- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 29, 2006

WARSAW — Anti-government rallies rock Budapest, the Hungarian capital. Political intrigue in Poland holds up new roads and housing. Populists take power in Slovakia, vowing to undo economic reforms. And the Czech Republic goes without a functioning government for months.

Political life has fallen into disarray in Eastern Europe, and many are asking what has gone wrong in the 2 years since these former communist countries joined the European Union, expecting to reap the fruits of democracy and open markets.

Many specialists on the region say people are simply exhausted after years of economic sacrifices made to join the EU and NATO. They now lack the clear goals that drove them toward the West after the fall of communism in 1989.

And their discontent is mounting as the instant riches many thought would come from EU membership have failed to materialize.

“The common phenomenon in all these countries is transition fatigue,” said Gergely Hudecz, a political analyst with the DZ Bank in Budapest. “The electorate has had enough of reforms.”

Gone is the strong external pressure that pushed governments in Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Bratislava, Slovakia, to shutter unproductive factories and sell off state companies, in the face of opposition from newly unemployed workers hurt by rising costs.

All four countries have replaced the leaders who took them into the bloc, and some have opted for parties pledging to restore the welfare benefits that were slashed to qualify for membership.

The greatest disruption has been in Hungary, where Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany outraged the country by saying in a recording leaked last month that the government had “lied morning, evening and night” about the economy. That sparked weeks of daily anti-government protests, including two nights of riots.

To the north in Poland, twin brothers with prickly nationalist views — President Lech Kaczynski and Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski — lead a country bogged down in frequent Cabinet reshuffles and convoluted political maneuverings.

The bickering has slowed down construction to ease a housing shortage and modernization of the dilapidated road system.

In the latest twist, the prime minister brought back into his Cabinet Andrzej Lepper, a fiery populist known for organizing anti-EU protests, less than a month after booting him out for demanding more spending.

In Prague, politics have been stalemated since a June election delivered a lower house of parliament divided evenly between left and right.

And in neighboring Slovakia, Prime Minister Robert Fico took power this summer on pledges to undo many of the economic reforms that have made his nation the darling of foreign investors.

His left-wing party generated anxiety when it built a coalition with an ultranationalist party.

After admission to the EU, “what we see now is a rise of populists and nationalism. Frustrations, sentiments and emotions, which were suppressed during the process of admission, are now coming to the surface,” said Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and director of New York University in Prague.

But Mr. Pehe also stressed that the “democratic framework is very strong, and it’s supported by the outside,” thanks to the region’s integration with the West.

Mikulas Dzurinda, the former prime minister of Slovakia, oversaw major pro-market reforms, including a flat tax that created strong economic growth. He acknowledges that voters are disillusioned to find themselves still lagging so far behind the West.

“People thought there was something like a Marshall Plan for the eastern part of Europe that would automatically allow us to reach the richest countries in the union,” Mr. Dzurinda said. “Now I notice something like frustration.”

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