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Iron Curtains of the mind

Much 'western' analysis of central and eastern Europe remains rife with prejudices, half-truths and a lack of critical perspective.

Czech PM-designate Andrej Babis (left) with Austrian People's Party leader Sebastian Kurz. Wikimedia commons. CC.

The Iron Curtain may have been drawn back in 1989-1991, but you wouldn't know it to read much of the commentary on the Czech parliamentary elections – and much recent commentary on ‘Eastern Europe’ more generally.

Much attention has been lavished on comparing Czech politician Andrej Babiš to Viktor Orban, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Donald Trump and, more plausibly, to Silvio Berlusconi, but this has obscured deeper problems in western analyses of the region. Many of the sins laid at the door of central and eastern Europeans are no less prevalent in western countries, but this is too often lost amidst enduring Cold War stereotypes.

In a recent Op-Ed typical of this trend, Jochen Bittner charged that across the Visegrad Group (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia), "leading politicians agitate against the European Union, portraying it as an imposing, undemocratic force."

This is true. But populist politicians across western Europe portray the EU in exactly the same way. Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands both promised their electorate referendums on EU membership in hopes of emulating Brexit, whose champion was the anti-establishment politician and Donald Trump ally Nigel Farage.

Bittner cites the Visegrad Four's refusal to take in Muslim refugees as further evidence that they "decline to follow the Western mainstream." But the UK also rejects EU quotas (from which it has a handy opt-out) and has admitted far fewer Muslim refugees than many other EU states, while across the Atlantic Donald Trump campaigned on a total "Muslim ban" that he is still trying to get through the courts. 

In the Czech Republic, that Mr Babiš's ANO—a party that is actually committed to remaining in the EU—got 29.6% of the vote and Tomio Okamura's far-right SPD got 10.6% as proof of "the failure of the West to completely integrate Central and Eastern Europe.” But Marine Le Pen got 33.9% of the vote in the 2017 French presidential election, while the populist Austrian Freedom Party's Norbert Hofer won 46.2% of the vote in the 2017 Austrian presidential election.

Parties whose politics are comparable with Okamura's SPD gained higher proportions of the vote in national elections in 2017 in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders' PVV came second with 13.1% of the vote, and Germany itself, where Alternative für Deutschland took 12.6%.  

The biggest recent triumphs for populist politics have come in those supposed bastions of western democracy the United Kingdom and the USA. Theresa May has repeatedly stated that concerns over immigration were a major driver of the UK's decision to leave the EU. Mr Trump's cocktail of economic nationalism, Islamophobia, and hostility to immigrants attracted 46.1% of the popular vote in the US—far more than Mr Babiš.

There is irony, in this context, in Bittner's condemnation of Mr Babiš as "a ruthless businessman, more interested in expanding his personal power than in furthering the common good." Trump has also repeatedly acted in ways that suggest he might "regard democratic checks and balances as annoying hindrances to real men doing real politics." 

All this prompts the question: are France, Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, the UK, and the US outside "the Western mainstream" too?   

By accusing the Czech Republic of "turning on the West," Bittner assumes that there is a unitary West to turn on and that the Czech Republic is not part of it. This divisive approach had long been the fate of the countries on the "western periphery" of "Communist Europe."

After abating somewhat following the accession of eight former communist countries (the ‘EU-8’) including the Visegrad Four to the Union in 2004, it has recently returned with a vengeance. So too has the notion of a backward, illiberal and ungrateful ‘Eastern’ Europe that is contrasted to the progressive, liberal West.

This logic has driven the policies that since 1989 have sought to civilize these Eastern others by way of imitation. As Wolfgang Schauble put it when he was negotiating the unification treaty of the former West and East Germany: “what is taking place here is the accession of the GDR to the Federal Republic, and not the other way around […] You are very welcome to join us […] However, we are not seeing here the unification of two equal states. We are not starting again from the beginning, from positions that have equal rights." 

Jurgen Habermas famously referred to the events of 1989 as "catching up revolutions" and Timothy Garton Ash and others have spoken repeatedly about "the children of 89" and "born again" democracies.  Bittner echoes this with his unfortunate adolescence analogy, forgetting that "there was a 1968 generation to force a phase of messy, republican puberty" in Czechoslovakia (as it then was), but that Alexander Dubček's Prague Spring was crushed by Soviet tanks.

We are in no doubt that the often xenophobic, populist trends that have seen Orban, Kaczynski, and Babiš come to power are among the most serious challenges facing liberal democracy today. But these trends demand serious analysis rather than patronizing put-downs.

Bittner's lingering Cold War cartography greatly oversimplifies what is going on in central Europe while ignoring the rise of similar political trends in the west. It also does serious disservice to the hard work that many in the EU-8 did to meet the standards to gain entry to the EU and NATO, to rebuild their societies and repair the damage of the four decades leading up to 1989.

"A cult of outsiderism has taken hold" in much more than just central Europe, but Bittner's clichés will not help us understand it. 

Many western voters evidently also have "an immense distrust of one another and of the political class" which cannot be lazily explained by "forty years of Communism." Analyses like Bittner’s tells us little of substance about the contemporary causes of anti-liberal populism in central Europe.

But when he says “Central Europeans have done too little to make themselves fit for freedom and ready to be taken seriously by the West” it tells us a lot about his own prejudices.  Unfortunately, these are exactly the kind of western prejudices that have fed central European resentment of the EU. 

For all their problems, the transformation of central European societies after 1989 has been remarkable. Bittner’s piece shows that central Europeans are certainly not alone in needing to “liberalize their minds.” Many liberal Westerners too need to draw back their own mental Iron Curtains.

About the authors

Benjamin Tallis is Senior Researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague and edits the academic journal New Perspectives, which focuses on the politics and international relations of Central and Eastern Europe. He is the organiser of the Prague Insecurity Conference. tallis@iir.cz

Derek Sayer is a professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, Canada, and author of the award-winning book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century (2013)

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