Friday, August 02, 2013

Sure, the Iron Curtain Fell, But What's Going Up In Its Place?

When the Berlin Wall came down it quickly led to the liberation of eastern Europe and the demise of the Soviet Union.

Western European leaders, egged on by the United States, pulled out all the stops to sign up eastern Europe into the E.U. and NATO.  America sought to drive the North Atlantic alliance right up to Russia's borders.

It was a moment of triumphalism in Washington as Reagan and Bush Sr. were crowned with laurel wreaths for winning the Cold War.  Eastern Europe had been liberated, saved for democracy, or so we were told.  Maybe not.

Now there's a new form of authoritarianism spreading through those former Warsaw Pact states and the democracy was naively assumed would flourish in those countries is in peril.  Spiegel Online has published an insightful interview with Polish dissident Adam Michnik who was, in the Communist era, his country's most important dissident.  Michnik warns that democracy is having trouble putting down roots in the face of rising authoritarianism.

We lack a political culture, a culture of compromise. We in Poland, as well as the Hungarians, have never learned this sort of thing. Although there is a strong desire for freedom in the countries of Eastern Europe, there is no democratic tradition, so that the risk of anarchy and chaos continues to exist. Demagoguery and populism are rampant. We are the illegitimate children, the bastards of communism. It shaped our mentality. 

We still have politicians who strive for a different type of country: Kaczynski as well as Orbán in Hungary. They want a gradual coup. If Orbán stayed in power in Hungary or if Kaczynski were to win an election in our country, it would be dangerous. Both men have an authoritarian idea of government; democracy is merely a façade.  

SPIEGEL: Orbán says that a "centralist majority democracy" is needed so that clear decisions can be made, by decree, if necessary. Otherwise, he says, dangers like the economic crisis cannot be averted.
Michnik: Hitler said the same thing when he issued special decrees and emergency regulations. It's the road to hell. To be honest, Hungary is the country where I would have least expected this to happen, but it was the first to cut a hole into the Iron Curtain. In Romania and Bulgaria, perhaps, but not in Hungary. What is happening there now stems from a disappointment in the Social Democrats, who were in power before and drove the country into economic ruin. Fortunately, Poland quickly implemented the most important reforms needed to make the transition to a market economy at the beginning of the 1990s. It was different in Hungary. That's why the population is now disappointed and is calling everything into question, even the things it once dreamed of achieving.

SPIEGEL: Do people suddenly no longer care that someone is removing judges or editors-in-chief who are not toeing the party line? Have they forgotten what it was like under the communists?
Michnik: A part of society in our countries would still prefer an authoritarian regime today. These are people with the mentality of Homo sovieticus. But they also exist in France -- just think of Le Pen -- and even in Finland and Sweden.
SPIEGEL: Orbán is trying to direct his country into a "system of national cooperation without compromises." What does he mean by that?
Michnik: British historian Norman Davies called this form of democracy a "government of cannibals." Democratic elections are held, but then the victorious party devours the losers. The gradual coup consists in getting rid of or taking over democratic institutions. These people believe that they are the only ones in possession of the truth. At some point, parties no longer mean anything, and the system is based, once again, on a monologue of power. The democratic institutions in the West are more deeply embedded in the West than in Eastern Europe. Democracy can defend itself there. Everything is still fragile in our countries, even two decades after the end of communism.

SPIEGEL: Nationalism is flourishing once again under authoritarian, right-wing leaders, such as Kaczynski and Orbán. How can this be happening in a united Europe?
Michnik: In times of great turmoil, such as we are experiencing today, people search for something to cling to. In Hungary, it's the Trianon complex. No Hungarian has forgotten that, under the Treaty of Trianon, two-thirds of the kingdom had to be handed over to neighboring countries after World War I, and that many Hungarians now live across those borders. Orbán uses this instrument to his advantage.
SPIEGEL: He preaches a new "Hungarianism."
Michnik: Back in 1990, I wrote that nationalism is the last stage of communism: a system of thought that gives simple but wrong answers to complex questions. Nationalism is practically the natural ideology of authoritarian regimes.

Having read Michnik's comments through a couple of times I began thinking about the authoritarianism taking hold in Harper's Canada.

"government of cannibals." Democratic elections are held, but then the victorious party devours the losers. The gradual coup consists in getting rid of or taking over democratic institutions. These people believe that they are the only ones in possession of the truth.

A "gradual coup" in which Harper has gotten rid of or taken over our democratic institutions, sequestering the public service and armed forces, transforming them into his partisan political agencies.   The lack of compromise, accountability, honesty and openness.   The shameless resort to rank nationalism.  Government of Cannibals, indeed


Purple library guy said...

Mind you, I think that Polish guy overestimates the extent to which the West was ever interested in democracy either at home or in Eastern Europe. They were interested in establishing capitalism and exploitation. Democracy was OK as long as everyone was buying into that stuff. If they start getting restless, time to crack down so nobody gets any ideas about re-establishing welfare states or, heaven forbid, putting back some publicly owned industry.

thwap said...

Excellent interview. Thanks for posting it.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ PLG, I agree. Washington was mainly keen on pushing Russia back behind its own borders, hence the hasty pressure to get everyone signed up for the EU and NATO. They did, however, try to milk every ounce of triumphalism they could get out of it, sort of like latter day Roman emperors.

@ Thwap - you're certainly welcome.