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Those pesky East Europeans

Posted by Helen Friday, November 02, 2007 , , , , , ,

[Health warning: despite the promising title, this is not a posting about immigration and attendant woes. It may be best to stop reading now if that is what you expect.]

From long before the time the former Communist states became part of the European Union I was predicting trouble not because of the immigration or suchlike matters. Nor was I very impressed by the arguments that these countries will reform the EU by being examples of free-market, low-tax economics. They are client states and will reform nothing.

However, they have shown themselves to be rather a thorn in the flesh of France and Germany as far as foreign policy is concerned, being rather more pro-American and anti-Russian than the old members of the EU (including Britain, I am sorry to say).

There are discussions now that it will change with the new Polish government in place under Donald Tusk, but, apart from the fact that this, too, will be a coalition with all the attendant problems, there is also the slight problem that Mr Tusk might not fulfil the EU’s expectations, particularly if, as rumoured, Radek Sikorski becomes his Foreign Minister. (Then again, Mr Szikorski has never exactly managed to fulfil anybody’s expectations either.)

The International Herald Tribune is trying to put a good face on it all but not quite succeeding:

Unlike Law and Justice, however, Civic Platform plans a much tougher approach in its negotiations with Washington. These would range from discussing the financial costs and safety measures of the system to obtaining assurances that the United States would provide a security umbrella for Poland, possibly by providing Patriot missiles, legislators said.
Um, I am not sure Russia or, for that matter Germany is going to like that talk about Patriot missiles.

The one exception to the general anti-Russian sentiment in the new member states has been, oddly enough Hungary, with its much disliked socialist Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, the man who admitted lying morning, noon and night during an election campaign, cosying up to Russia in various ways.

Mr Gyurcsány is becoming seriously unpopular in Hungary, though his argument that he was elected and, therefore, will stay in place is not really wrong. He was elected and it is time the Hungarians understood that the situation has changed and they are in, at least, remote fashion, responsible for what government is in power.

Hogan Hayes on Pajamas Media reports that once again there were large anti-government demonstrations in Budapest on the anniversary of the 1956 revolution. This time, there was considerably less violence than last year, but some fights did break out on the eve of the big demo.

According to the police 30,000 people joined the big demonstration on October 23 and there seems to have been smaller, unauthorized rallies and demonstrations. The opposition party FIDESZ seems to have been more in control of events this year though, inevitably, some of the more right-wing groups were in evidence, particularly during the fights.

The popularity of the opposition has been growing partly because of the Prime Minister’s strange admission about his lack of veracity, partly because of the perception of his pro-Russian tendencies and partly because of the various austerity measures that the government has been trying to introduce, to close the huge gap in the budget.
There was more action on the streets to keep people nervous. On Friday, a protest unaffiliated with any one political party accompanied a taxi strike in opposition to a 65% increase in gas prices. Together the protests blocked major routes through Budapest and the police came out in a show of force. It took several hours to get traffic back to normal.
The police, according to Mr Hayes, behaved well and efficiently this time but I am still waiting to see whether I receive any photographs of what was really going on in Budapest, as I did last year. Come to think of it, I have not seen the report into and police behaviour last October.

Political tensions are quite high in Hungary with the political sides becoming ever more shrill in mutual accusations, though one does get the feeling that the majority of the people would like them all to go away so they can get on with their lives and finally achieve that dream of being like other European countries.

One rather disturbing aspect is not so much the rise of nationalist feelings – Hungary has never been short of that – but the language and symbolism displayed. I have written before about the use of the old Árpád flag instead of the usual tricolour, which was the flag of Hungary in 1848, 1918, 1956 but is, somehow, not good enough for some of the right-wing organizations.

Some weeks ago a new vaguely paramilitary force was formed, the Magyar Gárda, which has finally been mentioned in the British media by Harry de Quetteville in the Daily Telegraph a couple of days ago.

He describes the swearing in of the new recruits, the use of the flag and the black and white uniform, which does, no matter how often it is ridiculed, remind people of the Nyilas party, the local Nazis who took over after the Germans had moved in and overthrew Admiral Horthy’s government in 1944.

The language used by the Guard and its supporters of semi-supporters is a little disturbing, too. Starting with the need to get rid of the Communists and the Socialists so many of them had turned into, they move on to talk of spiritual corruption and the need for cleansing and rebirth. It was not that long ago that language of that kind was last used, accompanied by mass murder.

Mr de Quetteville’s article notes that the rise of the right is becoming more prominent across the new East European countries and he wonders whether that is the inevitable consequence of them joining the European Union.
In Slovakia, the National Party (SNS), led by Jan Slota, is in power as part of the ruling coalition. Slota and the Magyar Garda are made for each other, as Hungary and Slovakia square up over ethnic hangovers from the Second World War.

Across the border in Slovakia's old national partner, the Czech Republic, authorities are gearing up for November 10, the anniversary of Kristallnacht no less, when neo-Nazis have been given permission to march through the old Jewish Quarter of Prague. There, last Sunday, on the anniversary of the 1918 birth of Czechoslovakia, the far-Right National Party founded its own paramilitary unit, the so-called National Guard.

They laid a wreath at the statue of Wenceslas, patron saint of Bohemia and voiced the twin "threats", old and new, that buzz through the minds of so many such movements in "New Europe". The first is ethnic: "The Sudeten Germans' demands are starting to rise again," said the National Party's Jan Skacel, dredging up the ghosts of the Second World War. The second is supra-national: "We don't want to be controlled from Brussels."

Further south, another party willing to trade on ethnic division for political profit, Ataka, scooped up 21 seats in Bulgaria's parliament. In Sofia, political analyst Ivan Krastev tried to diagnose the nationalist surge. "During the 10 years of EU accession preparations, national sentiments were repressed," he said. "Now we don't need to be so politically correct."

He suggested that the wholesale triumph of capitalism across Europe was inadvertently to blame. "There is an economic consensus now, and when you cannot disagree on the economy, you disagree on national identity," he said. "When class politics is out, ethnic politics is in." As disaffected nationalism swells, Mr Krastev says the important thing is to distinguish the merely unpalatable from the genuinely threatening.
A few things to be noted here. The nationalities and national disputes of Eastern Europe are seriously convoluted. They were either suppressed or forcibly “sorted out” after the Second World War but they have not gone away. (Did I mention that I am waiting for the problem of Transylvania to rear its head very soon?)

Furthermore, as in East Germany, so in the other countries: becoming a Soviet satellite willy-nilly meant that the countries were exempt from any kind of real analysis of what had happened before, during and immediately after the war. It was all the nasty ruling classes, the Nazis or, for many people, the Soviets.
Finally, there is the problem that national feelings when suppressed for too long will have a resurgence often in unpleasant forms. Mostly, it did not happen immediately after the fall of the Soviet empire. Maybe it is happening now.

Or maybe not and these are simply marginal organizations and influences that will, in the fullness of time, disappear from sight to spend their time grumbling over their beer. Either way, there are interesting times ahead for the EU, who has so unwisely expanded beyond the Oder-Neisse line.

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