Iron Curtains of the mind

"Much 'western' analysis of central and eastern Europe remains rife with prejudices, half-truths and a lack of critical perspective," write Benjamin Tallis from IIR's Centre for European Security and Derek Sayer, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, Canada in their piece for openDemocracy.

The Iron Curtain may have been drawn back in 1989-1991, but you wouldn't know it to read much of the commentary on the Czech parliamentary elections – and much recent commentary on ‘Eastern Europe’ more generally.

Much attention has been lavished on comparing Czech politician Andrej Babiš to Viktor Orban, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Donald Trump and, more plausibly, to Silvio Berlusconi, but this has obscured deeper problems in western analyses of the region. Many of the sins laid at the door of central and eastern Europeans are no less prevalent in western countries, but this is too often lost amidst enduring Cold War stereotypes.

In a recent Op-Ed typical of this trend, Jochen Bittner charged that across the Visegrad Group (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia), "leading politicians agitate against the European Union, portraying it as an imposing, undemocratic force."

This is true. But populist politicians across western Europe portray the EU in exactly the same way. Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands both promised their electorate referendums on EU membership in hopes of emulating Brexit, whose champion was the anti-establishment politician and Donald Trump ally Nigel Farage.

Bittner cites the Visegrad Four's refusal to take in Muslim refugees as further evidence that they "decline to follow the Western mainstream." But the UK also rejects EU quotas (from which it has a handy opt-out) and has admitted far fewer Muslim refugees than many other EU states, while across the Atlantic Donald Trump campaigned on a total "Muslim ban" that he is still trying to get through the courts.

In the Czech Republic, that Mr Babiš's ANO—a party that is actually committed to remaining in the EU—got 29.6% of the vote and Tomio Okamura's far-right SPD got 10.6% as proof of "the failure of the West to completely integrate Central and Eastern Europe.” But Marine Le Pen got 33.9% of the vote in the 2017 French presidential election, while the populist Austrian Freedom Party's Norbert Hofer won 46.2% of the vote in the 2017 Austrian presidential election.

Parties whose politics are comparable with Okamura's SPD gained higher proportions of the vote in national elections in 2017 in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders' PVV came second with 13.1% of the vote, and Germany itself, where Alternative für Deutschland took 12.6%.  

The biggest recent triumphs for populist politics have come in those supposed bastions of western democracy the United Kingdom and the USA. Theresa May has repeatedly stated that concerns over immigration were a major driver of the UK's decision to leave the EU. Mr Trump's cocktail of economic nationalism, Islamophobia, and hostility to immigrants attracted 46.1% of the popular vote in the US—far more than Mr Babiš.

There is irony, in this context, in Bittner's condemnation of Mr Babiš as "a ruthless businessman, more interested in expanding his personal power than in furthering the common good." Trump has also repeatedly acted in ways that suggest he might "regard democratic checks and balances as annoying hindrances to real men doing real politics."

All this prompts the question: are France, Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, the UK, and the US outside "the Western mainstream" too?   

By accusing the Czech Republic of "turning on the West," Bittner assumes that there is a unitary West to turn on and that the Czech Republic is not part of it. This divisive approach had long been the fate of the countries on the "western periphery" of "Communist Europe."

After abating somewhat following the accession of eight former communist countries (the ‘EU-8’) including the Visegrad Four to the Union in 2004, it has recently returned with a vengeance. So too has the notion of a backward, illiberal and ungrateful ‘Eastern’ Europe that is contrasted to the progressive, liberal West.

You can read the full article here.

Dr Benjamin Tallis is a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations, member of its Centre for European Security and editor-in-chief of New Perspectives.