Central Europe, From Postcommunism to Democracy?

Last Sunday, a 94-year-old woman held a small European flag in her hand as she wheeled her wheelchair through Warsaw among thousands of demonstrators protesting against the reform of the Polish judiciary and her government’s confrontation with the European Union. That lady, who in 1944 was a young fighter in the Warsaw Uprising against Nazism, is today a symbol of the dissatisfaction of a large part of the Polish population who are well aware that their government is getting closer and closer to the anti-democratic populism of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and is rebelling against the democratic values that characterize the European Union.

The lady with the little blue flag with yellow stars would surely like to say goodbye to populism in her country in the next elections, just as the Czechs did last October 9 when they said their big NO to the oligarch Andrej Babiš and his ANO movement (which in Czech means “yes”). For months, many Czech citizens had been waiting for the elections as the time to free themselves from the corrupt populist Babiš, one of the richest oligarchs in Europe, who owns a large part of the Czech media.

“We are the change, just as you are,” political scientist Petr Fiala, leader of the Spolu (“Together”) coalition – which with nearly 28% of the vote narrowly beat ANO – told his voters, thanks to whom he will be the next prime minister. Babiš, by using his campaign to badmouth almost all the other parties, made it impossible for some aprties which might have formed a coalition with him to enter the Parliament and ensured that those parties which did manage to do so, avoided entering a coalition with ANO because they preferred to strengthen the winning formation. With his poisonous rhetoric Babiš dug his own grave, politically speaking.

Another important factor in the oligarch’s defeat was the publication of the Pandora Papers, in which Babiš is listed as the owner of a château on the Côte d’Azur and 4.3 billion euros in tax havens. While Babiš relied mainly on voters in rural areas and based his proposals on Euroscepticism, populism and the demonization of immigration – attitudes similar to those of the current leaders of Poland and Hungary – the winner of the elections has promised the opposite, at least on some issues: closer ties with the European Union and more democracy. Since in post-communist Europe the immigration issue is a minefield, Fiala has not made any pronouncements on it and no major changes are expected in this area, and neither are they as regards the legalization of homosexual marriages and other social advances.

Changes are also expected in Hungary. It is not that Orbán has changed his policy of confronting of confronting the European Union and undermining the democratic system, which in Hungary is getting dangerously close to autocracy, just as it is in Poland. But thanks to the victory of the Social Democrats in the recent German elections, Orbán may soon be forced to change course. The Hungarian premier had, in Angela Merkel, a pragmatic protector who shunned political confrontations because she preferred to focus on the prosperity of German business, especially since Orbán helped Volkswagen after the 2015 scandal. The relationship of the two politicians, who consider themselves disciples of Helmut Kohl, was much closer than it might appear at first glance. The German chancellor’s forthcoming withdrawal began to be felt as early as last year when German EU politicians emphatically expressed their displeasure with Hungary and expelled Fidesz, Orbán’s party, from the European PP. While Merkel’s presidential candidate Armin Laschet stressed that the EU needs Hungary and Poland, Olaf Scholz, the election winner, does not insist on this at all. And the strengthened Green party is highly critical of both countries.

Central Europe, or at least part of it, may be entering a new phase that may mark the whole of the present decade: that of leaving post-communism behind to enter a more solid democracy. Poland, after its rebellion against European justice, received a strong rebuke and will not be able to continue as before. And if Hungary does not want to lose its European subsidies, it will have to control its autocratic temptations better. Moreover, under the influence of the Czech rejection of populism, also rejected by Slovakia after the election of Zuzana Čaputová as president two years ago, Poland and Hungary will have lost important ideological support in the area and will remain a couple of black sheep in the Europe of democratic values.

For all these reasons, perhaps that old Polish woman with a little European flag in her hand was heralding the emergence of a Central Europe that will gradually cease to be post-communist.


Monika Zgustova

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)