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What will the upcoming elections say about Central Europeans’ state of mind?by Martin Ehl 11 March 2014
The countries of Central Europe, slightly rattled over the events in Ukraine, have jointly asked the United States to accelerate its discussion of shale gas exports to NATO allies. In the face of the Russian threat, such supplies could prove a more effective weapon than the deployment of a squadron of American F-16 fighter planes in Poland last week.
However, from the perspective of Central Europeans, the American ally has in recent years proved, let’s say, unreliable, in its stance toward Russia. As the Ukrainian drama unfolds, Slovakia’s presidential election this week and the Hungarian parliamentary elections in early April will tell us more about the relationship Central Europe has with the West and with Russia than the joint letter of the Visegrad group that was sent to Washington.
The highlight of the presidential campaign in Slovakia will be the televised debate 12 March. A current billboard campaign and several newspapers articles have criticized entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrej Kiska for not making his true opinions clear, and Slovakia will evidently have to deal with, for now, some mystery around Kiska, who has the greatest chance to advance to the second round of the election together with Prime Minister Robert Fico. Fico’s flirtation with the East is relatively well-known, but it is hard to say what Kiska thinks about the position of Slovakia in between the East and the West. A while ago I conducted a rather extensive interview with him, and I got the impression that he is a master of marketing and he knows how to sell emotions, but on matters of substance, he’s more likely to hire professionals.
In Hungary, the cards are dealt fairly clearly. The governing party, Fidesz, is concerned only with once again getting a two-thirds majority. Its politicians, similar to the liberal left-wing opposition, are biting their nails over how much support the Jobbik extremist party will get, which recently tempered its otherwise virulently xenophobic rhetoric. By the end of February, according to some surveys, Jobbik’s support had inched from 11 percent to 13 percent.
The once convincingly pro-Western Hungarian political scene is experiencing an identity crisis. The government has been turning to the East economically. For example, it unexpectedly agreed with Russia on the construction of two new blocks for the Paks nuclear power plant. Jobbik is an undemocratic, nationalist party. It is therefore paradoxical that the most pro-West of the country’s political parties are the left-liberal opposition ones, with former communists at their core.
Polish politics is spared a similar situation. For Poland, the sharp electoral test awaits with the May elections for the European parliament. According to surveys, a tough and decisive response to the Ukrainian events halted a decline in popularity for Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform party.
Jacek Protasiewicz in particular can thank the Ukrainians and Vladimir Putin. Protasiewicz, a vice president of the European parliament from Tusk’s party, was the campaign manager for the EP elections, which should show by how much the conservative opposition is now beating Civic Platform. But he lost his post because of a drunken incident with police officers at the Frankfurt airport. Then the Ukrainian events, in which Poland has played a leading diplomatic role, overshadowed the whole affair.
With their clear pro-Western stand, Poles show where they feel they belong. They are committed to the welfare of an independent Ukraine even at the cost of the extensive damage Polish businesses have already suffered in Eastern markets. Or maybe rather it is because of those business interests.
It would be an illusion to think that in the coming weeks Slovakian or Hungarian voters will make their decisions based on politicians’ views on Russia or Ukraine. Domestic issues, mainly the economy, are clearly uppermost. Maybe in the EP election the Ukrainian issue will be at the fore, but again, those are in May. Nonetheless, the upcoming elections can disclose more about the state of post-communist society in light of the Ukrainian events than maybe the voters themselves would want. It’s actually like a secret opinion survey in the shadow of the Ukrainian drama.