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Storming the Castle

Two events in Warsaw show the region’s cognitive divide between officialdom and those who will really shape the future.

by Martin Ehl 18 June 2013

Jan Figel, a leading Slovak politician, should be a conservative and outwardly acts that way. He is chairman of the Christian Democratic Party and deputy chairman of the Slovak parliament. But perhaps because he was a European commissioner and picked up something in Europe, he let himself become, on 16 June, the first Central European politician to publicly try out Google Glass, a revolutionary toy in the history of the Internet and mobile technologies.


Figel stood on the podium at an event organized by Google in the arcades of Warsaw's Royal Castle as an expert from the American company guided him through what he could do with the glasses. It was interesting, even though just a show. And it was the climax of an afternoon in which not just Google presented itself and its approach to Central Europe. A number of small companies – startups, mainly from Poland – had a chance to showcase themselves, as well.


The panel discussions were a bit boring, but not the opportunity to talk to young entrepreneurs. The general atmosphere was – perhaps in anticipation of the Google Glass demo – charged with a certain energy. That, however, could not be said about the event that took place about 150 meters away in the state rooms of the Warsaw castle. The four prime ministers of the Visegrad countries – Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland –  were meeting there with their Japanese counterpart so that they could, in stock phrases and without the opportunity for anyone to ask questions at a press conference, read off a statement about their economic cooperation and the need for Japanese investment in Central Europe. The stiffness of the official summit was underscored even more by the fact that Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas was deciding in those very moments when and how he would resign. 


The prime ministers discussed, for example, the energy sector, as both Poland and the Czech Republic are planning to build nuclear power plants in which Japanese companies via Westinghouse or Hitachi could play an important role. Although they were undoubtedly dealing with serious matters at the castle, it was outside the building, where Google had hung out its shingle, that the economic future of the region could be seen somehow more tangibly.


The contrast between the events suggests the different ways we think of modernization. Politicians speak generally about the need for investment (best from abroad), and in Poland, the flow of money from Brussels’ coffers, which is one of the main motors of the economic growth of the past few years, plays a special role in modernization. However, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban also thanked his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, for negotiating hard, actually on behalf of everyone there, over EU funds for the next budget period, which runs until 2020. Every now and then politicians talk about reforms, without specifying what that means exactly. Moreover, in these times of budget cuts, the word “reform” has assumed a very ugly undertone.


Modernization in the view of the business community, or simply entrepreneurial people, means Google Glass and the young firms that, under the castle, demonstrated what is possible in the Internet economy. Other organizations there showed how new technological tools can help in education, in launching a business, in public administration, and in the fight against corruption. Google talked about freedom, openness, and the possibilities they offered. And the participants then nicely mingled, so everyone had a chance to talk with everyone else. At the official event, meanwhile, phrases about cooperation just rang out with no questions allowed. 


Perhaps I am comparing the incomparable, but both events were a graphic example of how the two worlds – political and technological/business – pass each other by, without connecting. They intersect only when politicians consider it useful to be seen with Google Glass or Mark Zuckerberg (in Poland, the minister for digitization recently met him, while in the Czech Republic it was tourists on the Charles Bridge). Or when the secret services need data about users (In Poland, the operators of mobile and fixed lines receive 1.3 million applications from the secret services per year).


Sometimes it seems as if politicians in post-communist countries will never understand modernization as a process that should improve the lives of citizen-voters, that will allow them to live and do business and develop. Instead, they are stuck in Stalinist-socialist terms of growth in steel production, or GDP, in combination with a hand outstretched toward the Brussels cashbox. The young women and men who presented their ideas at the Google conference obviously don’t share that attitude. Technological development and the increasingly dim prospects for stable and well-paid employment have forced them to think and act differently.


If only their entrepreneurial spirit could be recast into political influence. The electoral participation of young people in the Visegrad countries has been dramatically falling, according to Eurobarometer data. With the exception of the Czech Republic, in the last three years, political parties in Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary have lost one-fifth to a quarter of their youngest voters.

Martin Ehl
 is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU. He recently won the prestigious Writing for Central Europe journalism prize, awarded by the APA – Austria Press Agency in cooperation with Bank Austria.
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