// archives

Eastern Europeans

This tag is associated with 2 posts

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”)