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.
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.
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.
Treating the EU as a Feeding Trough
In EU-member Poland, the constitutional court has managed to temporarily block an effort to ban journalists, government officials and politicians from working in their professions for 10 years if they refuse to provide information about their activities during communism. Nevertheless, other recent advances from the government camp demonstrate that the culture war is in full swing.
And the headlines have been plentiful. There was a parliamentary initiative to posthumously name Jesus Christ "King of Poland." There was draft legislation to criminalize abortion, even in cases of rape and high-risk pregnancy. And there was a proposal by the speaker of the Polish parliament to regulate the work of journalists in parliament by establishing a three-class system, which would make life more difficult for the "plebeians" among reporters.
Political adversaries have been at each other's throats even more relentlessly in Hungary than in Poland. Whenever Prime Minister Gyurcsány, a Social Democrat, rises to speak in the parliament, Viktor Orbán and his Young Democrats leave the chamber. This has been happening since Gyurcsány admitted to members of his party in May 2006 that he had deceived voters over Hungary's bleak finances and had deliberately neglected to clarify the blunders of previous administrations.
During a brawl in March, angry demonstrators threw bricks, burned barricades and demanded the removal of "communist pig" Gyurcsány. Even Budapest's mayor of 16 years, Gábor Demszky, who is from the liberal middle class camp, was showered with raw eggs and tomatoes. The rural or "real" Hungary, which opposition leader Orbán claims to represent, has taken its fight against urban Hungary to the streets.
It seems, in short, that the political center is disappearing from a number of countries in Eastern Europe.
Weak Political Culture
"The deeply polarized Hungarian society," says Budapest historian Vilmos Heiszler, lacks "political culture and a willingness to compromise." Adam Michnik, a veteran of Poland's Solidarity movement, warns against a thoughtless reappraisal of history, or "anti-communism with a Bolshevik face" in his country. And Jirí Pehe, an advisor to former Czech President Vaclav Havel, says the conditions in the contemporary Czech Republic remind him of President Masaryk's assessment of the era between the two world wars: the country has democracy, but unfortunately it has no democrats.
As if joining the EU in 2004 had meant passing once and for all some sort of civic maturity test, the tone is becoming increasingly brusque in the region. In opinion polls, only about one third of respondents say they have confidence in democracy. The seed of a new national awakening is thriving in an atmosphere of weak political culture, as residents of the region seek to overcome traumatic events in their countries' histories: four partitions for the Poles; the loss of two-thirds of Hungarian territory in 1920; centuries of Austrian, German and finally Russian subjugation of the Czechs; a thousand years of foreign rule of the Slovaks.
Despite a decades-long climate of internationalism, the nation-state is back in fashion -- as a spiritual refuge for the peoples in the East. NATO is valued as a military shield, especially against Moscow, while the EU is treated as more of a feeding trough than a community of values.
Poland is entitled to receive almost €60 billion from various EU funds between now and 2013. The Czechs can expect to receive €24 billion and the Slovaks €10 billion. The money from Brussels' subsidy funds is welcome, even as the governments in Prague and Bratislava enjoy economic growth rates of 6 to 8 percent.
But the limits of growth in eastern Central Europe continue to progress largely along the edges of its glittering cities. Beyond the urban confines of Budapest, Bratislava, Prague and Warsaw, people are still waiting for the fruits of the market economy and social welfare state. The result is a situation perfect for populist politicians -- and it severely hampers the development of a middle class, which would promote political stability.
Disappointment with the West
Instead, institutionalized poverty reigns. A retiree in Hungary lives on €200 per month, in a country where the cost of living is similar that of Western Europe. A teacher in Slovakia earns just €350. A worker in Poland has to make do on €500.
It's not just the unfulfilled hope -- that Western-style democracy could offer freedom and prosperity in a single package -- which is accelerating the disintegration of the political landscape in Europe's East. But it is also disappointment over how and with whom the EU has sought to establish its canon of values in the new member states.
In Hungary, radical critics of the government and victims of Stalinism alike ask whether Péter Medgyessy, a former member of the government's counterterrorism unit -- which was a part of the country's secret service -- under communist rule, was truly the right choice to lead the country through its negotiations for EU membership. And what qualifies the current EU Commissioner for Taxation and Customs, Lászlo Kovács, for his position on the European stage? Isn't this the same Kovács who was deputy foreign minister in the days of former Hungarian Communist Party chief János Kádár and continued to praise the Soviet Union as an oasis of stability until well into the 1980s?
Supporters of the government camp in Poland wonder what could possibly have prompted EU commissioners to have given former Communist Party members and newly minted social democrats Aleksander Kwasniewski and Leszek Miller, the president and prime minister, respectively, a free ticket into the EU camp. Both men are considered key supporters of the old and new "uklad" system, which is responsible for the dominance of groups of former and current senior officials.
And what, Slovaks wonder, do leading EU politicians believe distinguishes the attacks of nationalist leader Ján Slota from those by representatives of the Czech government? The smaller population of the country he represents? Why is Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico given the cold shoulder throughout Europe because of his coalition partner, but not the Czech prime minister?
The Slovak premier is now seeking to offset his impending isolation by making a geo-political about-face. He recently celebrated the anniversary of the Cuban revolution with Fidel Castro's ambassador in Bratislava, met with Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and found an attentive ear in both Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Hungarian prime minister also attracted attention in Moscow when he expressed support for the Russian plans for a natural gas pipeline and not those of the EU. Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his Czech counterpart, Václav Klaus, have both made it clear that they will not vote in favor of the current draft of an EU constitution.
Freedom of opinion is indeed being taken more seriously in Budapest, Bratislava, Warsaw and Prague these days -- more seriously than EU officials in Brussels had expected.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan