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>They say cutback, we say… червен картон

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Sofia, 26 March 2011 Photo: BSP TV

According to news reports, some 16,000  marched through the streets of Sofia under the auspices of the opposition Socialist Party to protest against unemployment and depleted public services. Allowing for differences in population size, this equates to a march about half the size of the Saturday’s  250, 000 strong trade union sponsored protest in London, but not all bad for a relatively a weak civil society stemming from all the usual post-communist legacies. And a mildly imaginative rouch with the theme of giving Bulgaria’s government a red card (червен картон). A day later there are blockades by car drivers angry about the price of fuel following the next day and demonstration about nuclear power plant construction are also in the pipeline no pun intended). Characteristically, perhaps all three are organised by political parties, rather than civil sociery organisation and, unlike in London, the radical left,  marginal in the region at the best of times and workerist, so there are no anarchist casseurs or direct action activists occupying smart shops in Sofia – and Socialist leader Sergei Stanishev is no Ed Milland (although possibly that should be the other way round)

London, 26 March 2011 Photo: Ben Hall
The Czech Republic does rather better in terms of turnout and civil society capacity with a 40, 000 strong protest against government austerity in Prague last September, which allowing for the CR’s 10 million population, compares well with Saturday’s TUC march  – and strikes toboot. Perhaps, however, that should be less a source of pride for the Czech labour movement – which plays a smart game, but is in structural decline (as Martin Myant, a far from unsympathetic observer, outlines in the latest issue of Czech Sociological Review than a warning for Brits: Prague’s centre-right coalition government has pressed on regardless, more sensitive to its own internal tensions and a beating from the electorate, than to the massed ranks of the Czech public sector on the streets of the nation’s capital. The UK’s – or perhaps I should say England’s – more rampantly anti-statist traditions make it still more easy to shake off the concerns teachers, nurses, social workers and students, especially when it is pitched vaguely a march for The Alternative that no one can meaningly and identify anarchists and UK Uncut add to the fog of war. No one, thankfully, has quite persuaded the bulf of Czechs that the social market and the welfare state belongs on the scrapheap of history.

>Tea parties Czech style?

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 The rise of the US Tea Party party movement has held a weird fascination even for those who normally find US politics boring or incomprehensible: revolutionary but right-wing;  a citizens movement, but one making inroads into party-electoral politics; leaderless, but well organised and unstoppable; anti-establishment protest movement born of economic crisis, but one animated by pro-market populism that wants to fell Big Government, rather than shelter behind the protections it can give. None of this is, of course, that inexplicable: money talks, US politics is loosely stuctured and the boundaries between parties and movements are blurred by European standards and there are strong exisiting traditions of anti-state, anti-tax and pro-market populism, recently revivied by the hubble-bubble over the internet economy.

“Budgetary responsability, anyone?”

Still, after the ‘shallacking’ dealt to out Barrack Obama, Tea Parties are (at least until next week) the wave of the future and commentators across the globe have been looking for parallels elsewhere, especially in their own particular patch. Major TP backer the Heritage Foundation predictably sees the movement going international and manages to mention both the Czech and Slovak Republic as well (rather more implausibly) Sweden as recent examples (was it the Sweden Democrats they were thinking of?). The Economist  also noted the same parallel a while back in relations to the emergence pro-market anti-establishmenTOP09 and Public Affairs in the CR and Freedom and Solidarity (SaS)  in Slovakia.

So not surprisingly, Czech commentators have jumped with alacrity into looking for Čajové dýchánky or teapartismus in their own neck of the woods. That Tea Parties are  an anti-establishment  populist revolt from below against experts and the political class, as MFDnes columnist and blogger Zdeněk Muller concludes, seems a safe, if unenlightening first move. But hang on, who in the Czech Republic is the establishment and who are the whacko populists? For some, any Czech and Central/continental European populism is, by definition, of the statist, collective, redistributionist variety. Milla Lilla on The New York Review of Books, for example, argues that the current wave of social and industrial protest in France against retrenchmant of pensions is a Tea Party a la française: angry, unco-ordinated popular mobilization  ritualistically going through the motions of attacking familiar targets, but triggered by times of global uncertainty –  at once in a familiar idiom, but hollow, new, different and edgy,

So, as early as March, one Czech right-wing commenator was rather confusedly urging a responsible  but Tea Party-ish revolt against the populism of the Social Democrats for wild and irresponsible promises, which allegedly made them unfit to run for office.As Czech voters were not unduly impressed by such promises on polling day (when the Social Democrats flopped badly) that could perhaps have left it to the good sense of the electorate and am I the only person to remember Václav Klaus’s weasel words in 1993 that transformation was basically over, or saying that salaries would double during the run-in to the 1996 election? 

So perhaps Lukáš Hoder, writing in FinMag, is closely to the mark in speaking of a ‘new populism’ of fiscal responsibility  which marries populist animus against elites with pro-market, or rather anti-statist, politics. Viewed through the prism of Czech politics, Public Affairs (VV) has a Tea Party-ish flavour to it in its crusade against political dinosaurs and support for market reforms in healthcare. On the other hand, VV’s cutting edge appeal seem to a more a mix of novelty and anti-corruption and its voters and legislators turned out to be a mixed and, in some ways, rather centrist bunch. Like Ivan Krastev, Mr Hoder fingers globalization, detached technocratic elites and top-down European integration as likely suspect for the new populism. But Krastev’s once fresh analysis of a couple of years ago now looks oddly dated in its characterisation of populismtmovements in Europe as being defined by cultrual illiberalism, economic egalitarianisn and xenophobically tinged nationalism. To borrow Benjamin Barber’s terminology from a seminal article which holds up surprisingly well despite being almost 20 years old (and very stereotypical on the post-communist world), these days angry populist can rally to either ‘Jihad’ (nativist fundamentalism of all types) or ‘McWorld ‘(citizens reduced to taxpayer-consumers in a world more about markets than states or societies).

Being more savvy than the aveage journalist, political scientists have, of course, picked up on this. Kevin Deegan Krause at Pozorblog , for example,  speaks of the rise of in CEE in recent years of  a new type of anti-establishment party ‘culturally liberal … attractive to younger, educated voters making extensive use of social networking software:’ with similar (10-15%) vote shares

 ‘…not exactly a new party family (though in their cultural liberalism and anti-corruption emphases they share significant elements) and not exactly a new party type (though their methods and organization do not fit fully with any of the currently hypothesized [organiszational] models, even cartel and firm models), but with strong and intersecting elements of both.’

including the Czech Republic’s TOP and Public Affairs, Slovakia’s Freedom and Solidarity, the Green-ish youth-oriented Politics Can Be Different (LMP) in Hungary as well as  new pro-market parties that crashed onto the political stage in the Baltic states in over the past decade, such as  the People’s Party and New Era in Latvia or Res Publica. And, of course, as new youth driven protest parties go, we should not forget the region’s most successful one, the definitely not culturally or economically liberal, extreme -right Jobbik,  ‘a far-right for the Facebook Generation’ as an excellent analysis in EUobserver put it, although as one of my PhD student noted at a seminar last week Jobbik activists has a penchant for social activism and community politics(and marching around in paramilitary uniforms).

It’s hard to separate out the diverse elements of shifting kaleidescope: anger, youth, disenchament, anti- politics and anti-poltiicians, newnness, globalization, the web as a low cost means of mobilization.  Is the story one of organization, ideology or just raw indignation? And which of these is bringing something new?

The Czech Communists, for example, also see a parallel between Public Affairs (VV) and the Tea Parties, but for them it is old wine in new bottles: all are creatures of powerful business interests plugging the same Neo-Liberal Economic Doctrine (capitals letters for Capital, comrades). Oddly, enough this is very close the analysis carried in one page commentary the Last Word column accompanying the business-oriented Fleet Sheet press summary, which has seen VV and TOP09 (especially) as insurance policies for various politically well-connected business lobbies with the most vested of vested interests. Meanwhile, a column for long established contrarian Czech net journal Britské listy a similar but slightly different angle:  Tea Parties (and by implication VV) it argued are  examples of ‘asro-turf,’orchestrated  but spontaneous (pseudo-)grass roots movements created and financed by business sponsors for self-interested reasons – the subject of a new anti-Tea Party documentary (although the US Democrats and New Labour have used the same strategy) This analysis kind of fits, although VV was more virtual astro-turf as popular moblisation (such as it was) took place in cyber space, rather than in the form of placard waving and whooping at conventions.

Tea for ten million on an artifical lawn?

>Ljubljana diary 2

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I am on the early flight to Ljubljana. The plane is packed with holidaymakers going on half-term ski trips, so I find myself in business class (free Adria Airways bottle of mineral water + sweet). I also get to read a three day old copy of the Wall Street Journal – on the op-ed page former Estonia PM Mart Laar recommends continued free market reform as the best possible anti-crisis package but the news pages suggest that if Austrian banks get cold feet the whole of the region could be brutally credit-crunched, not just the current problems cases of Latvia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

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As we land I get a glimpse of alpine scenery and half an hour later I am standing outside the terminal looking for way to get the 25km from Brnik to central Ljubljana. There aren’t any buses for an hour or so, having narrowly avoided getting onto a tour bus to a ski resort, I opt for the minibus shuttle. I’m the only passenger , so the driver want to wait half an hour for some more flights to come into. I sit in the minibus sleepily reading a Swedish crime novel, while two flights land and various prosperous looking locals walk past heading for the small multi-storey car park. In the end the driver gives up and takes me on a loss-,mking journey into town, kindly dropping me off at my hotel.

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The Slovene Democratic Party’s headquarters is a large villa just outside the city centre with party, national and EU flag on large flagpoles in the front garden. They’re busy, but in the limited time my interviewees make it clear that – as one would expect of the country’s main party of the centre-right – they don’t share the loose centre-left consensus and unfussed attitude towards the communist that pervades much of the rest of the Slovene political and social scene. They don’t quite match the confrontational free market élan that might mark conversation with Czech equivalents, but (Mart Laar aside) who has much free market élan left these days?

***

Slovenia’s Ministry of Labour, Family and Social Affairs is on a top floor of a rather drab, square white gloomy socialist era shopping centre. Teenagers from a nearby school are hanging around outside smoking and gossiping. In the Ministry’s reception area, there’s an overpowering smell of varnish as the parquet floors are being resurfaced. The security guards, who seem to be from a private agency, ring around and having established that I am expected, take me through.without demanding any ID. The Ministry’s offices have the look and feel of a medium-sized company HQ.

My interviewees’ previous meeting is overrunning, so I have to waut. I look through my notes and study the childrens’ paintings on the wall. I don’t, have to wait too long however, and my interviewees turn out to be extremely open and helpful. One of the most interesting interviews , I’ve done in fact. “Tell our boss, we speak excellent English,” one of the officials jokes at the end (and, of course, they all do). The Slovene civil service may lack clockwork timing and bureaucratic punctiliousness of Czech official, but exudes an underlying efficiency and competence.

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The weather’s still cold and but bright and sunny. Sitting in my heavily discounted hotel room opposite the main police station, I read through part of the statutes of Slovenia’s two main left-wing party with the helped of dictionary and some guesswork and look over the front page of Delo. Mainstream parties are desperate to stymie a referendum initiative to block Croatia’s accession to NATO, because of an unresolved Slovene-Croat dispute over seaways and border demarcation. There are some issues with big Slovene companies with unemployment and retenchment, but I can’t quite follow the details., but I do understand that unemployment is over 10%. My left-wing interviewees tell me that Slovenia iswell placed to weather the storm, as it wisely avoided the perils of excessive foreign ownership and carried off many of the high social standards of the socialist period. I don’t know when I’ll be back in Slovenia again, so oater that afternoon on my final visit – to the University – I stock up on cheap and free books on Slovene politics.

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Early morning service at the airport has improved: the coffee bars in the departure lounge are opening up before flights depart. I stand grumpily in line with travellers going to Prague while the expresso machine gets a final polish. “Do you take crowns?” a grey-haired American with a pony-tail and a wad of Czech currency in his hand asks. Unsurprisingly, the answer is ‘no’. At last I get a my hands on a bela kava. It keeps me awake just long enough to take a look out the window at the clouds over Julian Alps as we fly out. My next sight is the M23 motorway near London Gatwick airport.