Archive | November, 2007

>Croatia: grey day for pensioners’ party, as reformed nationalists win surprise victory


And – as with the Scottish elections earlier this year – so with the Croatian elections pre-election speculation about gains for a pensioners’ party prove groundless amid low turnout and a polarized two-horse race. Unofficial results suggest that the reformed nationalists of the HDZ have pulled ahead of the ex-communist social democratic opposition, the reverse of what exit polls predicted. Meanwhile, the Croatian Pensioners Party (HSU) seems likely to drop from 3 deputies to 1 deputy – it’s the peasant party (HSS) are the winners in the minor party race this time – but not to be wiped out as exit polling had forecast. HSU leader Vladimir Jordan (pictured) may be spared the need to resign as he had promised if the party got no seats, but clearly has nothing to be cheerful about. At least, he didn’t promise to eat a beetle like the overconfident leader of the Czech Pensioners for a Secure Life party 1998. Minor party success though seems be as much about the disfunctionality and failure of established big parties than the inherent attractiveness of little interest parties.

>Croatian ‘greys’ set for strong election result?


As the Croatian elections approach, the government – the Javno website reports – quickly pays off 2.037 billion kuna owed to earmarked for the settling of debts to 462,888 members of the pensioners’ fund – the proceeds of privatizing the the T-TH telecoms company. Presumably this is intended to shore up the vote of the ruling HDZ and perhaps dish the Croatian Pensioners’ Party (HSU). HSU polls suggest may again cross the 5 per cent hurdle needed to enter parliament and could even finish third, gaining 7-8% of the vote 8-10 seats in the 150 member legislature, although as the HSU has been quite politically close to HDZ in the past this might, in fact, prove counterproductive. It may send a signal that a strong ‘grey’ party enables pensioners to gain what the political system would otherwise deny them. The HSU claims 47,000 members and – like Die Grauen in Germany – also have a youth section apparently comprising some 20% of this membership.

Elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia , Euro2day notes quoting the FT, Slovenia’s DESUS – European’s most succesful ‘grey’ party – seemed unafraid of elections, having backed the (successful) rival presidential candidate to that nominated by centre-right coalition of which it is a member. It was said they might may not back the government in a vote of confidence, but in fact the DESUS leadership unanimously opted to do so. A huge (by Slovene standards) recent demonstation of up to 70, 000 trade unionist demanding higher wages and better social standards suggests a social climate in theiry favourable to DESUS, which perhaps explains why it might be tempted to become a semi-detached member of the coalition. DESUS and HSU recently held a meeting in Zagreb passing on good wishes to each other, exchanging experiences and unveiling (long-running) plans for a congress of European pensioners’ parties to be held in Ljubljana.

My own paper trying to begin to make sense of Europe’s small pensioners’ parties now appears on the web on the site of the conference on minor parties I am going to in Birmingham next week: an overview of what’s out there and some hypotheses – derived from a large-ish literature about party formation – about why they are relatively successful in places like Croatia, Slovenia, Holland and Israel. Unfortunately, I have yet to come up with decent analytical strategy to unpick a mass morass of possibly relevant factors, so it is – as one of my colleagues kindly put it – still a piece of ‘exploratory political science’.

>Poles together on the EU – probably


Friday morning found me sitting in the slightly faded elegance of a high ceilinged Georgian drawing room in the Polish Embassy in Grosvenor Square which served as venue for the Poland and the EU conference. The audience of about 100 is a varied mix Polish(-descended) or Polish-oriented academics, researchers, journalists and students with smaller scattering of people such as myself for whom Poland is just part of a wider East Central European beat. The morning began with an address from the Polish ambassador, Barbara Tuge-Erecińska, who stressed the commonality of interests between Poland and the UK on the future direction of the EU and the positive role that opening of UK labour markets has had in promoting Britain in Poland. A super-effective piece of public diplomacy worth any amount of more conventional initiatives, we were given to understand, although – she was far too diplomatic to mention – an inadvertent side effect of British civil servants’ underrestimation of numbers of Poles likely to come to the UK after accession.

The conference proper was kicked off by Aleks Szczerbiak with a presentation on Polish public opinion and the EU. Fresh from disillusioning liberal minded Polish students at SSEES with anticipations that Civic Platform would quickly splinter and Law and Justice might prove a political heavyweight that was down but not out, Aleks again offered a slightly against-the-grain take on Polish politics. Despite the high (and growing) popularity of the EU among much of the Polish public and the rise of the europhile Civic Platform and (crushing of anti-EU parties like the League of Polish Families (LPR) and Self-Defence) in last month’s elections, Polish europhilia was more a happy coming together of different factors than a profound trend. Public expectations in the run up to accession had been low and – thanks to the British and Irish governments’ politically miscalculated opening of their labour markets to new CEE member states – membership had delivered in precisely those areas where it was popularly offering the greatest immediate benefits: opportunities for Poles to work and study abroad. As agricultural subsidy for new member states came on tap, farmers had also gained far more on balance than they had anticipated. Moreover, Aleks argued, the Polish public still tended to view its country’s EU membership in somewhat brutally self-interested and instrumental terms as a source of external funding and a battleground for national interests. There was also an underlying concern about the position and power of Germany in the enlarged EU. In the longer term, I understood, there was still space for a revival of some form of euroscepticism. Moreover, as he later pointed out in the Q and A, high levels of trust in the EU and EU institutions are essentially the flip side of engrained distrust in national institutions: europhilia might – I understood – simply be a side effect of the dysfunctionality of Polish democracy (even EU membership formally gives it a Western seal of approval)

Jacek Kucharczyk of the Warsaw-based Institute of Public Affairs (ISP) offered a slightly more sanguine assessment: there had, he suggests, been a genuine shift in Polish public opinion following accession and the pre-accession period he suggests would in hindsight come to be seen as the high watermark for radical eurosceptic parties like Self-Defence and the LPR; the crushing victory of Civic Platform was significant both as expressing a desire to express Polish Europeaness and national identity in new terms and in bringing to power a europhile liberal-peasant coalition with roots in co-operation in the European Parliament as part of the sprawling EPP faction; Europe was, moreover, an issue too lacking in salience to ever re-engage Polish voters, even assuming it ever engaged them in the first place (the rise of eurosceptic parties being, as several questioners later pointed out, more a facet of domestic issues, rather than concern over the EU per se). Simona Guerra then concluded the session with some discussion of focus research among students in Poland on attitudes to the EU: there are interesting regional variations and at aggregate level interesting correlations between Catholicism/religiosity and support the EU, most practicing Catholics tending to favour integration.

The conference then broke for lunch and – after a very tasty Polish buffet and an interesting conversation about the shift from the ‘JP2 [= John Paul II] generation’ to the ‘MP3 generation’ in Poland – I made a break of my own for Kings Cross to get home in time to take my daughter to Brownies. How many of these Polish-centred judgements, I wondered looking dozily out of the train window on the way home, were applicable more widely to other New Members States?Most lacked Poland’s size and sense of historical importance; Slovaks and Latvians had however, reaped a similar migration premium, Romanians and Bulgarians will not (at least in the immediate post-accession period); many Czechs might share the underlying discourse of ‘national interests’ and anxieties over Germany that seem to inform Polish debates at an underlying level.

>Slovakia: Empty lionizing of Dubček suggests social democracy lacks roots


A recent issue of Slovak daily Sme contains a report of a speech by Slovak PM Robert Fico (full text here) to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Alexander Dubček, ill-fated leader of the Prague Spring and early figurehead of post-communist social democracy in Slovakia. As a man of the left, Fico, unsurprisingly has a positive take on Dubček whose thoughts he told his audience he and fellow leaders of SMER find alive and inspiring to this day and feel moral duty to continue them. Just what thoughts Dubček and his generation of Prague Spring reform communists more have to offer to contemporary Slovakia was, was however, left tantalizingly vague. Dubček, Fico told listeners, saw democracy as essentially an exercise in civilized dialogue. He was also a ‘leading figure in the European socialist movement’ and a humanist, aware of his responsibility for civilization, who believed in advancing knowledge through co-operation with scholars (s vedcami). Another speaker, Ivan Laluh, president of the Alexander Dubček Society , offered a similarly motherhood-and-apple-pie assessment of Dubček as standing for ‘humanism, social justice, decency and tolerance’ – which could apply to most European liberal, social democratic or (even) Christian Democratic politicians of any standing.
The awkward truth seems to be that, however sympathetically one might look at the tragedy of Czechoslovak reform communism – and it is something of a breath of fresh air to find more than the dismissal and amnesia characteristic of much Czech public debate on the period – it has little to say today. Dubček’s political inactivity during the ‘normalization’ period of the 1970s and 80s and short-lived political career after 1989 also amount to relatively little. So why the fuss? At one level, there is a simple a nationalist rationale. Slovaks Fico pointedly noted should ‘immerse ourselves more deeply in the thought of Slovak scholars and politicians, who have inscribed themselves on the consciousness of Europe’ even if – as in Dubček’s case – these are somewhat shallow waters. Dubček’s status in Slovakia is therefore understandably higher – Slovakia’s newest university in Trenčín was re-named Alexander Dubček University in 2002, an honour unlikely to be bestowed on any Czech leaders of the Prague Spring in their home republic.

Fico opponents might, however, detect a darker side in his comments that Dubček’s concept of democracy as civilized debate had not been attained in contemporary Slovakia as people were too intolerant and ‘too strongly intoxicated with freedom of speech’ which, translated, may mean there is too much criticism of his government in the media and society. Possibly, we should think back beyond the humanism and apple pie to remember the more authoritarian impulses during the 1960s of Dubček et al to regulate pluralism and debate so as to ensure they delivered social consensus around the ‘right’ result – something often overlooked in many accounts because the Prague Spring was progressive and democratically minded by the standards of communist one party rule in Eastern Europe. As Peter Siani-Davies’s excellent book on the Romanian Revolution reminds us the semi-authoritarian populism of the National Salvation Front in part had its roots in the technocratic authoritarianism and engineered dialogue to ensure Consensus of would-be communist reformers who opposed Ceausescu, as well as the country’s more obviously authoritarian and nationalist traditions.

In other ways, however, the vacuous lionizing of Dubček seem to underline the ideologically shallow roots of SMER and the Slovak centre-left. In the absence of a strong historic social democratic tradition, it has few models or historical figures to draw on not obviously compromised by association with the Stalinism of 1950s or the ‘normalization’ of the 1970s and 80s and ‘Europe’ no longer offers a comfortable template following SMER’s suspension from the Party of European Socialists. Moreover, as the current controversy over public remembrance of Andrej Hlinka awkwardly demonstrates, there are plenty of historic reference points for those of Catholic-populist-nationalist persuasion to fix on.

>Georgia on my mind: a bleaching revolution in progress?


As BBC4 screens Paul Devlin’s superb 2003 documentary Power Trip about efforts of the American energy company AES to bring some semblance of commercial logic to power generation in Georgia amid the corruption and unrest of the last days of the Schevardnaze, era, history seems to repeat. Another Georgian one-time reformer and darling of the West, President Saakashvili declares a state of emergency in the face of persistent opposition demonstrations, which he sees a coup in the making and the police deal with violently. In Devlin’s film the AES people try hard but basically get nowhere – well connected oligarchs and Mafiosi get power for free; ordinary people get power cuts, but routinely steal electricity by bypassing meters; and leading journalists who report the country’s murky criminalized politics-cum-business get shot. In the end Western turbo-capitalism and post-Soviet mafia kapitalizm inadvertently combine and they leave the country in the wake of the Enron scandal and sell up to a Russian state-owned energy giant. Saakashvili, it seems, is being sucked down by the same vortex, failing to deliver to enough people quickly enough economically, unable to root our corruption and, no doubt, tempted to use the same mix of corrupt clientelism and authoritarian methods that tarnished Schevardnaze, reputation as a star reformer, architect of Gorbachev’s new thinking in foreign policy and man of Cromwellian rectitude when he was party boss there in the late Soviet era. And, of course, there are the neighbours, or perhaps I should say the Neighbour, Putin’s Russia with the EU perilously far away and far out of sight.

Various media report that Saakashvili has called early elections in January. Without falling too much for the conspiratorial notions that politics in the post-communist region(s) is always choreographed from abroad, are we seeing the unfolding mechanism of a sort of anti-coloured (bleaching?) revolution?

>Slovenia: ‘erased’ still face hurdles to regularize status

>Slovenia News reports on that country’s latest, attempt to regularize the position of citizens of ex-Yugoslav republics living in the country (since before the break-up) of the federation. It seems complex and less than generous or straightfoward

“Government Adopts Law on the Erased

Ljubljana, 30 October
Government adopted on Tuesday amendments designed to regulate the status of persons from the former Yugoslavia who had permanent residence in Slovenia on 23 December 1990 and have lived here since.
However, they will be eligible for permanent residence rights only if they had asked for permanent residence before but were denied the request, Interior Minister Dragutin Mate told the press.The law has the purpose of regulating the status of the so-called »erased«, the people from the former Yugoslavia who were crossed out of the permanent residency register in 1992.The applications would be processed on a case-by-case basis. The applicants would have their permanent residence status reinstated retroactively, but only from the day that they first lodged such a request.The relevant proceedings would be launched solely on the basis of individual applications, which need to be submitted three months from the day of entry into force of the amendments.The applicants will have had to live in Slovenia since 1990 with gaps of no more than six months except if the absence was due to medical treatment, job or study.Minors will be able to obtain permanent residence permits if they were born in Slovenia, have lived here since birth and at least one of the parents has permanent residence.Applications may be turned down if applicants were convicted of a serious crime or if they were members of the Yugoslav National Army (JLA) who did not respond to the Slovenian request to join the territorial defence.The solution would be introduced with amendments to the constitutional law for the implementation of the basic constitutional charter on the independence and sovereignty of the Republic of Slovenia.According to Mate, this is “the most appropriate way to finally resolve the status of citizens of successors to the former Yugoslavia.”The centre-right coalition parties expressed support for the motion, as they advocate the case-by-case approach. As Slovenian Democrats (SDS) deputy Branko Grims told the press, this is the only realistic way of resolving this issue. “