Blog Books Eastern Europe Featured Non-Fiction


Now out from Zed Books. Available here.

A quarter of a century after the fall of communism, novelist and journalist John Feffer returned to Eastern Europe to track down the hundreds of people he spoke to in the initial atmosphere of optimism as the Iron Curtain fell. Aftershock is the sensational account of that journey. Revealing the broken dreams of a remarkable cast of characters, this is the epic story of a region that against great odds is still fighting for a brighter future.



Marta Figlerowicz, Boston Review, February 28, 2018: “In Aftershock, the novelist, journalist, and political scholar John Feffer attempts to view these stories from a middle distance: a point of view broader than a participant’s, if also less aerial than a professional historian’s. Through interviews with Eastern Europeans from all walks of life—politicians, activists, academics, blue-collar workers, clerks, and Ikea managers—he pieces together an affective and cultural history of post-communism. Aftershock gives its reader a panoramic view of the fantasies and hopes through which recently post-communist societies interpreted their ongoing transformations to themselves.”


Paul Hockenos, International Politics and Society, February 23, 2018: “A searching, analytical work that tries to make sense of where the former East bloc countries are today and why they arrived there. The lucid, gripping narrative is a joy to read.”

Paul Rosenberg, Salon, January 21, 2018: “Feffer’s book is so important. Compared to the rest of the world, Eastern Europe is a relative success—and the same can be said about America, even after the election of Donald Trump. If the first half of Aftershock can be read as a warning of what might befall us in the years ahead, then the second half can be read as an inspiration about what we can do to prevent it.”




‘John Feffer is our 21st-century Jack London.’
Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums

‘John Feffer brings to this story a traveller’s eye, a rich store of experiences, and a wise perspective. His thoughtful book is a reminder that few nations, anywhere, easily throw off the heritage of tyranny.’
Adam Hochschild, author of Spain in our Hearts and King Leopold’s Ghost

‘Both a merciless political history and a compassionate political psychology of central and eastern Europe’s post-Cold War transformation.’
Miklos Haraszti, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Belarus

‘An essential account of our post-liberal times.’
Padraic Kenney, author of A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe, 1989

‘A brisk, vivid and wide-ranging survey of a region in the grip of neoliberalism. As Feffer makes clear, this is hardly just a book about Eastern Europe, as the challenges there now seem to be spreading throughout the world. Feffer’s sense of the future evinces both pessimism of the mind and optimism of the will.’
Lawrence Weschler, author of Vermeer in Bosnia and Calamities of Exile

‘A breath-taking whirlwind tour through the transformations of eastern Europe over the past 30 years. With its account of the travails of contemporary capitalism, it is also astonishingly relevant for understanding pressing political problems in the United States as well.’
David Ost, author of The Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Post-Communist Europe

Articles Blog Eastern Europe Europe Featured

Things Fall Apart

Democracy can be messy. In the northeast corner of Spain this week, democracy was downright chaotic.

Catalans went to the polls on Sunday to vote in a referendum on whether to stay in Spain or go their separate way. The Spanish authorities, however, declared the vote illegitimate and sent in the national police to disrupt the referendum.

In many locales, as the police swept into the polling station to seize the ballots, the Catalans merely hid all the voting paraphernalia. When the police left, the Catalans set up again to register voter preferences, and lines reformed outside.

Such Keystone Kops scenarios would have been amusing if not for the outright violence of the Spanish police, which beat voters with batons and fired rubber bullets into crowds. In The Independent, Hannah Strange and James Badcock write:

Video footage showed officers from Spain’s national police — 4,000 of whom had been brought in by the government to help quash the ballot — fighting with elderly voters, some of whom were left bleeding, and dragging young women away from polling stations by their hair.

The Spanish government has been monumentally stupid. Its case for unity is much stronger than Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont’s case for independence. The Spanish constitution of 1978 speaks of the country’s “indissoluble unity,” while also according Catalonia considerable autonomy. “The Catalan government claims the right to self-determination,” The Economistpoints out. “But international law recognizes this only in cases of colonialism, foreign invasion, or gross discrimination and abuse of human rights.” None of those conditions applies to Catalonia.

Sure, the relatively wealthy Catalans are aggrieved that a portion of their economic success is redistributed elsewhere in Spain. But that’s a fundamental element of the modern state. New Yorkers subsidize New Mexicans, London subsidizes Leeds, Germans subsidize Greeks. Catalans can certainly challenge the terms of the economic arrangement — after all, the poorer Basque region doesn’t share much of its tax revenues with Madrid — but neither Spanish law nor international law allows them to gather up all their marbles and go home.

Meanwhile, the very process by which Puigdemont rammed through the referendum doesn’t reflect well on his democratic credentials. Writes Yascha Mounk in Slate:

The government rushed the necessary legislation for the referendum through the Catalan Parliament without giving deputies adequate time to discuss it. It passed the legislation in a late-night session even though the opposition was absent. It vowed to secede from Spain even if a majority of the population stayed away from the polls. And, taking a page from Trump’s playbook, it has been smearing everybody from opponents of secession to judges doing their jobs as enemies of the people.

With only a 42 percent turnout for the referendum, the Catalan authorities have no authoritative mandate for a declaration of independence. Many people who opposed secession simply refused to vote. On the other hand, the Spanish government’s reaction may well have pushed more people into the independence camp. On Monday, thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Barcelona to protest the Spanish government’s actions and assert their popular sovereignty. On Tuesday, unions called a general strike for the same purpose.

Ultimately the Catalan crisis boils down to consent — whether the Catalans continue to agree to be part of the larger Spanish nation. In an 1882 essay on nations and nationalism, the French philologist Ernest Renan famously wrote that the nation is a “daily referendum.” He meant that the nation is a matter not of inviolate borders or ancient history. Renan continued:

A nation is therefore a great solidarity constituted by the feeling of sacrifices made and those that one is still disposed to make. It presupposes a past but is reiterated in the present by a tangible fact: consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life.

If a majority of Catalans no longer consent to be part of the larger Spanish nation, then the specifics of the Spanish constitution are largely irrelevant. The people will force a change. Given that the younger generation favors independence, demography is on the side of the secessionists. The more polarized the situation becomes in Spain, the less room there will be for the sensible middle option of greater autonomy for Catalonia.

In the past, secessionist movements represented not a challenge to the nation-state system, but its ultimate expression. After all, rebellious provinces or peoples want nothing more than to become nation-states themselves. If every nation deserves a state, then how can the international community deny the Slovaks, the Slovenes, and the East Timorese? Secessionist movements were simply the continuation of a process interrupted by historical anomalies like the Soviet, Yugoslav, or Czechoslovak federations, or the often arbitrary border delineations of colonial administrators.

But the Catalan case suggests a different kind of future. In this future, economics, geopolitics, and technology all point toward what I’ve called in my latest book: the splinterlands.

Catalonia and the EU

The architects of the European Union imagined that their new entity would solve the challenge of endless division on the continent.

Europe has always been a patchwork of different peoples, all striving for sovereignty over their own territory. People of varying histories, cultures, languages, and religions have been mixed together in a way that has defied any easy drawing of borders. Order has usually come over the centuries by force of arms. In the last century, two world wars were fought to upend those orders, and a third war beckoned.

The EU was supposed to change all that by pointing toward something beyond the nation-state.

Not only did the EU weaken the powers of the state by appealing to the benefits of something larger — economies of scale, a unified foreign policy voice, greater individual freedoms to travel and work — it also appealed to a “Europe of regions.” According to this project, regions could deal directly with Brussels, bypassing their national governments, and also cooperate horizontally with one another: Provence with Basque country, Bavaria with Lombardy, and so on. Secession would be rendered moot, for Catalans could get what they wanted if not from Spain then from Brussels or other European entities.

Alas, it was not to be. Writes Anwen Elias back in 2008, “Regionalist or autonomist parties who saw in the EU an opportunity for organizing political authority on a post-sovereigntist basis were also forced to recognize that, in practice, Europe was still dominated by sovereign states and sovereignty-based understandings of politics.” Even in Europe, the nation-state held onto its privileged position. Attempts to revive the “Europe of regions” to accommodate pressures from below, particularly after the last Catalan referendum in 2014, came up hard against the growing Euroskeptical movements, the continued problems in the Eurozone, and ultimately Brexit.

The problem of consent, in other words, has infected the EU as well. Many citizens of wealthier European countries don’t want to subsidize the citizens of less-well-off countries. Europe-firsters have been unenthusiastic about the influx of immigrants that the EU as a whole embraced. Though others threatened to do so, the British have been the first to withdraw their consent entirely.

If the Catalans withdraw from Spain, they are also withdrawing from the EU, which would amount to a second defection in so many years. The decision could prove even more costly for Catalonia than Brexit is proving for the UK, since it doesn’t have an economy the size of England’s, hasn’t preserved a separate financial system (and currency), and doesn’t have the same international profile (for instance, Catalonia is not a member of the World Trade Organization).

Of course, would-be countries are often prepared to take an economic hit for the sake of independence.

But the Catalans have perhaps not factored in just how big a hit they’re going to take, naively thinking that the small bump up in revenues not turned over to Madrid will make the difference. They’re also disgusted, and rightly so, with the economic austerity measures that the EU has imposed on Spain. But little Catalonia will have even less power to resist these forces after independence.

Now that the “Europe of regions” has faded into irrelevance, Europe faces more fracture points. As a result of the Brexit vote, Scotland is once again reconsidering its commitment to the United Kingdom, though public opinion polls suggest that a second referendum on independence would fail by a narrow margin just like the first. In Belgium, the largest political force is a nationalist party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which supports Flemish independence. Of course, the Flemish are the majority in Belgium, and Flanders is doing much better economically these days than Wallonia, but Belgian unity remains a fragile thing. Other regions of Europe are also restive — Basque country, northern Italy, Corsica.

Although the Catalan vote isn’t likely to unravel the tapestry of Europe quite yet, other forces are at work in Europe — and not just Europe.


Kurdishstruggle / Flickr

Kurdistan, Finally?

Kurds have wanted their own states for centuries. They’ve attempted to carve out autonomous regions in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Last week, the Kurdish territory in Iraq held a non-binding referendum on independence, which garnered overwhelming support.

Surrounding states all took measures against the would-be new state of Kurdistan. Iran declared a fuel embargo, as did Turkey. Both countries moved troops to their borders for joint military exercises with Iraq. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the referendum “illegitimate.”

Baghdad, too, rejected the non-binding vote. But unlike Madrid, the Iraqi authorities did not attempt to stop the vote from happening. Iraq banned flights to Kurdistan airports and imposed sanctions on Kurdish banks. But it didn’t send in troops. The Kurdish government has announced new elections for November 1, and Baghdad seems to be waiting to see what the Kurds’ next move will be. Neither side wants war.

As in Catalonia, the referendum wasn’t simply a transparent bid for independence. Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani used the vote as a way to boost his own popularity and that of his party, as well as to make a stronger bid for Kirkuk, a disputed oil-rich area that Baghdad also claims. Regardless of Barzani’s motives, however, independence is clearly popular in Kurdistan.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the Kurds dialing back their ambitions in Iraq. They’ve been running a de facto state of sorts for years. They thought, not unreasonably, that they could trade their extraordinary efforts against the Islamic State for a shot at real, de jure sovereignty. They’ve even embraced a rather ruthless realpolitik to their ethnic brethren across the borders. Kurdistan has maintained strong ties toward Turkey — despite President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on Turkey’s own Kurdish population — and have been cool toward the de facto Kurdish state of Rojava in northern Syria.

But there’s still a huge difference between de facto and de jure. Just as Catalonia can be the string that unravels the European tapestry, Kurdistan can be the string that unravels the Middle East tapestry. Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq all fiercely defend the unitary nature of their states, and the Kurds represent a strong threat to that structure.

Moreover, the region is as much of a patchwork as Europe. Yemen and Libya have already effectively fallen apart. Palestinians have been thwarted for decades from having their own state. Turkmen, Shia (in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain), and others might lobby as well for a piece of their own pie.

But what if they get their slice just when the pie has become stale and inedible?

Slouching toward Splinterlands

What’s happening in Europe and the Middle East is part of a larger pattern.

The global market has been eroding the power of the nation-state for several decades, as transnational corporations flit around the world to get the best tax deals and the cheapest labor, international trade deals remove key points of leverage that national governments once had over various economic actors, and global financial authorities impose conditions on all but the largest economies that governments must meet or face default.

The global market has delegitimized states. No wonder, then, that subnational units are taking advantage of this weakness.

Technology has amplified this trend. Communications advances make this global market possible, and the transfer in microseconds of huge amounts of capital in and out of nation-states renders national economic policy increasingly illusory. The Internet and social media have broken the monopoly on national media, providing civic movements (along with global disrupters like the United States and Russia) the means to challenge the once authoritative narratives of the nation-state. What happened in the Arab Spring to authoritarian governments is now happening to democratic governments as well (witness the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory).

Finally, in the world of geopolitics, the overarching reasons for ideological unity are gone. The West no longer faces a “Communist threat,” while the East no longer huddles together against the “Yankee threat.” Sure, there’s the Islamic State and its ilk to worry about. But all nation-states see these non-state actors as a threat. The “war on terrorism” hasn’t forced states to give up a portion of their sovereignty for the cause — only citizens to give up a portion of their civil liberties.

In the 1950s and 1960s, utopians dreamed of a world government even as dystopians feared a global Big Brother. Today, when the international community can’t even come together to stop climate change, the prospect of world federalism seems impossibly quaint. A much grimmer reality presents itself in places like Libya and Somalia and Yemen: failed states and the war of all against all.

Today the world faces a crisis of the intermediate structure. The EU is under siege. The power of nation-states is eroding. If this trend continues, with the world continuing to splinter, the only entities left with any global power will be corporations and religious organizations, a world where frightened people pray to Facebook and the gods of Google that the fierce winds of nationalism and the rising waters of climate change and the random fire of lone gunmen will stay away for one more day.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 4, 2017

Articles Eastern Europe Europe Featured

Germany and the Rise of a “Fascist International”

Germany got its very own electoral shock this week when the far right won 13 percent of the vote in country’s parliamentary elections.

For the first time in more than half a century, the far right will be represented in the German parliament, with more than 90 seats. Although it’s now Germany’s third most popular party — behind the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SDP) — the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is still too toxic to become part of a ruling coalition.

But the AfD will have influence well beyond its numbers. “In a nutshell,” Deutsche Welle reports, “things are about to get a lot nastier.”

The AfD’s electoral victory has destroyed the taboo in Germany that has kept the far right on the fringes. It will inevitably pull the ruling Christian Democrats further to the right, particularly on social issues like immigration. It may even have an impact on the ongoing discussions about the fate of the European Union.

Beyond Germany, the AfD’s success will give a shot in the arm to other far-right formations, particularly after the National Front’s losses in the last French elections. Looking a little further down the road, if it manages to return to parliament in the next election, the AfD will qualify for government money to create its own party foundation, which will enable Germany’s far right to spread its message all over the world.

Europe’s rebellion against liberalism — in both its economic and social versions — is continuing to shake up politics as usual. An equally unsettling question, though, is how much it will shake up geopolitics as usual.

What the AfD Wants

The far right in Germany has followed much the same script as the Tea Party and the Trump movement in the United States.

It began in 2013 with several academics angry about the Eurozone (and, by extension, the European Union). But just like economist Dave Brat was an obscure political hopeful until he started talking about the so-called “threat” of immigrants in Virginia — and ended up taking House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s seat in 2014 — the AfD only became truly popular by stoking anti-immigrant sentiment.

As Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats welcomed refugees into Germany in 2015 — an influx, to date, of around 1.3 million people — the AfD began to peel away support from the center-right CDU. Even the purportedly moderate faces of the AfD, like Jorg Muethen, have made statements like, “in some German cities, I struggle to find Germans on the streets,” thus equating German citizenship with skin color or other external markers.

The party has advocated border controls — effectively abrogating the Schengen system of free movement within many EU member states — as well as new border patrols. Frauke Petry, a party leader who is also considered a moderate, has said that these new border police units should shoot at migrants if necessary as they try to make it into the country.

Central to the anti-immigrant message has been Islamophobia. The party plastered the streets of Germany with posters like one that showed two young, bikini-clad women from behind that read, “Burkas? We like bikinis.” On Facebook, it distributed an ad showing bloody tire tracks with the caption, “The tracks left by the world chancellor in Europe,” linking Merkel’s refugee policy to terrorist attacks around the continent.

The party has other deeply disturbing positions, like its denial of climate change. But what has caused some division within the party is its attitude toward German history. One party leader, Bjorn Hocke, has called for a “180-degree turnaround” in German attitudes about the Nazi era. Since current German policy is firmly in the camp of condemnation of Nazis, it’s quite sobering to imagine the kind of policy that Hocke prefers.

This German corollary to Trump’s appeal to white supremacists and neo-Nazis has divided the party. Frauke Petry abruptly walked out of an AfD press conference this week after announcing that she wouldn’t sit in parliament with the party faction. Reportedly, Petry has wanted to purge the party of its extremist elements — at least those who take an extremist position on the history question — just as Marine Le Pen attempted to clean up the National Front by kicking her anti-Semitic father out of the French far-right party.

According to Spiegel’s analysis of AfD’s likely MPs, 35 of 94 are “right wing extremists.” So, it’s not just about a purge of one or two bad apples. Expect the AfD to split along the same realoand fundi — realist vs. fundamentalist — fault line of the Greens.

A key connection between AfD and Trump, the UK Independence Party, and right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is their ad man, Vincent Harris. He’s responsible for the bikini and tire tracks ad campaigns. He’s adept at fusing anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and race-baiting messages. But with one of his suggestions for the AfD, Harris went too far. The party rejected his suggestion of “Germany for Germans” as a campaign slogan. Perhaps it will resurface in the next election, if the so-called moderates abandon the party.

Finally, what would a modern election be without Russian interference?

In the lead-up to the election, several major newspapers noted that Russian involvement in the German vote was scant. Perhaps they spoke too soon. First to consider are the Russian speakers, those with German heritage who’ve relocated to Germany since the 1980s — the right kind of immigrants from AfD’s point of view. The AfD estimates that fully one-third of its supportcomes from this constituency, and it has helped the party become the second most popular one in former East Germany.

Then there was the obligatory visit to Moscow, as Petry made her pilgrimage last February and met with, among others, the truly beyond-the-pale politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. As the election entered its last phase, the usual trolls and Twitter bots came out to play, at least some of them Russians supporting AfD.

Again, as with Trump, the Kremlin isn’t interested in promoting a particular party in the hopes that it will win or reorient the country’s foreign policy. It simply wants to shake up a status quo that it perceives as tilted against Russia.

Has the Right Already Won?

Even though the radical right has lost some recent elections — notably in France and in the Netherlands — it has nevertheless transformed the debate in Europe.

Consider the immigration situation. This month, the two-year program to relocate 160,000 migrants from Greece and Italy to other EU member states came to an end. It managed to relocate only 28,000 people, and only with great effort. Some countries — notably Poland and Hungary — refused to locate a single migrant. More than 20 member states failed to meet their obligatory target by 50 percent.

Far right populists poisoned the discourse on immigration, denouncing millions of people as well as linking this “scourge” to the EU, multiculturalism, and liberal politics more generally. Throughout the continent, EU member states are tightening their immigration laws, increasing the number of deportations, and sweeping away informal settlements like the “Jungle” in the northern French town of Calais.

“The right-wing populists have already won the upcoming elections in Europe, no matter what the outcome is,” writes Krsto Lazarevic in Deutsche Welle. “The EU has done away with human rights and Western standards of civilization by cooperating with the Libyan coastguard, African dictators, and deporting people back to war zones.”

Then there’s the issue of helping countries like Greece exit their perpetual financial crisis. Discussions this week between Athens and Eurozone officials seem to point the way toward fresh loans and the prospect of Greece becoming fiscally independent by next August. But if Merkel has to bring the Free Democrats into a coalition government, she’ll have to reckon with that party’s “red line” on reforming the Eurozone to facilitate “fiscal transfers” to countries like Greece. The Euroskeptic AfD will rejoice.

Elsewhere in Europe

The French turned back the tide of hatred in the last presidential and parliamentary elections. The National Front, once seemingly on an unstoppable roll, now has only eight seats in parliament, and its leader Marine Le Pen presides over a fractious party.

In the wake of Le Pen’s losses, pundits wondered if Trump has had a bracing effect on Europe. Europeans see how Trump has transformed the United States into a three-ring circus, and they want none of it.

But that’s France. Elsewhere, the far right continues its march.

In Norway, for instance, the right-wing Progress Party pulled in a respectable 15 percent in September elections, good enough for it to continue as a coalition partner with the Conservative Party. But perhaps that’s because the Progress Party, despite its anti-immigrant and pro-nationalist approach, isn’t quite as crazy as the National Front.

A more authentically radical right is poised to take over in Austria in elections next month. There, the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) is polling even better than the AfD — in the low 20s. It would be doing even better if the center-right People’s Party hadn’t started to take up its anti-immigration, Islamophobic message. The bullet dodged at the end of last year when independent Alexander Van der Bellen defeated Freedom Party leader Norbert Hofer seems to have taken a boomerang trajectory.

Worse, the center right in Austria, unlike its counterpart in Germany, has no problems with forming a government with the far right. Given that one-third of Austrians don’t want to live next to Muslims — more than in Germany or France or Switzerland — it can count on considerable popular support for such a coalition.

In the Czech Republic, meanwhile, a certifiably Trump-like figure is likely to win next month’s presidential election. Andrej Babis, currently the finance minister, is a billionaire who’s skeptical of the European Union and wants to close the EU’s borders to keep out immigrants. His involvement in a corruption scandal involving one of his enterprises illegally receiving EU subsidies — oh, the hypocrisy! — doesn’t seem to have harmed his popular standing.

The AfD’s win may well encourage this political trajectory in Europe and beyond. It’s still hard to imagine the party successfully pushing through legislation or having much impact on governance. But if the party gets above 5 percent of the vote in the next parliamentary elections, it will win the right to form its own international foundation. Of course, the Bundestag might deploy various stalling tactics to prevent such an official funding stream — as it did when the left-wing Die Linke qualified — but there’s a strong bias in German political culture to observe the rules.

I’ve worked with German foundations all over the world: Friedrich Ebert (Social Democrats), Friedrich Naumann (Free Democrats), Heinrich Boll (the Green Party), and Rosa Luxemburg (Die Linke). Funded by German taxpayers, they’ve all provided valuable support for civil society and in promoting useful exchange of ideas.

The prospect of German government money helping to spread far right-wing politics globally is a nightmare scenario. Germany just took one step closer to helping globalize the alt-right and recycle from history’s dustbin something that ought never again see the light of day: a Fascist International.

 World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, September 27, 2017
Articles Blog Eastern Europe Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

The Anti-Corruption Revolution

During rush week, aspiring frat boys endure all manner of indignities.

They all want to join the exclusive club, and they’re willing to pay the steep initiation fee of risk and embarrassment. One day, they too will be­ seniors who can haze the newbies all they like. Such are the perks of following orders, rising through the ranks, and waiting one’s turn in the hierarchy of power.

In autocracies, aspiring functionaries endure all manner of indignities. They must pay deference to the country’s leader. They must mouth all sorts of propagandistic nonsense. But they know that they, too, will eventually benefit from the system. The riches that the autocrat is extracting from the country will some day flow to these underlings as well, as a reward for their loyalty.

In democracies, corruption works in a similar way.

The opposition slams the ruling party for all the ways it uses the levers of government power to benefit its clientele. But then the opposition takes over and all that past criticism disappears. Suddenly, the former opposition discovers the perks of power. It has its own clientele to satisfy. These rules apply to both the illegal (outright bribery) and the legal (the revolving door of the “swamp”). And so the cycle continues.

Currently the world is experiencing a wave of illiberal leaders, elected democratically but ruling autocratically: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, India’s Narendra Modi, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, and of course the United States’ Donald Trump.

They all want to hold on to power as long as possible and build political dynasties that endure when they finally age out of office. Such dynasties secure not only political legacies but economic gains as well.

Some of these illiberal leaders may flame out — like Trump, who may prove so inept and unpopular that he doesn’t even serve out his first term. But the others will try every conceivable means — constitutional changes, territorial grabs, massive crackdowns on the media — to cling to power.

Some resort to these methods even as they maintain quite high levels of popularity. Putin has an approval rating just north of 80 percent while Duterte enjoys a voter satisfaction level of 66 percent. Good luck trying to dislodge them at the polls.

But illiberal democrats all have an Achilles’ heel. The corruption that solidifies their base and provides money for their electioneering coffers is also what might bring them down. It informs the fight going on today in Venezuela. Anti-corruption activists have taken to the streets in Moscow, Bratislava, and Bucharest. Japan’s Shinzo Abe has been hobbled by successive corruption scandals.

Will an anti-corruption revolution usher out the current era of right-wing populism and herald a new stage of democratic politics?

Latin American Mess

At the bottom of the list of 176 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions index are failed or near-failing states: Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia. But at #166, tied with Iraq but below Haiti, Zimbabwe, and Eritrea, is Venezuela. The only other Latin American country that comes close is Nicaragua at #145.

Venezuela should be a wealthy country. As recently as 2008, it enjoyed on paper the highest GDP per capita in all of Latin America. This prosperity has been built on oil, lots of it, and Venezuela is the third largest supplier to the U.S. market. So, why is the country now facing widespread food shortages, skyrocketing inflation, and the largest peacetime contraction of an economy since World War II?

In part, it’s a function of very low oil prices. Also, foreign corporations are steering clear of investing in what by all accounts is a dysfunctional economy. And anyone who can is leaving Venezuela: For the first time Venezuelans now top the list of asylum-seekers in the United States.

But at the heart of the problem is corruption. Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro calls his system of governance “socialist,” and mainstream newspapers dutifully follow suit. But Venezuela is actually a corruptocracy. According to the National Assembly’s Comptroller’s Commission, corrupt officials have looted public institutions to the tune of $70 billion. That includes $11 billion from the lucrative state oil company. Other analysts suggest the figure is much higher — as much as $350 billion diverted from public coffers to private hands.

If anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools, corruption is the socialism of the greedy.

Maduro and his cronies are not just economically greedy. They apparently crave total political control as well. This week, Maduro pushed through a referendum creating a new legislative body composed of nothing but government supporters. Perhaps inspired by Trump’s inclusion of his daughter and son-in-law in the White House, Maduro tapped his wife and son for the new assembly. This super-Congress, which displaces the democratically elected legislature, can change Venezuela’s constitution and send the country in any direction Maduro likes.

Venezuela is the worst-case example of corruption in Latin America. But protesters have taken to the streets to chase one corrupt government after another around the continent. In Brazil in 2016, millions of people demonstrated in 326 cities all over the country against the government of Dilma Rousseff, which was dealing not only with an economic recession but the biggest corruption scandal the country had ever seen. The previous Brazilian president, Lula, was sentenced last month to nearly a decade in prison for similarly corrupt relations with the state oil company. And the current president, Michel Temer, stands accused of accepting $152,000 in bribes (and expecting millions more) for promising to obstruct, you guessed it, a corruption investigation.

In a spillover from the Brazilian corruption probes, all three Peruvian presidents from the last 15 years are now being investigated for graft. Odebrecht, the same Brazilian construction that bribed Brazilian officials, also ensnared Peruvian presidents Alejandro Toledo, Alan Garcia, and Ollanta Humala. It’s not inconceivable that Peru will soon have all their recent former presidents in prison.

In Guatemala, both President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti were ousted from office in 2015 and jailed over corruption charges. Last year, investigations by the country’s attorney general Thelma Aldana revealed an even more disturbing picture of how the state had been captured:

Ms. Aldana said that at least 70 people in the country’s political and business elites have been implicated in money-laundering and bribery schemes that bankrolled Mr. Pérez Molina’s party and his cronies. Investigators are poring through more than two million seized documents as they continue to map out what Ms. Aldana described as a state that had been “co-opted” by crooks.

More disturbing still: It seems that these jailed corruptocrats still wield power over their criminal enterprises from their jail cells.

Major corruption scandals have hit the leaders of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Honduras, Panama, and Mexico. Citizens throughout the continent are beginning to make the connection between corruption and a deterioration in their own standard of living. As Simeon Tegel writes in U.S. News and World Report:

The price is awful public services, from transport and education to law enforcement and health care, as state coffers are ransacked while appointments and contracts are awarded as favors rather than on merit. Corruption also brakes economic growth and fuels poverty, most economists agree.

That in turn could pave the way for authoritarian strongmen as citizens grow frustrated with elected leaders. According to the 2016 regionwide Latinobarómetro study, just 34 percent of Latin Americans are satisfied with democracy.

In their dissatisfaction with democracy, Latin Americans might turn to authoritarian populists. But they would then be embracing an even more toxic version of corruption.

Protesting the Corruptocracy

Globally, the current role model for illiberal democrats is Vladimir Putin.

The Russian president has been in power for an astonishing 17 years. He has rebuilt the Russian economy in ways that benefit himself and his extended entourage. He has partially restored Russia’s geopolitical influence. But he wants more. He aspires to fatally weaken the liberal democratic values that threaten his governance and spark an illiberal revolution that can spread westward through such vehicles as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France.

With his currently high approval ratings, Putin would seem to have a lock on power.

In June, however, thousands took to the streets in Moscow and other Russian cities to decry the extraordinary wealth accumulated by Putin’s corruptocrats. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny released a video detailing the wealth of Dmitri Medvedev, including yachts, a vineyard in Italy, and an 18th-century palace in St. Petersburg. At a time of economic recession, Russians are focusing their ire on Medvedev.

It may only be a matter of time before Putin, too, becomes vulnerable for the wholesale transfer of the state’s resources to his own pockets and those of his cronies. American businessman William Browder, who once made a fortune himself in Russia before running afoul of Putin, estimates that the Russian leader is the richest man on earth, with $200 billion of assets stashed all over the world.

U.S. sanctions threaten Putin’s economic empire — no wonder he’s worked so hard to get them repealed, even to the point of interfering in the U.S. election to produce a more amenable president (or at least, a sufficient degree of political chaos that renders Washington a less powerful geopolitical player).

Anti-corruption is a powerful mobilizing sentiment. It fuses anger over economic inequality, lack of political accountability, and frustration over breaches of the rule of law. It expands street protests beyond a handful of committed activists.

So, for instance, when the Romanian government announced in January that it would suspend ongoing corruption investigations and also decriminalize corrupt practices of less than $48,000, hundreds of thousands of Romanians took the streets in the largest demonstrations since the fall of Communism. They succeeded in forcing the government to reverse itself. It’s no surprise that Romanians have a low tolerance for corruption. They’d already witnessed their former prime minister, Adrian Nastase, jailed for four years for taking bribes. The Romanian protests also inspired Slovaks to do the same thing by massing in the streets and demanding the resignation of long-serving Prime Minister Robert Fico.

The populism that has produced leaders in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Russia, Turkey, and other parts of Eurasia is all about the clientelism. Insurgent populists rail against outsiders buying up domestic factories or controlling the financial sector (a legitimate concern) and argue that the national wealth should be in local hands (a legitimate proposal). What they don’t say is that those “local hands” are in fact their own.

It doesn’t matter whether the new populists engage in privatization or nationalization. They don’t have an economic theory. They only have an economic goal: the collective enrichment of their cadre.

Anti-corruption fights aren’t just about injecting more transparency into the existing system. They’re not just about re-establishing the rule of law. Increasingly, these struggles are about the deeply flawed nature of the current system of political economy.

The pushback against Putin, Erdogan, Abe, Maduro, and yes, even Trump, points toward a new kind of politics and a new kind of economics. Illiberal democrats imagine that they are the most advanced species in the evolution of democratic capitalism.

Anti-corruption campaigns may not only prove them wrong by sending them to jail but lead to new, revolutionary ways of organizing society to divorce, once and for all, wealth and politics.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, August 2, 2017

Articles Eastern Europe Europe Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

Trump: The Anti-Gorbachev

Back in the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev had a magic touch internationally. Traveling outside the Soviet Union, he often received the adulation that was so frequently lacking at home. When Gorbachev visited other Communist countries, crowds would turn out to welcome him as a savior.

He had that effect in Beijing when he visited on May 16, 1989. The protests in Tiananmen Square had started the month before, and the protesters saw in Gorbachev a possible future trajectory for China. According to a contemporary account in The New York Times:

The demonstrations were doubly embarrassing for the Chinese leaders because of the obvious enthusiasm that many of the protesters felt for Mr. Gorbachev. Several had prepared banners in Russian hailing him as a great reformer, and a crowd of workers and bicyclists applauded when he drove past them on his way to the Great Hall of the People.

Even more startling was his appearance at East Germany’s celebrations of its 40th anniversary on October 7, 1989. As he passed along Unter den Linden, crowds on either side of East Berlin’s famous boulevard cried out, “Gorby, help us.” Two days later, 70,000 people showed up to demonstrate, non-violently, in Leipzig. The East German regime, as Gorbachev had warned, was living on borrowed time. The Berlin Wall would fall a mere one month later.

Gorbachev made other important visits — Czechoslovakia in April 1987, Romania in May 1987, Cuba in April 1989 — that contributed to a wave of transformation that took place in East-Central Europe (though not China or Cuba). Of course, Gorbachev failed to transform the Soviet Union as he’d hoped and ended up destroying the very structure he wanted to rehabilitate. Still, he’ll be remembered for his contributions to ending the Cold War and bringing hope to many throughout the Communist world.

Now along comes Donald Trump, the head of another putative superpower desperately in need of internal reform. Trump has promised his own form of perestroika in the form of his attacks on the “administrative state.” He offers his own form of glasnost with his obsessive tweeting. Trumpeting a xenophobic foreign policy, he’s also vowed to thoroughly transform the bloc that he nominally leads.

And when Trump goes abroad, he has his own transformative effect. But while Gorbachev promoted democratization in his wake, Trump promotes exactly the opposite.

The Trump Touch

Donald Trump is the Tinkerbell of tyranny. He sprinkles pixie dust on autocracies to make them more so and on democracies so that they move ever closer to dictatorship.

Trump’s touch was on full view in Saudi Arabia during his first overseas stop as president of the free world. It was an odd choice of destinations, since Saudi Arabia is one of the key leaders of the unfree world.

But Saudi Arabia is Trump’s kind of place, where oil is king, women are submissive, no one protests on the street, and the ruling clique does pretty much whatever it wants to do. Trump seemed fully at home in this feudal kingdom, and he had nothing but praise for his hosts. While there, he also met with other autocrats of the Gulf, such as those ruling Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Not long after he left, Bahrain decided that Trump had effectively given the country a green light to crack down on its opposition. A mere two days after meeting Trump in Riyadh, where the president assured King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa that his administration wouldn’t complicate bilateral relations with anything so trivial as human rights considerations, the Bahraini government used force to disband a nonviolent sit-in in support of the country’s most prominent Shiite leader. Five protesters died, and the authorities arrested hundreds. Then, the government shut down al-Wasat, the most prominent independent newspaper, and the Trump administration uttered not a peep of protest.

Saudi Arabia, having extracted a promise of even more U.S. military assistance with which to prosecute its war in Yemen, decided to see how far it could go to leverage its new relationship with the Trump administration. Together with the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, it moved against Qatar, a Gulf outlier for its relatively cordial relations with Iran and its relative tolerance for independent journalism in the form of Al Jazeera. This time, the Trump administration was divided, with Trump himself seeming to side with Riyadh while the State Department and the Pentagon stuck up for Doha, a key ally on military matters in the region.

The latest place to experience this Trump effect is Poland. Since Poland is a democracy, at least for the time being, the people fought back and produced an unexpected result.

The Putative Polish Putsch

Trump’s decision to visit to Poland just before the G20 summit was just as pointed as his choice of Saudi Arabia as a first overseas stop. The Polish government that took over 2015, led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), has taken just the kind of stances that Trump loves: against immigration, against a free press, against the rule of law.

Poland was the perfect place for Trump to hammer home his veiled white supremacist message. Peter Beinart, in The Atlanticcontrasts Trump’s speech in Warsaw to George W. Bush speech there in 2003:

In his 2003 speech, Bush referred to democracy 13 times. Trump mentioned it once. And for good reason. Ideologically, what links the current American and Polish governments is not their commitment to democracy — both are increasingly authoritarian. It is their hostility to Muslim immigration. The European Union is suing Poland’s government for refusing to accept refugees. Among Trump’s biggest applause lines in Warsaw was, “While we will always welcome new citizens who share our values and love our people, our borders will always be closed to terrorism and extremism of any kind.” Given that Trump had linked “our values” to America and Poland’s “tradition,” “faith,” “culture,” and “identity,” it wasn’t hard to imagine whom that leaves out.

Equally important, at least for the PiS audience, was the benediction Trump gave to Poland’s leadership. Poland, Trump said, is “an example for others who seek freedom.”

Shortly after the visit, the Polish ruling party decided to remind the world of precisely what that example represents. It attempted to ram through several laws that would have severely hobbled rule of law in the country. One would have allowed the government to fire all Supreme Court justices and appoint its own replacements; a second would have given parliament, controlled by PiS, the authority to appoint members of the National Council of the Judiciary, a body designed to preserve the independence of the judiciary.

Building on earlier moves to eliminate any pesky judicial constraints on its authority, which prompted an EU “probe” into Polish actions, PiS was following a game plan devised by Viktor Orban and Fidesz in Hungary: to clear away all constitutional barriers to creating an illiberal democracy.

The surprise came when Polish President Andrzej Duda vetoed the two bills. A former PiS stalwart — he had to resign from the party when he became president — Duda was responding to an EU threat to suspend Poland’s voting rights as well as the enormous wave of protests that had washed over the country. Hundreds of thousands of Poles took to the streets in Warsaw, and many veterans of the Solidarity era, including Lech Walesa himself, spoke out vehemently against the government.

PiS was furious at this apostasy. It put enormous counter-pressure on Duda to force him to sign the third bill in the package, which gives the justice minister the power to appoint the heads of all lower courts.

The EU is nevertheless following through on its threat to begin proceedings against Poland, beginning with a legal suit filed by the European Commission against the country for breaking rules on judicial independence and sizeable fines from the European Court of Justice.

In Poland, Donald Trump sees a future trajectory for his own administration. He hasn’t yet attempted to change the laws regulating the courts because he’s been too busy packing them with right-wing ideologues, starting with Neil Gorsuch at the Supreme Court and including 27 lower-court judges (three times what Obama nominated over the same period). Trump has been woefully slow in filling administration positions, particularly at State, but he’s moved at lightning speed to transform the judiciary.

More generally, Trump’s trips to Saudi Arabia and Poland are part of a new geopolitical realignment that advisers like Steve Bannon are pushing. Forget NATO. Forget the Community of Democracies. Donald Trump wants nothing less than a worldwide suppression of liberal values such as rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, and an independent press.

Gorbachev presided over the end of a geopolitical system — the Cold War. Popular protest — in East-Central Europe and in the Soviet Union itself — led to the unraveling of Soviet-bloc Communism as well. Trump may inadvertently preside over the end of U.S. hegemony, as both Europe and Asia chart more independent paths.

Let’s hope that popular resistance destroys his Trumpian perestroika as well, before it gets any further off the ground.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, July 26, 2017

Articles Eastern Europe Europe Featured

How to Reinvent the European Left

The last thing Europe needs right now is advice from Americans, particularly American progressives.

After all, we failed to prevent Donald Trump and his cronies from seizing the White House or the far-right wing of the Republican Party from taking over Congress. Before that, we were unable to push President Obama to the left on critical domestic issues like health care or to dismantle the worst features of the U.S. war economy.

Still, an outside perspective can sometimes be useful. And I write this letter not only out of great concern but out of an even greater affection.

The European left has been one of the most powerful and successful progressive movements in history. It was the motive force behind European integration, which brought peace and prosperity to a war-torn continent. It entrenched social welfare policies so thoroughly that even conservative political parties — like Germany’s Christian Democrats — have accepted the basic tenets. It promoted cultural policies that have made Europe one of the most tolerant places on Earth.

All of that is now at risk because of a pincer attack by right-wing populism and neo-liberal globalism. And the European left is at perhaps its weakest position since the end of World War II.

Consider the recent presidential election in France.

The French have turned back the National Front’s Marine Le Pen — vive la France! But it wasn’t a victory for the left, which failed to pull together before the election or convince enough voters to advance a leftist into the second round.

The incumbent Socialist Party attracted only 6 percent in the first round of voting. Progressive candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who abandoned the Socialist Party, pulled in a more respectable 20 percent — but then refused to back centrist Emmanuel Macron in the run-off. As many as one-fifth of Melenchon’s supporters were prepared to vote for Le Pen, while nearly one-third were so disgusted with the choice in the second round that they preferred not to vote at all.

The center and the far right have lured away the base of the French left. Macron and his new centrism have captured the pro-European, multicultural, and youth vote. Le Pen, meanwhile, has made inroads with the economic left with her unabashedly anti-globalization, pro-working class program. What’s left for the French left is nostalgia and, in the case of Melenchon, a ridiculous foreign policy that embraces authoritarians of the right (Vladimir Putin of Russia) and left (Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela).

It’s not just France. The Labor Party in the UK is poised for a historic rout in the upcoming elections. Spain, Denmark, Poland, and Hungary are all in the hands of conservative parties. Right-wing populism, which received a shot in the arm by the Brexit vote, has laid siege to the European Union. The far right has made strong bids for power recently in Austria and the Netherlands. In the battle between the left’s internationalism and the far right’s xenophobia, the latter seems to be getting the upper hand.

The European left is in need of reinvention. Here’s a few unsolicited recommendations.

A Four-Point Plan

  1. Support the European Union — a reformed European Union.

The UK Labor Party made an enormous mistake by not coming out strongly against the Brexit vote. Some MPs worked tirelessly against Brexit (and one, Jo Cox, was even assassinated for her beliefs). But the Labor Party leadership, and Jeremy Corbyn in particular, didn’t do enough to present a unified party message or rally the base to keep Britain in the EU. It will now suffer the political consequences of its decision in the upcoming British elections.

There are good reasons to be disenchanted with the EU. It’s not a particularly democratic institution. It has supported economic policies that result in greater inequality — both within and between member countries.

But, as I’ve written elsewhere, “reasons for disenchantment are not the same as reasons for disengagement. After all, the EU remains a far greener and more equitable economic space than the United States. Brexit is a wake-up call for proponents of European integration to transform the EU into a more perfect union: by making its political structures more accountable and its economic benefits more evenly distributed.”

This should be the program of the left: a new Europe.

  1. Champion a new progressive economic platform.

Melenchon attracted a good number of supporters with his Keynesian proposals to inject 100 billion euros into the French economy, impose higher taxes on the rich, and increase social welfare programs. It was a bold, but expensive program.

Melenchon gestured in the direction of sustainability, but the left has to put environmentalism at the very center of a new economic policy. The most feasible method of challenging the global economic order — with its gross inequalities, its structural corruption, its utter callousness — is with the lever of climate change. This is the threat that the left can use not just to rein in the worst excesses of neoliberalism but to restructure the global economy.

At the same time, voters are disgusted with entrenched bureaucracies — and that applies to old-style unions and the civil service as well. Young people throughout Europe can’t get jobs because of these fossilized bureaucracies. The European left has to embrace innovation and not just redistribution. The flexisecurity model developed by Denmark in the 1990s — which focuses on training workers for new jobs rather than trying to preserve old unproductive jobs, all within a strong social welfare state — was one such innovation.

  1. Reject Putinism.

It was startling in the French elections that the only candidates to reject Vladimir Putin were Emmanuel Macron and the Socialist Party’s Benoit Hamon.

Marine Le Pen argued that France should adopt Putin’s economic model (presumably with French oligarchs, an exclusive reliance on energy industries, and widespread corruption). But since Putin is a far-right-wing leader, it at least made sense for Le Pen to voice her support. Also understandable were the warm feelings toward Putin of Francois Fillon, the somewhat more traditional conservative candidate.

Less comprehensible was the position of Melenchon, a critical thinker who had nothing critical to say about Putin’s domestic policies of silencing critics or foreign policies of seizing territory, backing dictators, and hacking into elections in other countries.

Of course, the European left must reject a revived Cold War with Russia. And there are plenty of opportunities to work with Moscow on common interests. But Vladimir Putin and his determined covert operation to undermine the EU and boost far-right political leaders in Europe are a significant threat to the European left (and the European project overall).

  1. Go local, go international.

The left has always been internationalist in perspective. It should continue this tradition by supporting European integration, international efforts to combat climate change, and compassionate policies toward refugees.

But the left, and the European left in particular, must address the local, particular concerns of people throughout the continent. According to 2005 data, only 22 percent of Europeans have moved outside their region or country — compared to 32 percent of Americans who moved outside the state where they were born. A lot of people in Europe, in other words, are not mobile. They have a strong sense of place. The contemporary left has generally been very sensitive to indigenous cultures. Sometimes, however, that principle hasn’t extended to cultures closer to home.

There needs to be a political movement that combines this internationalist perspective with a genuine sensitivity to the local that goes beyond a merely rhetorical adherence to what the EU calls “unity in diversity.”

Upcoming Challenge

The next test for the European left will be the German elections in September. The Social Democratic Party, after nominating Martin Schulz as party head to go up against Angela Merkel, was until recently closing the gap with the Christian Democrats. Then it lost two regional contests in a row. Still, it has a good shot at winning the third, in the most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Mainstream pundits argue that the SPD’s focus on economic inequality isn’t reaching voters more concerned about security, crime, and refugees. In the egalitarian Germany of the past, when it had at one point the lowest income inequality in the world, the SPD’s message might not have resonated. But that Germany no longer exists.

According to a report last year from a German bank,

Whereas in 2000 the top 20 percent of earners were taking in 3.5 times the amount of those in the bottom 20 percent, that ratio has now increased to five times.

Earnings in the bottom ten percent of German society actually decreased significantly in real terms across this period, with an increase in earnings of 6 percent clearly being outpaced by a 24 percent rise in consumer prices.

In contrast the top of German society saw earnings increases of 39 percent.

So, the SPD’s inequality platform, unfortunately, should indeed rally voters.

Neither Putin nor the EU, however, will be much of an issue in the German election: Both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats are wary of the former and enthusiastic about the latter. Given its recent two losses in regional elections, the SPD could probably fine-tune its sensitivity to local issues.

But the key issue for the German left — as with the European left — is to present something new to voters, something authentic, something that goes beyond an unjust status quo. The takeaway from the French elections is that the French want to upend politics as usual. If the left doesn’t come up with an unusual politics of its own, it will be upended as well.

Foreign Policy In Focus, May 10, 2017

Articles Eastern Europe Europe Featured

Brexit Is a Wake-Up Call for Europe

The European Union is a historic compromise that’s gradually gotten stronger over its half-century existence.

Until 2016. That’s when British citizens, by a very narrow margin, voted to leave the European Union.

It’s hard to come up with Brexit’s price tag for the British. The administrative costs alone of the separation will be about $60 billion. But that’s nothing compared to the longer-term effect.

Much depends on the terms of the divorce.

A “hard exit” that doesn’t preserve U.K. access to Europe’s single market would mean the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs as European businesses and financial institutions relocate to the continent. Also at risk is all the outside investment that’s flowed to the U.K. because of its connection to the European Union. U.S. business alone brought in $600 billion in 2015.

A “soft exit,” meanwhile, may preserve privileged access to the EU market, but only if the U.K. permits the free movement of people — exactly what motivated many British to push the reject button in the first place. Even this compromise may not save the British economy from weaker growth, higher unemployment and more debt.

Brexit might also cost Britain its very unity. Scotland, which overwhelmingly backed continued EU membership, has already indicated that it will push for another referendum on independence from the U.K.

In this lose-lose proposition, however, the EU might suffer the greater consequences.

With Brexit, the EU loses its largest military spender, one of its two U.N. Security Council seats, and its second most powerful IMF vote. The EU budget will also get hit hard since the U.K., as the second largest economy in the body, is also the second largest contributor: about $13 billion a year.

More important, the EU loses its reputation for inevitability. European integration has meant peace, prosperity and stability for the continent ever since the carnage of World War II. Indeed, after centuries of internecine slaughter in Europe, no wars have broken out among member states in the last 70 years. And the EU, collectively, is quite nearly the top economic performer in the world.

The prospect of eventual EU membership has even helped to repair the links among the warring parts of what had once been Yugoslavia. Former members of the Soviet Union have joined the EU, while other parts (like Ukraine and Moldova) dream of one day joining with their western cousins.

Not everyone, however, values the EU.

Brexit has encouraged far right-wing, anti-immigrant, and Islamophobic groups such as the National Front in France and the Freedom Party in The Netherlands to pursue their own anti-EU agendas. Both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have supported these Euroskeptics for their own narrow, nationalist purposes as well.

Let’s be honest: There are good reasons for the British, or anyone else in Europe, to be disenchanted with the EU. It’s not a particularly democratic institution. A cadre of officials in Brussels make most of the important decisions, and the European Parliament doesn’t have sufficient authority to serve as a popular check on that power.

On the economic side, the EU has gradually moved away from its social democratic origins to remove barriers to the flow of capital. The rules for Eurozone members make it very difficult for national governments to use traditional levers such as deficit spending to overcome economic crises.

Moreover, instead of helping poorer member states attain the level of their richer cousins as it once did, the EU has watched countries like Greece and Spain fall further behind, while Eastern European members have failed to close the gap with the West after more than a quarter century.

But reasons for disenchantment are not the same as reasons for disengagement. After all, the EU remains a far greener and more equitable economic space than the United States. Brexit is a wake-up call for proponents of European integration to transform the EU into a more perfect union: by making its political structures more accountable and its economic benefits more evenly distributed.

The U.K. could have been part of this solution by advocating for such reforms. Instead, it’s part of the problem. Let’s hope that the EU can get its act together before it suffers another defection. The continent’s peaceful and prosperous future depends on it.

USA Today, April 19, 2017

Books Eastern Europe Featured Fiction



Part Field Notes from a Catastrophe, part 1984, part World War Z, John Feffer’s striking new dystopian novel, takes us deep into the battered, shattered world of 2050. The European Union has broken apart. Multiethnic great powers like Russia and China have shriveled. America’s global military footprint has virtually disappeared and the United States remains united in name only. Nationalism has proven the century’s most enduring force as ever-rising global temperatures have supercharged each-against-all competition and conflict among the now 300-plus members of an increasingly feeble United Nations.

As he navigates the world of 2050, Julian West offers a roadmap for the path we’re already on, a chronicle of impending disaster, and a faint light of hope. He may be humanity’s last best chance to explain how the world unraveled—if he can survive the savage beauty of the Splinterlands.

Publication Date: December 6, 2016; order here.

Related Articles

From Here to Dystopia, Foreign Policy In Focus,

Excerpt — AlterNet, December 7, 2016

How Donald Trump Changed Everything, 2016-2050 — TomDispatch, December 6, 2016

Splinterlands: The View from 2050 — TomDispatch, November 10, 2015


KGNU, December 27, 2016

Catskill Review of Books, December 23, 2016

C-Realm, December 21, 2016

Event Videos

At the New School on February 16 with Elzbieta Matynia, Jeffrey Goldfarb, and Bill Hartung




“In a chilling, thoughtful, and intuitive warning, foreign policy analyst Feffer (Crusade 2.0) takes today’s woes of a politically fragmented, warming Earth and amplifies them into future catastrophe. Looking back from his hospital bed in 2050, octogenarian geo-paleontologist Julian West contemplates his fractured world and estranged family. West is writing the follow-up to his bestselling 2020 monograph, Splinterlands, in which he analyzes the disintegrated international community. By 2050, the refugee-saturated European Union has collapsed; the countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China have splintered; and Washington, D.C., is gone, destroyed by Hurricane Donald in 2022. There are water wars, imitation foods made from seaweed, inequality, disease, and sleeper terrorists. On a virtual reality trip to make amends, West visits his children—professor Aurora in a deteriorating Brussels rampant with kidnappings; wealthy opportunist Gordon in Xinjiang, no longer part of China; and freedom fighter Benjamin in prosperous Botswana. His ex-wife, Rachel, lives in a commune in a snowless Vermont, now a farming paradise. Lending credibility to his predictions, Feffer includes footnotes from West’s editor written around 2058. This novel is not for the emotionally squeamish or optimistic; Feffer’s confident recitation of world collapse is terrifyingly plausible, a short but encompassing look at world tragedy. ”
Publisher Weekly, Starred Review


“Feffer’s book is a wild ride through a bleak future, casting a harsh, thought-provoking light on that future’s modern-day roots.”
Foreword Reviews

Splinterlands is a compelling account of what may happen to our world if there is no common future.  At 150 pages, the novel is short and readable. I think it would be an excellent supplemental text for both introductory and advanced courses in International Relations, which can provoke discussion, thought and no doubt consternation in students about the world that they are about to inherit.”
E-International Relations Review

“Splinterlands is a timely and chilling dystopian novel.”
Washington City Paper


“Readers who enjoy dystopian stories that hold more than a light look at political structures and their downfall will more than appreciate the in-depth approach John Feffer takes in his novel.”
–Midwest Book Review


“John Feffer is our 21st-century Jack London, and, like the latter’s Iron Heel, Splinterlands is a vivid, suspenseful warning about the ultimate incompatibility between capitalism and human survival.”
–Mike Davis


“Splinterlands paints a startling portrait of a post-apocalyptic tomorrow that is fast becoming a reality today. Fast-paced, yet strangely haunting, Feffer’s latest novel looks back from 2050 on the disintegration of world order told through the story of one broken family– and offers a disturbing vision of what might await us all if we don’t act quickly.”
—Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickle and Dimed and Living with a Wild God, and founder of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project“A chilling portrayal of where the politics of division could take us. Now I only hope he writes the sequel to tell us how to avoid it!”
—Naomi Oreskes, co-author of The Collapse of Western Civilization

Articles Eastern Europe Featured US Domestic Policy

Goodbye, Clinton!

Two days before the November elections, Elizabeth Moreno was driving to the Democratic Party headquarters in Manassas to pick up a list of addresses. She was planning to spend another day of canvassing to get out the vote for her candidate Hillary Clinton. Elizabeth had taken off a full week from her job at one of Washington’s premier foreign policy thinktanks to devote herself to electing the first woman president. She was only two years younger than Hillary Clinton, but she considered the former secretary of state her mentor. Elizabeth Moreno would do anything to get her elected.

Two blocks from Party headquarters, as she was gliding through an intersection, Elizabeth took her eyes off the road to glance at an incoming text on her phone resting in the cup holder. It was the latest polling data giving Clinton a 75 percent chance of winning the election. Just as she was digesting the good news, a jogger wearing headphones crossed against the light in front of her. Elizabeth, her eyes darting back to the road, turned the steering wheel hard to the right even as she was stepping down on the brake. The car skidded and slammed into a concrete divider.

Four months later, Elizabeth Moreno opened her eyes.

In her hospital room, four people were watching her intently. Her son Alex stood at the foot of the bed, gripping the metal railing. By her side sat her daughter Maggie holding her hand. A nurse was monitoring the vital signs. A doctor stood back a few steps, arms folded above her stethoscope.

“Mom?” Maggie asked as she watched her mother’s fluttering eyelids. “Can you hear me, Mom?”

“She’s going to be confused,” the doctor warned in a whisper. “She might not recognize you.”

“But this is good, right?” Alex appealed to the doctor. “She’s can’t slip back into a coma, can she?”

“Mom, it’s Maggie. Your daughter.”

Elizabeth Moreno’s eyes focused on her daughter. She licked her lips, and the nurse leaned over to offer a small chip of ice.

“We don’t want to put any stress on her right now,” the doctor added.

“We’re right here, Mom,” Alex said, raising his voice. “You’re going to be okay.”

Elizabeth Moreno sucked on the ice. She blinked several times.

“It’s important that we don’t do or say anything that could upset her,” the doctor was saying in a low voice. She hadn’t initially thought that Elizabeth Moreno would survive the head trauma and the heart attack, not at her age, so she’d been only cautiously optimistic with the children.

Elizabeth focused on her son at the foot of the bed. The she turned her head slightly to address her daughter.

“Hillary,” she said.

“No, Mom, it’s Maggie. Your daughter, Maggie.”

“As I said,” Dr. Kim began.

“Hillary,” Elizabeth said again. She raised her head slightly from the pillow. “The election.”

Maggie looked at her brother. Alex looked at the doctor. The doctor looked at the nurse. The nurse looked away.

“Is the election…over?” Elizabeth said. “Did Hillary win?”

“We can talk about that later,” Maggie said.

Alex tightened his grip on the smooth metal frame of the bed. “Of course, Mom,” he said. “Of course, Hillary won.”

Maggie turned her head sharply toward her brother, a look of horror on her face. But Alex was focused on his mother. “You did good, Mom,” he said and he watched with relief as his mother relaxed back into her pillow and closed her eyes.

Scene Two: In the Cafeteria

“Are you out of your mind?” Maggie asked her brother. They were sharing a cup of coffee and a packaged crumb cake.

“You heard what the doctor said.”

“You lied to her!”

“Didn’t you see that German movie? What was it called…Good Bye, Lenin, I think. The mother goes into a coma before the fall of the Berlin Wall and wakes up afterwards. Same situation. Doctor says the kids musn’t do or say anything to shock her. The mother’s a true believer in Communism, so her kids have to pretend that East Germany still exists. They have to find all the old food she liked. Dig up some old newspapers. I figure that it’ll be easier for us. All we have to do is pretend that Hillary won.”

“And how are we going to do that? Bring Mom to a silent retreat center in Antarctica? Transfer her to a bunker somewhere and give her nothing but the boxed set of Mad Men to watch?”

“Look, it was the first thing that came out of my mouth,” he said. “I haven’t really though about next steps. Beyond removing the television from her room.”

“Easy enough for you,” Maggie said. “You’ll go back to Colorado and I’ll be the one who has to tell her the truth.”

Alex patted her arm. “Mom’s a pretty no-nonsense gal. She’s the one who told us that Santa Claus didn’t exist. Dad couldn’t bear the thought of destroying our illusions.”

“Yeah, but we weren’t at risk of having a heart attack when we learned that it was Dad who put the presents under the tree.”

“I’ll stick around for another week. I also know a guy who can get us a lot of that Clinton inaugural swag for next to nothing. We can decorate the apartment.”

“What about her friends? What about the newspaper? What about the Internet?”

“It’s not forever,” Alex said. “Just until she can sustain a shock like that.”

“I’m not sure I’ve handled the shock yet,” Maggie said, ruefully. “And I wasn’t in a coma.”

Scene Three: Back Home

“Look at all those women,” Elizabeth Moreno said, gazing at the photograph on Maggie’s iPad. “I wish I could have been there.”

They were sitting together in the living room, Maggie and Alex on either side of their mother’s wheelchair, looking at a selection of carefully cropped photographs of what they told her was the inauguration.

“It felt very empowering,” Maggie said. Here, at least, she was telling the truth. The gathering of a million women in Washington DC on the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration had felt empowering. Just not empowering enough.

Elizabeth raised her head to look at the Clinton mug on the coffee table, the Clinton/Kaine Mylar balloon tied to the standing lamp, the President Clinton bobblehead on the mantle above the fireplace. She felt good about contributing to a great step forward for women, for the United States, for humanity. But she also felt disoriented. Entering the last days of the election campaign in 2016, Elizabeth had been an energetic 68-year-old who continued to put in 10-hour workdays and play golf on the weekends. She’d lost more than just weight and muscle tone during her coma. Everything that had previously seemed so clear now felt imprecise, fuzzy. Catching a glimpse of herself in the bathroom mirror that morning, she was practically unrecognizable, someone who had aged ten years in the space of a few months.

“I wish I could at least watch television,” she said in what had become the new normal: the slow, quavery voice that had replaced her confident baritone.

“Not until the ophthalmologist gives the okay,” Alex said. “You don’t like hearing us read the newspaper to you every morning?”

Elizabeth had come home from the hospital three days before. For the first couple days, it had not been difficult to put off discussions of politics until Elizabeth was “more robust.” That morning, however, she’d woken up with something resembling her old energy. She wasn’t satisfied with the expurgated version of the news that her children read to her – “Dow surges to new high” or “Firemen rescue cat from mountain lion.” Alex had come up with the idea of showing her pictures of the “inauguration.”

But now their mother had foreign policy questions, particularly about the Middle East, her specialty. The family had spent four years in Cairo during Elizabeth’s Foreign Service posting in Egypt. Alex and Maggie, both in elementary school, had picked up Arabic, and their father, as they only learned much later after the divorce, had picked up his first mistress. It was yet another reason why Elizabeth felt an affinity for Hillary Clinton.

By pre-arranged plan, since she was a journalist on the State Department beat, Maggie fielded all the diplomatic questions. Alex, a financial planner living in Boulder, would handle economics.

“Has she followed up on the Arab-Israeli peace talks?” Elizabeth asked.

“The United States stood aside in the Security Council when it voted to condemn Israel’s settlement policy,” Maggie said. “Israel was very unhappy.” What she didn’t say was that President Trump’s rejection of a two-state solution, his appointment of a lunatic ambassador, and his decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem amounted to thwacking the hornet’s nest of the Middle East with a big stick. Maggie knew that information about the current state of affairs between Israel and the Arab world would administer an even greater shock to her mother’s system than even Trump’s victory.

“Finally, someone with the balls to stand up to Netanyahu,” Elizabeth said. “Now, what about Syria?”

“A fragile ceasefire is holding,” Maggie said, feeling like a White House spokesperson. Best not to tell her mother how a trio of autocrats – Assad, Putin, and Erdogan – was turning Syria into a wasteland with the blessing of the White House.

“Oh, that’s good,” Elizabeth said. “Is she holding her own with Russia and China?”

“She has pushed back against the neocons who supported her during the campaign,” Maggie said, indulging in a bit of wishful thinking. “Your know our Hillary: Ms. Smart Power.”

Certainly she wasn’t going to tell her mother that tensions were building with China over a number of slights and that Trump was burning bridges with Europe over his bromance with Putin. It was so bad that one prominent foreign policy pundit had joked about asking doctors to put him in an induced coma for the next four years. Would her mother regret waking up when she learned the truth?

Elizabeth smiled. “Tomorrow, let’s set up the computer with that voice-activated program. I’d like to hear my emails.”

Alex and Maggie exchanged glances.

“Actually, Mom,” Alex said, “we’ve arranged tomorrow to go out to that Korean spa you love so much. Doctor’s orders!”

In the kitchen, Maggie said to her brother, “Korean spa? Where did that come from?”

“We’ve got to keep her away from the computer.”

“What if she talks to someone? Or sees the TV?”

“We’ll ‘forget’ to bring her glasses. And there’s not going to be anyone there who speaks English.”

“But why the spa of all places?”

Alex grimaced. “Because I need some serious R and R after this charade.”

Scene Four: At the Spa

On the car trip from Elizabeth’s apartment in Dupont Circle to the spa in Virginia, Maggie scrutinized the landscape that streamed by her window. She was the designated spotter. If she saw any sign of Trump’s presidency – a billboard, a poster – she was to engage her mother’s attention before she could see the telltale evidence. They’d failed to prevent her from bringing along her glasses. Their mother was determined to begin her reintegration into society as soon as possible.

Yet there were no external indications of who’d won the November election. Maggie had noticed the opening of a couple new steakhouses, and the Trump hotel downtown was doing brisk business. His appointees had bought up the most expensive houses on the market. But unless you were working in the policy world, you could easily ignore what the new administration was doing. Covering the State Department, however, Maggie had a front-row seat to watch the growing centralization of power, the incompetence of the new appointees, the coarsening of language inside the Beltway. She’d already put in for a transfer to a different beat.

“I don’t know what I expected,” Elizabeth said, staring intently out her passenger side window. “People are just going about their business as if we didn’t just change the course of history.”

At the spa, Alex went directly to the whirlpool while Maggie accompanied her mother to her body scrub appointment. They’d spoken with the management of the spa to ensure that the personnel working with their mother were not fluent in English. At first Maggie had been worried when her mother started asking the Korean woman wielding the loofah about President Hillary Clinton. Middle-aged and powerfully built, the woman just smiled and went about her work rubbing away Elizabeth’s dead skin. After a while Maggie relaxed, and her mother fell asleep.

They met up for lunch in the common room, three big bowls of bibimbap with little plates of Korean pickles. They chose a table far from the TV sets and positioned their mother’s wheelchair so that she faced a wall that had nothing but scrolls of calligraphy.

“I had a great workout,” Alex said, digging into his bowl of rice and vegetables. “How was your body scrub?”

Maggie looked over her mother’s shoulder at a distant TV showing Donald Trump’s face. It was everywhere. How could they hope to protect their mother from it?

“Oh, it was fine,” Elizabeth said. “But I just don’t understand why people are not more excited about Hillary.”

At the aromatherapy appointment after lunch, Maggie was horrified to see that masseuse was not Korean.

“Tatiana,” the statuesque blonde introduced herself. She had a slight Russian accent. “Mrs. Kim had a family emergency.”

Maggie was about to cancel the appointment when her mother stopped her. “I’m sure I’ll be in good hands,” Elizabeth said.

And for the first 15 minutes, Maggie was relieved to see that Tatiana kept her interactions with her mother to a professional minimum. The masseuse was rubbing a mix of essential oils – lavender, peppermint – gently into her mother’s muscles. Elizabeth’s eyes were closed.

Then, without opening her eyes, Elizabeth asked, “How do you feel about President Clinton?”

Before Maggie could react, Tatiana said, “I was not in this country when he was president.”

Elizabeth laughed. “Oh, no, I mean Hillary Clinton.”

Maggie interrupted in a panic, “Mom, don’t put Tatiana on the spot.”

“Why not? I’m sure she has an opinion of the first woman president of the United States.”

Maggie tried to catch Tatiana’s eye, but the masseuse was focused on her work. She didn’t say anything for a long time, and Maggie concluded that she wasn’t going to reply. Then Tatiana stood up straight and wiped her hands on a cloth looped around her belt.

“She did the best she could,” the masseuse said. She took out another vial of essential oil and prepared to go back to work.

That was the end of Elizabeth’s questions, and Maggie was happy that the rest of the session passed in silence.

Later, as they were driving out of the parking lot, Alex asked, “You okay, Mom?”

“Thank you for taking me to the spa.”

“We could get a pizza on the way and bring it home for dinner,” Maggie suggested.

“If you like.”

They rode in silence for a few miles.

Then, Elizabeth said in a small voice, “You lied to me.”

“What are you talking about, Mom?” Alex said, hands tightening on the steering wheel.

“Don’t lie to me, Alex,” Elizabeth said softly. “You either, Maggie. I expect better from you both.”

Neither of them replied. The silence hung heavy in the car.

“I was in a coma for four years,” Elizabeth said. “Not four months.”

“What?!” Maggie blurted.

“The Russian woman. She said that Hillary did the best she could. I must have missed the whole Hillary Clinton administration!”

“Mom, wait, we wouldn’t….” Alex began. Without taking his eyes off the road, he dug his phone out of his pocket and passed it to her. “Look at the date. It’s still 2017.”

Elizabeth stared at the phone for a long time. Then she let her hand fall to her lap.

“Your email,” she said.

“What about my email?” Alex asked.

“There were several messages about President Trump.” Elizabeth made a small choking sound. “She lost.”

“Oh, God,” Maggie said.

Alex pulled off the road and into the parking lot of a bank. They all sat quietly.

“That German movie,” Elizabeth said.

“You saw it?” Maggie asked.

“This is different,” her mother said, wiping her eyes with a Kleenex. “This isn’t about getting used to an irreversible reality, like the collapse of East Germany.”

“Yes, but – “ Alex began.

“You want me to get stronger, don’t you? You want me to get my fighting spirit back, right?”

Her children nodded.

“Then we can’t stick our heads in the sand and pretend that we didn’t just elect the worst candidate in the history of this country.”

“We were just doing what we thought was best for you,” Maggie said.

Elizabeth took a deep breath. Her heart seemed to beat as before. She was feeling more clearheaded than she had in days. “I have a lot of catching up to do.”

“But the doctor – “ Alex began.

“Doctors are as bad as pollsters. I don’t intend to listen to either of them ever again. Let’s get that pizza and go home. We have a lot of work to do.”

Elizabeth sank back into her seat.

“Goodbye Clinton,” she whispered to herself.

Foreign Policy In Focus, January 4, 2017

Articles Eastern Europe Europe Featured

What Europe Can Teach Us About Trump

Donald Trump might seem like a uniquely American phenomenon. The shape-shifting billionaire huckster reinvented himself first as a TV personality and then as a maverick populist politician. He rode to power on patriotic slogans – Make America Great Again – and tailored his policy prescriptions to specific American constituencies like West Virginia coal miners and Michigan factory workers. He spoke to very particular American anxieties about immigration, crime, and guns. You can find traces of Trump in American history (Andrew Jackson, Huey Long) and American literature (Elmer Gantry, Lonesome Rhodes).

Donald Trump practically screams America.

And yet, Trump is nothing new. Europeans have been dealing with their own mini-Trumps for decades. Silvio Berlusconi also began his career in real estate before becoming a billionaire media mogul. A womanizer and right-wing populist who promised to create a million jobs, Berlusconi led his Forza Italia party to victory more than 20 years ago in 1994. He would eventually serve as prime minister in four governments. He didn’t follow through on his promise to create a million jobs. In fact, the Italian economy sank deeper into debt and corruption, and Berlusconi became mired in a succession of scandals.

Silvio Berlusconi was, as The Economist put it indelicately, “the man who screwed an entire country.” Those are big shoes for Trump to fill.

Further east in Europe, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia have all produced their own mini-Trumps over the years. As America braces itself for the landfall of Hurricane Trump, it’s instructive to look at the trajectory of these populist leaders for they hold clues to our future.

Hungary: Political Swingers

Viktor Orban started out his political life as a liberal. He helped found the Alliance of Young Democrats – Fidesz – in Budapest in 1988. As Communism began to crumble in Hungary in 1989, the new movement promised to be “radical, liberal, and alternative.” Fidesz introduced a playful note into the 1990 election. One particularly striking, if heteronormative, campaign poster from that year showed two pictures of a kiss: between two Communist dinosaurs, Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker, and between two young, attractive Hungarians. “Make your choice,” read the inscription. Fidesz captured nearly 9 percent of the vote that year.

Today, Fidesz is no longer liberal or alternative. It’s no longer the party of young people. And it is far from irreverent. After a steady march to the Right, led by current Prime Minister Viktor Orban, it has become the party of orthodoxy.

“It was completely unexpected what happened in Hungary, where an already consolidated liberal democracy went backwards toward an autocratic or hybrid regime,” says Hungarian sociologist Andras Bozoki. “It never before happened in the EU that a country suddenly made a U-turn back from democracy toward some kind of half-democracy. When Austrians elected the Haider party, there was a huge protest in the EU. There was also a marginalization of Berlusconi. But none of these people had a two-thirds majority in the parliament, so they couldn’t change the constitution.”

After winning more than 50 percent of the vote in both 2010 and 2014, Fidesz can pass any legislation it wants. When the country’s constitutional court has overturned key Fidesz laws, the party simply achieved its goal by changing the constitution, which it has done four times — recalling the apocryphal story of the Paris bookseller who, when asked for a copy of the French constitution after World War II, answered that he didn’t traffic in periodical literature.

Orban moved to the right less because of ideological conviction than because of political opportunity. In Hungary, the main liberal party (the Alliance of Free Democrats) and the former Communists (the Socialist Party) teamed up to form a coalition government on two occasions. Orban was furious at what he perceived as a betrayal by his liberal brethren. The liberal-socialist coalition, meanwhile, implemented harsh economic reforms and became notorious for its corruption. The discrediting of the liberal-left on economic grounds presented Orban with the means to regain power in 2010. Fidesz hammered on its populist themes – average people were not benefitting from economic reforms, the elite had partnered with foreign interests against the nation, minorities (Roma, immigrants) were dragging the country down into lawlessness. Sound familiar?

Like Trump, the Fidesz take on the economy is all over the map. It has railed against international banks even as it imposes various neoliberal reforms. Orban is primarily interested in what economists call “state capture.” The ruling party is using the state apparatus to direct benefits – jobs, contracts, payments – to its supporters. If the Hungarian government renationalizes utilities or banks, it’s not because of some fundamental belief that the state benefits from controlling the “commanding heights” of the economy. Rather, Fidesz simply wants more power in its hands and more spoils to distribute.

The Hungarian public is not oblivious to this corruption. Indeed, according to a poll in July, two-thirds of Hungarians believe that Fidesz is “very corrupt.” Even a third of Fidesz supporters feel that way. In October, the government closed down a major opposition newspaper and sponsored an anti-immigrant referendum that failed to attract enough voters to pass. Despite all this – or perhaps because of all this – Fidesz remains very popular. Indeed, its favorability went up in October to 49 percent. The entire opposition – Socialists, Greens, liberals – musters only a little over 30 percent. Fidesz has faced more competition from the far-right party Jobbik. But by moving steadily toward the far right itself, the ruling party has stolen the thunder of Jobbik.

Lesson for the United States: don’t underestimate corrupt opportunists who have no hesitation about courting extremists to stay in power. The liberal-left in Hungary fragmented in the wake of the Fidesz victory, allowing the ruling party to focus on appealing to voters further to the right. Successful resistance requires unity and the broadest possible message.

Poland: Christian Crusade

Last year, the Law and Justice party (PiS) took control of the presidency and the parliament, delivering a decisive blow against both the center-right liberal party and the former Communists. It has moved quickly to implement its pro-Christian, anti-EU policies. The consolidation of power by PiS through the media, the public prosecutor, and the Constitutional Court has challenged democratic norms and even elicited a rebuke from the EU. Last spring, Brussels demanded that the Polish government walk back its authoritarian steps. Warsaw said no.

The EU, it seems, doesn’t seem to have any bite to back up its bark. One senior Polish diplomat said that the recent U.S. elections only strengthen the Polish government’s resolve: “I’m confident President Trump will not want to be involved in this whole discussion. We understand that Trump shares our concept of sovereignty. He doesn’t care about others’ internal issues.”

That leaves the task of resistance to Poles themselves. Women have mobilized against the government’s plans to ban all abortions. Teachers have demonstrated against the government’s efforts to change school curricula to reflect “patriotic values.” A new civic movement, KOD, is attempting to build the broadest possible front against the government. But PiS remains far more popular than the opposition.

Tying together all of the new right-wing populist movements is their trumpeting of Christian values. One of the first changes that Fidesz made to the Hungarian constitution was to insert a phrase that recognizes “the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood.” The Catholic Church is a major backer of PiS in Poland. And the religious community proved a key supporter of Trump.

In a talk that he gave via Skype at a conference at the Vatican in 2014, alt-right guru Steve Bannon identified three civilizational challenges: crony capitalism, creeping secularism, and “jihadist Islamic fascism.” He was hard-pressed to decide which was worse – Islam or secularism – but he was very clear about the stakes:

We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.

Bannon and his co-religionists are imagining nothing short of a new crusade against Muslims and secularists. I described the outlines of this effort in my book Crusade 2.0, but that was when these forces were still on the fringes. They have now moved front and center.

One other key element of the Polish example is the economic populism of PiS. It has targeted its economic programs at those who have not benefited from the country’s accession to the EU or globalization more generally. Writes Remi Adekoya in The Guardian:

While PiS is strongly rightwing on social issues, its economic approach can be described as leftist. It emphasises the need to tackle inequality and propagates strong welfare policies. It introduced unconditional monthly cash payments equivalent to £100 for all parents who have more than one child towards the upkeep of each subsequent child until he or she is 18. So if you have three children, you get £200 per month and so forth. For parents with one child, the payment is conditional on low income.

No previous government ever embarked on such a generous social programme. PiS’s approach puts many Polish leftists in a bind.

Lessons for the United States: Beware the Trump administration’s appeals to “Judeo-Christian values” and think twice about working with the administration on economic programs. Trump will likely try to peel off Democratic Party support for some domestic programs, which will blunt the overall effort to resist the administration’s appeal. It is one thing not to oppose sensible economic programs. It’s quite another to collaborate with the administration on their implementation (are you listening, Tulsi Gabbard?).

Slovakia: Populism Is Dead? 

In the 1990s, after splitting with the Czech Republic, Slovakia took a turn away from democracy. Its new leader, Vladimir Meciar was the quintessential populist. He would insert grammatical mistakes into his campaign posters to demonstrate his proximity to “the people.”He openly discriminated against the ethnic Hungarian population, at one point in 1997 even proposing a mass population transfer with Hungary to “solve” the minority issue. He pushed through a campaign to “Slovakicize” culture — for instance, by mandating that 30 percent of all music on the radio be from Slovak composers —and appointed his own people to regulate the media to make sure it echoed his party’s line. He was also incorrigibly corrupt, arranging for his cronies to acquire cheap properties through the privatization process.

“The first years of Meciar’s government were almost worse than under Communism,” writer Martin Simecka recalled. “The regime was not so strong as under Communism, but it was more ugly with these fascistic tendencies and this nationalism. For me, personally, those were pretty bad years. Psychologically, it was very difficult to see the gap get bigger between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, with the Czechs going West and we Slovaks going East or going nowhere at all.”

By 1998, Slovaks had had enough with their illiberal detour. “In the first years of the Meciar government, it really became clear to everyone, not only to the inner circle, that this guy is thinking about a different type of democracy,” activist Rasto Kuzel told me. “It was good for Slovak NGOs and for the Slovak civil society that we had to again unite and fight for these principles. We had to very actively demonstrate that we didn’t want this type of democracy and that we wanted Slovakia to be back on the right track.”

“Thousands of small organizations, initiatives, clubs and volunteer groups have made unique achievements,” Martin Butora, former Slovak ambassador to the United States, recounts. “Despite a complicated heritage of undemocratic conditions, backwardness and discontinuity, civic actors and volunteers managed to engage and motivate a broader public because they offered understandable, acceptable concepts of freedom, solidarity and activism, which were in line with democratic modernization and which broke down the prevailing ethos of civic helplessness, as well as the tendency toward preferring the promotion of individual interests instead of the public good.”

Foreign organizations, including foundations and political parties, provided substantial assistance to Slovak civil society. The anti-Meciar mobilization also relied on the leverage of Europe. Meciar’s undemocratic leanings cost Slovakia its spot in the first round of accession in the European Union that included the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. Liberal activists used the widespread fear of losing out on EU benefits to strengthen their case for Meciar’s ouster.

In 1998, Slovaks used the ballot box to pry Meciar from power. The electoral strategy motivated young people and energized the previously apathetic. The remarkable victory put Slovakia back on course to join the EU in 2004.

The problem, however, is that the anti-Meciar movement focused almost exclusively on politics and didn’t address the underlying economic anxiety that many Slovaks felt about the impact of austerity capitalism and globalization more generally. As a result, another populist came along, Robert Fico, who successfully reached out to the “left behind” constituency by denouncing austerity, scrapping a regressive flat tax, and criticizing privatization. He also won successive elections by embracing a Trumpian social policy. Fico decried the influx of immigrants, calling the more liberal EU policy “ritual suicide.” He has called critics of his party “anti-Slovak,” reviving a Meciar-era tactic. On Roma, he has said that “the best solution would be to take away all their children and put them into boarding schools.”

Lessons for the United States: By all means rouse the anti-Trump base by focusing on his treatment of minorities, immigrants, and women. But make sure to put together an economic program that meets the expectations of America B while skewering Trump for his handouts to the rich, the lobbyists (of the military-industrial complex, for instance), and the biggest businesses.

The Long Haul 

As these European examples demonstrate, America faces a long, difficult period. It takes a while before a populace can see through a populist. Berlusconi was in and out of power for two decades. Orban, too, first became prime minister nearly 20 years ago.

Trump doesn’t have that kind of political career ahead of him. He is 70 years old. He is the oldest president in history to take office. Still, he can do a lot of damage while he’s president. And make no mistake: in many ways Mike Pence is worse (on abortion, LGBT rights, and most foreign policy issues).

The Trump administration might have a shaky mandate – it did, after all, lose the popular vote. But Trump’s favorability rating has already gone up. Many former anti-Trumpers are ready to work with him. Most importantly, he is operating in a favorable international context (Brexit, Putin, Duterte, Le Pen).

Trump might seem like a peculiarly American problem. But he isn’t. To deal with him, we’ll have to act locally. But we’ll have to think and act globally as well.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, November 23, 2016