Eastern Europe’s authoritarian return | Inquirer Opinion
World View

Eastern Europe’s authoritarian return

/ 12:30 AM February 19, 2016

MADRID—The European Union is a remarkable achievement of modern statecraft. By building on shared values, it created a space of peace, progress, and freedom that overcame national enmities rooted in decades, if not centuries, of conflict. But the emerging political rift between its Eastern and Western members, together with resurgent nationalism throughout the continent, is putting those values—and thus the future of European integration—to their most severe test yet.

In Eastern Europe, democracy is becoming increasingly illiberal. Leading the way is Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has been implementing his declared vision of an “illiberal state” for the last six years. Now Poland is following suit, with Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party having moved swiftly to assert control over public broadcasting, the civil service, and the Constitutional Court since its election in October. Already, the European Union has launched an official inquiry into potential violations of its rule-of-law standards.


The move toward authoritarianism in Eastern Europe has been accompanied by outright defiance of EU-wide quotas for migrants, aimed at easing the massive refugee crisis that Europe now faces. Meanwhile, Germany registered about a million asylum-seekers last year alone.

This split reflects a fundamental divergence in the two sides’ response to history. Germany’s enlightened approach in matters like migration and civil liberties amounts to a direct rejection of its actions during World War II. Though, as the Yale historian Timothy Snyder points out, collaborators in the “bloodlands” between Berlin and Moscow often supported the Nazis’ crimes, these societies lack Germany’s guilt complex.


One reason for this is that Eastern Europeans do not share in the legacy of colonialism. The stepchild of empire—migration—is thus a problem to be handled by those who produced it: the old European colonial powers. The countries of Eastern Europe—insecure newcomers to the fragile economic progress offered by EU membership—do not believe that they have any obligations in this regard.

But Eastern Europe does not simply lack the will to welcome migrants; it is actively opposed to doing so, in line with Wladyslaw Gomulka’s maxim that “countries are built on national lines, not multinational ones.” This stance, too, stems at least partly from World War II, as first the Holocaust and then the postwar ethnic cleansing of more than 30 million people, including virtually all Germans in the region, reinforced an aversion to multiethnicity. Indeed, multinational states like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia disintegrated without dictatorships to hold them together.

Historical memories die hard. Poles and others who fell under Soviet rule after 1945 cannot forgive Western Europe for sacrificing them to Stalin at Yalta. Nor do they see their liberation from totalitarianism as a Western European achievement. Eastern Europeans’ gratitude lies elsewhere. The Jewish Hungarian Nobel laureate

Imre Kertész spoke for many in the region when he admitted an inability to shake off his emotional attachment to the United States, which liberated him from Buchenwald and later helped to free Hungary from Soviet communism.

In Eastern Europe, the resurgence of authoritarianism—which prevailed in the region even before the communist era—is propelled by an ingrained fear of being sandwiched between two traditional enemies, Germany and Russia, both of which are still viewed with apprehension. To the PiS and the Polish right, the new Poland’s foundations do not lie in the nonviolent Solidarity movement’s struggle for freedom in the 1980s, which caught the imagination of the West; it lies in Poles’ heroic fight against the Asian Bolsheviks and the German hordes during World War II. As Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski put it, the “Europe of cyclists and vegetarians,” with its naive culture of political correctness and liberalism, represents a threat, not a model.

Conspicuously, when Germany’s EU commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society Günther Oettinger first threatened to put Poland’s government under supervision for its takeover of the media and the Constitutional Court, Poland’s justice minister compared the scrutiny to the Nazi occupation. And Kaczynski defiantly insisted on staying the course while dismissing threats, “particularly by Germans.”

This represents a sea change from the last several years, during which Poland emerged as the poster child for the European Union’s eastern expansion. If Poland leads an axis of wayward member-states, the European Union’s capacity to protect civil liberties within its borders, much less sway other countries, such as Russia—will be severely diminished. And, given the lack of binding instruments to stop member-states from moving toward authoritarianism, avoiding such an outcome will not be easy.


Europe is a continent saturated by history, and haunted by the specter of its repetition.

But if, as Mark Twain supposedly observed, history rhymes rather than repeats itself, the memory of the past should guide Eastern Europe, not take it hostage. The past is a warning, not a destination. Project Syndicate




Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is vice president of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.”

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TAGS: Authoritarianism, democracy, Eastern Europe, Europe, European Union, migration
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