Recreating Central Europe

In 1991, when they disbanded the Warsaw Pact, the countries of Central Europe officially declared their independence from the Soviet Union (though the breaking of the bond really took place two years earlier). This newfound independence did not, however, translate into a common voice or common position based on history and circumstance.

The region almost immediately broke into several rival camps. Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary created the Visegrad group and positioned themselves as the most likely to succeed (as members of NATO and the European Union). Bulgaria and Romania scrambled to present themselves as second-tier candidates for European accession. The Baltic countries struggled to escape their post-Soviet identity. And Yugoslavia simply fell apart.

As befit countries that were establishing competition as the standard for their domestic economies, they also competed among themselves for the best deals from Brussels and Washington.

“The biggest mistake, the area where we have not been so successful in the last 20 years, is that we don’t have a common voice in Central Europe,” Dariusz Kalan, a Central Europe expert with the Polish Institute for International Affairs (PISM), told me in an interview in Warsaw in August 2013. “From the foreign view- — for instance, foreign investors — we are sometimes considered to be not Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, or the Czech Republic but instead Central European. But we can’t speak with one voice on strategic issues or toward Russia. Russia knows this and has a policy of divide-and-rule in the region. We can’t speak with one voice with the United States. It was quite shameful that we couldn’t provide a common voice on the visa regime, for instance. Each country was fighting for itself.”

One reason for this lack of common voice, even in the face of common interests, has been an absence of public interest. “Why politicians are less interested in Central Europe as such is because society is not very much interested in Central Europe,” Kalan continued. “If you went along Krakowsie Przedmescie or Nowy Swiat – just outside the office here — and ask them what the Visegrad group is and what countries belong to it, my intuition is that not many of them will give the proper answer. This is the probably one of the biggest problems we have right now – the weak people-to-people contact. And this is why it’s not very attractive to politicians as well.”

The failure of people to connect across the region is in some sense because of the lack of ways to connect. “In addition to the failure to establish a lot of people-to-people contact,” Kalan added, “we’ve also had a problem with infrastructure. It’s a small issue, not a strategic issue. It is quite shameful that a trip from Warsaw to Prague lasts 10 hours, that there is no direct connection between Warsaw and Bratislava by train. There’s not even a highway. And this is not to mention countries like Romania or Bulgaria where the infrastructure is very weak. These are small problems at first sight. But it limits people from visiting neighboring countries and not only to dropping their money there but also strengthening the people-to-people contacts and the social aspect overall. This is also the reason why we don’t really know what is the Visegrad group and what to do with it.”

We talked about Poland’s attempt to represent the region in European bodies, why young people are leaning toward conservative movements, and how Central Europe views Russia.

 

The Interview

 

How did you become involved in these issues in the region, and how did you come here to the Polish Institute for International Affairs (PISM)?

 

This adventure with Central Europe, because this is the part of the world I am interested in here at PISM, started in 2009, not very long ago. I can tell you a nice story about the moment when I started to become involved. I was in Budapest for the very first time, in Hungary in winter 2009. Viktor Orban was not yet in power.

I was wandering around, trying to see something in Budapest, which was snowy. I came to the parliament. It’s one of the greatest buildings probably in all Europe. I was in the middle of Kossuth Street, the main street next to the parliament. On the right side there was a big manifestation of Jobbik, the radicals. They were singing all these radical songs. People all around were wearing black suits. I was pretty scared. Paradoxically, on the left side of the street, directly next to the parliament, there was a theatrical event for children. It was Santa Claus day. I was standing in the middle of Kossuth Street with people on one side waving the flag of greater Hungary and singing very bad nationalistic songs and on the other side children dancing around and singing Christmas sings. I thought to myself, “Ah, there must be something really interesting in this country.” This is how everything began for me.

A few months later, Orban and Fidesz came to power, and I thought this is something new, something that we in this region didn’t experience in the last 20 years. It’s a brand new experience. Afterwards, I started to learn Hungarian and became more interested not only in Hungary but in the whole region including the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It happened that PISM was searching for a Central European analyst, so I applied and I succeeded. This is my story.

 

In the United States there was a lot of interest in this part of the war in 1989-90 and in the Balkans during the war. But since then, interest has declined, rather quickly – in the media, even in academia. Is there still sustained interest here in Poland for what’s going on in the Visegrad Four, but also in the areas further south?

 

You mentioned that the United States is no longer interested in Central Europe. This is one of the biggest problems we have to face in the region. After the great momentum in 1989, and then in 1999 when we joined NATO and in 2004 when we joined the EU, the interest not only of the United States, but actually the whole world, has declined, with the possible exception of Russia, which has different reasons for being interested in Central Europe. This is a big challenge for us. This is the reality. Plenty of experts and a lot of politicians from the region still believe that nothing has changed since the 1990s. They still try to build their political identity or the identity of their parties in this particular area of foreign affairs on the United States.

As for Poland, we have an image of ourselves as a Central European leader. We are the biggest country in the region. We do our best in the EU to present and defend the regional position. Our smaller partners mostly agree to that. Realistically speaking, Poland nowadays is a much more trustworthy partner for the bigger European countries. But the problem is — or it may seem to be a problem — we do not really know a lot about Central Europe.

Let me explain more clearly. We are interested in Central Europe in the EU rather than in Central Europe itself. Maybe things have changed a bit recently. As you perhaps know, the Visegrad presidency for Poland just finished, and it was quite successful. Our minister of foreign affairs, experts, and diplomats were pretty active not only in the EU but also in Central European countries, which was quite unexpected. But why politicians are less interested in Central Europe as such is because society is not very much interested in Central Europe. If you went along Krakowsie Przedmescie or Nowy Swiat – just outside the office here — and ask them what the Visegrad group is and what countries belong to it, my intuition is that not many of them will give the proper answer. This is the probably one of the biggest problems we have right now – the weak people-to-people contact. And this is why it’s not very attractive to politicians as well.

The second reason is that we don’t really know what to do with the Visegrad group right now. It was established in 1991 with the main aim to make the region closer to EU and NATO. Here we succeeded. What to do now is the question. Politicians try to use the Visegrad Group to fight for common interests in the EU. But in my opinion that should not be the only reason for the group’s existence.

 

What do you think the Polish government should do in relation to the Visegrad Group? You said that the recent presidency of the Visegrad Group was successful. What changes, however, would you make?

 

There are a lot of things to do. My opinion is that the biggest mistake, the area where we have not been so successful in the last 20 years, is that we don’t have a common voice in Central Europe. From the foreign view- — for instance, foreign investors — we are sometimes considered to be not Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, or the Czech Republic but instead Central European. But we can’t speak with one voice on strategic issues or toward Russia. Russia knows this and has a policy of divide-and-rule in the region. We can’t speak with one voice with the United States. It was quite shameful that we couldn’t provide a common voice on the visa regime, for instance. Each country was fighting for itself.

It’s also the case in terms of relations with the post-Soviet area. But here, not every country is interested in having an eastern policy. For Poland, it has the greatest meaning. But for Hungary, they are much more interested in the Western Balkans. But we are not able to build some compromise here. This is where we did not succeed. My recommendation would be to try to build a common voice, to try to list the strategic issues for the region.

In addition to the failure to establish a lot of people-to-people contact, as I mentioned before, we’ve also had a problem with infrastructure. It’s a small issue, not a strategic issue. It is quite shameful that a trip from Warsaw to Prague lasts 10 hours, that there is no direct connection between Warsaw and Bratislava by train. There’s not even a highway. And this is not to mention countries like Romania or Bulgaria where the infrastructure is very weak. These are small problems at first sight. But it limits people from visiting neighboring countries and not only to dropping their money there but also strengthening the people-to-people contacts and the social aspect overall. This is also the reason why we don’t really know what is the Visegrad group and what to do with it.

The third point is again strategic. As you know, in the last century Central Europe was most unstable part of Europe. I’m not really sure if we are really aware of how important this region is. Here military spending is very important – but less than 2 percent of GDP. We are part of NATO, part of EU, and it is quite unlikely that we will encounter any military danger in the region. On the other hand, we have experiences from the past. If history gives us any lessons, we should depend on ourselves, not only on our friends from the Western world. I understand that this is a tough issue, especially right now in terms of economic turmoil. There are important steps, like the Visegrad battle group to be established in 2016. We can connect this not only to very low level of military spending, but also to the energy issue. We have this idea of a gas corridor to go through the whole region, from Gdansk to Croatia. This is very good. But it’s not enough to become more independent from Russian supplies.

 

What’s the level of trade among the Visegrad Four, and has it been increasing?

 

Trade has been increasing. I can send you precise data. Of course, the main partner of all Visegrad countries is Germany. But the second place is other Central European countries in total. It has been increasing since the 1990s. For instance, in Poland, the Czech Republic is becoming a more and more important trade partner. The Czech Republic is the third partner in terms of Polish exports. The first is Germany, the second is Great Britain, and the third position is the Czech Republic, and it is increasing. And this is a good trend.

 

You mentioned infrastructure – perhaps this too will increase trade, not just person-to-person exchange.

 

If you check the infrastructure around the Polish-Czech border, it is very neglected. I’ve talked with a few Polish and Czech businessmen involved in Polish-Czech trade, and their first complaint is always the lack of good infrastructure. This is a problem not just of the last 20 years. Infrastructure was very neglected during Communist times. And it’s hard to expect that politicians will build good roads in 20 years. I’m not sure that’s possible in the current Central European circumstances.

 

The contrast between Slovenia and Bulgaria is dramatic. Slovenia, the first thing it did back in the early 1990s, was to improve its infrastructure, but Bulgaria is just now getting around to this.

 

Yes, the same with Romania.

 

You mentioned the question of military spending. Poland is one of the few countries in the EU that is increasing its military spending. Many people have talked to me about the importance of having indigenous capacity, particularly after the war in Georgia. Do you think people here in Poland are aware of the security dilemma – that if you increase military spending here, it may send a signal to the very countries that Poland is worried about, namely Russia.

 

The crucial issue is to be able to defend ourselves. Whether someone reacts to that or not, we still have to be prepared. You are right that Poland, among the Visegrad countries, is increasing spending — to 1.95 percent of GDP. In other Visegrad countries, this level is lower. This is might be a problem. During the Georgian war, here in Central Europe, we couldn’t even formulate any common voice because some countries claimed that it was Saakashvili who was responsible and they supported Russia.

This is what I mentioned before: the lack of common voice. Countries like Slovakia consider Russia in a bit different way than we do here in Poland, because of different historical experiences. If you ask the Slovak government and people whether Russia is a threat or whether the country should increase military spending because of Russia, they will tell you it’s not a big problem because Russia is their friend not an enemy. This is the reason why we can’t think strategically in the region in terms of Russia and defining the biggest military threat. We have different backgrounds and positions.

 

As you say, Poland and Russia have a very different history than Slovakia and Russia do. Do you see any possibility of transcending the history of Poland and Russia? If there hadn’t been a plane crash, Smolensk would have been an important point of reconciliation. I know that Putin is problematic and so is the energy issue. But could there be a change in that relationship comparable to what happened with Polish-German relations?

 

This is a good question, but you should ask a Russian expert and decision maker. The change in Polish-German relationship was very much facilitated by Germany being willing to consider Poland a serious partner and not just a small guy from the eastern border. I have the impression that Russia is still very much involved in this Cold War thinking, which in a very precise way defines who is a friend and who is an enemy and which countries are subordinated to Russia. This way of thinking has continued throughout the Putin tenure.

 

Viktor Orban has not been a very popular figure in the EU. But the Polish government of Donald Tusk has not been as critical of Orban as other governments. Why is that the case?

 

The Polish government is not critical. Poland prefers to be neutral in this discussion between Brussels and Budapest. This is quite reasonable. There are two reasons. First of all, Hungary is part of Central Europe, and Poland as the biggest country and the one that would like to be the leader of the region should be interested in keeping unity in the region. Hungary has so many problems that Poland should not be the next problem for Hungary. The other argument is that Hungary is a new country in the EU just as Poland is. So, it may provide us with a lesson. What today the European parliament is doing to Hungary, tomorrow it might do to Poland — as the, shall we say, next victim.

 

Those are good reasons. It also seems as if Tusk has a personal friendship with Orban. I find that difficult to understand since ideologically they don’t seem particularly close. And other friends of Orban have abandoned him. There are pragmatic reasons to maintain a relationship. But many of his domestic policies – on the constitution, on minorities – seem to be beyond the pale. I can understand why Poland would be neutral, but Tusk seems to be actively friendly.

 

Both Fidesz and Platforma belong to same party in the European parliament. This is also why the German chancellor is not publically very critical toward Orban. The only institution that is very critical is the European parliament. It’s not the European Commission, which is not visible publically in criticizing the Orban regime. And it’s not Germany. Because they all belong to the same party in the European parliament. This is also why there is no personal friendship between Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski. PiS [Law and Justice Party] belongs to the European Conservatives. This is a paradox because there are many people close to Kaczynski, journalists and advisors, who treat Orban literally like a god. They pay attention closely to what Orban is doing. They want to implement many of the reforms that Orban did in his country since 2000. But I’m not sure if Kaczynski himself is interested in that solution.

Besides, Orban and Tusk are interested in football – they played a game together. Personal friendship: I wouldn’t exactly rate this argument very important. But the two reasons I mentioned before I consider crucial.

 

And what do you think the emergence of Fidesz means for the region as a whole. There are obvious implications for Hungary. But do you see this as a trend in the region? There are people around Kaczynski who are fascinated with Orban. There are concerns that Fico in Slovakia is waiting to put together a similar parliamentary majority. There are similar concerns in the Czech Republic around Milos Zeman. Do you see this as an important new trend regionally, or is this just a brief fad or enthusiasm?

 

I remember an article published in The Guardian not so long ago about the Central European authoritarian regimes that are starting to be built here. Orban was there. Zeman was included. Also Erdogan from Turkey. According to The Guardian, Turkey is part of the Central European spectrum. I wouldn’t say that new authoritarian regimes have been created in Central Europe. This is a new kind of democracy where the winner takes all, as the song goes. This is rather a new kind of democracy where democratic institutions work, but the problem is that the heads of democratic institutions are closely connected to governing parties.

This is a trend visible in other countries as well. Zeman has a lot of ambition, and we have to wait to see what will happen after the elections in the Czech Republic in October. Everything is taking place within the borders of democracy. This is what the Orban government and his PR department, which is extremely efficient, are trying to convince people: that Hungary is still a democracy. This is very important for them. They have democratic institutions, checks and balances, freedom of speech. Of course the problem is that everything is controlled by people connected to Fidesz. But the institutions as such exist.

This is interesting connected to the new media law, which is very harsh. If you proposed to implement such a law in some Western country, it would be a disaster. But on the other hand, you can’t find any example of opposition media that the harsh law has been implemented against. It’s a harsh law, but there are no victims of this law. This was done on purpose. This is the main message: we are still a democracy.

One difference between authoritarian and democratic is that the elections in the former are artificial. The second difference is that in authoritarian regimes, there is political repression. In Hungary there is no political repression. They don’t need to implement any repression because the opposition is weak. It’s not because Orban wants them to be weak but because they compromised themselves when they were in power. This may be also the case in the Czech Republic, where the opposition ODS, the center right that was in power since 2006, will be weak as well after the elections. In this new kind of democracy, you don’t need to implement any kind of political oppression because your opponents are weak because they failed.

Here in Poland, what you hear about the future elections that will take place in 2015 is that PiS is not interested in any kind of authoritarian regime. They emphasize very strongly that they need to have a majority in parliament like Fidesz. Because they still want to be framed in a democracy. This is what they are very interested in. This is one of the consequences of what’s going on in the whole region.

 

Do you think that Fidesz and its new kind of democracy will have any lasting impact – the media law, the constitutional changes? What you’re talking about is political cycles. The previous governments compromised themselves – the ODS in the Czech Republic, the Socialists and Liberals in Hungary. Presumably Fidesz will lose popularity and another party will take over. But do you think it will have long-term impact because of the structural changes?

 

We have to wait until the next elections that will take place next year. These elections will give us an indication whether Hungary is still a real democracy. What also might be interesting is that all these changes are made by people like Orban and Zeman. They are not newcomers. Zeman was the most important figure from the 1990s after Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus. Orban was prime minister once before and was very active at the beginning of 1990s. These are people who were actually involved in the transformation process at the beginning. In Slovakia, Fico was not very involved, and in Romania, Victor Ponta was too young. But if you look at the people behind them, you can also find guys who were involved in this process of democratization from the 1990s. Maybe this is the reason why they try to function in this frame of democracy. The new generation very openly says that democracy is not a good political form for this region. Take a look at Jobbik – there are mostly young people there.

 

An assumption in America is that the next generation will be like you. You speak several languages. You comfortably travel around the region. You’re different from the Solidarity generation, which didn’t have an opportunity to travel. But that’s not necessarily the people who will emerge as the new leaders. It’s not just Hungary. Opinion polls in Croatia, for instance, suggest that the younger generation is more nationalistic than the previous generation. They never fought in the war, but their worldview is shaped by the war. Also, young people in the region are not enthusiastic about politics and their perspective has been shaped by the economic crisis as well. When this generation of leaders from the transition period steps off the stage, what will the next generation bring – lots of little Jobbiks and instability like the interwar period?

 

I’m very much afraid of the new generation. Let’s put it this way: if you check out the biographies of Jobbik leaders, you will find there people who studied abroad, who speak several languages, who are handsome (or pretty in the case of the girls), who know how to behave and what to wear. Paradoxically this is one reason why they are so popular. If you think of nationalism, you think of these bald guys wearing these black t-shirts. In Hungary, this is quite different. The faces of nationalism are attractive. There are successful people in Jobbik: lawyers, journalists. These new leaders are attractive to the younger generation.

But of course this is not only the case for Jobbik and Hungary. This is the result of the economic crisis. It’s not only an economic crisis. It’s also an ideological crisis of liberalism that everyone was keen on in 1990s, not only in Poland but in the whole region. This model is no longer attractive. It’s considered to be one of the reasons for this economic turmoil. My impression is that the younger generation is turning in a more right-wing direction — not necessarily nationalistic, but pretty conservative. If during this crisis you see that this state is no longer willing to help you – and the only place you can find help is your family — this helps reinforce this conservative view.

The question remains how big is the space between conservatism and nationalism. My answer is that the space is very big. In this region, the tendency is that nationalism is no longer connected to right-wing or center-right philosophy. If you take a look at Fico in Slovakia or Ponta in Romania, they are pretty nationalistic. They built their identity on nationalism, but they are not conservatives. They’re liberal socialists. There is Orban, who is pretty conservative, or rather center-right. In Hungary they have gay marriages that Poland doesn’t have, and it’s is not so controversial. Orban didn’t implement it, but he didn’t change it. Still he is center right and pretty nationalistic. This difference between right-wing and left-wing ideology is no longer visible in many areas. The economy is another example. There is no left-wing or right-wing economy.

 

You said that the United States doesn’t consider this region a strategic region, just a bilateral interest. If you had only five minutes with President Obama, what would you say that the United States should do, within its limited abilities?

 

I would mention history. Every single conflict from the last century started in Central Europe and the Balkans. This would be the beginning of my speech. Second, I would say that the United States is not interested at the same level as in the 1990s, while Russia has been maintaining its interest. I would ask President Obama if he is interested in letting Russians build their satellites in Europe. These would be two strategic thoughts.

Of course there are other things I’ve already mentioned connected with energy, the political potential, social aspects. I would also mention something about Central Europe itself. There is no one definition of Central Europe. But as Josef Kroutvor mentioned, what is characteristic of Central Europe is constant instability. If we are so unstable here, this process of deepening instability can proceed in the future as well. There is an American interest in having stable partners not only in Central Europe but also in the EU. That’s why we need American interest, maybe not protection, because times are different. But we would like to feel that America is still interested in this part of the world.

 

When you look back to everything that has changed from 1989 until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?

 

We definitely succeeded in integrating with the West. This is even more important than the economic changes. We were able to build a political consensus, because the main political forces – from post-Communist to right wing — agreed to be part of Western Europe. This is the most satisfying thing.

In terms of failures, there were too many economic victims of the very tough liberal economic changes here. We should do more to protect the people who were not totally satisfied with economic changes. Right now these people are questioning democracy and the direction of the changes. Especially in the time of crisis, they may become populist. So, I’d say eight for Western integration and three for the victims of the changes. So: 5.5

 

Same period of time, same scale: your own personal life?

 

Eight.

 

Looking into the near future, the next two or three years, how would you evaluate the prospects for Poland, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?

 

Five.

 

Warsaw, August 27, 2013

 


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