Chaos, Corruption and Extremism: Political Crises Abound in Eastern Europe

By Walter Mayr, Marion Kraske and Jan Puhl

Almost two decades after the fall of communism, a number of Eastern European countries are still struggling to establish stable democracies. From radical right-wingers to authoritarian post-communists, the political landscape lacks a center.

Last Saturday in Bucharest, after everything was said and done, and the people's victory over the country's parliament was complete, Traian Basescu stepped up to the microphone. He seemed proud and exhausted at the same time -- seemingly as overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment as if he had just successfully staged a coup. "The Romanians," he said, "no longer want their country to belong to the oligarchs."

Traian Basescu is the president of Romania.

Three-quarters of parliamentarians in the Romanian capital accuse Basescu of having violated his country's constitution -- and even went so far as to vote to remove him from office. The president, they say, overstepped the bounds of his largely ceremonial post by interfering with government business. But the dismissal was short lived. Three-quarters of Romanian voters disagree with the parliament, and in a referendum held last week they voted to allow their president, a self-appointed crusader against corruption and nepotism within the country's intelligence service, to remain in office.

The referendum was just the latest chapter in the mudslinging that had bedeviled Romanian politics since the country joined the European Union in January. But as chaotic as the governmental crisis there has been, it has had plenty of competition from other countries on the eastern periphery of the EU, where chaos, insults between rival political camps, and governments struggling to stay afloat seem to have become the norm.

Violence-Laced Protests

For some time now, the warning signs have been seeping westward from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, snippets of news from the post-communist world that, when taken together, form an alarming picture. Reports of eavesdropping scandals, violence-laced protests and racist incidents are becoming increasingly common. The central figures are young politicians and old intelligence agents alike. They are converted communists and avowed neo-liberals who, in the name of democracy and free markets, are campaigning against anything and everything that doesn't suit them: including EU regulations, parliamentary codes of conduct, and the rights of minorities.

Eastern European countries are still struggling to fully establish democracy.
DER SPIEGEL

Eastern European countries are still struggling to fully establish democracy.

The government in the Czech Republic owes its survival to the persistence of Jirí Cunek, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Christian Democrats. He is currently under investigation for corruption, but has denied all charges. Still, politicians in the coalition government are calling for his immediate resignation -- as are Roma organizations. Cunek raised the ire of the country's gypsy minority when he said publicly that anyone wishing to receive public assistance in the Czech Republic should first "darken his skin, cause chaos in his family and light a campfire on the town square."

In neighboring Slovakia, Ján Slota, chairman of governing coalition member SNS, first attacked the country's Hungarian minority (Slota called them the descendants of "ugly, bow-legged, Mongoloid characters on disgusting horses"). He then went after bigger game -- the United States, an ally and fellow NATO member. The radical Slovak accused the Americans of establishing a "world dictatorship, liquidating entire nations and bombing whomever they wish."

The opposing sides in Hungary seem to have calmed down temporarily. But the peace has only arrived after a series of violent riots in the streets in front of the parliament building in Budapest and protests by the conservative opposition and radical right-wingers against Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, a man they call the "prime minister of lies." The parties took a momentary break from their bickering after the skeleton of former head of state and party leader János Kádár and an urn containing the ashes of his wife were dug up and carried off from Budapest's Fiume cemetery in early May.

The Lack of a Civil Society

Finally, in Poland, it took a constitutional court ruling in mid-May to curb the fierce determination, camouflaged as glasnost, of the ruling Kaczynski brothers. The judges on the country's highest court ruled that a law mandating investigations into the past intelligence agency connections of high-ranking public officials was unconstitutional. According to the court, "a democratic, constitutional state cannot function on the basis of revenge crusades."

Sixteen years have passed since Lech Walesa, József Antall and Václav Havel, at a joint ceremony in Visegrád, committed themselves to the "full integration" of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia into the European order. The images of peaceful transition, striking workers at the shipyards in Gdansk, Poland, the severed barbed wire fence at the Hungarian border and peaceful demonstrations on Prague's Wenceslas Square, have remained. But the hope of the day -- that the lost eastern section of Central Europe could be reconstituted from the rubble of the disintegrated socialist bloc -- has vanished.

Havel, Walesa and most of the heroes of the non-violent revolution of 1989 have since retired from politics. Others, like the activist of 1989 and current Hungarian opposition leader Viktor Orbán, have traded the ideal of a civil society ruled by self-determination for the obsessive idea of a strictly patriotic and anti-communist state.

What many of the countries of Eastern Europe still lack is a civil society that embodies the legacy of those hopeful days when communism collapsed. They are missing a culture of dialogue. And they seem to have difficulty managing the transition of power when new governments step in. Nationalists, populists and profit-driven technocrats are now firmly ensconced in the control rooms or antechambers of power between Budapest and Warsaw. The wedge they use to promote further division in post-communist societies is geared to the needs and fears of voters.

Hungary and Poland, the countries where resistance to the one-party system was the most deeply rooted before 1989, are now the scene of a struggle over the right to interpret the past and decide over guilt and innocence in the communist era. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where the people are less inclined to rehash the past, the battles revolve around power and privileges -- and are being waged openly and with the rhetorical weapons of the gutter.

'Braided out of Shit'

"Whips are being braided out of shit," says Mirek Topolánek, the conservative prime minister of the Czech Republic, a member of the EU since 2004, illustrating his view that forceful speech is an expression of decisive leadership. He calls the draft of a possible EU constitution "shit." When he was still the leader of the opposition, Topolánek denounced the campaign promises of his social democratic rivals as an "Auschwitz lie" and coined the term "Grosstapo" in reference to police activities under former Prime Minister Stanislav Gross. But instead of hurting his prospects, these verbal excesses helped him rise to the country's highest office.

Years ago the chairman of the SNS, the governing party in EU-member Slovakia, said that gypsies were best dealt with in "a small courtyard and with a long whip." He also threatened to send tanks to "flatten Budapest" should Slovakia's Hungarian minority, once the ruling class and still about 10 percent of the country's population today, attempt to teach the Slovaks "the Lord's Prayer in Hungarian" once again.

Ján Slota, the second most popular politician between Bratislava and the Carpathians, is as combative as ever as he sits in his office under a portrait of Hitler satellite Jozef Tiso. He accuses the United States of encouraging a "branch of Al-Qaida" in the heart of Europe by supporting the Kosovo Albanians. He implies that, when it comes to xenophobia, the Germans and French are looking for "splinters in the eyes of the Slovaks" without noticing the sticks in front of their own.

Even in Poland, the former motherland of resistance against single-party rule and now Washington's staunchest ally among the former Warsaw Pact countries that have drifted westward, politics remains fiercely partisan. The Kaczynski twins, Lech and Jaroslaw, the president and the prime minister, respectively, set the tone in the governing camp. The opposition camp includes former communists and veterans of the Solidarity movement, who embrace the politics of making a "clean break" and want to see dissidents and former communist officials from the days of the fall of communism agree to abandon any plans to comprehensively investigate the past.

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