Recently, an apparently banal football incident in Slovakia acquired the dimensions of a serious conflict after Hungarians burned Slovak national flags and blocked border crossings. Bitter words were also heard at the government level in both countries.
An obvious provocation, planned by the Hungarian extreme right-wing party Jobbik, in cooperation with the Hungarian Guard, was bound to inflame feelings on both sides. The brutality of the Slovak police intervention helped Jobbik attract the sympathy of many ordinary Hungarians. The incident has created an ideal situation for populist manipulation at an emotional level. On both sides, politicians well versed in populist rhetoric such as Robert Fico and Viktor Orbán, competed to stoke the fire of nationalism. The use of words such as sovereignty, national identity and national pride demonstrated that the state, national and ethnic borders that were thought to have been abolished within the EU, continue to live on in people’s minds.
This ought not to come as a surprise to anyone – especially after a series of nationalist incidents in the former Yugoslavia not so long ago. As Adam Michnik once put it, nationalism is like a virus that is just slumbering, waiting for favourable conditions to arrive. Luckily the recent incidents have not had serious consequences. However, what is important is that old resentments are used to stir up conflict, to create an atmosphere which a right wing party can use for its own purposes to attract attention and, in the long run, to gain power.
This is a well-known technique, particularly in Austria, where in last year’s election two extreme right-wing parties secured nearly 30% of the vote thanks to xenophobic and anti-EU rhetoric. The majority might be repelled by right-wing extremism but the fact is that it tackles issues that are not interesting to other parties because they are not considered sufficiently sexy in this era of infotainment. On the other hand, those gathered under the banner of national identity feel warm, cosy and safely at home. It may be smelly but it feels safe. H.C. Strache and Pia Kjarsgaard, Umberto Bossi and Krisztina Morvai, Gigi Becali and Bojko Borisov all know it full well. And while the sources of unrest may differ in Italy and Hungary, the effect is the same.
We think we are familiar with the Western variety of populism but how different is the one that has emerged in former Communist countries? What frustrations are oppressing the countries whose dreams have come true with joining the European Union?
If we simplify issues that are rather complex, we can point to two key differences between the old and the new Europe. The former plays the anti-immigration and anti-EU card because its inhabitants are afraid of losing the privileges they have grown accustomed to. The latter has to cope with the disappointment of people whose expectations have not been met. You have lost your national sovereignty, say the populists; now you are about to lose your national identity.
Corruption is thriving, political elites are untrustworthy, and democracy is a merry-go-round of the same political faces. Furthermore, capitalism has created an enormous class chasm and a huge area of poverty. Freedom and opportunities are indeed a single package. But, as people soon realized, freedom without money is a new form of slavery. As Romanian political scientist Alina Mungiu Pippidi wrote: “The inhabitants of East Central Europe support democracy but they are poor. The majority rate their families’ economic situation as bad or very bad (90% in Bulgaria and 75% in Hungary).
However, the new populism of the former communist countries is not anti-democratic in nature. Some experts believe it has its positive sides because it does rouse the masses out of passivity and gets them engaged in politics. Moreover, according to the director of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Ivan Krastev, populism has brought about a profound transformation of the European liberal democracies. As he wrote a year ago: today the streets of Budapest and Warsaw are filled not by paramilitary formations brutally seeking a final solution but rather by armies of tireless consumers seeking the ultimate bargain.
It sounded amusing – until the financial markets collapsed.
So what now? There will be less foreign investment, fewer jobs and less credit but more budget cuts and an even greater budget deficit. There will be more nationalist incidents like the one in Slovakia and more brutal words.
The situation in the countries of new Europe is hard enough without the recession. How will the political landscape change now? What if the new situation has paved the way not just for an expansion of the extreme right but for a return of the left? After all, the left can say: we told you so . In Germany, Karl Marx’s works have been gaining in popularity. Only recently, if someone asked whether the new Europe faced the threat of populism, the answer would have been a cautious no. Today it is an open question.
Translation: Julia Sherwood
This article was published in Polish in the Gazeta Wyborcza on 3 April 2009.
We are grateful to Slavenka Drakulic for the permission to publish this text in English.