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“Putinization” of Central Europe: What is Brussels afraid of and what may save Ukraine?

As conflict emerged between EU and Germany on the one side and the new leadership of Poland on the other side in the end of 2015, the supporters of “European values” again voice the problem of “putinization” of Central Europe. 

Crisis in the relations of Warsaw and Brussels and earlier in the relations of Budapest and Brussels exacerbates the illegal migration crisis. In 2012, the crisis in Eurozone brought to light the discrepancies of the North and South, while the illegal migration crisis in 2014-2015 brought the conflict between the West and East of Europe, between what was earlier called “Old Europe” and “New Europe,” to the forefront. In full compliance with the “values” of the European Union, the leader in the EU, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged opening doors before the migrants with different culture seeking refuge in the rich countries of the EU. Meantime, the countries of “New Europe” opposed the idea. “New Europe” refused from the principle of “solidarity” in the EU when it was suggested to receive refugees, even much smaller number than “Old Europe” did, in line with the EU quotas.  On the one side, the reason is evident – the countries of Central Europe are relatively poorer than the countries of “Old Europe.” The GDP per capita of those countries differs from this indicator of “Old Europe” manifold.  Their “poverty” is seen in the difference of the minimal and average hourly wages too. This is what makes the “New Europeans” nursing a grievance against their neighbors.  Actually, for the same job at quite similar enterprises, a German is paid 20 EUR per hour, while a Hungarian or Pole are paid an amount equivalent to 4.5 EUR per hour in terms of their national currencies.  In addition, the EU labor statistics shows that “New Europeans” work by 20% longer in average in a month than “Old Europeans,” though the efficiency, intensity, and quality of labor may be higher in the countries of “New Europe.”

The low hourly wage makes “New Europeans” work overtime on weekends, while the high hourly wage makes “Old Europeans” have a rest even if they wanted to work overtime. Industrial and trade transnational corporations (TNC) and financial institutions with centers in “Old Europe” and even overseas – in U.S. and Canada - have become the backbone of the new economy in Central Europe. This circumstance along with the feeling of being underpaid gives “New Europeans” a reason to think that “Old Europeans” “exploit” them.  That is why the people in Central Europe mostly support the decision of their governments not to receive refugees.

“New Visegrad+” – a regional anti-migrant bloc comprising Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania finally shaped up in EU in the second half of 2015. It challenges the ideology of liberalism and multiculturalism that was announced the values of the EU.  Destruction of values i.e. the ideological base threatens the stability of the European Union and maybe even its further existence, liberal critics say.  The crisis in the relations of Warsaw with Brussels and Berlin became evident after PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), a right-wing conservative and clerical party, came in power in Poland and started revamping the сonstitutional law and repartitioning the mass media. Yet PiS does nothing special to consolidate its power. It is just following the “young democrat” Viktor Orban who at first changed the ideology of his party from liberal into national-conservative and then, after coming to power in 2010, started changing the Constitution of Hungary, election laws in line with that ideology and taking over the local mass media.  Washington, Brussels and Berlin have got tired of protesting against Orban’s policy “values.” However, they could do nothing, at least, because the authoritarian prime minister did not claim the profits of TNCs and international financial institutions in Hungary, though he made them share insignificant part of their profits with the government. In addition, Orban has gained an approval rating that politicians in “Old Europe” could just dream of.

At a certain moment, Orban decided to improve the relations with Russia to bring back the traditional Hungarian goods to the Russian market. Hungary declared a new Eastern Opening policy.  At the same time, he gave a slap in the wrist of the Russian owners when they claimed a 20% stake in MOL, Hungary’s strategic energy company. Apart from that, everything was good and it seemed that Russia has restored its presence in Central Europe. Orban saw no reason to ban Rosatom from building new energy units on its own funds, especially that Hungary will probably be paying back in terms of energy generated by those units. There is nothing wrong with Russian Gazprom supplying Hungary with gas on affordable price on a long-term basis, Orban thought. Let all the gas streams, including the Russian ones, meet in Hungary. Economic ties became a reason for the Hungarian prime minister to appear in public in company with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The photos of those meetings of Orban and Putin are now illustrating the Western news articles telling about creeping “putinization” of Central Europe.

The argument in favor of “putinization” is pointing at the authoritarian tendencies of the regimes in Hungary and Poland. Those behind the concept “putinization” try to explain the low “indigeneity” of liberal democracy in the region with the local heritage of the Soviet model of the rule in the epoch of the cold war. Their favorite explanation is: “Central European nations were damaged by the four decades of the Communist dictatorship.” Others make reasonable claims that since the Middle Age the region has significantly differed from Western Europe with its culture, economy and in other aspects. In such case, the closest analogues of the current authoritarian regimes in Hungary and Poland were in the Inter War Period. Therefore, it is more expedient to speak of the revival of authoritarianism in Hungary in terms of “Neo-Horthysm” and in Poland in terms of “new Piłsudskism.” Social-focused policy was characteristic to both. Some call it populism. Looking deeper into the chronology, one can see that authoritarian tendencies are now stronger in those countries of Central Europe where in late Middle Age there were multi-national states with nobility (szlachta) and elective monarchies – Hungarian Kingdom and Rzeczpospolita. Both were affected by the civilization of Jagiellonians.  The contemporary nations in those countries emerged as civil rights expanded from the noble class to others. The model of authoritarianism was based on the vestiges of feudalism and periphery capitalism in the region. “Putinization” is based on poverty and peripherization.

It is noteworthy that now there are no authoritarian tendencies in Slovenia or Czech Republic that were part of the West Slavic Civilization, consequently, Austria and Germany. Now, these are the richest states in Central Europe. In Middle Ages, both Czech Republic and Slovenia were part of the German Empire, while Poland and Hungary were not. Actually, “putinization” of the region of Central Europe and the authoritarian tendencies there are rather relative. “Putinization” skips Czech Republic where the level of inequality had always been minimal during Bourgeoisie.   In this context, Romania is a special case in the abovementioned group “Visegrad Plus.” The biggest part of Romania is Balkans, and the contemporary economic and cultural driving force of Romania – Transylvania – was connected with the Hungarian throne before 1920.

Hungarian Prime Minister Orban openly said he is building a “non-liberal democracy” in Hungary. Is it possible? Yes, actually. Democracy is not government by the people. It is government by the civil society. Democracy in the Athens or Rome was not liberal. It is evident that a civil society can be built on various foundations, but democracy must be based on the community of the citizens. However, delegation of the authorities can be ensured in various ways, including with participation of oligarchy or military.

Liberal experts in “Old Europe” have invented even a special index to measure the level of “putinization” – the so-called “Bertelsmann Transformation Index” (BTI) to measure the effectiveness of the transformation to democracy. According to BTI, since 2006, 12 out of 17 countries in Central Europe, Eastern Europe and Balkans have not just failed to approach the democracy standard but have even deviated from it. In addition, Hungary, Romania and Serbia belong to the category of “defective democracies.”

The authors of BTI say propensity for nationalist and populist policy is growing due to moderate economic indicators and disappointment at corrupt politicians.  In addition, the EU membership has not brought solvency and prosperity and has not reduced the economic gap between the old and new countries of the European Union.  This increases the number of Eurosceptics and openly anti-European political forces in the local societies, BTI experts say. The high disappointment and discontent is reflected in the protest movements, mobilization of populist sentiments and power politics. Actually, “putinization” is not imposed from above by the wrong people like Orban or Kaczyński, it has a civic basis. Eventually, skepticism towards western liberal democracy grows both in the governments and grassroots.

“Putinism” in Central Europe is considered as a tendency arousing concerns that the personal popularity of the Russian president may expand over populist and nationalist politicians in “New Europe.”  Combination of weak economy and astronomically high approval rating will become a true temptation for the current politicians, the advocates of “European values” say.  Leaders of the countries in the Central Europe have already started refusing to accept the migration requirements of their western partners. They show open skepticism about the model of multiculturalism and speak of religious Christian traditions of the local societies. In Western Europe they are concerned that taking advantage of the situation those societies may prioritize ethnopolitics and remember about borders. 

“Putinization” may also boost the nationalist trend in the region and make the regional countries remember the territorial disputes they have never forgotten about, in fact.  The probability of internal conflict is growing in the EU. It is characteristic that in the light of the crisis in Ukraine, Hungary looks the most “tolerant” to Russia’s actions, though it has the most serious territorial claims to the neighbor countries due to the unfair borders the imperialist winners of the WWI had drawn for it.  In Hungary many still refuse to understand why Ukrainians should hold Zakarpattia.

Thus, “putinization” is threatening the EU countries, as experts from Brussels claim. Meantime, Ukraine organizes  “Euromaidan” to “get rid of Putin” and join EU, more specifically the Central Europe where “putinization” is in full swing.  However, Ukrainian wanted to live as Pollack do and dream of turning their country into another Poland. EU and U.S. are now demanding more democracy, reforms and anti-corruption measures from the Kiev leadership.  It looks like an anecdote when a Ukrainian minister throws a glass at a Ukrainian governor and swears in Russian at the same time. Simply, with Ukraine’s GDP per capita of $2,109 in 2014 (by IMF), democracy is impossible even theoretically. At first, the country needs dictatorship to have its economy put in order and to ensure security of investors, instead of democracy in the far future.  International experts ask their Ukrainian colleagues in Kiev: How do Ukrainians live? In response, their colleagues say: In fact, GDP per capita is higher but it is in shadow.  In such situation, “putinization” in terms of soft dictatorship appears to be a way out of the hopeless situation in Ukraine.

Actually, the so-called “putinization” on the region that, in fact, bears no relation to Vladimir Putin, is generally an objective phenomenon having economic, political and cultural reasons. Experts in BTI are right pointing at the reasons of the authoritarian trends and reasons of discontent in the region.  It seems that the problem is revealed and can be solved. The main task is to bring the “Old Europe” and “New Europe” closer by means of such a criterion as hourly wage. It is necessary to overcome poverty in the countries of Central Europe, boost consumption to the level of the Old Europe.  So far, the gap is being reduced slowly.  However, it may increase again due to the financial problems and sovereign debts.  In addition, a rise in wages will make the enterprises in Central Europe non-competitive for TNCs in relation to cheap Asian labor force. Actually, the economic inequality between the parts of the European Union gives birth to differences in values which is called “putinism” by mistake in Central Europe.

EADaily’s European Bureau

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