Global Thoughts: What went wrong in Eastern Europe

Gwynne Dyer is a Canadian-born independent journalist whose column is published in more than 175 papers in 45 countries.

by Gwynne Dyer


I first met Viktor Orban, the not-quite-dictator of Hungary, in 1989 in Budapest – and the man who introduced us was none other than George Soros.

Orban was then a firebrand student leader, anti-Communist and keen for Hungary to join the West. Soros, a Hungarian refugee who became an American billionaire, was devoting his time and money to supporting young Eastern Europeans who would lead their countries into the European Union and a liberal democratic future.

But Orban is now the prime minister of an ‘illiberal’ Hungarian government that controls the mass media and regards the EU as the enemy. In last April’s election, he portrayed Soros as the Jewish evil genius who, with the EU’s help, was planning to flood Hungary with Muslim refugees and destroy the country’s culture and identity.

That’s ridiculous, but Orban won almost half the votes and more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament. Poland, a far bigger country, now also has a far-right, ‘illiberal’ government that is ultra-nationalist and hostile to both refugees and the EU.

The extremists are not yet in power in other Eastern European countries, but similar trends are visible in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. These countries  have admitted almost no refugees, yet their politics is dominated by the fear of being swamped by them. What went wrong?

Bulgarian political philosopher Ivan Krastev has a persuasive explanation for it. The question, he says, “isn’t so much where the nationalism has come from, but where it’s been hiding all these years.” His answer is that it was hiding in plain sight.

During the 1970s and 1980s the nationalists who wanted independence from Soviet rule formed a close alliance with the pro-Western activists who wanted a liberal, democratic future. Unfortunately, the nationalist wars that destroyed the former Yugoslav federation in the 1990s put an end to the partnership.

As Krastev says, the violence in former Yugoslavia persuaded liberals that “nationalism was the very heart of darkness, and that flirting with it could only be sinful.” So the liberals broke their alliances with the nationalists, and for a while the nationalists went very quiet.

But nationalism was the most powerful political force in Eastern Europe throughout the 20th century, and it wasn’t going to just fade away. It re-emerged in the early 21st century, shorn of its liberal associations with tolerance and diversity, as a major political force in the region – and the driver behind it was what Krastev calls “demographic panic”.

When the Eastern European countries joined the EU in 1994, their citizens acquired the right to free movement – and millions of them emigrated to the prosperous countries of Western Europe. Populations are falling all over Eastern Europe.

This is the real reason for the demographic panic, but it finds its political expression in a paranoid fear that the country’s dwindling population will be overrun by immigrants. It doesn’t matter that there are virtually no immigrants in Hungary, and that it’s about the last place a refugee would want to go. In these matters, perception is all.

The anti-immigrant hysteria is almost universal in Eastern Europe, and it will probably bring more illiberal nationalist regimes to power. The remedy, if there is one, is for the liberals to acknowledge the nationalists’ concerns and rebuild the old alliances with them without pandering to the panic.

That’s not easy to do, but it’s what every Western European democracy has actually been doing for generations. Although they’re not doing too well with it at the moment themselves.

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