Laszlo Balogh/REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin (l.) spoke with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has been moving closer to Russia, before a joint news conference in Budapest, Hungary, on Feb. 17.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Why some former East bloc countries are wooing Putin

Most former Soviet satellites and states are alarmed by Russia's adventurism. But a few are disillusioned with the West and looking more East.

Czech author Jáchym Topol thought the fight of his life was over. A dissident who participated in his country’s Velvet Revolution in 1989, which helped bring the Soviet era to a close here, Mr. Topol has pursued a more low-key task in recent years. He accepted a job as program director at the Václav Havel Library at the late president’s request shortly before he died in 2011 to keep alive the legacy of their defining victory over communism – and buoy dissidents in the world’s remaining authoritarian regimes.

Topol, a leading literary figure of his generation who was jailed for his samizdat writings during the upheaval, says that the new job at first felt disconnected from daily Czech life in the 21st century. “I sometimes would talk to students about the Velvet Revolution and have the feeling I was talking about the times of Julius Caesar,” he says in a smoky, book-lined cafe in Prague filled with students dissecting French philosophy and friends talking politics and weekend plans.

Now, just over a year since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea, his work has turned uncomfortably relevant: At least once a month the library invites Ukrainian dissidents to give talks. “Now it’s back,” he says. “Now everything is about Russia.”

From Warsaw to Budapest, Sofia to Prague, people all across the former East bloc are looking uneasily at Russia to see how far President Vladimir Putin will push his more adventurous foreign policy and his new pique with the West.

No one expects an imminent invasion. No one expects any change in allegiances between East and West. The former Soviet satellites that are members of the European Union today eagerly joined the West bloc, most in May 2004, and enthusiastically became members of NATO before that. Residents in these countries, across all generations, say they feel fully European and bristle when even asked where their loyalties lie.

But feelings across the region are hardly monolithic. Many people have thrown their support behind populist leaders, such as Czech President Miloš Zeman or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who have courted Moscow and voiced contempt for EU actions. Others are defecting to fringe parties that are even more emphatic in their alliances with Moscow and their distrust of the EU.

In many ways their discontent mirrors the questioning going on among all EU members at a time of economic malaise. But the disenchantment in Central Europe is particularly jarring, given the euphoria that the countries felt at the outset of their democratic transformation just a generation ago. Driven by the limits of democratic and economic progress, their restiveness is also more dangerous because their democracies are younger and because of the history of the Soviet occupation and nationalism that predates the 20th century. All this ambivalence, what’s been called “transformation fatigue,” has slowly been taking root for years but has now been exposed by the crisis in Ukraine.

“Basically I think that it’s really the first time since 1989 that we’ve started a discussion about do we really belong to the West and what the West really is,” says Ondrej Soukup, a Czech journalist who covers Russia and the former Soviet satellites for the financial daily Hospodárské Noviny, which in April ran a 13-page special with a front-page headline asking “Are we afraid of Russia?” The West isn’t the same place it once was, when the EU was smaller and less politically entwined and NATO had more relevance, he argues. “One of the most powerful slogans during the Velvet Revolution was ‘Back to Europe’.... Today that’s not as easy to say as it used to be 25 years ago.”

 •     •     •

With their distinct cultural histories and political experiences with Soviet occupation, the former Soviet satellites and republics are hard to categorize. But broadly speaking, in the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) and Poland the fear of Russia never dissipated, even as these countries joined the EU and the security of NATO. If Mr. Putin were ever to repeat his actions in Ukraine under the pretext of protecting a Russian-speaking population in the EU, many people in the Baltics fear it would be in their countries. That has kept their geopolitical alignment with the West clear.

But in the former central and southern states of the East bloc, Russia had, until recently, felt very far away. That distance is one reason allegiances in these countries are so malleable. The Czech Republic is typical of these swing states. For some people, Moscow still instills profound fear, while for others the memory of occupation has been replaced by modern realities – the potential of Russia’s consumer market and its provision of vast energy supplies. The country in this group that has moved the closest to Moscow is Hungary, which is all the more troubling to the West because, if anything, its populace has even fewer sympathies for Putin than those elsewhere in the region.

Such divided loyalties start at the very top of the power structure in Budapest. When the Hungarian prime minister visited Kazakhstan this spring, he did more than try to expand economic ties. He left behind a glimpse of his thinking about East and West: “It is a rather strange feeling,” Mr. Orbán was quoted as telling his hosts, “that one must travel to the East to feel at home.”

The government dismisses the words as a mere footnote in the history of Hungary, which has tilted East and West for centuries. But Western diplomats and Hungary-watchers took note: If few care about Budapest’s relationship with Kazakhstan, they do care about Hungary’s drift Eastward, especially into the orbit of Moscow.

When Hungary emerged from communist rule with its more open form of socialism, dubbed “goulash communism” – which drew Czech teens to Budapest in the 1980s to buy the bluejeans that weren’t available in Prague – it was considered in the vanguard of East bloc countries. Orbán himself was a symbol of hope: He gave a riveting anti-Soviet speech in 1989, calling for the ouster of Red Army troops. He brought Hungary into NATO during his first term in power in the 1990s.

Twenty-five years later, Orbán shocked the West when he said last summer that he aims to create an “illiberal democracy” in Hungary, holding up Russia as one exemplary model. Since winning a second term in 2010 and a third in 2014, the prime minister has imposed new restrictions on the media, civic groups, and the judiciary, essentially limiting checks and balances across the system.

Orbán is dismissed as a populist who has swapped democratic ideals for power. But part of his ability to consolidate authority flows from the discontent citizens have with the pace of change in the country. Many residents look at Austria and other Western European nations and wonder why they are not as prosperous as some of their EU brethren. Instead, Hungary has one of the lowest gross domestic products per capita in the EU.

“Many people became poor and unemployed after the first free elections,” says Attila Tibor Nagy, a political analyst at Meltanyossag, a think tank in Budapest. “In many people’s minds, democracy is not connected with high living standards.”  

He says this had made Hungarians, if not allies of Putin, then not automatic boosters of democratic values, either. This, in a country that still views Moscow through the brutal lens of the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

In the middle of Freedom Square in central Budapest, a leafy oasis whose monuments depict the country’s troubled fate in the center of 20th-century power struggles, a man takes a break from his job in a government agency.

He sits with his back to the Red Army’s monument to the “liberation” of Hungary at the time. He bristles in the shadow of the statue, which has been the target of vandalism over the years. While most of the Soviet-era memorials in Hungary were relegated to a “statue park” outside the city, this one stands prominently in the center of Budapest.

“It is ridiculous that it stands here,” says the man, who is so reluctant to talk that he takes the battery out of his cellphone before agreeing to say anything. “It belongs with the rest of them.”

And yet, the joy he felt at the fall of communism, and later when Hungary joined the EU – to which he still agrees Hungary should belong – has been replaced by a deep sense of disappointment. Life for many of his family and friends, he says, is a struggle that joining the EU has not remedied. He sees the 28-state union as an institution that meddles in domestic affairs for its own gain. When Orbán hosted Putin in Budapest in February – a rare visit for the Russian president to an EU member country – the government employee agrees it was not a friendly gesture to the EU. “But the question no one is asking is whether we can afford not to accept [Putin],” he says.

His attitude reflects the two currents coursing across the region. John Shattuck, the president of Central European University, a graduate school in Budapest, calls it ironic that the university is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary. In 1991, Hungary and the rest of Central Europe were buzzing with promise about the changes to come. The demand for democracy and Western orientation is still here, he believes. And yet, in a superficial sense, “the Putin illiberalism can be appealing to some in Eastern Europe who are looking for solutions to their problems,” says Mr. Shattuck, who was the US ambassador to the Czech Republic from 1998 to 2000.

 •     •     • 

The two narratives collide in the Czech Republic as well. High over the hilltop of the Czech capital sits Prague Castle, where Mr. Zeman resides. His role is largely ceremonial, but as president – the first popularly elected one in the Czech Republic – he helps shape the image of the nation abroad.

The fiery leader got into a rare public spat with the US ambassador to the Czech Republic, Andrew Schapiro, who raised questions on local television about the Czech president’s plans to attend Moscow’s mega-victory parade in May, which other EU leaders had promised to boycott. Zeman, who in the end decided not to go, nonetheless shot back: “I won’t let any ambassador have a say about my foreign travels.” He then said the door to Prague Castle was closed to Ambassador Schapiro.

Zeman, whose words have received condemnation across the political spectrum, was pelted with eggs during the 25th-anniversary celebration of the Velvet Revolution last November. Around Prague, a favorite topic of conversation is what’s behind the president’s erratic leadership style. Still, his words can influence the public mood, and in some ways the country’s relationship with Russia is more nuanced than Hungary’s.

Petr Kratochvil, director of the Institute of International Relations in Prague, says the political leanings in the Czech Republic mirror those of Germany, where right-leaning politicians, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, take a more hawkish view of Russia, while leftists perceive it as a potential market and strategic partner.

The Communist Party also enjoys significant support here, as much as 15 percent, which is unseen in neighboring countries and colors the national debate. As the party faithful wrapped up their annual May Day meeting in a damp drizzle in Prague, longtime Communist Party member Jiri Stary, a lawyer, stated clearly that Europe can’t – and shouldn’t try to – stand up to the “Russian bear.” He supports both Zeman and Putin. “They are clever men,” he said.

Sometimes, romantic notions of Pan-Slavism are invoked to justify modern views of Russia, which is possible because Czechs didn’t experience the same levels of violence during the Soviet occupation as other countries did, nor did they face imperial Russia before that.

“There is no long-term historic, centuries-old grievances. The archenemies were not Russians but Germans,” Mr. Kratochvil says. “In Poland, it is so easy to evoke this ancient image of Russia as the enemy. In the Czech context you can’t really do that.”

At the same time, the Czech experience mirrors frustrations in the rest of the region about the lack of prosperity and properly functioning public institutions. Residents of Central Europe have lost patience with the transition to more Western-style economic and political models, which has given a boost to autocrats and populists. Some are looking backward and thinking, “It wasn’t so bad 25 years ago,” says Martin Ehl, foreign editor at Hospodárské Noviny.

That applies to those who barely remember the era, such as 40-year-old Frantisek Hermann, a call-center employee leaving a mall in a middle-class residential neighborhood of Prague with his girlfriend on a quiet Sunday. He says he is against Putin but equally against Brussels. “The EU is bad for us,” he says flatly.

Petr Pithart, who was the prime minister from 1990 to 1992 of then-Czechoslovakia, sees a specifically Czech and historical driver of current discontent: a failure to understand the realities of the Velvet Revolution. 

A signatory of Charter 77 – the manifesto drawn up by Czech writers and intellectuals demanding that the communist government recognize basic human rights – Mr. Pithart has long said the Velvet Revolution wasn’t a revolution at all in the way it is celebrated in the national consciousness. It was a handover of power that was neither risky nor revolutionary. 

“A revolution is connected with hopes and the will for deep substantial changes for the better,” he says. “If you interpret it as a handing over of power, you have to be much more skeptical and cautious.”

The more dominant view among people is that the Velvet Revolution put the country courageously on the right path. At a recent dinner at his house, Mr. Ehl puts on the punk rock song “Marilyn Monroe,” which typifies the underground arts movement that formed the backbone of the Velvet Revolution. Ehl and his wife, as well as friends visiting from Moravia, all of whom were teens at the time, say the song is one almost everyone in their generation knows. While they may no longer listen to the music, they still rally around its symbolism. They all agree their lives are much better today.

But Pithart believes it is precisely this perpetuated narrative, which doesn’t allow expectations to be realistically aligned, that lies behind much of the disillusionment. The result, as he sees it, is a country drifting Eastward. “It is not exactly sympathy to Putin,” he says, “but a general move from Western ideals and a Western way of politics as something too demanding – a premature weariness of democracy.”

This has manifold consequences for each country, from its tolerance for corruption and the consolidation of power to its foreign-policy positions. On global issues, if the Czech Republic appears ambivalent from the outside, it is less so up close, since the country has a stronger democratic system and a clearer stance on Russia. 

Despite Zeman’s rhetoric, for example, the government sets the foreign-policy agenda and has voted consistently with the EU on sanctions against Russia, even when it’s been a “tough sell” to the public, says Jakub Kulhánek, Czech Republic’s deputy minister of foreign affairs. “Both the prime minister and the foreign minister have stated loud and clear that what is essential with respect to the conflict in Ukraine is that the EU is able to speak with one voice,” he says in his office, just uphill from Prague Castle.

Orbán has voted with the EU on sanctions against Russia, too – in part under pressure from larger European governments such as Germany, a top trading partner. But when it comes to Russia’s influence in Europe, Putin has found new ways in despite the sanctions regime, such as a $12 billion loan for a nuclear energy deal in Hungary. Dubbed Paks 2, the deal will see Russia build two nuclear reactors south of Budapest along the Danube River.

The project has been garnering criticism from inside and outside Hungary at a time when the EU says it is trying to lessen its dependence on Russian energy. Zoltan Illes, a member of Orbán’s Fidesz party who doesn’t support the prime minister, says it amounts to Russia buying influence in Hungary. “This has nothing to do with energy issues,” he says. “This is completely global politics.”

The government dismisses those claims, saying it’s a good deal for Hungary’s energy security. It points out the vast amount of trade the rest of Europe does with Russia – far more than Hungary does with Russia. “I have to state that our Paks 2 project was never, never, ever influenced by international politics,” says Attila Aszódi, Hungary’s commissioner responsible for the project.

Orbán’s position on Russia has cost him some support, much of which, ironically for the West, has gone to the far-right Jobbik party. It is positioning itself as one of Europe’s anti-EU alternatives – and makes no qualms about its pro-Russia stance that is above all nationalist.

Jobbik lawmaker Márton Gyöngyösi, from his spacious office along the Danube, talks eloquently about the country’s East-West identity. Today Budapest might look European, he says, but if you probe deeper the Eastern influence will be revealed, from poetry to Hungarian mythological tales. “The Hungarian collective conscience is absolutely Eastern,” he says.

Jobbik arose as a nationalist party that was notorious for its anti-Semitic, anti-Roma rhetoric, but lately it has sought to burnish its image and fashion a pro-sovereignty message. And some of that includes the right to align with Russia. Mr. Gyöngyösi calls NATO “an aggressive war machine” on the issue of Ukraine that works against Hungary’s interests, while he says that the EU as a notion feels like “them” and not “us.” “I would love to see the European Union as ‘us.’ But Brussels has done a lot in the last couple of years for European citizens not to view it as a common project that works for interests of the European nations.”    

 •     •     • 

Still, disgruntlement with the West is hardly universal. The latest Eurobarometer poll shows the number of Hungarians who feel they are EU citizens markedly increased to 67 percent, up eight percentage points from the spring of 2014.

The same is clear in the Czech Republic. In fact, this spring, when a NATO convoy rolled through the region, including the Czech Republic, many thought it was going to be widely boycotted and even booed, says Erik Tabery, editor in chief of the weekly Respekt, founded by dissident journalists in 1989. Instead thousands came out in support of the troops. “Czechs are not pro-American,” Mr. Tabery says. “But it was a moment of wake-up. People want to show the world we are not on the side of the Kremlin.”

Topol concurs that people in Central Europe instinctively want to be part of the West. As he explains it, with a bit of writerly wryness:

“Look, if you go to the dentist and the dentist were to say, ‘I have this new machine from Russia,’ you’d say, ‘oh, no,’ ” he says, gripping his jaw. “But if he were to say, ‘Look, I have this new machine from the US or Germany,’ you’d say, ‘oh interesting, do it.’ ”

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