Pantomime Politics in Eastern Europe

27 September 2023

Pantomime Politics in Eastern Europe

By Gwynne Dyer

The Polish hate the Russians

The Slovaks hate the Czechs,

The Bulgars hate Ukrainians

And everybody hates the Jews.

With thanks and apologies to Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer’s original song, ‘National Brotherhood Week’, was about how different kinds of Americans hated each other, but it translates so easily to other venues that I couldn’t resist plugging Eastern European names into it. Especially since there are truly hate-filled elections coming up in Slovakia this weekend, and in Poland on 15 October.

In Slovakia on Saturday the man to beat is Robert Fico, leader of the left-wing Smer-Social Democracy Party, who has gone all pro-Russian despite the fact that Slovakia is a NATO member. He has been prime minister several times before, but was driven from office by corruption charges in 2018.

We’re not talking about side-deals with construction firms here. A well-known Slovakian investigative journalist who was looking into Fico’s alleged links with the Mafia was murdered together with his fiancée in 2018. No criminal charges were laid, but street demonstrations forced him out.

Why is he running for the job again now? “His strong motivation is to avoid criminal investigation,” explained Grigorij Meseznikov, head of the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava. (More charges were laid against Fico last year for creating a criminal group and misuse of power.) And his party is leading in the opinion polls.

Slovakia strongly backed Ukraine after the Russian invasion last year, even sending it combat aircraft, but Fico has found a vein of anti-Ukrainian feeling and works it hard. “The war in Ukraine didn’t start yesterday or last year,” he says. “It began in 2014, when the Ukrainian Nazis and fascists started to murder the Russian citizens in Donbas and Luhansk.”

There’s a market for this sort of talk in Eastern Europe, because there is a lot of bad history. Russia is not Slovakia’s neighbour, whereas Ukraine is, so when Fico says he will stop sending Ukraine arms and push it to hand land over to Russia in return for peace, some Slovaks like what they hear.

With Poland it’s even simpler. The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) knows that the forthcoming election will be close, so it make good electoral sense to pick a fight with Ukraine. After all, the people who vote for PiS have the same profile as Trump’s core supporters in the US: ultra-nationalist, mostly rural, poorly educated, and deeply religious.

When Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declares that Poland will stop sending arms to Ukraine because cheap Ukrainian grain exports are underselling the home-grown product, most of these folks won’t think: “That’s bad, because the Ukrainians are defending us from Russia’s expansionist ambitions.”

They think: “Good for Morawiecki. He’s standing up for Poland, for the Holy Catholic Church, for honest peasant farmers, and against immigrants and gays and foreigners in general. I never did trust those Ukrainians anyway.”

And it doesn’t really matter much, because if the PiS get back into office its leaders will wait a week or so and then resume helping Ukraine militarily. They exploit the psychology of people who don’t do much joined-up thinking on abstract matters, but they are perfectly capable of doing it themselves.

Same goes for Robert Fico in Slovakia. He’s not going to pull his country out of NATO or abandon Ukraine to its fate. He just needs to find enough votes to come first in a race with five other parties (20% will probably do), as that will give him first chance to build a coalition that can keep him out of jail.

It doesn’t matter if many of those votes come from a pro-Russian minority of voters: the exigencies of keeping a multi-party coalition together will absolve him from having to deliver on any particularly stupid promise he had to make in order to get elected.

So why are the Western media burbling on about a new “threat to NATO solidarity” and “support for Ukraine fading” and the rest, when they must really know better? Because they need some ‘content’ to hold the ads apart, and the story will only get your attention if it implies dangerous change.

Eastern Europe really would be a howling wilderness of beggar-my-neighbour conflicts if all these countries had been left to make their own way in the world after the Soviet empire collapsed thirty years ago.

NATO and the European Union, which they all clamoured to join, gave them a framework for cooperation that spared them from all that. For all the Russian complaints about the ‘expansion of NATO’, it spared Russia from that, too. Otherwise, Moscow would be worrying about Polish nuclear weapons by now.

Oh, by the way. The Bulgars don’t really hate the Ukrainians. They hate the Serbs, but that didn’t scan.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 13. (“We’re…out”; and “It doesn’t…elected”)