender of General Gotovina) a precondition,” explained British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. But the Croatian government must face down its own security forces and start cooperating in the search, or it cannot join the club.

As the EU expands to the south and east — Serbia and Bosnia will be joining the queue one of these days — this sort of thing will arise again, and it’s important to get the rules clear. Wise Croatians will welcome the pressure that Brussels is exerting on their government, as it is their best chance to normalise their country and fully restore the rule of law after the nightmare of the Balkan wars. They will probably sort things out in time to catch up with Romania and Bulgaria and join the EU in 2007.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“Asked…law”; and “It may…club”)