- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 21, 2007

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Demons of the past haunt much of Central and Eastern Europe, where the residue of 45 years of communist rule has yet to yield to constructive democratic forces.

Nationalist witch hunts, populist demagoguery, frequent government changes, high unemployment and the flight of skilled labor hamper efforts to integrate the vast area of more than 100 million inhabitants added to the European Union’s membership nearly three years ago.

At that time “Euroskeptics” feared that expanding the bloc to 25 members would hamper its fragile cohesion and decision-making ability. Last January two more East European countries — Bulgaria and Romania — joined the club, further straining its fabric and its coffers.

‘Old’ versus ‘new’ members

Since then, the gap between “old” and “new” members has grown, rather than diminished. Surveys in the central and eastern parts of the continent show increasing skepticism about European unity, despite development funds lavished on some countries by the European Commission in Brussels.

Impressive new construction in Warsaw, Prague and Budapest has changed their skylines, but the political life of the region has fallen into disarray. Some Western analysts describe the situation as political turmoil.

“Shaky coalitions form shaky governments that reflect popular skepticism about democracy, capitalism, the EU and the U.S.A.,” said Heather Conley, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Central and Eastern Europe.

Last month’s 50th anniversary of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, founder of the six-member European Economic Community that eventually evolved into the union of 27 countries, was marked by warnings that dampened official optimism.

Charter loss a blow

At the anniversary festivities in Berlin, the European Union praised its development “into a highly functional economic and social union, spreading democratic values and economic resources across the continent.”

Margot Wallstrom, vice president of the European Commission for Institutional Relations, said: “For many Europeans, the Union has meant hope and opportunity.” At the same time, though, she conceded that the 2005 defeat of the proposed European constitution by France and the Netherlands was a major blow, and a new effort to create one is not on the horizon.

“If we fail again, the Union will lose its soul, its fragile identity,” Mrs. Wallstrom added. “The European motor hasn’t broken down, but it isn’t certainly working at full throttle.” The lack of a constitution and the union’s inability to speak with one voice seem potentially disastrous to many.

Open debate ‘lacking’

Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive branch, warned that the bloc “could unravel in 20 years unless it reforms its institutions to streamline decision making. Our system of preparing decisions is not fit for the fact that we are now 27 countries, nor for the realities of today’s world.”

“Democratic debate is lacking,” said Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic.

The simmering distress in most Central European countries is perhaps the best illustration of what some consider to be a destabilizing factor overshadowing economic successes.

The de facto creation of a “two-speed Europe,” divided into “old and rich” and the “new and poor,” members has increased “Euroskepticism” and given rise to sometimes extreme nationalism in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

‘Dirty side’ prevails

Intolerance was facilitated by political paralysis during the communist era, warped history books and the personality cults of leaders. Now, 17 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the victory of the Solidarity labor movements in Poland, former communists are offering succor to those embittered by the inadequacies of economies in transition.

In such an atmosphere, the democratic “European world” has yet to assert its values in the eastern part of the continent. According to one Czech analysis of the mood in Central Europe, “the romantic period is over. Now politics is more professional, and that means corruption and the dirty side of politics.”

The European Union’s two “inner blocs” disagree about the union’s trans-Atlantic relations, its plans for a European defense force rather than reliance on NATO, and particularly on the idea of a U.S. ballistic defense shield on Polish and Czech territories.

Approval of U.S. dips

Despite the political quarrels and disinterest in foreign affairs of some Central European capitals, most of the region’s governments feel that involvement with the United States offers a better security guarantee than reliance on Europe’s self-defense capability in years to come.

However, the popularity of the United States, hailed not so long ago as Central Europe’s best ally, is falling. A recent opinion poll in Poland showed that popular approval there of U.S. policies fell from 62 percent to 38 percent in one year.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who currently holds the EU presidency, has sought a common position on the anti-missile shield, which many Europeans believe would expose the continent to attack while sparing the United States.

Poland and the Czech Republic are prepared to accept part of the planned deployment, but other countries want more specific reasons to buy interceptors and a tracking system that has not yet been tested.

Arms race feared

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has denounced the plan as leading to a new arms race. Some EU countries ask who will have launch authority, and how will such a system affect the union’s relations with Russia.

Officially, the system is not aimed at Russia but is a defense against “rogue states,” such as Iran.

Another problem dividing EU members is immigration, now that Britain, Ireland and Sweden have lifted all barriers to skilled Central European labor.

Over the past two years, an estimated 1.2. million Poles — more than 3 percent of Poland’s population — have left to escape unemployment or seek higher wages. Most have settled — not necessarily permanently — in Shakespeare’s “scepter’d isle … this fortress built by nature for herself against infection and the hand of war.”

Poland ‘a barometer’

After the Poles follow Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and citizens of the Baltic states.

When Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union, some West European governments imposed a delay on immigrants from the two countries, while others set selective quotas, causing protests and accusation by Bucharest and Sofia of “second-class” treatment.

Because of its size and population of 39 million, Poland is considered to be a reliable barometer of change in Central Europe. And at this time, things do not look good to Western analysts.

The “government of twins” — Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski and his twin brother, Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski — is veering increasingly to the right amid patriotic slogans, chauvinistic statements and a purge of former communists — not just from government jobs but also from the news media and the legal profession.

‘Witch hunt’ deplored

Under the system known as “lustration” (purification), about 700,000 Poles must submit statements that they did not “secretly and knowingly” cooperate with the political police during the communist era.

The requirement, which took effect in March, violates the principle of the “peaceful break” with the communist past to encourage a peaceful democratic transition.

This “Kaczynski crusade” is seen by Western analysts as a witch hunt, disturbing the agreed political scene, exposing Poland to ridicule, and ignoring the need for economic reforms.

Contends Ignatio Ramonet, a Spanish writer and editor of the French journal “Le Monde Diplomatique,” “These anti-communist purges and attempts to re-impose an authoritarian moral order in Poland, and to some extent in Ukraine, Lithuania and other countries formerly in the Eastern Bloc, conceal a worrying nostalgia for the period before World War II, when racism was blatant.”

Officials pull back

Poland’s increasingly controversial policy has been depleting the ranks of government officialdom and civil servants. In the past 18 months, the country has had two prime ministers, two foreign ministers, two defense ministers and four finance ministers.

In the Czech Republic, much of the past year was spent in search of a government. Of considerable comfort was the economic situation: Unemployment is falling and inflation appears under control.

In neighboring Slovakia, a former partner in the state then called Czechoslovakia, the government is becoming increasingly populist and nationalist following a coalition between the left wing and an ultranationalist party.

Poverty and corruption

Prime Minister Ferenc Guyresany, who leads Hungary’s Socialist Party, has been accused of lying about the state of the economy, and now is pressing reforms. He is helped by the fact that Fides, the nationalist main opposition party, is weak, divided and short of an acceptable economic alternative.

The two latest additions to the European Union, Bulgaria and Romania, arrived with a highly controversial baggage of poverty, nationalism and corruption.

Said one Western analysis: “The Bulgarian Attack Coalition and the Greater Romania Party are aggressively against any national or religious minorities, as well as against the European Union and the United States.”

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