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Is Europe’s Democratic Revolution Over?

A group of leading thinkers on Central and Eastern Europe assess the state of democracy, security, and diplomacy in the region.

by TOL 9 May 2011

PRAGUE | With the speedy entry of Central Europe and the Baltic states into the European Union, many had hoped that the new members would be the motor of further democratization and enhanced security in Europe. Now with the electoral turmoil in Belarus, reverses in Ukraine, disturbing anti-democratic moves in Hungary, and continued challenges in Russia, many worry that the democratic wave of the 1990s may be truly stalled, if not over. Some argue that instead of proving to be an invaluable bridgehead to the East, Central European countries have been obstructing moves toward pan-European integration and a reconciliation with Russia, as well as living in the past by overemphasizing the Trans-Atlantic relationship with the United States.

 

Others disagree and say Central European countries have been a force of moral integrity and have good reason for keeping strong ties to the United States.


In January, TOL hosted a discussion with some of the leading experts on Central Europe, asking whether the new EU members are playing a productive role in contemporary Europe and can still serve as democratic models for their neighbors farther east.


The program featured two panels, with the first focusing on the state of democracy in Central Europe and the second looking at security issues and Central Europe's relations with Germany, Russia, and the United States.

The speakers were Pavol Demes, the German Marshall Fund's director for Central and Eastern Europe; Robert Cottrell, former Central and Eastern European correspondent for The Economist; Martin Ehl, foreign editor of Hospodarske noviny, a leading Czech newspaper; Miklos Haraszti, former OSCE representative on freedom of the media; Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague and former adviser to Vaclav Havel; Vlad Sobell, an independent analyst; and Christopher Walker, director of studies for Freedom House. The event was moderated by Jeremy Druker, executive director and editor in chief of TOL.

 

 

PANEL 1: DEMOCRACY IN CENTRAL EUROPE

 

 

Martin Ehl: Hello, I will start at the beginning; we were just speaking about the main idea of this panel. We should speak about how bad it is, and how it should be better: just 21 years ago we wanted to have it better, but we didn't expect that it would be so difficult.

 

I just published a book in Czech titled Third Decade, about life, politics, and people between Brussels and Gazprom (the largest extractor of natural gas in the world, and Russia’s largest company). The third decade means that we are at the beginning of the third decade of free development, that for the first time in the modern history of our region, we don't have anybody but ourselves to blame for our faults, because this is our biggest opportunity to decide for ourselves. We have a modern nation state, we have our economies, we have our political representation and we couldn't blame anybody in Moscow or Brussels about the decisions that are being made.

 

Jiri Pehe – The Public Affairs Party and Voter Disenchantment from Transitions Online on Vimeo.

 

I think the wave of elections last year has shown us that still there is some hope that the people are clever enough not to be put in the trap of populism or nationalism. For me, the biggest surprise was not the elections in the Czech Republic or Slovakia, but in Latvia, where the governing coalition – right wing – was cutting everything, as you can imagine, in the public expenditures, but has still won the elections because Latvians have seen no other way.

 

I am supposed to be the honorary Pole on this panel, and I've been covering Poland for 10 years now. The last time I was in Poland was in October of last year. I was in eastern Poland, in a city called Hrubieszow, 15 kilometers from the border with Ukraine. As I spoke with friends, I was trying to understand what happened to this traditional Poland, where there was no movement of borders. There is enormous change happening under the EU’s influence and only if you are there can you understand how profound the change is in the beginning of the third decade in Poland – not just in political life, but mainly in the society. If you speak to the people who are supposed to be voters of the nationalist or populist parties, because of their social background and education –and just five years ago were blaming Brussels for everything – [they] are saying, ‘OK, well, Brussels is not the best thing in the world, but we have a road built by money from Brussels and telephone cables paid for by Brussels. Maybe these guys aren't so bad.’

 

You can see this change of mindset in the election results, and in the Polish political scene that consists of practically two parties. Just five years ago there was formed a governing coalition. One of these parties is Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc – Law and Justice – founded by the Kaczynski brothers, which secured the support of 20 to 25 percent of society. The presidential elections last year showed they were not able to cross this threshold for a parliamentary majority. Two others, the League of Polish families and Self-Defense, practically disappeared from the political scene. So in the wider sense we now have a similar political situation to Hungary, in that there is no real opposition.

 

Why is there no opposition in Poland? I mentioned the League of Polish Families, and this party simply is still in the shadow of the tragedy of the plane [crash] with President [Lech] Kaczynski, and they haven’t been able to cross this shadow either from the human or from the political point of view because they are constantly using this tragedy and its consequences in political fights and trying to mobilize their electorate. But the problem is that they’ve mobilized already all of their voters and they are not able to cross the border in the society to attract other voters. This is one of the reasons why a group of younger deputies and members of the party just two months ago left the party and created a new conservative party.

 

There is almost no political left in Poland; there is still the party called [Democratic Left Alliance], but they have the same problem as other political parties around the region: lack of leadership. They don’t have faces to sell, or programs to sell, and they don’t have people who can invent these faces and programs for political competition. Again, I think that to a certain extent we can compare this situation with the left to the Hungarian situation. And I will finish with the remark about the government of [Prime Minister Donald] Tusk, which consists of two parties: one is very traditional, the oldest party in Central Europe still existing, which is the Polish Peoples’ Party, and is very small and stable. It’s kind of a miracle that they come in with over 5 percent each election. The big liberal-conservative party of Mr. Tusk, for himself and for his government were using excuses during the Kaczynski presidency that they cannot make reforms because the president would veto and they didn’t have a two-thirds majority in the parliament to overcome the veto. It’s quite hard to do so. They promised to make profound reforms, but now they have a president from their party and they are still not making any reforms because of elections, of course. And the critics of the government say that they have good PR but no programs. Instead, PR is their program, which is to a large extent right. And the question is: if they win elections, they will win, but with which majority? What will this majority do, with a president from their party? This will be a real challenge for Mr. Tusk to be the first Polish president to be re-elected after 1989. Jeremy mentioned that we are tired of the Kaczynski brothers, but the question is: will we not be tired of Mr. Tusk this time next year?

 

PUBLIC AND PRIVATE AFFAIRS

 

Jeremy Druker: Jiri I want to pass it over to you. I know that you were one of the few commentators who I see after the last elections took a step back and told us not to be so overwhelmed necessarily with the result, that it was not as clear a vote for austerity and fiscal responsibility and all of those things that a lot of other people were saying. So maybe you can tell us how things have turned out since the election and your view of the future.

 

Jiri Pehe: Last year’s elections in the Czech Republic were described by some people as a voteless revolution, and in some ways it was a revolution because the two largest parties, the Civic Democratic Party and the Social Democratic, lost between them 1.5 million voters, which is a huge number, and they really suffered huge defeats. Two new political parties were able to make it into the lower chambers of the parliament: TOP 09, which is a conservative party, and Public Affairs, which could be described as a centrist, populist party. And, as Jeremy remarked, this was seen as a sign of a better future, and it seemed that there was a very strong mandate for reforms because the two right-of-center parties, The Civic Democrats and TOP 09, were able to attract the Public Affairs party into the government and we now have the strongest government since 1993, when the Czech Republic came into existence, with 118 seats in the 200-member lower chamber.

 

Chris Walker - Is Europe's Democractic Revolution Over? from Transitions Online on Vimeo.

 

However, it turns out that this situation was not and is not as clear-cut as it seems. First although this coalition describes itself as a right-of-center coalition, and it indeed has in its program what one could describe as a sort of neoliberal economic reforms, it consists of two right-of-center parties and one party which is really not predicable in its behavior, the Public Affairs party, which didn’t really have in its program a strong economic reform, and as such it is now under pressure from its voters to play the role of the opposition within the government. And it does so.

 

What is more worrisome in my opinion, on a more general level, is a new phenomenon which we can see in Czech politics, and that is what I’d call the privatization of politics. What happened in the case of these two new parties is that they are not real parties. The Public Affairs party, if I describe it in a cynical way, is a private firm operating in the business of politics. Its chairman, [journalist Radek] John, is not the real chairman, it’s certain [businessman Vit] Barta, who was the real founder of this party, and his money is behind this party. And then we have TOP 09 [led by Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg], which is really at this point more of a club shielded by known personalities, but its structure is severely not what you’d describe as a typical party structure, but I’d argue it is closer to that than of the Public Affairs party.

 

What we have here is a very strange development and a new type of political party, especially in the case of the Public Affairs party, which was able to get positions in the government, but in many ways it is a private initiative. It is not a classical political party. As a result of all of this, the government has not been very stable. And although it has a very strong program, it has spent the last seven or eight months in wars between various government parties. And that produces, surprisingly, the same kind of instability that we saw in Czech politics before 2010, although we had governments which were much weaker than this one. So this is one new development, this situation which on the surface looks stable, but underneath is very unstable.

 

One might ask why all of this has happened, and there are several explanations. One of them is that for a long time we were headed in the direction of a bipolar political model: two strong political parties with small satellites, the Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats. And indeed for several years those two parties dominated the domestic political scene and they could not be challenged seriously by any other political group. Then last year the government of Mirek Topolanek collapsed in the middle of the Czech presidency of the EU, and we had for more than a year a so-called government of experts, which is something that in Czech politics is unfortunately not new, and we could find traditions of this in the First Republic before World War II, and this government of experts meant several things. It abolished or canceled the division between the opposition and the government, and it made both of the big parties all of a sudden look much less interesting for the voters because they were not able to fight their regular battles. The polarization was more or less gone and these new political groups were able to gain media attention and actually gain in popularity because they were seen as alternatives.

 

The second thing which was really important was that the polarization that we saw between those two parties was highly personal. It was personified by Prime Minister Topolanek and his opponent in the Social Democratic Party, [Jiri] Paroubek. Voters, if you look at various opinion polls from the public in the Czech Republic, people were increasingly dissatisfied with politics. Last year, up to 80 percent of people would state in polls that they were disenchanted with politics, and unhappy and dissatisfied with political parties in general. This was of course very fertile ground for these new political parties. Unfortunately, they said that the new parties are really not at this point real political parties and they do not behave as real political parties. And they seem to be very quickly becoming part of what we have seen in Czech politics for a long time. And that is the growing together of political and business interests. It means that we have a political culture in which business interests and politics have grown together and basically all political parties are controlled from behind by powerful groups of businessmen and entrepreneurs who use political connections in those parties to get what they want. Politicians in many cases are corrupt and, unfortunately, these new parties, one of which at least based its election campaign on fighting corruption, have become part of this milieu, so to speak, and this voters’ revolution that I spoke about at the beginning has grown increasingly sour.

 

Robert Cottrell - Is Europe's Democratic Revolution Over? from Transitions Online on Vimeo.

 

My last remark concerns a more general level. I think that we are somewhere hopefully in the middle of a long journey, because we can see that what [20th-century British-German politician and diplomat] Ralf Dahrendorf said right at the beginning, when the communist regimes collapsed, about the timeline for the changes is pretty much true – as he said that it will take one or two years to create new institutions of political democracy, maybe five to 10 years to reform the economy and make a market economy, and 15 to 20 years to create the rule of law. And it will take maybe two generations to create a functioning civil society. I would argue that what we see now is that we have completed the first two stages, the transformation of the institutions, of the framework of political democracy on the institutional level, there is a functioning market economy, which of course has certain problems, but when you take a look at the third area, the rule of the law, there is still a long way to go, and civil society is still weak and in many ways not very efficient.

 

And that brings me to my last point, which is the point I made in a book that I published this year, about the difference between democracy understood as institutions and democracy understood as culture. It’s been much easier to create a democratic regime, a democratic system as a set of institutions and procedures and mechanism, than to create democracy as a kind of culture – that is, an environment in which people are actually democrats. So we have this very strange situation in which we have basically functioning democratic regimes with a lot of disruptions and problems, but we really don’t have too many democrats yet. And this is obvious in everyday life when you look at the way that Czech politicians behave, the way they understand politics, the way they understand their public mission and so on, you realize that they are not in politics to serve any public interest in most cases but to serve themselves. And when you take a look at various public debates, TV debates and so on, once again you realize that the level of democratic culture is still really very low. So not to end on this pessimistic note, I would add that still I think that we have a market advantage in comparison with Czechoslovakia before World War II when Czechoslovakia was an island of democracy in a sea of autocratic regimes, that it was doomed. We are – and this is not just the Czech Republic, but other post-communist countries as well – islands of semi-democratic regimes which under different circumstances could really slide into authoritarianism. But we operate in a very benign international context, in the framework of the European Union and other international institutions which are very conducive to democracy-building. Seen from this point of view, I think that we have a chance for the first time to actually make it, and if I stick to the timeframe that I discussed, I think that we really need one more generation.

 

Vaclav Havel once said something that I like to repeat. He said that each post-communist country needs two revolutions: one against communism and another one against post-communism. And I think that we are still waiting for that second one.

 

Vlad Sobell - Is Europe's Democratic Revolution Over? from Transitions Online on Vimeo.

 

Jeremy Druker: So I’d like to move on to Slovakia. As I said at the outset, Slovakia followed the Czech model – if we can call it that – with the leftist party winning the most votes in the election but not being able to cobble together a coalition which then was made up of the center-right parties. Pavol, I am curious if this same level of disappointment has now appeared in Slovakia, or can we be more optimistic about what the government’s actually done since they’ve been elected.

 

Pavol Demes: I would merge into Slovak reality, but first I thought we will be opening up our remarks in a little bit broader sense, since the title of the session is called “Is Europe’s Democratic Revolution Over?” The format for me is interesting and unusual that an American is asking Visegrad types to answer this question. I will answer it right away and then we will sort of interfere in Slovakia’s domestic affairs.

 

I think that the democratic revolution in Europe is not over – Transitions Online can continue, I think, monitoring what’s going on. Post-Lisbon Europe requires revolution if Europe wants to become competitive in the global arena. The European Union under the leadership of [Jose Manuel] Barroso, Catherine Ashton and [Herman] Van Rompuy requires more than revolution in order to move ahead. If Europe wants to be a real player and achieve goals which are enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty, meaning the most powerful union in the world, a country which is attractive for others to come in and join, if EU wants to be a union where citizens are participating in making this dream true, we need to rearrange how Europe is being done so that democratic revolution in Europe is not over.

 

Also, if the European Union is serious about issues confronting territories around us, countries of the Eastern Partnership, North Africa, what’s going on, I think there are many things which are fermenting around us, and we need to be open and more practical once we are looking at our neighborhood. Also, if we are serious about our economy, I think that we need to revolutionize as well how we do the euro and the euro zone if we want to survive in economic growth because what last year particularly showed us with Greece and other traditional democracies [is that] I think I am happier to be Slovak than Greek. I think the predictability of my country is probably better than Irish or even Celtic Tiger, to which we wanted to grow a couple of years ago.

 

A few things about Slovakia: I think that Slovakia is the smallest of the Visegrad countries [Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic] and in this case to look at from the democratic transitions or reforms point of view, because Slovakia started basically to build statehood from scratch: both hardware and software. … You Czechs at least inherited ones, Hungarians had parliament, which we built some time ago. Poles had rebuilt their city. Slovakia was the only country out of all Visegrad Four which was expelled from the integration process due to democratic deficit. None of you know how it feels to be demarked, which tells you that you are blocked and we needed to study through démarches of European Union or the United States how to fix the country, which we needed to do. … After 1998, we needed to make accelerated reforms, modernization, and assistance from others including countries around Western Europe and the U.S. We managed in 2004 to join both the EU and NATO, and live now together in this post-enlargement, non-conditionality paradigm situation. And what we are going through in coming to this period where we are now, I think that we were pushed, in all our countries, by conditionality, pushed by a successful European Union and we live in a less successful European Union, a less successful NATO, which we believed that when we join it, that it will be the end of history for us. But it is far from the end of history for us, and for the union and the trans-Atlantic alliance which we are in.

 

Jiri Pehe - Is Europe's Democratic Revolution Over? from Transitions Online on Vimeo.

 

And I think that this is very important for us to understand that if we are looking at the makeup of our government and the Slovak government in particular, I think that we are faced with two parallel problems. One is lack of political culture, and unwritten rules will become internalized by elites and by the population. But we never expected that we’d end up in this crisis situation in the European Union and NATO. If you read any newspaper in Western Europe or the United States, the biggest number of pieces now are about internal crisis, not so much the crisis out there. So we are bailing out ourselves, our members, not dreaming about enlargement or bringing in others. I think that political elites are exposed to these unsettled domestic, political maturation processes and parallel to that how to deal with crises of economics, politics and so on. And since the new government came to power last year, the biggest challenge was a mixture of domestic and foreign because European politics are our politics by now. A big challenge was to bail out Greece, and people knew Greece only from vacation until then, and suddenly Slovaks were asked to pay for Greeks. For Iveta Radicova, the first female prime minister that we ever had, it was her first thing to deal with, to explain both to domestic audiences and to the Angela Merkels of this world why Slovakia is not going to pay for Greece. Surely it was part of a domestic political fight because [incumbent Prime Minister] Robert Fico was challenging her before the elections by saying, ‘OK, I want to show solidarity with Europe.’ And Radicova, [former Prime Minister] Mikulas Dzurinda, were saying that, ‘No, this was part of an electoral campaign deal’ once the new government came to power, they were immediately exposed to this, and Slovakia was the only country which has not bailed out Greece. So I am just using this to illustrate how intertwined nowadays domestic and international politics is all about, be it bailouts, be it soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq ­– bringing them, not bringing them and so on – so I think that domestic politics in our countries is now, like never before, intertwined and challenged by economic and political security and other challenges of the European Union and NATO.

 

Saying that, I think that what we have now, this coalition, is rather surprising. I mean, people like us are happy that [former authoritarian Prime Minister] Vladimir Meciar is suddenly on a long-term vacation and that [Slovak National Party leader] Jan Slota’s nationalists made it to parliament and are quarreling with his running mate, [Anna] Malikova, who will be expelled soon from the party, and so on. But the current quartet that we have, chaired by a woman, Iveta Radicova, is an interesting one from the following point of view. We have also one Internet party, Freedom and Solidarity. They made it through the Facebook technique; unknown people suddenly just made it, which is unusual in the Slovak political landscape. But it shows that Internet coverage is quite good. Second, for the first time we have an ethnic hybrid party, Most–Hid or “Bridge,” which is a mixture of Slovak and Hungarian politicians. I think this is a sign of maturation that ethnicity is not the only one which can make a political party. And then we have Christian Democrats, who are traditional post-‘89, and Dzurinda’s party, which is also traditional. So, we have two new ones, and two traditional ones, all center-right. One would expect that ideologically they are close, that they will be strong enough. I think that the fragility of the government is still there, because personalities matter, not only ideology, and let’s hope that the government will survive the challenges ahead of them.

 

There are two or three things which are ongoing in all of our countries here as well. The state of judiciary corruption is something which is undercutting, undermining any government whether you are center-right or center-left. This is something which these societies cannot properly deal with, and since we probably will open up discussion for broader topics, because Jeremy will ask whether our society still can serve as a model for less-reformed societies of the western Balkans or Eastern Partnership countries, I think that my answer here will be yes, I think they can learn from us both that it can be done, that you can reform, change from a centrally commanded to pluralistic system, you can join the European Union. Europe is still a mixture of authoritarianism up to success stories. And I think what are the problems we have in our four countries, I think that not only did we make it to these structures and have basic instruments to mature and grow, but I think that this level of solidarity is growing among these countries. …

 

A LITTLE OF EVERYTHING

 

Jeremy Druker: Miklos, I wanted to ask you to give us an overview of what has happened in the last couple months and also, as you know, [Edward] Lucas of The Economist has referred to the ‘Putinization’ of Central Europe. Picking up on some trends we’ve discussed here, Jiri pointed out the privatization of politics, but he was particularly pointing to some of the rollbacks in democratic procedure and other things in Hungary. So if you could please give us some insights on what’s been happening?

 

Miklos Haraszti: Hungary is a bit of everything. As Martin said, the collapse of the left in Poland makes every Hungarian an honorary Pole today, because the left and every party other than the Fidesz party has collapsed. Also what Pavol said is true about Hungary, that there is no such thing today in Hungary as being under the spell and guiding force of the European Union. It is simply not working, this part of the fact of the uproar because of the Hungarian media law, finally at the end of the process has moved the European Commission to direct a sort of demark to the Hungarian authorities. And of course Jiri is right with Dahrendorf, that what we see here is probably the almost unavoidable outcome of the first 20 years, in the sense that we are not further down the road. What we see here in all these countries from inside the fragile, tired of the top-down democratizations that happened in all these countries maybe with the exception of Poland which had already assembled more real upheaval from inside. The handshake transitions which were the last attempts in this region of top-down modernization, this time in direction of liberal democracy, not into some other types of non-democracy, also got tired. … The liberal features that were put into the constitutions as a result of the handshake between fragile communists and fragile oppositions proved to be too weak against a tide of uncivilized, illiberal instincts that are themselves part of post-communism, even if they are played out in the name of a belated anti-communism and so on and so on.

 

So the point is that from inside, what we see in Hungary is somehow a neo-Weimarian situation very much resembling many other countries in the sense that the freedom to disagree, the freedom to dispute, the freedom to be populist, to be irresponsible, to be whatever, has arrived. [Conservative-populist Prime Minister] Viktor Orban is the probably the last one, the most conscious one among the leaders of the region who realize that we are really independent, that there is no superego anymore, and the price of bravery in realizing this situation and this capacity is more and more power.

 

Robert Cottrell – European Security – EU Diplomacy from Transitions Online on Vimeo.

 

[W]hen we talk about this famous ‘democratic culture,’ it is that the spirit of agreeing, the spirit of cultivating the common denominators … while living out democratic capacities to dispute and to disagree is still missing. Just the opposite, what happened in Hungary is a constitutional autocracy in the making. … With 52 percent of the popular vote, because of the quite disproportional electoral system of Hungary, Viktor Orban’s [Fidesz] party has won 67 percent of the seats in parliament, and because of typical post-communist, ex-communist removal of [former Socialist Prime Minister] Gyula Horn who in 1996 refused to [protect] the constitution and make it a bill more difficult to change. … Because of this, now, the route opened for Viktor Orban to change absolutely everything, and this is in his words, ‘absolutely everything’ in Hungary. He claims, in his words again, ‘This is a new system.’ The process, and I am not sure what the end of the process is, officially, in his words, ‘By March, we will be getting a new constitution for the first time in 21 years in Europe,’ certainly inside the European Union, but even in the history of post-communism, I believe, for the first time we will have a constitution made by one party alone, not only without the other parties but against all the will of all other parties, which have collapsed anyway and are powerless and cannot even together make up even 33 percent of parliament. Of course, the cautious politics of Viktor Orban is directed towards weakening the far-right party, but not weakening it as much as totally making it disappear, because that’s a quite powerful guarantee of the other side of parliament coming together to block this rubber stamp machinery that parliament has become. The road towards March when we will be getting a new constitution … nobody knows yet what it will consist of, because the legislative matters of this ‘revolution of the boots,’ this is again Orban’s word, the ‘revolution of the boots’ consists of individual MPs putting proposals in parliament, not government. Individual MPs and the rubber stamp machinery drive through these changes without any discussion with anyone, not even inside parliament, forget about outside parliament, … and then it becomes law. And these are constitutional changes since last spring when Fidesz took power – the constitution was changed 12 times, despite the fact that we are getting a new constitution in March anyway. The media law is only the tip of this iceberg. Systematically, all checks and balances have been removed. First the committee that proposes constitutional justices has been taken over by the Fidesz party, then the constitutional court added new members. It has already now a Fidesz majority, and soon it will be fully occupied by Fidesz appointees.

 

For instance, in December the chief judge of the country … was given the right to name alone the middle-range judges, … and the last remnant of an independent institution perhaps is the national bank, but that will be over in March as well because Fidesz changed the way the monitory council is elected – it will be elected by parliament, logically, with two-thirds, and by March the independence of the national bank will be over as well. Simply, challenge me by naming one independent institution of liberal democracy and I would be happy to realize if I was mistaken and one independent institution remained without total power from the ruling party.

 

 

There is optimism again with Jiri and Dahrendorf’s words that we are maybe only in the middle of the process. Democratization in the late ‘80s happened top-down just like all previous modernizations under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, since Joseph II, since Maria-Theresa, but this last time could be the last time, and for the first time non-democracy in Hungary and Weimarian sociological and psycho-political situation is caused by internal reasons. You cannot blame any occupation anymore, you cannot blame Russians, Germans, not even imperialists, Westerners. They are trying hard, but nobody believes it. The point is that if Hungarians, and this is a big if … but if Hungarians can make this, then they will have made it for the first time on their own and we will be a democracy like others. Like the Germans, but not quite like the Germans, but like the Americans. We would then, and the whole region, actually, we would have made on our own, fighting our own fight, fighting our own demons and defeating them ourselves and that experience itself is probably the democratic culture that we all seeking.

 

 

 

PANEL 2: CENTRAL EUROPE’S SECURITY EQUATION



Jeremy Druker: … In July of 2009, 21 Central and Eastern European intellectuals and policy-makers wrote an open letter to Barack Obama (Lech Walesa had signed the letter, Vaclav Havel as well) and they were mainly fretting about the decline of U.S. engagement in their region, about NATO’s future, and what they saw as the continuing Russian threat to their countries. What they said is ‘all is not well in our region’ and they also spoke of a political crossroads and a growing sense of nervousness. So we’ve looked at so far the domestic situation and we’ve touched on the answer to the last question on some international dimensions, and now we’re going to look, with the second panel, at some of the security arrangements developing and also at Russia’s and Germany’s role in the region, and how things have been changing as well with Trans-Atlantic relations. So I thought it would be most helpful to start off with Vlad Sobell. … Vlad is a native-born Czech who emigrated to the U.K. and has worked as an analyst for RFE/RL, The Economist Intelligence Unit, and now one of the largest Japanese investment banks, so I will first ask him to take the floor, and then turn it over to Chris and Robert. So please, Vlad if you could begin.

 

Pavol Demes – Visegrad Group Leadership in the EU from Transitions Online on Vimeo.

 

Vlad Sobell: Thank you very much, Jeremy. The first thing I think to look at are the changes that have taken place in Europe over the last 20 years. First of all, we have the collapse of the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc and alongside these changes we have seen the emergence of China as a major power – now China is the second largest economy in the world. And finally we have the outbreak of the global economic crisis, which to my mind is really a crisis of democracy. So I think all three of these events have radically changed the environment not only in Europe, but in global terms. If we look at the scene from this point of view, I sometimes have a feeling that what is happening in Central Europe and with Central Europe’s attitude towards Russia is as if we are living on some other planet. We simply do not respond in the correct manner to the changes that are taking place; we seem to be blindfolded and walking somewhere without really knowing where we are going. And so I am taking quite a critical view of the Western policy and Central European policy towards Russia, and also security issues, and the reason is that I feel we should really begin by studying properly what is actually happening in Russia, and also in China. We shouldn’t keep saying all the time that these countries are autocracies, that they are restorations of the Soviet Union, of totalitarianism, because we all know very well that this is simply not true because autocracy means rule by one person who is accountable only to God, to no one else, and I just cannot accept this mainstream interpretation of the governments in these very important civilizations as corresponding to this description. I think we really need to get serious Western political scientists to start thinking fresh and coming up with some serious ideas. …

It seems to me that one of the values of democracy and one of the most important qualities of democracy is to have a rational discussion and not to be deluding ourselves, not to be pretending that things are different from what they actually are. This is what we saw under communism, and the reason I’m saying all this is that I feel very much that we do not want to start slipping into that kind of behavior. We have seen it many times, we have seen it under the Nazi occupation, under the Soviet occupation, and we certainly shouldn’t be repeating all these mistakes. So if we look broadly at what I think should be done is that we need to bring Russia on board, not to waste our time with petty conflicts with this mature country which happens to stretch to the other side of the Eurasian continent, which has massive resources, and we also need to make sure that Russia is not pushed closer to China because if we do this and persevere in this behavior we are risking the creation of a production system on the other side of the continent that will be created by China, which has a surplus of cheap labor and very disciplined labor. … So I really think we need to rethink very seriously Western policy in these matters.

So the first step should be to look at the role of NATO. We have seen that NATO has been very positive, up to a point, immediately after the collapse of communism. NATO and EU stabilized the region, and, as the previous discussion panel noted, provided a model for democracy, provided stability and so on. So that was a very important role. NATO also helped to extinguish the role of the former Yugoslavia, and unfortunately in the last let’s say 7-10 years, NATO has become a destabilizing force and again this is because of the misunderstanding about what is happening in Russia and its reluctance to come to terms with it. NATO really doesn’t know its purpose, doesn’t know where it is going, and it seems to me that its main purpose is to keep a large bureaucracy going. And certainly this kind of behavior is totally incompatible with democracy. I think this is a very typical behavior we saw under the communist regime: let’s not question it, let’s just go on and perpetuate a system which is really anachronistic. We have also seen the expansion of NATO apart from alienating Russia, which could be a potential main partner in security, we also are risking a conflict because we saw two years ago what happened in Georgia – and I’m not now going to say that the Russians were innocent; I’m perfectly prepared to accept that they played a role in starting the conflict, they perhaps provoked Saakashvili. I don’t know all the details and we may never know all the details, but the fact on the ground is that this was a very serious conflict and it was unprecedented because for the first time in history we had actual Russian forces confronting a Western ally in Europe and I think this a very serious issue. We have not seen anything like it since the second World War, and the reason I’m saying this is that we again need to reassess the situation and become a little bit more serious about where we are going, what our intentions are, and how we are going to deal with the prospect of rising China at the other side of the Eurasian landmass.

I personally don’t think that Russia should be part of the NATO system because basically Russian is incompatible culturally and structurally with NATO, but I think that the way ahead is to basically start abolishing NATO and winding it down and move over to a new system which happens to be proposed by the Russians, by President Medvedev. It wasn’t Medvedev’s idea, but when he became president he started pushing it. His ideas have been completely ridiculed in the West, but if you look at it in the context of what I’ve been saying, you’ll see that they are actually very sensible ideas, because that would create a balance of power in which all countries would participate as individual countries that wouldn’t be based on a bloc that is dominated by big powers – big Western powers. …


And let me just finally say a couple of things about what this implies. First of all we need to accept that Russia does have a privileged interest in the former Soviet Union, and this has been an article of faith that we say that they should not have such rights, but if you actually look at what the Kremlin is saying, you can see that that’s very little to do with imperialism or neo-imperialism. Russia is no longer imperialist because it was broken – its economy broke down – and one of the many reasons, apart from communism, was an imperial expansion. And they have been thoroughly cured of this disease and I don’t think they want it again. What they are after is a decent relationship based on common history and cultural ties, personal ties and so on. I feel that this is perfectly legitimate. In fact, it’s necessary. You know, do we want them to have constant fights with Georgia or something like that? I can’t see how this could be in anyone’s interest.

Finally, about China: if you look at China, which I would argue is an emerging democracy as well – apart from an emerging state capitalist country – we can actually see that there is a convergence of interests, as opposed to the Soviet bloc or Soviet Union or communist China. … Now China and Russia are building fledgling democracies and are sorting their economies. China has saved the global economy from a much worse crisis than we have actually had. So we are dealing with a completely different animal than we did 30 to 40 years ago, and this must be recognized. And China has a very big stake in the global system, in the global economy, and its interests are convergent with those of the United States and the West. …

 

SECURITY IS HAVING FRIENDS


Jeremy Druker: Vlad, I knew you’d provide some provocative first thoughts and you certainly fulfilled that, so thank you for that. I’m going to turn it over now to Robert, who is to my right, and a longtime staff writer and foreign correspondent for about 30 years for The Economist, The Financial Times, and a number of other publications. He now edits a site called TheBrowser.com, but it always depresses me because Robert and his colleagues are always pointing out an incredible amount of interesting material that I never have time to read, but it’s definitely worth a look and I will now ask him to offer his view.

Robert Cottrell: That’s because you and colleagues are too busy writing interesting material. Okay, well I’m going to say some things that diverge from what Vlad has been saying, but that’s because he knows much more than I do. In terms of intra-European issues, soft security, and a little bit of hard security, it’s difficult for the Central and Eastern Europeans to be ‘good’ Europeans – it’s difficult for anybody to be a good European in a badly functioning Europe. The problems are big and getting bigger … You had the debacle of the Lisbon Treaty, you’ve got a financial crisis across the periphery now, you’ve got very serious problems of domestic government in Belgium, Italy, Greece, Ireland, don’t think that greatly of France, so there’s a lot of bad things going on there and the good news there for the Central Europeans is that they are no longer the ‘free riders,’ the disrupters. But I’m not sure how much confidence the Central and Eastern Europeans have in the European Union either.

 

Vlad Sobell – European Security – Russia's Relationship to the FSU from Transitions Online on Vimeo.

 

I mean, I live in Latvia and the percentage of the public political debate there that’s devoted to the question of ‘What can we do for Europe? What can we contribute to Europe?’ is zero. I mean, there’s a small interest in ‘What can we take from Europe?’ but you really can’t have a functioning Europe based on everybody trying to take from it. So I don’t feel at all good about Europe as a source of security or stability. It seems to me that the idea of a north-south split in Europe is not totally crazy and geographically and attitudinally it seems to be that quite a few of the post-communist EU member states will be well-positioned in that split.


Generally, on principles of security, I think it’s hard to be radical enough. I know what the American army is for, but I don’t know what the Spanish army is for, or the Belgian army, or even the British army, what all these missiles are for and who they are going to be fired at. It seems to me that 90 percent of national security problems are domestic and yet 100 percent of them are domestic at the point of delivery, and what you need in that sort of world, in this sort of world now, is police and spies and development aid. You don’t need large standing armies and you don’t need long-haul weaponry. You can lend a bit of it, or a few soldiers to America for theater adventures, but the return on that investment is looking quite low these days, and it doesn’t play back very well domestically. I really don’t see any future for NATO except mainly in training and standards. If you doubt the premise of having armies in the first place, then even that is dubious. I mean NATO was a way of clinging to American coattails, but I don't think that America is in the business of doing – Chris may correct me on this – of doing any new wars of any sort anytime soon.

I think what does give you national security is being a successful country, and that’s in large part an economic proposition, and to some extent it’s a cultural and diplomatic proposition. So you have to make people want to be your friends, you have to deal with them nicely and correctly and properly and profitably. And the more people who want to be your friends, the more secure you are. Hard power has relatively little to do with that. Singapore, for example. …


I mean, if the European Union were truly united and everybody knew it was united, then a united diplomatic policy would be a force multiplier, but since it’s divided and everybody knows that it’s not [united] then a common diplomatic policy, a common external policy – at least outside the trade area – just becomes a straitjacket, a restraint. You end up with the European Union arguing amongst itself endlessly in order to produce a meaninglessly generic product for external consumption. It’s a waste of everybody’s time.

Now I agree with Vlad here, that America is just not interested in Europe right now. It’s got plenty of other things to worry about, including America. It’s all good news from Europe’s point of view, because it means that we’re not right now producing a Grade-A global crisis, so that’s fine, it means that America’s attention can go somewhere else. I also agree with Vlad, I think, at least measured against the past 10 years, it’s good that America is less interested in Europe now, because the messianic posture of America occasionally during the Bush years was extremely misleading and destabilizing for particular situations in Eastern Europe and I think it’s much easier to deal with an Obama administration which is trying to deal as far as it can correctly and formally with all of the countries on this part of the map and not to start playing games amongst them. And you could always say, ‘Well maybe the Republicans will come back.’ But if they do, then I think that will be in a very isolationist form. I don’t think they’ll be another Bushist re-engagement.

So circling around to Russia – I live in Latvia so I probably have a disproportionate view of it as the 800-pound gorilla in the room – I share Vlad’s immense hope that Russia could be a better partner, but I don’t think you can deal in hope. I think things are what they are. It may not be one man who has captured government in Russia, but one clique has captured government in Russia, but that’s intrinsically unstable. It means that a secret argument against a few people could have radical policy consequences. And for that reason Russia is not a reliable partner, even if it’s an attractive one. And I think it’s very different with China, because the system of government and the effects it has – to lump them together is crazy. China has very successfully repurposed its Communist Party, which is accessible to quite a large top slice of the population, and produces a governing machine which is quite intelligent and very efficient, so I think whatever China wants it’s probably a pretty reliable and intelligent actor in getting there.

Now, I wish you could change the dynamic in Russia-EU relations, and there are times when it feels agonizingly close. You can’t change the mind or the culture of a huge country like Russia, even the Russians can’t change the mind or the culture of a huge country like Russia within any useful time frame, but I think you have a sizable elite in Russia which could very easily declare itself ‘pleased’ to have a much closer and friendlier working relationship with [the EU] and could easily put the nationalist and anti-West doctrine which still surfaces behind it.

How do you jump the fence? I think only Russia can do that, and not because Russia is necessarily at fault here, but because there is nobody who can speak for Europe. I think you can have Lady Ashton, or Herman Van Rompuy saying, ‘Well, Europe feels totally different in that we’re going to change the mood and the national spirit and the rhetoric and the soft behavior and the posture and we’re going to do all the difficult edgy things that it takes to bring us closer together,’ but I don’t think there is anybody who could do that for Europe. On the other hand, what a coup if Dmitry Medvedev was to do that for Russia. I don’t see that possibility in Putin. I think Putin engaged with that possibility very deeply after 9/11 and decided that he wasn’t going to place a bet that size. I think he had the option then of becoming an unconditional partner of America and then stepped back, so it’s a next-generation thing. I’m not a scholar of Russian politics, I don’t know whether Medvedev could deliver, I don’t know if that rhetoric could take root, but I think strategically if you’re Russian and you look at what’s happening on your eastern flank, a rising China, which however rationally terrifies you, and on your southern flank an Islam which however rationally also terrifies you, then an opening to Europe has a lot of geopolitical logic about it. So if I was going to be optimistic, that it would be for European-Russian relations, but on the basis of a hypothesis rather than an expectation.

Jeremy Druker: OK, thank you very much. So, Chris, you are the last panelist, it’s up to you to tie everything together and offer something new as well. Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House and also a past-Prague resident. I think he still remembers some of his Czech but will speak tonight in English. So, Chris.

Christopher Walker: Thank you very much, Jeremy. I am going to talk a little about expectations and assumptions and use a level of analysis looking at the decade of the ’90s, the last decade and the decade that we just started. I’ll start by saying I agree with Vlad Sobell that the world is changing a lot, in China’s role, in Russia’s role, and the financial crisis has changed the landscape in a very significant way. That’s probably where my agreement will end with him, and I’ll walk through some of the reasons why I think that’s the case. The assumptions in the ’90s, by and large, I think were reflected in some of the first panel discussion, for those of you who were here. By and large the sense was optimistic. I don’t think people always underestimated the extent of the challenge to reform the systems, and there were some observations and models put forth in the first session that explain the sort of challenges that these countries confronted after decades of controlled economies, dominated political systems. There was always going to be an enormous challenge, but in the 1990s, by and large there was a receptivity to reform, and international actors certainly coming from Brussels or Washington had receptive partners in the region. And that translated into not always perfect, not always precise positive outcomes, but I think by and large if you look at the glass as half-full for this region – and we can stipulate – there’s pessimism and everybody is critical. I think that’s not a bad thing. In essence, it suggests that many local residents will challenge themselves for something better, which isn’t the case everywhere. There’s apathy but I think there’s also a sense when you have candid conversations with people in the Visegrad countries that they would prefer something better. If you look at Freedom House analysis you’ll find countries that for all the flaws and all the problems of recent years, including some of the very worrisome developments on media freedom that have been talked about, these countries still punch way above their weight on our democracy indicators if you look at, for example, GDP per capita.

I think despite the internal turmoil and challenges of the European Union and its larger sense, you still have most of the countries (you might have a debate about Hungary today given the last eight months or so) but most of the countries I think still see value and attractive force both in the standards and the values of the European Union. You still see this in the Western Balkans. For the countries that aren’t in the club, this may be where the power is most potent. We see in our findings – it’s a theory and I think everyone will have their own sense of this who follows the region – once countries enter the club, whether it’s NATO or the European Union, there’s this sense of exhaling or relaxing, getting a little sloppy, not working as hard for the standards. Maybe that’s to be expected.

I think the big question now is whether the challenge, and I think Miklos Haraszti said this very well for the Central European states, is whether they will right themselves in these last years of erosion on some of the indicators that Freedom House evaluates and maintain a liberal course, or whether they’ll find themselves drifting for one reason or another – whether it’s domestic forces of populism, whether it’s oligarchic forces within these countries that are able to capture public resources and public policy as part of that, insinuating themselves into the news media. You see this sort of problem ranging in countries from Latvia, where the major daily there has undergone at minimum an unusual ownership transfer – that may be a generous adjective. But you see this problem in a number of places. The question is, will we see this trajectory move in a positive or negative direction? I’m not sure we can assume either one. The last decade showed emergence of resistance to the sorts of standards and ideas that I think many in the region had hoped to see. This happened for a variety of reasons. It may have been natural. There would have been some sort of a backlash to the democracy openings and expectations of the first decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, certainly the U.S. military intervention in Iraq had the effect of jaundicing the view of these sorts of activities.

But if we come back to the role of China and Russia, I’ll start with China, I think there’s often a very light and superficial take on developments in China, and with this idea of assumptions about China. I’ll just briefly touch on this and come to Russia on this count, as it’s a very important point. If you turn the clock back a dozen years or 15 years ago, the conventional debate on China was the country should grow economically, that there’s great promise in its economic development in that regard. It’ll coax along a middle class which over time, at least according to democratization theory, will then agitate for greater rights, look for better governance, push for greater openness in the information sector to give an example. I think if you look at the results today as a snapshot, it’s safe to say that those assumptions were incorrect. It’s not to say that that won’t change over time, but I think for anyone who would’ve imagined in 1995 or 1998 that inexorably this change would occur, I think as of today we have to be very circumspect about that. It may still happen over time, but it hasn’t yet and what we’ve seen at least in my view, is a very effective repositioning of the Chinese Communist Party as Robert alluded to. For those of you interested in this subject, Richard McGregor, the FT correspondent who covered China, has written a brilliant and insightful book called The Party, which can give you as clear and candid a depiction of how the Chinese Communist Party operates today, informed and animated by something akin to a capitalist market economy, but there’s more evidence to suggest that this is animating a much more vigorous form of authoritarianism than anything akin to a liberal reforming system. The evidence just isn’t there to suggest otherwise. It’s a dramatically different country from 30 years ago in many ways: in terms of personal freedoms, economic liberty. But in terms of political pluralism and liberalization, there’s very little to support this thesis.

This leads me to Russia. It’s a false argument to say that Russia today is no longer the former Soviet Union – it’s not. I’m not sure who’s making that argument. I hear it raised. But the choice isn’t between whether Russia today is the Soviet Union or not. The question is ‘what is Russia today?’ And if you look at the institutions that, for example, the European Union would look to, as a matter of course in talking about a country that meets basic standards, values that are roughly consistent with European standards and values, I think you would find Russia woefully lacking. And I’ll just go down a small part of the list, this is just a thin sliver of the sort of indicators that Freedom House looks at. But we’re not unique; I think if you look at other fine organizations that, say, look at media freedom, you would find very consistent reviews across the board in this respect. If we start with media, look at Russia’s media today. Here we are in 2011. We’re at arguably the apex of modern globalization. The Internet – you can find anything you want on it – the options are virtually limitless. Yet in Russia today, for most of the country, 80 percent of the country relies on television for news and information, and all of this news and information is controlled by the Kremlin. It’s a fact. If you look at newspapers today, there is still some pluralism but it’s very careful, no pun intended, to look at the fine print. The newspapers that retain a degree of independence and pluralism are very low-circulation newspapers, very low-distribution channels in the scheme of a country of 140 million people. Most of the information that circulates in a vibrant manner, in a pluralistic manner, is limited to cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod. Once you get out into the larger landscape, which is really the bread and butter, the political base of the current political elite in Russia, it’s a very different story. And I think it was Masha Lipman [of the Carnegie Moscow Center] who said that watching television news controlled by the Kremlin today is like watching a parallel reality. This is 2011, so you can draw your own conclusions on what the distinctions are between the brick and mortar dimensions of the institutions of accountable governance in Russia today, compared with a quarter-century ago and earlier, but there are severe flaws in the system. I’ll just say one other example because they’ve been in the news, or two of the same kind. Look at the processes by which Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Sergei Magnitsky were treated. Magnitsky died in prison under horrible circumstances. I won’t go into all the details, but he in essence was trying to bring to light public corruption to the tune of hundreds of millions of Russian taxpayer dollars. He was silenced, put into prison, had what was ultimately a fatal stomach ailment, and was left to die there. Khodorkovsky told a story there, I won’t go into detail … irrespective of how you feel about him in the first trial, whatever he did in the 1990s along with the other oligarchs; by any measure what’s happened to him in the second [trial] is a gross miscarriage of justice. I think for these two accomplished and influential figures in Russia to suffer this fate, it essentially tells you that anyone can suffer this fate in Russia. If all of the institutions of state power were brought to silence these two: security services, the justice system, criminal justice system, political elite, the signals sent by Prime Minister Putin several days before the court decision last December, it tells the story. I mention this because, if your assumption is that integration as such is essential, and is good in itself, then you can, I think, live with the notion of working with Russia under any circumstances, or other authoritarian states that have very different preferences, very different interests than the democracies of Central Europe and the European Union. If you believe there’s something to this idea of basic standards being adhered to, that basic rule of law being followed, as a guide for relations and good in and of itself, before we get into even deeper questions of human rights, then there’s some serious questions about this idea of how you devise a partnership. And I think it’s very much a question as to whether the relatively small Central European states represent the crux of the challenge and the friction in the current debate, or whether the real heart of the challenge lies elsewhere. And I think it was Pavol Demes who said today we have in essence a unified bloc of authoritarian states who behave in a certain way – we might say east of Kyiv, and we might be forced to say in the near future east of Lvov – and this presents very significant strategic challenges for the countries that lie to the west. They’re not the same as the Cold War era, I would argue they’re much more nuanced and in many ways much more challenging because there’s a much deeper level of integration today. Saying that we’re going to integrate or we’re going to avoid engagement of any kind is a non-starter. There needs to be engagement. The question is under what conditions it occurs, whether it’s unconditional and you pursue this without any sort of framework or any sort of standards, or whether there’s a more coherent strategy for Brussels and I would say, as importantly, Berlin and Paris and London, to think about a longer-term positive outcome both for Europe as a whole but for the Central European states, whose fate I think still isn’t wholly determined as consolidated democracies going forward.

 

BETWEEN RUSSIA AND GERMANY

Jeremy Druker: Thank you. Before opening it up to the floor, I wanted to just use the moderator’s privilege and ask a first question, about Germany because we only mentioned it in passing. I read a very interesting article by a Czech journalist, probably about six months ago, where he was trying to put into perspective how much relations had really changed over the last 20 years and it got me thinking back to when I first came to Czechoslovakia at that time, and how in fear many Czechs were just about Germans coming back and getting land that they had lost before being deported, about German companies coming and taking over the media, and really how it’s turned into a rather positive relationship today. And he was also saying how with the economic developments in Germany and Central Europe, a lot of governments we spoke about in the first panel were looking to Germany and how they’ve recovered from the economic crisis as something of a model, and how he felt Germany could become a real motor, moving forward the European Union economically, and also taking along several of the Central European countries as well, and perhaps cooperating more with the Baltics as well. So I wonder how the three of you see Germany playing a role going forward.

Vlad Sobell: I feel very much that this is a very important issue, of course. What we have seen is the emergence of Germany as well as Russia, and Germany is basically, well, running the European Union for obvious reasons, because the European Union is failing and falling apart and if it wasn’t for Germany it would have no future. So without the Germans even wanting it, they are actually becoming the key country in Europe, even much more than it was the case before. And I personally feel this is a positive development. I don’t see anything wrong with it, and equally I don’t see anything wrong with the emerging Russo-German axis, which seems to be causing alarm in Central Europe. I really think we have moved on and we had a period of democracy and in Germany, an exemplary democratic state, a very prosperous state. We are now seeing Germany reviving very fast while everyone else is still going under. And as regards to Russia, I respect very much Chris’s opinion, but I cannot agree with it at all. … I feel that it is up to us Europeans, up to the democratic forces in Europe to finally get together and start looking to the future and cooperating on a democratic new basis instead of keep looking back all the time and worrying about each other. This is where I see the positive role of Germany and of the German-Russian axis, which will be a stabilizer rather than destabilizer as it was in the past.

Christopher Walker: I think that Germany can play a critically important role and it has in many ways. I think if you look to the Gerhard Schroeder-Jacques Chirac period and what that meant for the Central European states, clearly in relative terms there’s much more comfort today with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. I think you’re going to find under any circumstances a real challenge for the Visegrad countries and the Baltics to employ the sort of diplomacy that will get attention from their European Union member states to the west in a constructive way. Simply because the interests of Germany, in terms of energy reliance, and energy relations and the enormous economic integration that’s going on now between Germany and Russia, to get the attention of Germany in a positive way and not to find themselves the odd man out – which was very much the case during the Schroeder period –  and that as much will fall to the energy and the sophistication and the capacity of the leadership in the new EU member states as it will to anyone else, at least in the short term, to get the outcomes they would desire.

Robert Cottrell: I think the only absolute no-brainer for Central and Eastern European countries right now is to cultivate the best and strongest possible relations with Germany. I mean, it happens to be the biggest and strongest and richest country in this part of the map, and it’s going to remain that way whatever the future of the European Union might be. And what follows from that, I think, is just get as close to Germany as you can on every front: cultural diplomacy, rhetorical diplomacy, diplomacy. Send your best ballet, your best opera, raise your profile, make sure no government minister ever says a rude word and always a nice one, support Germany in the UN, support Germany in the EU, and above all, treat German investors right. I mean, amongst politicians, they tend to think that business people actually know what’s going on, on the ground, so what you really want is for the boss of Siemens to go to Angela Merkel and say, ‘Oh, Latvia is really a great place to operate,’ or ‘Czech Republic – fantastic, they really understand how things tick.’ So if you get into the tiniest little dispute with Germans, sort it out. If there is an irritant post-World War II group making bad noises, buy them out. It is really the best possible investment that you could make.

 

NORMALIZING RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA

Jeremy Druker: You left out rooting for Germany in the World Cup and European Championship. ... I’d like to now open it up the floor. We have a question here, the microphone please.

Audience question: Hello, I am a Russian and I am a representative of Russian media, so I first want to say a couple of things about how I, like a lot of the Russians, see the situation. So, first I want to say to Mr. Walker that in my view, it’s not exactly as you say because Russian press, not media, but press is more or less free, and a newspaper for which I write, Vedomosti, criticizes Putin quite often and about a week ago it published an article about Putin’s huge palace, $1 billion palace, which Putin is allegedly building for himself on the Black Sea. And Vedomosti is not such a widespread publication, but it’s a joint venture of the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, and you can find it on the table of every Russian businessman. Another newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, is criticizing Putin even stronger and its circulation is about half a million. So press can criticize Putin, can criticize the regime, and I say regime because a regime is existing in Russia. But TV is absolutely not the same. TV is strongly censored and you cannot hear any free opinions. TV is strictly controlled. So the reality is more complicated in my view. For Mr. Sobell, I agree with you that Europe and the West shouldn’t isolate Russia. There is nothing good about isolation. The U.S. has tried to isolate Cuba for 50 years, and doesn’t succeed. And I can agree that what’s going on in Russia is not totalitarianism, but it’s certainly autocratic. As Mr. Haraszti described to us, in Hungary right now, the government is changing the constitution, and listening to it I was kind of perversely proud of Russia, because in Russia the ruling party managed to kill all independent institutions except for the press, probably. ... My question is to Mr. Sobell. One more thing I want to add is that Russia has, in my view, imperial ambitions. It’s the main problem of Russia because I think, for my country, it would be better to think of its interests in Russia not its interests in some zone of Russian interests. Better think about ourselves, not about people around us. And about this zone of interest, you say that like the West we should agree that Russia has a natural zone of interest. I wonder, what is in this zone? Is it only like Georgia, or is it also the Baltic states that used to be Russian colonies for 200 years, or is it probably Poland that used to be a Russian colony for 150 years, or probably it’s also the Czech Republic that used to be close to Russia for only 50 years, and Hungary as well? So basically, where is this zone of interest that the West should agree to? Where does it actually end?

Vlad Sobell: Thank you very much. The issue is that we don’t want hostile relations. And I mention the case of Georgia, which is the salient point but we also have had very unpleasant relations between Russia and the Baltic republics, Russia and Poland, and so what I’m saying is it’s not a question of privileged interests; it’s a question of reconciliation and normalization. We can even look at Poland: they started very well recently, a year ago, and now it’s almost back to where it was before because of [late President] Kaczynski going on about some Russian conspiracy. It’s a very difficult process, and I think what Europe needs is the model of the Franco-German reconciliation and to accept that we have all behaved equally badly under Communists and all the fascists. There is no center of evil; we have all done exactly the same things and we all behave under a certain regime. We respond in the same way, across all cultures, everywhere you look, including Germany. So I think it’s time to basically forget all this and place the relations on a very different footing. So it’s not a question of Russian expansion, it’s simply pacification of a very unpleasant and conflicting situation.

Christopher Walker: Just a quick observation: we have no disagreement at all. We agree that mass media, television in particular, does not provide alternative views, and does not give a critical assessment of the Russian authorities, and that’s actually the source for most ordinary Russians to get their news and information. … So the question isn’t whether there isn’t any pluralism at all in the Russian media, the question is whether and where it counts on a day-to-day basis. That there’s actually coverage of meaningful issues, that’s the key. And you’ll find this similar, I think, in places like Kazakhstan, as well. It’s an interesting model. [The radio station] Ekho Moskvy is a great example, right? They can talk about virtually anything, but it’s very circumscribed, something along the lines of 3 million listeners. It’s perfect. It’s a tiny safety valve, but it has nothing to do with changing perspectives of the society in a meaningful and consistent way. ...

Audience question: I mostly agree with Mr. Walker, so I will ask Mr. Sobell and Mr. Cottrell. So, correct me if I am mistaken, but you would like to see the U.S. soldiers withdrawing from Europe, you’d like to see NATO dismissed? And you would like to see the European army reduced or dismissed as well? So I think you most likely know the motto that if you want peace you need to be prepared for war. Why has this changed since then? Thank you.

Vlad Sobell: Thank you very much. Regarding the U.S., I think that no country is truly sovereign if it farms out its defense to another power. And no country can be truly democratic unless it looks after its own vital affairs of state, and this is one of the key functions of sovereign states. I am not anti-American. I think we are all very grateful to our American friends for what they have done for us, saved us from fascism as well as communism, but I don’t think it’s in anybody’s interests, in the U.S. interests or European interests to keep perpetuating this dependency. Because any form of dependency is counterproductive. It actually demeans both partners, because Europe should be looking after its own affairs, and the U.S. should be looking after its own affairs. This is how it should be in an ideal world. And as regards a European army, I never said that Europe shouldn’t have an army. Of course we should have an army. I said that NATO should be disbanded because it’s an anachronistic organization. But it doesn’t mean at all that European countries should not have armies.

Robert Cottrell: I came close to saying that Europe shouldn’t have armies, so I’ll answer to that. I think obviously there is some use for soldiers in some countries, and probably all countries should have an army so that they can build it up if necessary. What I don’t understand is why countries are pouring tens of billions of pounds or dollars or euros into traditional armies, which are then absorbing all of the smart people and strategic thinking when a lot of the problems that we face need to be solved by intelligence or police work or humanitarian means where typically, particularly in the police, you get stupid people whose idea of security is pointing cameras at people. And you get development aid which is generally too little and spent very badly. So it’s more a question of shifting resources to where they could best be used. And that all still goes for the American forces in Europe. Until you raised the question, I had actually forgotten that there were any American forces in Europe and for the life of me, what are they doing there? OK, so maybe they’re useful as some kind of symbolic gestural commitment or just in case the Russians do send some tanks or whatever the scenario is, but I suspect they will be an awful lot more useful even to the Americans in being redeployed to sort things out in Afghanistan or do a bit more deterrence in Korea or whatever, or wherever you do seem to have some problems. So I suspect that it’s largely inertia and vested interests which keep the Americans there. You do have to do try and look at it from the Americans’ point of view and say what works best for them. And also from Europe’s point of view; I think Europe would be more secure if America was redeploying its assets more effectively.

DEMOCRACY IN CRISIS?


Audience question: Mr. Walker, if I understood your comments correctly with regards to democracy, democratization theory, and China and economic growth and market liberalization not producing yet democracy in China, is that one case or do you see that more broadly? I mean, very clearly Tunisia had the largest middle class in the Arab world, not tied to hydrocarbons, and I don’t know what the character of the next government in Tunisia will be, but it will certainly be more democratic than under Ben Ali, and even if you’re correct that the model that we’ve been using in terms of democratization theory is incorrect, then what do you suggest the emphasis should be put on to promote democracy in countries that are developing their political systems around the world?

Christopher Walker: It’s a terrific question, it’s a vast question. I wouldn’t presume that the government that succeeds Ben Ali will necessarily be better than him in the end. I think you can hope that that will be the case, if you think about the models of recent vintage that could be applied to the Tunisian case, you might as easily look at [deposed Kyrgyz President] Askar Akaev as a model as perhaps some of the others in the region, to the extent there is any analogy there. I’m not sure that the Chinese case would apply in that they have a strong state by all appearances, at least. They have a very bureaucratic system. I think to come back to the larger point I was making, some evidence to suggest that the adaptations of the leadership in China have been very effective in co-opting key elites, say in what might be defined as the middle class. This is happening in Russia as well, in one of the stories that gets very little coverage – it should get more coverage – is how bloated the bureaucracy has become in Russia. In the recent term a lot of this is underwritten by hydrocarbon wealth, but this has been used in large measure to co-opt key segments of what we might define as Russia’s middle class. The other part of the toolkit there has been a bit of nationalism and populism to pull people into the fold, that’s been used very effectively. And the Chinese case, I think you could make the argument, and in the Russian case as well.

 

My larger point was on the broader theme of what is shifting on the global landscape and as it relates to Europe, is that there’s some evidence in these cases that illiberalism, I think, we might agree on certain features of illiberalism, is actually on the ascension in these cases, and it can’t be viewed in a vacuum. I think there are examples of China’s expression of influence beyond its borders. I think the question that was raised by the gentleman here on whether Russia has privileged interests, it’s dead on. Where do you draw the line? If you agree that there are privileged interests, does that line end with the non-Baltic former Soviet Union? Do you add the Baltic states? Do you move a little bit farther west? And what does that mean for countries that we talked about in the first session? It was really interesting to hear the adopted Pole, and then virtually all the other representatives of the countries say for the first time they are succeeding or failing on their own. They can’t blame anyone else, they have this opportunity to do this, the question might be why shouldn’t countries to the east of Central Europe have exactly the same opportunity on that merit? I think that’s part of it. It comes into where you draw the line if you agree with it. I don’t agree with the privileged interest theory, but I think it’s a real question.


I’ve digressed from your original question.

Robert Cottrell: I wouldn’t mind adding a point there, if there’s time. I think we should be careful to appreciate the specificity of the Chinese model. I think as China rises in power that we’re going to get an awful lot of autocratically disposed countries free-riding on Chinese success and saying, ‘Well, look, the Chinese don’t have democracy, it’s obviously not necessary. Autocracy can be just as good, therefore we’re going to be an autocracy too.’ But I think that ignores the fact that the Chinese have got this fantastic machinery of power in the preserved Communist Party as a mass organization, which does seem to be capable of things and very smart decisions and I think it’s important also to see that it is to some extent a defense against the classic form of autocracy in that the individual leader or leaders of the Communist Party do seem to have very circumscribed power. It really is a country run by committees, so I am worried that the rise of China will give a lot of comfort to other authoritarian countries, when in reality it shouldn’t do so. And on the issue of a Russian sphere of influence, it’s something which sounds not unreasonable in principle, but the trouble is I think that the sphere of influence is not going to be stable and cordial unless it corresponds to what Russia thinks it’s sphere of influence should be. And I’m not really sure that the nature of government in Russia at the moment is able to articulate an authentic and durable version of what a Russian sphere of interests would amount to. And I think you have various actors who would like Russian interests to spike out here and there, and who would be inclined to let other sections of society bear the cost of such adventures. What sort of an imagined sphere of interest you’d get if you actually had some sort of participatory government deciding is another matter.

Vlad Sobell: I’d just like to make a very short point, and it’s going to be very heretical. I actually think that the experience of the last two or three years has shown that democracy is undergoing a very severe existential crisis and for that reason a bit of authoritarianism actually is not bad. This is really the reason why Ukraine is moving in the same direction, and why perhaps Hungary is moving in the same direction. We can all go on about democracy, but democracy has been abused on a global scale and it is time to reassess actually what it all is for. And the global crisis has really shaken us up and I don’t think we are really realizing yet what impact it’s going to have. Thank you.

Audience question: … My question would be going directly to Mr. Sobell. How do you then dose authoritarian regimes if you just say that a bit of authoritarianism is a basically good thing? I’d be interested in hearing how do you dose it? The other thing that I wanted to ask and also challenge one of your theses: You called for an overhaul in the Western thinking of Russia, you ask us to be more serious and candid in what really goes on in the country. And at the same time you describe it as a reliable and stable partner. The last time I was in Russia, and I travel to Russia several times a year, I got shaved because it was in the turmoil in Moscow where ethnic pogroms nearly broke out and I look as Chechen person, although I’m not. And you had groups of aggressive neo-Nazis running around Moscow and basically attacking people who look black or originating from the Caucasus, whenever they met them. This was the first time when they realized their political potential. And whenever the country gets into real trouble by decreasing the world market price of oil for instance, to $70 or $80, because the country totally depends on exports, there will be a neo-Nazi revolution in the country and it will collapse in a minute and so I’m just interested in hearing how you want to build candid and friendly relationship with a country that is so unstable. And it’s not talk against any kind of engagement with the country. Of course you need engagement, that’s clear, but at the same time you need to be very candid and very specific in what you describe as what goes on in a country and you should also be able to describe it internationally and your leaders should probably talk frankly to the other countries. Thanks for your comments.

Vlad Sobell: The latter part of your question which you describe is a universal phenomenon, especially at times like these. You get far-right groups coming out everywhere. If you look around Europe, it’s happening everywhere else. I’m not saying that it has a perfect democracy. It’s not autocratic, it’s post-totalitarian. It’s suffering from a weakness of democratic culture. It’s not perfectly accepted, but it’s moving in the right direction. As regards the first question, you know, in Hungary the Orban regime was able to increase its ratings since it started behaving like that. So it’s seen by the population as positive. You know, the same thing is in Russia, the regime is popular by credible measures. I don’t believe it is up to us foreigners, it’s not about democracy for us to tell them what they should be doing. Thank you. ...


Christopher Walker: Well, I would just say that this notion of definitions and concepts are critical because one of the things I didn’t touch on in this emerging contestation between what we might describe as illiberal forces and liberal forces is also the use and aggregation of terms. I’m very uncomfortable describing what many might agree are consolidated authoritarian regimes like Russia and Kazakhstan, or any of the Central Asian states, Azerbaijan, as anything other than that. And the notion that Russia, for example, is a democracy, and it’s simply finding its way isn’t borne out by any sort of systematic scrutiny of the sorts of institutions you’d have to look at to come to that conclusion. So what I would say is, don’t take my word for it, but do your own research and examination of independent civil society groups and others who look at this ... And I think that’s part of what this is about, trying to have independent meaningful information in the debate so that people can get their bearings and have a conversation about these things. I’ll just end on this note. There’s actually a very strong contest now even for the term democracy. You have everything from sovereign democracy, to Bolivarian democracy, to socialist democracy. It’s a very important point. It’s not the label, but the ingredients that feed into the label that are important, which I would list as judicial independence, meaningful competition and pluralism on elections, the ability for civil society to operate in a meaningful and independent way, free expression more broadly. If you look at these issues and then come to some of the countries you’ve been discussing, I think by any reasonable measure you’ll find it sorely lacking.

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Home page photo: memorial to Jan Palach and Jan Zajic, Czech students who set themselves alight to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Photo by plumcrazy under a Creative Commons license.
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