[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap] strange phenomenon is observable lately among experts on Russia-US relations. There is a trend to explain the various thorny intricacies of such a relationship merely via economic strategies and formulas.
The narrative usually begins with the end of World War II when the World Bank (otherwise known as the Marshall Plan) was set up to help in the reconstruction of Europe, something whose success is usually praised by the experts. The main genial idea was that of giving rather than lending money to the tune of 13 billion dollars, in order to restore the economy of 17 EU countries (in today’s currency value it would be the equivalent of 120 billion dollars) as long as those countries agreed to use the money to buy goods from the US.
Then the narrative seems to jump some 40 years or so to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the setting up of the Western economically prosperous camp under NATO’s and the EU’s influence, and the Eastern camp under the influence of Russia. So, having eliminated ideological beliefs and strife (i.e., Communism vs. Capitalism) the split is now a mere spheres of influence opposition. This, so the argument goes, could have been easily eliminated if Russia had been economically been integrated into the G7 and brought up to speed, but alas it did not happen and that explains the present geo-political turmoil; in other words if another Marshall Plan had been devised benefitting the whole Eastern region.
At first blush it seems to make sense, but it’s a bit too facile and naïve. There are truths here, but there are also half-truths and false assumptions. It assumes that indeed ideology and political principles have simply disappeared in the world; that a sort of “end of history” has occurred. The fact is that they have not, and that is discernible not by what there is but what is missing, namely Democracy, what was also missing during the Soviet era. Let’s dig a bit deeper into this analysis.
Indeed it is true that the Marshall Plan, within the World Bank, was set up specifically to help a devastated Western Europe and foment its economic development. In effect the Marshall Plan replaced the World Bank. It was decided that the reconstruction of Europe would be more efficient and cost-effective than mere loans. But the ultimate goal of this economic program was to buttress the capitalistic Western democratic block against the undemocratic Easter bloc sponsored by the USSR. This has to be kept firmly in mind when suggesting that a second Marshall plan should have been created after the fall of the Berlin wall or one risks comparing orange and apples.
It needs to be mentioned also that the US government has learned from the mistakes made in the 1920s and 1930s. At the end of the first World War, the Treaty of Versailles, imposed on Germany the payment of huge compensations for war debt and reparation. Germany soon found it difficult to pay and this led to social discontent. The Wall Street crash that occurred in 1929 brought on a global economic crisis. The US drastically reduced capital outflow. Germany stopped paying its debt to France, Belgium and Britain, and these countries in turn stopped paying their debts to the United States. The more industrialized world sank into recession and massive unemployment, and international trade plummeted. To prepare for a different outcome after WWII, Washington decided on policies that would be completely different from those implemented after WWI and until the early 1930s. It set up the Bretton Woods institutions and the United Nations. This was the international institutions approach.
The US government’s major concern at the end of the Second World War was to maintain the full employment that it had achieved thanks to the tremendous war effort. It also wanted to guarantee that there would be a trade surplus in relations between the US and the rest of the world. |2| But the major industrialized countries that could import US commodities were literally penniless. For European countries to be able to buy US goods they had to be provided with lots of dollars. But how? Through grants or through loans? To put it simply, the US reasoned as follows: if we lend to our European allies the money they need to rebuild their economy, how are they going to pay us back? They will no longer have the dollars we lent them since they used them to buy from us. In all, there were three possibilities: first possibility, Europe pays back in kind. If this happens European goods will compete with ours on our home market, full employment will be jeopardized and profits will fall. This is not a good solution.
Second possibility, Europe pays back with dollars. They cannot use the dollars they received on loan to pay us back since they have used them to buy our goods. Consequently, if they are to pay us back, we have to lend them the same amount again, plus interest . The risk of being caught in an infernal cycle of indebtedness (which puts a stop to or slows down the smooth running of business) is added to the risk attached to the first possibility. To reduce their debts towards us the Europeans they will try to sell their goods on our home market. They will thus get some of the dollars they need to pay us back, but this will not be enough to rid them of their debts and it will endanger employment in the US.
We are left with the third possibility: we give Europe the money with which to recover. Rather than lend to Europeans (through the World Bank or otherwise) it seems appropriate to give them the dollars they need to build up their economy within a fairly short time. Europeans will use these dollars to buy goods and services from the US. This will guarantee an outlet for US exports which will help to maintain full employment. Once economic reconstruction is achieved Europeans will not be riddled with debts and will be able to pay for what they buy from the US. The US authorities thus concluded that it would be better to proceed by grants, and therefore launched the Marshall Plan.
To those grants in the framework of the Marshall Plan we must add the partial cancellation of France’s debt to the US in 1946 (2 bn USD were written off). Similarly Belgium benefited from a reduction of its debt to the US as compensation for the uranium provided to make the first two atomic bombs which were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki causing the first nuclear holocaust. The uranium had been extracted from the mine of Shinkolobwé (near Likasi, then Jadotville) located in the province of Katanga in the Belgian Congo. In the first instance: Belgium was granted debt cancellation thanks to the natural resources from its colony, which it lavishly exploited. Then: some fifteen years later, Belgium transferred, to the newly independent Congo, the debts it had incurred in order to exploit those natural resources as well as its population.
From the end of the second World War until today major powers have refused to implement a Marshall plan for developing countries (with two exceptions, South Korea and Taiwan). Loans with interest have been the main instrument used to allegedly finance the Third World’s development. Such refusal shows that creditors do not really want these countries to develop and be rid of their debts. Creditors consider that it is in their better interest to maintain developing countries in a permanent state of indebtedness so as to draw maximum revenues in the form of debt reimbursement, but also to enforce policies that serve their interests and to make sure that they remain loyal partners within the international institutions.
What the United States had done through the Marshall Plan for industrialized countries that had been ravaged by war they exceptionally repeated towards South Korea and Taiwan, two allied developing countries at strategic locations on the outskirts of the Soviet Union and China. As from the 1950s these two countries received significant aid, that largely contributed to their economic success.
Economists and geo-political area experts are now asking the crucial question: why was not a new Marshall Plan devised for the impoverished Eastern countries (former satellites of the Soviet Empire) after the fall of the Berlin Wall? It would have indeed made eminent sense if we stay with economic considerations. But there is another important consideration and it is the consideration of Democracy and a new ideology called Eurasianism to which we turn next.
What is Eurasianism? It is a kind of prophetic vision envisioning Russia’s destiny as that of leading all Slavic and Turkic people in a grand empire to resist corrupt Western values. Its main proponent is Alexander Dugin. His philosophy glorifies the Russian Empire—while on the Western side of the equation Bannon and the conservative website that he founded, Breitbart News, has revived the slogan of “America first.”
What Bannon and Dugin have in common is the idea that global elites have conspired against ordinary people—and the old order must be overthrown. In the West this is called populism. As Dugin declared to Newsweek: “We have arrived at a moment where the world is discovering a new model of ideologies. The election of Trump shows that clearly.”
Eurasianism seems like a mutual admiration society: Bannon admires Dugin for placing traditional values at the heart of the nationalistic revival and he has said as much at a Vatican Conference he attended in 2014. Dugin admires Bannon for rejecting Western liberalism.
One may ask: which are their common enemies? They are secularism, multiculturalism, egalitarianism and what both Dugin and Bannon dub the “globalized and internationalist capitalist liberal elite.” Which is to say the global ideological struggles will be reduced to an ultimate struggle between culturally homogenous—mostly white-homogenous groups founded on Judeo-Christian values and practicing a humane sort of capitalism, and the international crony-capitalist network of bankers and businessmen.
Both Bannon and Dugin wish to revive the nation-state. Hence their support for anti-European Union candidates from England and France to Hungary and Greece. They both are firmly against pan-European Union. In the US they have invented the Deep State or what they see an over-centralized government but paradoxically they’d rather have a strong state with an authoritarian personality on top, one that in effect ignores the freedoms as set-up by the founding fathers to be controlled at the local level.
In order to appear democratic and not ethnic chauvinists both Dugin and Bannon have declared that they believe in multi-civilizations which have their own identity and destiny and follow their own course. They have both described themselves as revolutionaries; Bannon has described himself as a Leninist who wants to destroy the State (i.e., the Deep State), while Dugin is the founder of the National Bolshevik Party which has been fomenting armed uprising among Russian minorities in former Soviet Republics. In any case, those states are always white, non Asian which of course is redolent of the theory of the “super-race” of Hitler and Mussolini.
So it comes as no great surprise that Trump’s election was greeted with enthusiasm in Russia. Trump would give Russia the respect it has so far been denied. St. Petersburg Cossacks have given Trump the honorary title of “captain” in case he decides with Bannon, to “make Russia great again.”
But this love-fest has been rather short-lived. Bannon has not advised to lift sanctions on Russia (imposed after Crimea’s annexation in 2014), nor to lift a travel ban on Dugin (imposed when he acclaimed Putin for taking over Crimea and invading the Ukraine) as he had previously hinted at. After all there are allegations making the round of contacts between Trump advisers in the White House and Russian spies. Suddenly Trump has became “tough on Russia” as I have endeavored to explain in my daily column “The Caligula Presidency.” At this point the appearance of collusion needs to be avoided at any cost, not to encourage the FBI to dig deeper.
Lastly let’s see what the reaction to these economic explanation has been among the nations of the EU. What is missing in those expert analysis: the very concept of Democracy. Let’s begin with England that has already divorced the EU. Theresa May is treating Britain to a surprise election in June. Even politicians have been blind-sided.
Were one to ask “what do so many disparate nations of the EU have in common?” one could find plenty of cultural common strains, but in purely political terms, perhaps the most apt answer may be “democracy.” That is the concept that seems obvious but one hardly ever hears in the debates and discussions about the possible dissolution of the EU, even when referenda and elections are taking place.
There is much bickering over fish, farms, cheese, sausages, pork pies, but little is mentioned on what unites and what divides so 27 disparate countries that consider themselves a super-nation. One hears about differences over currency, the return of sovereign rights control of one’s borders.
But one hears little about Free Speech or the ability to argue every detail of an issue without fear of arrest or worse. Democracy in fact remains the only indispensable pre-requisite needed to join the EU but nobody seems to notice it.
What one hears is advocacy for exit from the EU. One such example is already in place. The election of April 23 may determine if France and others will follow. Authoritarianism is on the rise and the putrid smell of dictatorship is in the air, Recep Tayyip Erdogan took control of his country out of the hands of the people, in effect turning his back on the model of democracy enjoyed in Europe, meanwhile he continues arguing for access to the EU and its single market. That’s now unlikely to happen.
What’s happening in the Ukraine is just as bad. There Russian President Vladimir Putin takes Ukraine’s desire to tip toward democracy as an insult. He is quite good in his rhetoric describing an overreaching NATO encroaching on regions of historic Russian interest, but what the experts out to defend him forget is that the vast majority of Ukrainians despise his manipulations of the media and the economy.
Meanwhile at the EU’s borders the anti-democratic forces are converging. They smell blood in the water. Erdogan for one, not unlike Donald Trump, treats every EU negotiation as business deal of sorts. Take the refugee deal: it started off as 3 billion euros in aid which quickly became 6 billion euros.
Then there is Putin whose strategy seems to be divide and conquer: not so much by brute military or economic force where he knows he will be beaten, but by breaking up the EU’s unity and resolve to punish his land grabs and flagrant violations of international law. Neither men give a damn fro North Atlantic values, never mind that of democracy itself. Their appetite for power creates a powerful contrast with what the EU has in common: Democracy and the democratic process which allows the likes of Theresa May to hold snap elections and be assured that the outcome will be free and fair. The same cannot be said for Russia or Turkey.
On Sunday the 23rd nobody will be voting to end democracy, which in fact is not on the ballot, but that may not be sufficient to stop democracy from being placed on the backburner while good old xenophobic nationalism gets moved to the front. That, I dare say, is the challenge that the Russia experts have to deal with yet.
An occasion for the EU to reaffirm its standing on Security policies and Human Rights
Vice-President of the EU Commission Margaritis Shinas was a keynote speaker at this summer’s Diplomatic Conference in Vienna organised by the International Institute IFIMES, Media Platform Modern Diplomacy and their partners. High dignitary of the Commission seized the occasion to express the EU’s take on the 75th anniversary of victory over fascism, unfolding health crisis and to it related pressure on human and labour rights, as well as on the Union’s continued efforts towards remaining a ‘rock’ amid the volatile climate.
It is known by now – and acknowledged by the EU Commission VP – that the COVID-19 crisis has had some severe implications for Human Rights and, to a lesser extent, for cooperation outlooks. In the face of the first wave, countries in Europe and elsewhere have adopted different courses of actions in order to manage the health crisis and attempt at containing its threats. Placed in an unprecedented situation, governments have undoubtedly each reacted in ways they deemed most appropriate at the time.
However, the pandemic itself topped with the varied policies have caused notable restrictions on Human Rights. Most notoriously, the right to life and that to health have been challenged in extreme circumstances where, at the peak of the crisis, health institutions were so overflowed that the provision of maximal care to every single individual was compromised. The effective and equal access to healthcare has therefore quickly become a central preoccupation of many governments, drawing on some dramatic first-hand experiences.
On that, I will say that if the global health crisis has been a synonym for many negative impacts, it has also been a precious opportunity to rethink carefully the existing narrative of programmatic and progressive rights – such as the right to health – needing no immediate attention, nor realisation. This narrative held predominantly by some Western democracies ever since the adoption of the UN International Covenants, has been unduly weakening the universal and indivisible stance of Human Rights. Needless to say, in adhering to that dangerous narrative, planning for and prioritizing health access, resources and system capabilities is undermined. This, in turn, contributes to the difficult and insufficient responses of some governments that have been witnessed. May the victims of inadequate infrastructures due to an obsolete distinction between rights serve as a poignant reminder: social, cultural and economic rights need be readily available to all.
Equally interesting is the toll taken on a whole other range of Human Rights – an international system built up in last 75 years on the legacy of victory of antifascist forces in Europe and elsewhere. Numerous individual freedoms have also suffered limitations, often as a direct result of actions taken to promote and ensure the right to life and the right to health for the most vulnerable. Indeed, people’s freedom of movement, that of religion (external dimension), that of assembly and association, as well as their procedural rights – only to name a few – have all been greatly affected during the crisis.
Of course voices have raised their discontent at those restrictions put in place to mitigate the crisis, considered by many to be too incisive and too manifold when cumulated. But despite an apparent clash between two groups of interests protected by different rights, the resolution which has emerged from the approaches followed by most countries is very telling. In fact, a balancing exercise revealed that protecting the right to health and to life of the minority of people ought simply to be considered predominant in comparison to the other individual freedoms and rights of the majority. This reasoning, grounded in solidarity and the protection of minorities and vulnerable persons, is in fact very encouraging in an era of growing individualism combined with overwhelming challenges which will certainly require peoples to unite against them.
Nevertheless, this does not take away from the fact that the full and optimal enjoyment of Human Rights has generally been seriously affected as many interests have been caught in the crossfire of the fight against Coronavirus’ harmful effects. Moreover, the crisis has also created some divides amongst European countries. This is because the sanitary emergency has caused for precarious contexts of resources shortages and sometimes unfruitful cooperation, even shift in alliances.
This has naturally brought about separate criticisms and questioning of the EU cooperation strategy and security arrangements. In that sense, growing expectations are felt for the EU to uphold and promote its fundamental values including the rule of law, solidarity, non-discrimination and antifascist line.
Vice-PresidentSchinas is well aware of that reality and reiterates the EU’s unalterable commitment to peaceful cooperation, human dignity, liberty, equality and solidarity in these troubled times. He further ensures that the most recent security strategies led by the Union do not – and never will – eat away at the protection of fundamental rights. What is more, whilst the EU’s arrangements can be seen as slightly ‘under attack’ currently, the VP feels that rather than seeing this period as a high-stakes test on EU democracies it should be seen as an opportunity to take a bigger stand than ever for the European common values and call for strengthened multilateralism. This necessities constructive reciprocal and respectful active engagement with the EU Mediterranean and eastern European neighbourhood.
All that is because it is not too difficult to imagine that the aftermath of the C-19 crisis can open several paths of new dynamics in international relations. Yet, as it cannot be stressed enough, an upcoming change in the conception of relations between nations could be decisive for numerous other contemporary challenges – namely: migration crisis, armed conflicts, climate change. While one of the paths could consist in an increase in protectionism and nationalist attitudes, another one would involve, on the contrary, a shift towards reinforced cooperation and enhanced solidarity. The latter outward approach, advocated by the EU Vice-President and believed to be the best hope for the future, is one deeply enshrined in the antifascist legacy and the very raison d’être of the Union.
Above all, at the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Victory Day, Excellency Schinas reminds us with much humbleness that the journey for safeguarding Human Rights is one that is perpetually underway.
Metternich: The visionary reconstructor of Europe and champion of conservatism
Klemens Von Metternich early life and orthodox ideas
Klemens Von Metternich was born on May 15, 1773, into the House of Metternich, a German noble family that originates from Rhineland. He was the son of a diplomat that had served at the Imperial court of Treves.
At the age of 15, he started studying law at the University of Strasbourg while getting more familiar with the concept of conservatism. In 1792 he was attending the University of Mainz, again at the faculty of law where his conservative ideas flourished, promoting traditional imperial institutions emphasizing the necessity of prosperity and stability in Europe.
Klemens Von Metternich is considered to be a controversial figure in international affairs due to his ideas of obstructionism, while some critics of him go as far as call him an enemy of freedom. He was a harsh critic of the French Revolution and its consequences and he dreaded the ideas of liberalism and nationalism that emerged after it.
On the other hand, he is praised for his vision of peace in Europe by holding on to the traditional monarchical systems that were the only way to establish peace and prosperity in his view. Thanks to Metternich, Europe established itself as a dominant economic and military power of the 19th century while reviving again the European values of stability and development for its European citizens.
The French Revolution
In 1789, amidst the French Revolution, Klemens Von Metternich expressed his dissatisfaction with the situation in France, calling the revolution a “hateful time” for Europe. His statements came when most of the French nobility was executed in France and there was a huge concern growing among the European powers that the situation would spread to the whole of Europe.
Soon enough, Metternich’s concerns turned out to be true, as France sunk into a period of political turmoil. In 1794, the king of France Louis the XVI was executed spreading chaos among the country. The so-called “Reign of Terror” was established where thousands of French citizens were executed.
The French Revolution brought out views and ideas of liberalism and nationalism that contradicted the traditional systems that ruled Europe. Metternich resented these ideas. He was more focused on the idea of the European Enlightenment. He understood clearly that to provide tranquility and stability in Europe, certain fundamental laws needed to be established for Europe to function properly.
He pointed out that aspects of religion and morality should be the primary necessities to co-govern with natural laws. His ideal system for Europe was a monarchical system that would co-share power with other classes of European society. Metternich’s goal was to prevent any further revolutions and uprisings in Europe, however, his plan was briefly jeopardized by the man that threatened to destroy everything he believed in.
Napoleon Bonaparte: Metternich’s political nemesis
Napoleon Bonaparte, France’s most prestigious general at that time, re-emerged as France’s savior promising to save the French revolution and ending France’s political turmoil. In 1804, Napoleon became the emperor of France. However, he was never recognized by any monarch in Europe.
The Great Powers of Europe, fearing that the effects of the French Revolution will backfire to them, decided to invade France and restore the reign of King Louis XVI. However, this act gave justification to Napoleon to declare war on the European powers by proclaiming that this was just a defensive measure to preserve the French Revolution.
At first, Metternich viewed Napoleon with great interest, mentioning that he was the only one capable of providing discipline to a troubled France. An extraordinary man with practical knowledge about the common life of the citizens. However, his praise came with some precautions about Napoleon. He thought that he was a very practical and strong man but only if he was born in a different age. He did not find his abilities suitable for the age they were in.
Metternich was appointed as the Austrian Ambassador in France in 1806. By that time Napoleon had managed to defeat Spain, Prussia, and Austria making his advances to the Russian Empire. It was at that point that Metternich decided to use his diplomatic skills to keep Austria “breathing” long enough until Napoleon would be dethroned. His plans accelerated when he became Austria’s Foreign Minister in 1809.
At the same year he became a Foreign Minister, Metternich decided to show his diplomatic skills by arranging the marriage of Napoleon with Marie Louise the daughter of the Austrian Emperor, Francis I. With this maneuver, he managed to convince Napoleon that Austria would be a close ally of him, while in reality, he was just buying time for Austria and the remaining great powers to come up with a plan to dethrone Napoleon. He didn’t have to wait long.
In 1812, Napoleon marched towards Russia. Certain for his victory, a naive Napoleon did not see how big of an obstacle Russia would be. While advancing to Moscow he captured an empty city that was set on fire, while the Russians retreated to the east. With his lines of supply being cut off and a devastating Russian winter approaching them, Napoleon decided to retreat, looking for gold at the surrender of Russia but receiving only copper.
In the meantime, Metternich put his plan on the motion. With Napoleon’s army retreating and being chased by the Russians, he convinced the remaining Great Powers to give a devastating blow to Napoleon. In 1813, Napoleon was defeated in Leipzig by the armies of Russia, England, Prussia, and Austria. Napoleon was imprisoned at the island of Elbe in the Mediterranean Sea. However, he managed to escape and rallied up soldiers that were loyal to him but again he was defeated for a second time in 1815, in the famous battle of Waterloo in Belgium. Metternich was crowded as a hereditary Prince of the Austrian Empire. The only man that stood against his ideal formation of Europe was defeated.
The Vienna Congress
The year 1815, saw Metternich at the peak of his power. He had become a key figure in the plan to dethrone Napoleon, with his excellent diplomatic skills and his determination to steer Europe into the path of stability where Kings governed and people were governed. At the Congress, he made his points very clear for the beginning. He believed that the only way to ensure peace in the continent was to bring the Great powers together so that they could prevent any large European War to escalate again.
Metternich’s policies were based on two principles. One being the protection of historical traditional institutes such as the Church, the dynastic monarchies, and the essence of aristocratic privilege and the second was the establishment of a new vision of international balance in the continent of Europe. Instead of punishing France for the Napoleonic wars, he suggested including them in the table. With that move Metternich showed his true European face, putting the future of his continent above any nationalist notions.
The success of the Congress was inevitable. While including France at the Council of the Great Powers, Europe started to become more stable. The Council that included England, Russia, France, Austria, and Prussia agreed to prevent any further revolutions and political uprising in Europe. All the disputes between the powers were resolved with diplomacy which gave them all leverage to re-organize Central Europe in a more simple way to avoid any internal intense rivalries.
Contributions to Europe and modern diplomacy
Klemens Von Metternich was viewed by many people as a great man and a true European citizen who managed to sustain a united European front for almost 100 years. Despite some minor uprising after the Vienna Congress, Metternich was a solid diplomat whose vision about Europe became a reality.
However, he is also viewed as an oppressor of freedom. His despise for liberal and nationalist movements made him an “enemy” of the common people. What Metternich was more afraid of about these movements was the potential disruption inside the Austrian Empire that was made up by a multinational coalition of 11 nations. He did not want to see the Empire being torn apart. He went as far as suppressing any suspicious uprisings in Germany where there was a lot of revolutionary activity, by censoring books and newspapers and installing secret police spies that would infiltrate universities to arrest any suspected revolutionaries.
On one hand, he has been a symbol of oppression but that is not a judgment that represents him. He was a great man and a man with a vision for Europe. Numerous times he mentioned that he felt more European than Austrian, putting the needs of Europe above the nation. In his memoirs, he wrote about the unfair judgment that he received but also mentioned how wrong those people were. “Old Europe is at the beginning of the end and new Europe has not yet begun its existence, and between the end and the beginning, there will be chaos. In a hundred years, historians will judge me quite differently than do all those who pass judgment on me today.”
Indeed, 100 years later historians acknowledged the wisdom and the vision of Klemens Von Metternich. After the devastating consequences of WWI and WWII, his diplomatic ideas that kept Europe at peace were missed and Europe realized that the failed liberal system will open the door to a nationalist and fascist system that will doom the whole continent.
History tends to repeat itself and while our world is more connected now and more liberal the shadows of nationalist far-right movements lure Europe. This aspect, combined with failed liberal policies result in dissatisfaction of the masses and without order, chaos would erupt as it did hundreds of years ago. Metternich’s contributions to modern diplomacy and the history of Europe are remarkable. His ideas flourished after WWII with the creation of the European Union, a system that might not share the same conservative ideas as he did, but surely contributed to the prosperity of the continent.
His ideas of European stability and control of power are more relevant now with the new crisis that the EU is facingand soon enough the European Union will have to rethink Metternich’s ideas for the neo-liberal system to survive, otherwise, there will be only room for nationalistic far-right movements that threaten the dream of the EU by returning to failed protectionism measures and policies.
Democratic Backsliding in the Visegrad Four: Examining the Illiberal Turn
The initial years of the post-communist era reflected a promising beginning of the consolidation of democracy in the Visegrad Four countries. Slovakia, the only exception to this regional trend of democratic consolidation under Mečiarism, also showed signs of successful transition with the revival of democracy after the 1998 elections. However, in the last few years, with the rise of eurosceptics, ultra-nationalists and populists, the democratic model has been facing grave challenges in these countries. Besides attacking the opposition, students’ organisations and NGOs, the conservative leadership in these countries, have also passed regressive reforms in media, constitution, as well as the judiciary. These attacks and reforms are aimed at strengthening the power of eurosceptic populist leaders, and thereby reducing any chances of Eurocentric opposition in the future. But why, despite initial years of promising success, democratic consolidation failed in the V4 countries? This essay argues that the challenges to the democratic consolidation in these post-communist countries have been a result of myriad local, national and international factors at economic, political and social levels.
Primarily, the membership in the EU, which was a major foreign policy objective of the new political elite post-1989, had raised numerous expectations among the citizens in these countries. But after the EU membership in May 2004, when those expectations still seemed a distant dream for the citizens in these countries, the disappointment with the EU membership’s promises rose throughout the region. This disappointment soon became a fertile ground on which the conservative section of the political elite mobilised their support, which became evident with the victory of nationalistic and eurosceptic parties throughout the region.
This discontentment with the Western European model was made further worse by the economic crises of 2008-9 and the subsequent Euro debt crisis of 2011. Contrary to expectations that the EU membership will be a guarantor of economic prosperity and improved standards of living, the V4 countries had to suffer immensely as a result of these crises which primarily resulted because of the loopholes in other countries. Furthermore, the subsequent burden of reforms with adoption of EU’s austerity policies aimed at stabilising the European économies post-crises, also proved costly for these countries, and hence furthered their apathy towards the integrationist model of Brussels.
Post 2015, the Refugee Crisis, resulting due to the massive influx of illegal migrants into Europe from politically unstable areas of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, further fuelled the simmering anti-EU attitudes among the V4 countries. Though only Hungary was directly affected by the wave of these migrants, all V4 countries reflected a response which was reminiscent of classical xenophobia and exclusive nationalism. Despite these countries officially voting against Brussels’ proposal of obligatory refugee quotas, and opposing the financial aid given to Turkey following EU-Turkey deal to stop refugees from entering the EU, the conservative media and politicians in these countries left no stone unturned to show a face of refugees that immediately mobilised the people to vote populist demagogues to power at the cost of ruling out the Eurocentric federalists.
Finally, another important, and often overlooked reason for the failed democratic consolidation in the V4 countries has been their lack of historical experience with democracy. As a result of this lacked democratic experience, people in these countries failed to develop a democratic culture in a few decades post-1989, and instead found it easy to turn back to their familiar models.
However, despite all the gloomy prospects of democratic consolidation in the V4 countries, the region is not the only aberration. The rise of Euroscepticism, nationalism, and populism has been on the rise throughout the continent, which became evident with Brexit and the rise of conservative parties, like National Front and Alternative for Germany, among others. Therefore, it is imperative for the EU that these occasional setbacks in few countries must not hinder its vision of greater European integration. Because, any void created by declining role of Brussels in the Visegrad region will immediately be filled by Russia, which is craving to regain its influence in its ‘near-abroad.’
Moreover, the recent experiences from Afghanistan, Libya, Algeria and elsewhere, also made it clear that the quick imposition of the democratic model is not the universal solution for discrete problems across the world. The fact that the evolution of democracy took centuries of deliberate transformations, and occasional violent conflicts, in England, France, USA and elsewhere, must be kept in mind while assessing the democratic consolidation in any part of the world. Expecting successful transition and consolidation of democracy in the V4 countries, without keeping in mind that it has been only a few decades since these countries embarked on this painful transition, is in itself problematic.
Nonetheless, the post-1989 transition has also successfully contributed to transforming a considerable section of the population in these countries, who now show major disliking towards any non-democratic model. Therefore, even if the current situation of the V4is not a pleasant one, the big picture coming post-1989 is a reflection of a successful break with the ‘Other’ past.
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