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Whose Values?

It doesn’t make sense to apply a postmodern interpretation of societies that are only now undergoing the modernization process.

by Martin Ehl 12 September 2017

At a recent debate during the Economic Forum held last week in the southern Polish town of Krynica, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo quoted a Western politician, whose name she did not mention. During a summit in Brussels, she said, the politician told her: “You have values, we have money.” The quotation was meant to defend the populist and nationalist government of the Law and Justice party (PiS), which has built its program and rhetoric on defending traditional, Catholic Church-sanctioned tenets such as the family, boosting the national economy, and taking pride in the historical achievements of the Polish nation.


Just like Hungary over the last couple of years under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Poland has been clashing with the “decadent” European Union. Orban, a former liberal, has been exploring his own (and his party’s) traditional roots: getting closer to Hungary’s churches (Catholic and Protestant); speaking about the country’s rich national history, and taking pride in the preservation of a distinct language and culture in the midst of Slavic and Germanic nations.


Traditional values are, to a great extent, the ideological pillars of politics also in Lithuania and Slovakia, two countries where the Catholic Church has a strong influence. And one can even spot similar values-based rhetoric during these pre-election times in the Czech Republic, which portrays itself as probably the most atheistic nation in the world after North Korea.


No one would argue that this value-based rhetoric is skillfully put to use for gaining or keeping political power – and that it works. 


In contrast stands the European Commission, which speaks about common European values arguments erupt with the Polish or Hungarian governments, whether about rule of law or respect for minorities. While Europe speaks about individual rights with an emphasis on minorities of different kinds, Central European conservatives interpret this as the rights of a family composed of a man and a woman, pride in national history, and resistance to different kinds of past, present and future dangers – represented, for example, by Germany, at the moment a popular topic with the Polish government.


As Szydlo showed during the discussion in Krynica, the value-based debate is not always understood by Western policymakers and analysts in the same way. This kind of understanding, of a person’s motivations and background, is essential whether you agree with your partner or not. And I would argue that our Western partners can do more in this respect, in light of the growing East/West divisions within the EU.


Basically, one cannot apply a postmodern interpretation of societies that are only now undergoing the modernization process. The multicultural discourse, itself under heavy scrutiny in Western Europe, was to a great extent the result of a colonial past. And how are countries like Poland or the Czech Republic, for example, supposed to accept that, in recent history, they were more like colonies than colonial powers? How to look at the rights of ethnic minorities without prejudice if history (mostly World War II) has irreversibly altered the ethically rich and diverse fabric of these countries? And how to speak about homosexual marriage, if it’s only been possible in the last 27 years to talk openly about same-sex relationships?


For example, France abolished a law from 1960, according to which homosexuality could be prosecuted, only in 1981, and it took until 2013 to legalize same-sex marriage. If the free, democratic, and pluralistic Western societies took long, painful decades to achieve such progress, isn’t it too much to ask that post-communist countries should make the same strides in a couple of years?


Yes, post-communist EU members could have used the time that has passed since 1989 much more effectively, but value-based changes take decades and generations. During the same debate with Szydlo in Krynica, Bruce Stokes from the Pew Research Center spoke about how long it took the United States – decades –to accept divorce or the rights of LGBT members as a fact of life and part of the value system within society.


Four decades of communism should not be used as an excuse for the current backsliding away from liberal democracy in the region. But, coming from Western politicians such as French President Emmanuel Macron or European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, it is hard to see how the value-based blame game can be used constructively with Central European’s EU members.


The transformation of societies and economies in the post-communist space has not been easy, and the financial crisis has shown how shallow and weak were the strides toward democracy made by state institutions. The catch-up process is not only an economic task that can be measured by statistics, but also a mental one – and people are confused because a lot of pro-democracy, pro-European, and pro-liberal politicians ended up as the corrupt and discredited ones (see Slovakia, Hungary, or Poland).


What I would ask our Western partners is to go easy on the constant finger-pointing and the use of words like populists, nationalists, and Eurosceptics. Put more energy into growing your knowledge of the local motivations and history. A good place to start would be to send here journalists who have at least some knowledge of local languages, reality, and history, and not the ones whom one side or another can manipulate – as I have seen many times in the past years.

Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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Moldovan diaries

The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.

This innovative approach to story telling gives voice to ordinary people and takes the reader on the virtual trip across Moldovan rural and urban landscapes. 

It is a unique and intimate map of the nation.


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