Stand up for democracy

Thirty years ago, people across Central and Eastern Europe took to the streets against communism. Now the target is post-communism as a wave of unrest sweeps across the area and unusual elections take

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Thirty years on from the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, the good news is that the people of the region are making full use of the right to protest they won in 1989. The bad news is that so many people in so many countries feel the
need to do it.

Some countries seem to be on the verge of rejecting conventional politics altogether

Over the past year, there have been major demonstrations in Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Macedonia and Moldova. In Belgrade, an angry crowd stormed the state TV station on 16 March. A few weeks earlier, an even angrier crowd in the Albanian capital Tirana tried to burn down the prime minister’s house.

Disturbing signs of political violence have accompanied this wave of protest. In Poland, the liberal mayor of Gdansk, birthplace of the Solidarity movement, was stabbed to death by an assailant at a charity gala. In Slovakia, Jan Kuciak, an investigative journalist who specialised in the tax affairs of businessmen with links to top politicians, was assassinated in January 2018, along with his fiancee. The country’s wealthiest man allegedly ordered the hit.

Many of the protests are directed at what the demonstrators claim are corrupt and authoritarian rulers, 30 years after they hoped to see the back of them. In Poland and Hungary, by contrast, disillusioned voters have turned to authoritarianism, electing nationalist governments that not only reject the liberal consensus of 1989 but which actively undermine the independence of the judiciary and media, earning, in Poland’s case, censure from the EU.

Some countries seem to be on the verge of rejecting conventional politics altogether. In Czechia – the Czech Republic’s new name since 2016 – voters elected Andri Babis prime minister, a businessman whose commitment to the European Union is underpinned by the fact that his companies get millions of euros in EU subsidies. Babis’s main opposition comes from the techno-utopians of the Pirate Party.

And on 30 March, exasperated voters in Ukraine gave a big majority to Volodymyr Zelensky in the first round of presidential elections. Zelensky is famous locally for starring in a comedy drama in which he plays the president of Ukraine. A fictional president, it seems, can’t do any worse.

It all seems a long way from the fall of the Berlin Wall. What’s happening?

“It’s important not to generalise too much across countries when it comes to these waves of discontent,” Dr Alex Clarkson of Kings College’s department of European and international studies tells Big Issue North.

“Poland has authoritarian government but also has a well organised opposition, a strong civic tradition and viable independent media. But in Serbia, because of the wars of the 1990s, the idea of a ‘strong leader who will save us’ still has public appeal, and protesters have to push back against that.”

One factor that does unite protesters from Belgrade to Bucharest is corruption. Once accepted as part of the growing pains of post-communism, graft has embedded itself in some countries to the point where it affects everyday life.

“Some of the effects are having to pay bribes, being subject to officials who aren’t held accountable and can hurt you in various ways, and tax money being stolen for the personal use of the wealthy and well-connected, resulting in poor infrastructure,” says Ilya Lozovsky, managing editor of the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

This creates the kind of atmosphere in which rightwing populism can thrive, he says. “There is much more cynicism and resignation in more corrupt countries, which degrades trust that the system could ever be managed in a good-faith way and leaves the political system vulnerable to demagogues. I would say it’s a huge factor. Generally these outsiders aren’t bringing any novel ideas, but repackaging standard right-wing and even fascist tropes. Unfortunately it seems to work, to a degree.”

Perhaps the best example of this is Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz and its leader Viktor Orban. Originally a group of young dissidents opposed to Communist Party rule, Fidesz emerged as a pro-market liberal group in 1989. As disillusion with the realities of post-communism spread, Orban gradually took his party rightwards. A series of corruption scandals along with the effects of the financial crash of 2008 saw Hungarian voters turn to what is now an unashamedly hard-right party in enough numbers to give it large majorities in every election since 2010.

Since then, Orban has changed the constitution, packed the judiciary and bought out and shut down opposition media. He has also benefited from over 4.5 billion in EU funding granted to Hungary since accession in 2004.

“It’s fair to say that post-communist countries within the EU are better off in most respects than those outside it,” says Clarkson. “The EU is especially strong in law enforcement and legal mechanisms, and this provides the means of fighting against corruption.

“At the same time, the EU’s grant regime means that people like Orban have plenty of money to reward their friends and supporters.”

The EU is less than impressed with Orban, though, and his ever growing anti-immigrant rhetoric. Last month the centre-right grouping in the European Parliament, the EPP, suspended his party’s membership of it, and the European Commission accused Orban of distorting the truth about immigration.

One of the major grievances of the protesters who ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 was the complicity of western financial institutions in the theft of public assets by wealthy oligarchs. Such practices “aid and abet” corruption, says Lozovsky. “But the roots are home-grown, in the institutions and political culture.”

The political liberations of 1989 were rapidly followed by crash-privatisation programmes in countries across the region. This was mainly to stimulate economic growth. But it was also intended to promote clean government: since power corrupts, reducing the power of the government over the economy would force politicians to be honest by removing them from temptation. That’s not how things turned out.

“It’s clear now that the rapid privatisation programme was a mistake,” says Clarkson. “It was done far too quickly without proper oversight and that meant public assets were simply parcelled out by politicians to co-operative business figures, who in turn could influence the political and legal process. It enabled corruption and helped establish a patronage model of government.”

It may be too late to reverse the privatisation process. But the region does seem to be in danger of falling into a vicious circle where corruption, disillusion and authoritarianism feed off each other. “If nothing serious is done about corruption over the next 10 years, freedoms and economies will degrade and the power of demagogues of various kind will rise,” says Lozovsky.

None of this means the situation is hopeless. The murder of Kuciak in Slovakia generated a protest movement that helped force the resignation of Slovak prime minister Robert Fico and the arrest of Marian Kocner, the politically powerful oligarch believed responsible for his murder. Slovakia also resisted the right-wing populist wave by electing liberal anti-graft campaigner Zuzana Caputova president on 30 March.

In Poland, meanwhile, Robert Biedron is the kind of politician who is just not supposed to happen in a country ruled by the conservative nationalist Law and Justice party: an openly gay liberal-leftist who has vowed to liberalise abortion laws. Yet Biedron’s Wiosna (Spring) Party surged to 16 per cent in local polls as soon as it was founded in February.

“There are clearly problems in Eastern and Central European countries, but we should keep them in perspective,”
says Clarkson. “Take Zeman, the Czech president. He’s a terrible man, a reactionary and a bigot. And you can walk up to him and tell him that to his face.”

The people’s punchline

Ukrainians woke up on April Fool’s Day to find that they had just elected a comedian as front-runner for their next president.

Yet Volodymyr Zelensky isn’t just a bog-standard stand-up. He’s famous for his lead role in the comedy Servant of the People, in which he plays an ordinary man in the street who is more or less accidentally elected president of Ukraine.

And if Zelensky wins his run-off against current president Petro Poroshenko on 21 April, he will be the only European head of state to have appeared in a local franchise of Dancing with the Stars.

Zelensky’s opponents have portrayed him as a puppet of local oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns the TV channel that shows Servant of the People. He’s criticised as weak on Russia, which backs – and controls – Ukraine’s breakaway regions. Above all, he’s just not, well, serious.

That’s the point, say his supporters. Zelinsky’s character in Servant of the People defies powerful oligarchs, sleazy consultants and pompous international advisers. His audience laughs along with someone who understands what’s on their minds. He doesn’t just speak the language of the people, he tells their jokes. And the people have made him their punchline.

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