The writing on the Wall: Thirty years later, Eastern Europe’s post-Communist experiment is in peril

The Globe and Mail, December 27, 2019

It’s been 30 years since transformative changes came to Europe – since protesters breached the Berlin Wall in November, 1989, signalling a dramatic end to years of brutal, deadly Communist repression in the region. But there were other, less visually compelling events that were even more important.

In February of that same year, Lech Walesa and the other leaders of the formerly banned and persecuted Polish Solidarity trade union met with Interior Minister Czeslaw Kiszczak and other officials of the Communist Party, which had ruled the country for more than 40 years. At those historic meetings, one side – the government’s – still had the power to execute everyone on the other side. Perhaps symbolically, then, the table was round – sideless.

Those sessions would produce a new social contract that led to the first almost-democratic elections in Poland. In 2010, when I spoke with General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the country’s last Communist leader, he had no criticism of the process that meant he would retire from political life. Dissident leader Adam Michnik, who had become editor-in-chief of the once-banned Gazeta Wyborcza was looking forward to playing chess with the deposed president.

In June, Imre Nagy – the Hungarian prime minister who was executed after the 1956 Revolution – was reburied with the pomp and circumstance due to a great leader. A young radical student called Viktor Orban gave a moving speech demanding that the Soviet army leave his country. By the fall of the Wall, it was obvious that the countries east of it would join the rest of Europe.

Czechoslovakia and Romania were the last two to give up on communism as enforced by the Soviets. The Czechoslovak Communist Party ceded power on Dec. 10, 1989. Twenty years later, they were still debating what to do with the massive archives of what had once been their notoriously repressive secret police. Vaclav Havel, Czechoslovakia’s first democratically elected president, advised letting the past be the past and let later historians debate its importance for the future. Fifteen days after the events in Czechoslovakia, Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s last Communist potentate, and his wife were tried by military court and executed on Christmas Day, 1989.

Decades later, despite a sense of optimism about the future and an eagerness about the European Union, the transition remained troubled. The 2008 worldwide financial crisis had disastrous effects on Eastern Europe’s ability to fulfill the promises of its post-Communist leaders. Individuals who were still staggering under the burdens of adjusting to a different way of life, as well as the many small companies that had sprung up using readily available loans, were devastated.

Meanwhile, the eastern oligarchs who had enriched themselves through shady privatizations schemes and the mobile, highly paid executives of large corporations remained largely unaffected by the crisis. One Polish intellectual said to me: “We asked for democracy, you brought us the market.”

As Anne Applebaum wrote in  The Atlantic “given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy.” The 2008 financial crisis may well have provided those conditions. When I last met Mr. Havel, in September, 2009, he compared his country to Holland: relatively secure, a bit boring. “We are banal capitalists, having drawn no lessons from 50 years of the West’s own experiences … but at least we have free speech.”

Populists in both Poland and Hungary have now proven that even that can’t be guaranteed.

Political parties who have highlighted the division between “the people” and “the elites” – the definition of the latter having now been stretched to include “people who criticize the leader” – have transformed those two countries. And as both countries’ leaders promise a “cultural counter-revolution” in the European Union, they threaten the EU’s very existence.

Political parties who have highlighted the division between “the people” and “the elites” – the definition of the latter having now been stretched to include “all people who criticize the leader” – have transformed those two countries. And as both countries’ leaders promise a “cultural counterrevolution” in the European Union, they threaten the EU’s very existence.

In Hungary, the passionate young radical Mr. Orban has become a strongman Prime Minister, winning three consecutive elections on the strength of rhetoric against the bogeymen of the EU capital of Brussels and of George Soros – the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist who has been a lifeline for many pre-1989 dissidents. In Mr. Orban’s view, Mr. Soros represents everything that is distracting to his vision of a successful country, from immigration to human-rights organizations with real political power.

Mr. Orban claims to speak for “the people” or “the nation,” even as he eliminates most critical news media, passes a media law putting regulation and licensing into government hands, fills the positions of retiring judges with loyalists, packs the constitutional court, gerrymanders electoral districts, demonizes migrants, and banishes the Soros-funded Central European University. CEU, one of the best graduate schools in Europe, dared to promote an open, pluralist society – and that did not fit with Mr. Orban’s proudly declared “illiberal democracy.”

Meanwhile, in Poland, the Law and Justice Party is running the country with the support of 45 per cent of voters. The party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has promised “Budapest in Warsaw,” an allusion to Mr. Orban’s model of government. His brand of nationalism plays well to the Polish sense of messianism – the idea that the country is “the Christ of nations,” martyred by its former allies at the end of the Second World War when, after its heroic defense of Warsaw, it was occupied by the Soviet army.

In a recent interview with the publication Foreign Policy, Mr. Michnik spoke of the government’s efforts to silence critical media, its attacks on public institutions, taking control of the courts and installing loyalists in all public companies. It has gutted public broadcasting, firing thousands of journalists to enable it to broadcast its own propaganda.

In the Czech Republic, the EU has taken on the aura of a faceless enemy that ignores the will of the people. Milos Zeman, who was out of power when I met him in 2010, has been re-elected as president. He is a pro-Russian, anti-immigrant populist who seems to yearn to become China’s reliable partner in Europe, and has called for a referendum on quitting the EU and NATO.

Andrej Babis, the Prime Minister, was accused of collaborating with Czechoslovakia’s secret police. He was also formally charged over allegations that a company he controlled unlawfully received a €2-million subsidy from the European Regional Development Fund, but despite an investigation by both the Czech police and the European Anti-Fraud Office, he and his party were re-elected in 2017, granting him immunity from prosecution. This is one of the hallmarks of governments in post-Communist countries: their protection of those who have accumulated vast fortunes. Mr. Babis, the country’s second-richest man, has a fortune estimated at more than US$3.6-billion. In Hungary, the country’s wealthiest man is the former mayor of Felcsut, Mr. Orban’s hometown. People close to the government win lucrative contracts and their financial statements are not scrutinized.

The migrant crisis that saw more than a million people marching to Europe has added fuel to the engines of ethno-nationalists. The false notion that unlimited immigration was on the EU’s agenda – allegedly aided by Mr. Soros’s foundations – has taken root in the electorate. Mr. Orban’s fence on Hungary’s border with Serbia and Croatia has become a model for resistance, as has his stand of a Christian Europe holding back the Muslim hordes.

The ghosts that had lurked under the now-thawed ice of communism have been emerging to haunt the living, including those murdered during the Holocaust. Hungary – the country where I was born – is still struggling to acknowledge its role as a German ally, its well-organized measures to force people into ghettos and into boxcars bound for Auschwitz-Birkenau. Despite Mr. Orban’s avowed friendship with Israel, it was hard to miss the anti-Semitic tones of the government’s ad campaign featuring a grinning Mr. Soros with the text, “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.” The parallels to similar images from the 1930s could not be ignored.

The European Union has been too busy with concerns about its own survival to bother with its backsliding members. It has issued warnings and threats, but appears to have no concrete plans around curbing the illiberal tendencies in Eastern Europe, or stopping them from taking advantage. Last month, The New York Times revealed how the EU has subsidized “money farmers” – modern-day land barons – with its farm programs. Mr. Babis is among those who collected millions of euros, along with the well-connected few in Slovakia and Hungary, while the Orban government has auctioned off thousands of acres of land to the Prime Minister’s friends and associates. Yet the program remains the biggest item on the EU’s central budget.

But there are lights on the horizon. On Nov. 16, the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, more than 200,000 demonstrators gathered in Prague’s Letna Park, waving EU flags and demanding the Prime Minister’s resignation. Recent city elections in Hungary brought opposition parties together, and they successfully elected a new mayor in Budapest whose name – Karacsony, meaning Christmas – seems auspicious for the moment.

Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico resigned after mass protests over the murder of investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancée; Mr. Kuciak had been looking into the illegal business dealings of a powerful businessman with close ties to the Fico government. The new President is 46-year-old Zuzana Caputova, nicknamed the “Tatra Tigress.” While her job is largely ceremonial, it does seem to presage a new era in Slovakian politics. She told The New Yorker that she feels the responsibility to be a “carrier of hope” for her people. In her first major public speech, she spoke with sympathy of the frustrations of those who live at subsistence level, and those who are “different” needing to see justice that cannot be bought.

Last month, I visited Budapest again – to help promote the Hungarian edition of my book about Mr. Soros, putting me in the strange position of defending the all-purpose bogeyman of the Orban government – and was reminded that it is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. But I was appalled to see the abominable statue still standing on Szabadsag Square of Hungary as an angel, under attack by the nasty German eagle – a grotesque effort to play the victim card; the push to restore the reputation of governor Miklos Horthy, who was in power when half a million Hungarians were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau; the statue of Imre Nagy moved from its once-honoured place across from the parliament buildings.

I was there when Nagy addressed demonstrators in that square, 63 years ago. The sound system was scratchy, and I was too young to understand all that he said, but I remember the emotion of that moment, just as I remember all the blood when the snipers shot into the crowd. It is not a sight I wish to see again.

There are signs of hope in Eastern Europe. But they need to turn into something more than hope.