Despite the firmness shown by the EU’s biggest players when it comes to sanctioning Putin’s Russia, lower down the pecking order some member states are not happy. Unlike the most craven and obedient puppets — the Baltic States and Poland — it took some arm twisting to get the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary to agree to punish Moscow for annexing Crimea. Each country is dependent for much of its energy on Russia with which there are also valued economic ties. Why rock the boat? Despite hyperbole claiming that Vladimir Putin was intent on taking them over and rebuilding the iron curtain, in reality, Russia has been an unproblematic neighbour for a quarter of a century.
Could these ripples of discontent with the famed Washington consensus develop into something more troubling for both the US and Brussels? What can they do about it? All three countries are members of both NATO and the EU. Promoting regime change inside the Euro-Atlantic tentsurely becomes more problematic. Or, does it? Let us examine each case separately and see what the auguries bode.
On 17th November 2014, it was drab and raining in Prague as the Czechs celebrated 25 years since the so-called “velvet revolution,” unlike the classic freezing, East European winter day of 17th November 1989. Demonstrations to mark the event were slated to take place and a mass of candles filled the passage way on Národní Třida (National Street) where student “Martin Šmid” died at the hands of the police, an event that was said to have triggered the collapse of the communist regime. But, hold on: it soon emerged that Martin Šmid didn’t exist; he had been invented by the Czechoslovak security services, the STB (Státní Bezpečnost) as part of a ploy to bring a new, reformed post-communist regime to power.
Emoting over a death that never took place seems weird but, in a way it sums up the banality that lays at the heart of all things connected with the “velvet” events. This was only reinforced later in the day when a group of anti-capitalist protesters snaked its way through the city centre wearing papier maché masks, some bearing the image of the evil Putin, others the reviled (at least, by the local cogniscenti) Czech president, Miloš Zeman. A few Ukrainian flags brought up the rear. Other banners denounced
Ecuador’s left wing president, Rafael Correa, hardly a household name in Prague.[I] As the hundred or so protesters passed the Rudolfinum concert hall, a group of elderly rock musicians with lank, grey hair plugged away at some ancient protest songs watched by a handful of leather clad biker types.
Over the river, at Prague castle, a more serious group had been gathering during the afternoon: students bent on delivering a message to President Zeman that it was time to go. They did this by leaving a trail of red cards inside the presidential palace complex (the red card is used in football matches to send a player off the pitch). Several hundred protesters ended up under the ceremonial balcony demanding Zeman leave. Fluttering over the courtyard was the presidential flag denoting that Zeman was in residence. It is difficult to imagine such protests taking place in front of the White House or 10 Downing Street but, no one tried to remove the students who did not, to be fair, behave in a violent or intimidating manner. However, there had been scuffles earlier in the day at a “velvet revolution” ceremony attended by various European dignitaries, including Germany’s President Gauck. When students pelted Zeman (who was protected by an umbrella) with eggs one misdirected andmanaged to hit Gauck.
What, then, has caused the animus against Zeman? The president is a rather shambolic figure who, his detractors allege, besmirches his office by drinking heavily and speaking “off the cuff” (he even smokes and is regularly photographed with a lighted cigarette as if to highlight his malevolence).
As long time leader of the Czech Social Democrats and a former prime minister, Zeman earned the ire of the chattering classes by joining a coalition with former president Vaclav Klaus between 1998 and 2002. By then, Klaus had developed a healthy scepticism towards the EU and both men opposed US sponsored wars in Kosovo and later Iraq which led to their being anathematized by Brussels and Washington and, by extension, the local bien pensants, whose hero ex-dissident Vaclav Havel was the first Czech to advocate bombarding Belgrade since the Good Soldier Sweijk in 1914! When Klaus’s term ended in 2012, such people assumed that their candidate, Prince Karl Schwarzenberg, would be
effortlessly elected to replace him. However, even though the Czech Republic is the repository of much Hapsburg charm in the form of castles and cultural artefacts, the electorate consists of a majority of post- communist bumpkins unlikely to feel represented by a Knight of the Golden Fleece. 54.8 percent voted for Zeman while 45.2 percent (mainly in Prague) chose Schwarzenberg.
As the role is mainly ceremonial, the president could have been ignored but Zeman has chosen to speak out on numerous occasions and in ways to infuriate his imperial masters. He has regularly demanded normal relations with Putin’s Russia, called the Ukrainian crisis a “civil war” and then, in a radio interview categorised Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a criminal while reminding listeners of the double entendre involved in the moniker “Pussy Riot.” Despite their usual boasts of über-liberal sexual mores, the intellectual elite of Prague expressed outrage at this outburst of vulgarity. “They don’t like him because he’s naughty,” a young reporter from Czech Television said of the student protesters. “How can we have a president like that,” they moan. “He must go”.
Added to their woes has been the seemingly inexorable rise of a new political party, ANO[II], which came a close second in the 2013 parliamentary election and is now in coalition with the Social Democrats. Many people take it for granted that ANO’s founder, the billionaire Andrej Babiš, now the country’s minister of finance, will end up as prime minister; the party did well in autumn, 2014 local elections. What, then, is wrong with ANO?
According to the Czech media (and the Euro-American oriented elite) Babiš is a Berlusconi clone, boss of one of the Czech Republic’s largest conglomerates, Agrofert, who, like Berlusconi, is also buying up media outlets. ANO is composed of old secret policemen and headed by Informer-in-Chief, Babiš.[III] A Slovak by origin, Babiš took the allegations to court and was cleared, but the rumours have persisted as has the intention to appeal. However, it seems clear that, apart from the twitterings of the Prague elite, ordinary Czechs are not particularly concerned by such allegations nearly 30 years after the Communists fell from power. Anyway, many of the alleged ANO nest of spies and informers were too young at the time of their “service” to have been very important cogs in the machine. All this is a smoke screen. Babiš has trodden on various entrenched local interests. He has also supported the extension of nuclear power in the Czech Republic which has angered the EU’s generously subsidised renewables lobby which probably sees the troubles with Russian gas as a golden opportunity to cash in.
Are things any better, more reliable from the Euro-Atlantic perspective, in neighbouring Slovakia? The answer is: not entirely. Slovakia has thrown up politicians frowned upon by the West since its independence was secured by Vladimir Mečiar in 1993. Milan Knažko, an old “sixty eighter” and sometime dissident feared that all the elderly would have to die off before Mečiar finally exited the stage. “Slovaks are stupid,” he said. But, it took twenty years to eliminate Mečiar as a political force only for him to be replaced by another “populist,” Robert Fico, whose leftish SMER (Direction) party won an overall victory in the last Slovak election in 2012. Fico has criticised the EU’s sanctions on Russia and seems to have been forced against his will to implement them, as well as allowing the reverse flow of gas to Ukraine from Slovakia’s own reserves. Of course, his hands are tied as Slovakia is a member of the EU and the single currency. Nevertheless, the empire demands 100 percent obedience, nothing less. Fico stood as a candidate in the March 2014 presidential elections but was surprisingly beaten by a maverick outsider, businessman Andrej Kiska, who made what is described as his “fortune” in hire purchase. Unlike Babiš, his business back ground is regarded as a plus rather than an exercise in predatory capitalism. He is popular with the elites both at home and in Brussels (unlike Fico) and will be an ideal advocate for pushing Slovakia in the “right” direction, for example, by recognising Kosovan independence, something it has refused so far to do to avoid trouble with its restless Hungarian minority.
But, nothing said or done by politicians in Prague and Bratislava equal the level of disobedience that has been coming from further down the Danube in Hungary. There, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has adopted an openly defiant position on a range of issues that have infuriated the EU. But even more dangerously for his long term survival, he has fallen into the cross hairs of Washington. Since summer 2014, demonstrations regularly take place on some pretext or other against the Orban government and long-term regime change watchers can only debate how the situation will finally be resolved. Supporters are confident Orban will survive as he is “popular,” but that never stopped the engine of regime change. Viktor Yanukovich’s party handily won elections in 2012 but he was deposed a year later; the hugely popular Hugo Chavez and Muammar Gaddafi both ended up dead.
Viktor Orban has come a long way from the days of his Soros scholarship at Pembroke College, Oxford. His party, Fidesz, was a classic middle of the road liberal outfit – a proud member of the Liberal International where it now sits somewhat uneasily. However, Hungarians have always been more nationalistic than many Europeans as manifested in their almost unique language; their
sense of national identity and solidarity goes back a long time. When Fidesz won an overwhelming majority in the 2010 parliamentary elections, Viktor Orban, now prime minister, started to put Hungary first. In the wake of the 2008 financial collapse he threw out the IMF and cancelled Hungary’s debt repayments in foreign currency thus lowering the pain for ordinary Hungarians. In 2011, he expelled Monsanto – Hungary has banned the use of GM crops – lowered fuel prices and, in the same year, changed the voting system to a mixed majority and proportional system modelled on Germany. A new constitution has reduced the number of MPs by half. Something must have gone right because in spring 2014’s parliamentary election, Fidesz again won an overall majority. All this took place against the back drop of a broken political order with most Hungarian parties, particularly on the left, scarred by corruption and failure. The ultra-right Jobbik remained as the only functioning opposition party, something unappealing to most right thinking people, including in Hungary.
Accusations of Orban’s “authoritarianism” have gone on for some time, bolstered by a growing number of NGOs in Budapest (mainly foreign funded and backed) as well as tame academics like Princeton’s Kim Lane Scheppele who has tied herself in knots trying to show that Fidesz’s successive victories at the polls (in 2014 alone the party overwhelmingly won parliamentary, local and European elections) were really failures! Perhaps this might just rumble along, going nowhere while – as in Prague – providing low level political gossip for the chattering classes in Budapest to feed on, were it not for Orban’s rather bold foreign policy moves in the past year.
In January 2014 he announced that a deal had been reached with Russia to fund the expansion of Hungary’s Paks nuclear facility. As the Ukrainian events unfolded and energy security came under the spotlight, this could have been viewed as strategic foresight. Not so; the Americans were now very angry. On top of this, when sanctions came up for discussion after the Crimean annexation, Orban baulked at implementing them: “Why should Hungary ‘shoot itself in the foot,’” he said. Like Fico, he dragged his heels over providing Ukraine with reverse flow gas from Hungary’s reserves. As the hate campaign against Putin entered the stratosphere, Viktor remained committed to participating in the South Stream gas project which only came undone when Bulgaria, the weakest link in the chain, pulled out followed by Russia itself redirecting the pipeline to Turkey. According to observers on the ground in Budapest, Orban was now being “warned” by the Cosa Nostra in Washington that he was going “too far.”
At this time, Hungary was without a US ambassador. Colleen Bell, a producer of TV soap operas, was stuck in the congressional vetting process, so finger wagging was left to the Chargé d’Affaires in Budapest, André Goodfriend. Goodfriend has an impressive CV for such a lowly diplomat and his excursions into Hungarian political life, including the now formulaic support for LGBT events, have been high profile culminating in the announcement that six members of the Hungarian government were to be sanctioned and prevented from visiting the US. No names were mentioned but rumours abounded as to the whys and wherefores of the decision.
What to do? With a hopelessly divided and weak opposition given the implosion of the Hungarian Socialists who backed EU-demanded austerity all the way, and with the paramilitary, ultra-nationalist Jobbik as the only substantial alternative to Orban’s party, all that remains is to split Fidesz in the hope of producing something more compliant. On 23rd October, 2014, as if on cue, the BBC’s long time Budapest correspondent, Nick Thorpe, reported that “cracks” were appearing in the ruling party although he failed to put any substance behind the allegation, or name names. Otherwise, there are the NGOs of which there are numerous as well as blogs and online publications which trash Orban and the Fidesz government. In September 2014, the authorities in Budapest cracked down on the Ökotárs Foundation, which disbursed grants to local NGOs from Norway. In a way, this was quite a clever ruse as it followed an expose in the New York Times detailing Norway’s many involvements in influence peddling via NGO in Washington.
Do these expressions of dissent in Prague, Bratislava and Budapest mean that the Euro-Atlanticist order that has ruled the post-communist world so comprehensively since the early 1990s is under threat? Not quite: in the end, even Orban caved in to Brussels’ demand for sanctions against Russia. He still maintains that Hungary is a loyal EU and NATO member. Ditto, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. But, there does seem to be a change in the air. After years filled with allegations of corruption, most political parties in Central Europe are morally bankrupt and derided by local populations. Massaging election results is becoming more difficult when parties acceptable to Brussels and Washington can barely make single percentage points. In the Czech Republic, ANO is heading in the same direction as Fidesz with the prospect of getting overall control of parliament in the next parliamentary elections. Another headache for Washington looms if that happens.
These unexpected shifts away from former subservience in the Central European heartland of Euro-conformity may explain why many of the old anti-communists from the era of perestroika and glasnost are being brought out and dusted down. On 11th December, the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) “the only US think-tank dedicated to the study of Central and Eastern Europe” announced it was beefing up its membership with many formidable regime change figures including Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Anne Applebaum, Carl Bildt, Eliot A. Cohen, and Timothy Garton Ash. It is hard to see these old regime change advocates changing much without resources to put into play, but remember the successful application of their policies after 1989 resulted in socio-economic collapse and mass emigration from Poland and Baltic States where they were most influential. Does Central Europe want to repeat that implosion by following these horsemen of the apocalypse? It is unlikely that Central Europeans other than the sponsored demonstrators be asked.
[I] The US embassy was listed at the top of the backers of the protest in a leaflet handed out as the procession marched by. This so-called “Prague Maidan” was an obvious imitation of the protests in Kiev’s main square a year ago which toppled the Ukrainian president.
[II] Ano is short for the Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (Akce nespokojených občanů). “Ano” also means “yes” in Czech. The party was founded in 2011.
[III] Fidesz has also been accused of co-opting Hungary’s former secret policemen
Christine Stone is a UK-based lawyer and journalist. She was Director of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group. She is the author of Post-Communist Georgia: A Short History with Mark Almond (St. Margaret’s Press: Oxford, 2013). Their next book in the series on Post-Communist societies will be The Post-Communist Baltic States: A Short History.