Central European democracies hang tough
Poland's restoration of its coalition government Tuesday is the latest sign of the region's resiliency.
BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA AND BUDAPEST, HUNGARY
As peoples who have been subjugated for much of their history, Central Europeans aren't exactly known for embracing the spirit of Monty Python's ditty, "Look on the bright side of life."Skip to next paragraph
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Yet today it's the foreign observers who are all gloom-and-doom, warning that the political crises rippling through some of the European Union's youngest democracies signal "instability" and "backsliding."
But from last month's riots in Hungary to the collapse of Poland's controversial government, the locals don't see democracy at risk. Instead, 16 years into the transition from Communism, they see democracy in action.
"If you're more of a pessimist, you see it as my friends in Germany, who said, 'We thought you had already mastered the transition,' " says Laszlo Csaba, a leading Hungarian economist. "But democracy is also about managing conflict. So while the system is certainly under strain, it stands the test. And this is absolutely good news."
After slipping the Soviet yoke, the peoples of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic had a strong desire to assume their "rightful place" in Europe. As those nations – known as the Visegrad Four – pushed for EU membership, the unstated consensus among political elites was to put their best foot forward. But now the internal political debates that were kept under a tight lid during the accession process are coming to the surface, causing regional turbulence.
"A lot of differences were swept under the rug," says Brian Whitmore, managing editor of the Prague-based Transitions Online, which analyzes the evolution across the ex-Soviet orbit. "Now they're in the EU, so the differences are coming to the surface." To wit:
•Poland's conservative coalition government collapsed last month after months of intense criticism – both domestic and from the EU – especially over its stand on hot-button issues such as homosexuality and the death penalty. The coalition was restored Tuesday when the ousted agriculture minister and vice premier was reinstalled.
•In the Czech Republic, June elections produced a deeply – and nearly equally – divided parliament. The stalemate drags on as a no-confidence vote last week sparked the resignation of the month-old, minority government.
•In Slovakia, summer elections swapped a center-right coalition praised in the West for its economic reforms with a Socialist-led coalition whose far-right elements were derided by observers as "populists, racists, and ultranationalists." The European socialist alliance last week expelled the Slovak party for its unseemly bedfellows – reportedly the first such expulsion from the bloc.
• And in Hungary, which erupted in hooliganistic violence last month when Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany was caught lying about the economy's health, a small tent city of demonstrators remains camped out outside parliament – nourished by entrepreneurs selling pretzels and strudel. Four weeks later, daily protests are still demanding Mr. Gyurcsany's resignation. But he refuses, buffered by a narrow vote of confidencein parliament recently.
"What we have are democracies without democrats," says Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and former adviser to ex-president Vaclav Havel in the Czech capital of Prague. "Democracy is not just an institution, like the rule of law and system of checks and balances. People have not fully internalized the democratic attitudes, especially the older generation marked by Communism. It doesn't change overnight, but more slowly than institutions."