With the West gripped by the outcome of the US presidential election, it is easy to be distracted from the emerging demagoguery much closer to our own shores. While the focus of debate on the EU has centred recently on the disastrous stumble towards Brexit and what it means for both the UK itself and the future of the European Union, other sinister things are happening in the centre of the continent.
The Visegrad group of countries – comprising Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – are all struggling to maintain the liberal democratic culture which had appeared to have successfully taken root since the early 1990s. The antipathy towards accepting migrants from war-torn and repressive countries in the Middle East and Africa is one of the symptoms which has been more noticed in Western media, but the interest this particular point attracts is partly because it affects EU efforts to deal with a problem which also impinges on Western European states.
In several other respects these countries appear determined to reverse many of the liberal gains made for their citizenry in recent years, and are in no way ashamed of using Trump-like ‘them and us’ rhetoric to achieve it. That is, when there is a convenient ‘them’ to point to.
In Poland, the right-wing PiS (‘Law and Justice’) party has been in power for a year, and has already faced criticism from the EU and groups such Reporters Without Borders for meddling with the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest legal body, and for appointing party cronies to run the national broadcaster TVP. I know from personal experience that many Poles now instead rely on private news networks, seeing TVP as having been compromised to the extent that it is little more than government propaganda.
The latest in Poland’s sad litany of moves towards a brave new brand of authoritarian paternalism was a proposed total ban on abortion. The country already has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, largely a result of the huge Catholic influence in the country. As it stands the law states that only in cases of rape or incest, severe foetal illness or abnormality, or the mother’s life being in danger can a legal abortion be procured. This already leads to thousands of Polish women seeking abortions abroad every year, estimates ranging as high as 150,000 according to some women’s rights groups.
The new proposal managed to be even more draconian, forcing women who had been raped to give birth, regardless of their age, and increasing the prison sentence for both women seeking abortions and doctors providing them to 5 years. The response by Polish women, and their male allies, was immediate and effective; huge protests occurred in Poland, across all the country’s major cities as well as in other European capitals. The apogee of the resistance to this move – one which began life as a citizen’s initiative backed by conservative Catholic groups before gaining the politically-motivated support of PiS – was a general strike of Polish women on 3 October. After this incredible show of dissent by Poland’s women (and, again, many men) the government quickly backpedalled. The hashtag #czarnyprotest and its English equivalent #blackprotest have been trending, used by opponents of the law to signify their support for the protest movement. Poland may be slipping towards paternalistic authoritarianism, but it is not going down without a fight.
Less obvious but equally disturbing trends are afoot in the country as well. One only needs to walk in a Polish city for an afternoon to be guaranteed to see at least a few people, mainly youths, wearing t shirts and hoodies bearing stylized Polish flag emblems or a peculiar character known as a kotwica, the symbol of the Second World War Polish resistance. Sellers and manufacturers of these clothes have been booming, for one simple reason – they are extremely popular with nationalists, the same skinheads and thugs who use national pride, always a strong source of emotion in the country given its turbulent past, to justify violence and hatred towards anyone not seen as intrinsically Polish. Racism is one thing, and not one of which I would accuse Poles on the whole of being guilty, but co-opting symbols for which their elders fought and died is particularly sickening. It has not gone unnoticed – a group of Polish Second World War veterans is now suing the manufacturer of these items.
The other item of Polish news less reported in the English-speaking press is the government’s obsession with Russia. The Smolensk plane crash of 2010, in which many members of the Polish government were killed, along with relatives of victims of the Katyn massacre in the Second World War, is being reinvestigated. The reason is simple – Jarosław Kaczyński. He is the twin brother of Lech Kaczyński, the President of Poland who died in the crash, and he is now the leader of PiS, the power behind both Prime Minister Beata Szydło and President Andrzej Duda. Kaczyński is apparently obsessed with the idea that Russia was behind the crash. He will spare no expense to prove his conspiracy theory true, and a huge exhumation of the victims is now underway, at the expense of Polish taxpayers.
A movie dramatizing the event has also been released in Polish cinemas apparently supporting the government’s conspiracy theories regarding the Kremlin, the West and Polish liberals being behind the whole thing. Kaczyński as well as both the President and Prime Minister of Poland attended its premiere. Perhaps the most ridiculous element of Kaczyński’s puppeteering is his obsessive animosity towards Donald Tusk, the current European Council president, and former two-term Polish Prime Minister, whom Kaczyński accuses of being complicit in the Smolensk crash. He is now attempting to torpedo Tusk’s transition to a second term as EU Council president, as well as ‘warning’ Brussels that he is a problem.
Poland, sadly, is not alone in its slide towards intolerance and authoritarianism. Hungary has long been on the radar of commentators, analysts and the EU itself for the many extremist positions of Victor Orbán’s Fidesz party, in power since 2010. While some analysts have baulked at the direct comparison of Poland and Hungary in this debate the broad parallel remains. Hungary is anti-immigrant, vehemently so, and has been criticized by figures and agencies ranging from the Luxembourg Foreign Minister to Human Rights Watch for its documented abuse against migrants who have reached the country. A referendum held on 2 October, in the shadow of a huge government propaganda campaign to urge Hungarians to reject EU migrant quotas, gave a result of 98% opposed to the quotas but with only a 40% turnout, a confusing outcome leading to both sides claiming victory. Orbán himself hails the idea of the fall of liberal Europe to a more authoritarian system – he made this particular declaration at a joint press conference with Jarosław Kaczyński.
The Czechs and Slovaks too are seeing a sad slide towards xenophobic authoritarianism. The Czech president, Miloš Zeman, has shared platforms with a far-right party in his own country, and advocated the refusal to accept any Muslim refugees. Meanwhile Robert Fico, the Slovak Prime Minister, has argued that Islam has no place in ‘his country’ and that ‘multiculturalism is a fiction’. Previously in August 2015 the Slovak government had agreed to accept 200 Syrian refugees, but with the proviso that they were Christian. Apparently Muslim refugees don’t even have to set foot in parts of Central Europe to be confronted with discrimination.
The trend of populism across the democratic world, whether the odious Nigel Farage trumpeting victory for Brexit or the disturbing reality that Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States, has brought about startling changes. In Central Europe the lack of a unified liberal political presence, and the fact that anything left of centre-right politics is tainted by the legacy of communism, has forged this trend into a particular character, one which does not believe in integration of minorities, does not want any responsibility for handling the migration crisis and still sees Russia as the primary threat to security in Europe, to the exclusion of all else.
It all sounds bleak, but for one thing – as with almost anywhere, the demagogues and proto-dictators are not the only people in play. Central European countries have a long history of strong civil society movements, which in the case of all four of the Visegrad countries (or three, as they were at the time) played a huge role in the downfall of communism and the fostering of democracy. The #czarnyprotest movement against the anti-abortion proposals in Poland led to repeated waves of protests and an eventual government climb down, and writers and commentators of all Central European states have been vocal in their opposition to the watering down of democracy and the populist rhetoric and fearmongering of their own governments. The onus falls on everyone, citizens of these countries, citizens of fellow European states and the organs of the EU itself, to see to it that this is a blip in the development of democracy in Central Europe, not its premature demise.