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Does Eastern Europe have lessons for Brexit Britain?

Photo Bob Harvey, CC BY-SA 2.0,

In the aftermath of the EU referendum a number of Central and South East Europeanists wrote blogs reflecting on possible parallels between Brexit and break-ups of multinational socialist states like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in early 1990s.

There are certainly parallels to be drawn.  They lie, as Catherine Baker notes, often in the political dynamics of exiting a large multi-national structure: the desire of smaller nations (Scotland) to ‘exit the exit’; the woes of asymmetric federalism, where nations ina multinational union have varying degrees of autonomy; the changeable nature of public opinion; the EU as a symbol of modernisation and liberalism (the ‘March for Europe’, and the normalisation of  radical positions through by media coverage – and now social media ‘echo chambers;.

Scotland’s (now much more likely) exit from the UK – as noted in the lead-in to #indyref – had echoes not only of Yugoslavia’s disintegration or Czechoslovakia’s ‘Velvet Divorce’ in 1992 but also – more distantly, but perhaps more pertinently –  of the dilemmas faced by small, newly independent Central European states emerging from the Habsburg Empire in 1918. Read More…

Eastern Europe 25 years on: catching up or catching cold?

Catch-up 2014 smaller cropped


25 years on from the fall of communism, the Wall Street Journal recently told its readers, Central and Eastern Europe is still playing catch-up. The reasons are mainly economic and infrastructural. Too little growth by the standards of the Asian tigers. Too few high speed rail links. Not enough motorways. Viktor Orbán bossing it over Hungary in an ever more worrying project of illiberal transformation. A bad subsidy habit fed by an indulgent EU. A Middle Income Development Trap waiting to be sprung. And –when did this ever happen before? –  progress that “ has fallen short of what many of its citizens had hoped”.

 But we shouldn’t be too harsh. The WSJ is not particularly well known for the quality of its CEE  reporting. And this occasion it’s absolutely right: Central and Eastern Europe is playing catch-up. The politics of catch-up, rather than geography or culture or post-communism, are probably what define the region best. If it wasn’t catching up, it wouldn’t be Central and Eastern Europe.  Historians of East Central Europe such as Andrew C. Janos or  Ivan Berend have long been preoccupied by the region’s longue durée efforts to push its levels of socioeconomic– and political – development into line Europe’s core West European states –  although they have sometimes bluntly simply spoken of “backwardness”.

 The post-1989 project of European integration and enlargement, although more usually referred to in terms of ‘convergence’ or ‘Return to Europe’ is also all about one catch-up – and a very ambitious form of catch-up: overcoming deeply rooted east-west divide, which as Janos and others have noted, predates the Cold War division of Europe.  Enlargement and integration – and liberal reform in CEE generally –been sold politically on the basis that the poor, historically peripheral societies of CEE will (and after a painful process of adjustment) reap the full benefits of prosperity, social welfare, democracy and freedom enjoyed by core West European societies that had the good luck to stay out of of the Soviet zone of influence after WWII.

 If, in the long term, integration fails to deliver, there may be significant consequences both for the EU and for the fate of democracy and liberal institutions in Central and East European countries themselves.  As recent developments in Hungary show, liberal and democratic reforms are not irreversible or consolidated as once thought or hoped. If the European project fails to deliver catch-up – or the Western model CEE was busy catching up on with proves exhausted and unattractive – it will exacerbate both centrifugal pressures in the EU and erosion of democracy in some or all of CEE. There is the uncomfortable possibility that in his nationalistic rejection of liberalism, Viktor Orbán may be a leader rather than a laggard as far as the future direction of the region is concerned –  the Central European vanguard of the revolt against a broken Western model that Pankaj Mishra sees rippling out  from Asia. Read More…

The different worlds of everyday post-communist democracy

 Original books often share two common virtues. They reach conclusions which make perfect sense in hindsight, but which somehow no one else managed to reach before. And they ask simple, big, often-asked questions, but answer them in new ways. Both of these apply to James Dawson’s new book Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria. How Ideas Shape Publics.

 The book’s key finding – based on innovative ethnographical fieldwork – is that Serbia has a more vibrant and, to some extent, more liberal, public sphere than Bulgaria, despite being rated considerably lower on most governance and democracy indices (the book focuses on Freedom House’s Nations in Transit measures).

On a conventional reading this makes little sense: Bulgaria is a low quality democracy, made slow, but steady progress as towards EU membership in 2007, while Serbia slid into semi-authoritarianism following the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the wars of Yugoslav succession as regime and (large parts of) opposition embraced a culture of militant illiberal nationalism. Serbia began EU accession negotiations only this year and officials are carefully avoiding speculation about when it might eventually join the Union as its 29th member.

 James Dawson’s book, however, tells it differently. Most conventional measures of democracy, he suggests, are too formal and legalistic, do little to tap into the day-to-day thinking of citizens. ‘Hard’ comparative scientists are too often driven by an essentially procedurally framing of democracy leading them to overlook a multitude defects and limitations in democratic practices. As a clever dissection of a well-known survey article in East European Politics and Societies makes clear, too many insights and observations appear simply as passing comments or incidental qualifying remarks, but in the end slip out of the final analysis. Read More…

>Paddy power

>And amongst of the BBC’s mini-treasure chest of documentary pods is Winning the Peace, the series on nation-building and international intervention presented by former Lib Dem leader and UN High Representative to Bosnia, Lord Ashdown. The series, which coincides with the release of Ashdown’s book on the same subject includes episodes on the Allied post-war occupation of Germany, el Salvador, Bosnia (which frustratingly, won’t download but can be streamed) and Iraq. There’s a slightly know-all, even sanctimonious edge to Ashdown, but he’s articulate, to the point and clearly a high calibre politician who knows what he’s talking about. Best Foreign or Defence Secretary we never had. His conclusions – plan ahead and for the long-term; compromise with technocrats sullied by the old regime; establish rule and law and market first, do democratic elections later – seem pragmatic and sensible. Such nation-building scenarios with their multiple tracks, resource and time limitations and unpredictable outcomes strike me as ideal topic for some kind of coumpter-based political sim – a thought that has occurred to others – but alas there doesn’t seem to be any…

>Serbie….douze points


So Serbia has won the Eurovision song contest and crowds take to the streets of Belgrade – and, yes I did watch it, although not all, you understand just least the half an hour or so, when the button on the remote control got stuck, soI just couldn’t quite switch over to watch that documentary on the Edwardian middle classes.
As Britain’s aserbic (Irish) TV host Terry Wogan was quick to point out even before the final votes were in, neighbours with close cultural and historical ties usually tend to back each other’s songs and – in an interesting hint of post-conflict reconcilation – viewers in the former Yugoslav republics did exactly that, propelling a rather saccarine love ballad to victory.
The role of the Eurovision song contest as an agent of Europeanization has been understudied academically, but as examples of earlier winners Estonia and Ukraine suggests, countries which are small and lacking in international profile or medium sized and lacking in reform, tend to take winning rather seriously. President Yukashenko even made a stage appearance post-Orange Revolution when Kiev hosted it, but mercifully wasn’t tempted to sing – outgoing Slovak PM Vladimír Mečiar’s rendition of folk song as part of his televised farewell broadcast is perhaps the closest East European politics can come to this.

Somehow West Europeans don’t take Eurovision quite so seriously. Post-Iraq, of course, we Brits never win – and, sad to say, the context has become a focus for euroscepticism (today’s edition of London’s free commuter newspaper Metro has several letters demanding that we ‘withdraw’ from Eurovisiob and spend the ‘wasted millions’ on schools and hospitals at home etc etc) – but I don’t think the streets of Hesinki were exactly heaving last year when the Finns briefly got a look in.

Democratic consolidation is when you can win the Eurovision song contest and just don’t care…

>Reintegrating the Balkans – trains, planes and automobiles

>A guest lecture at SSEES by Erhardt Busek, Co-ordinator of the EU’s Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe discussing the region’s shift From Stabilization to Integration. ‘Integration’ in this context means states in the region working with each other to take over the programmes and structures created and administered top-down by the EU , rather than actually joining the EU – Macedonia’s candidate status means little as there are no negotiations, Croatia is better placed and might make into the Union by 2010 despite Slovene objections over various unresolved issues between the two coutries. Regional integration, Busek makes clear, in this context is about practical everyday infrastuctural links – waste water, air links, bridges, river management and rail links (something the World Bank also has an interest in) – which now loom larger than security, despite the unstable situation in Kosovo/a . I couldn’t help wondering if this basically technocratic, economistic view of what drives integration would really cut it with the realities of nationalism and identity, despite the dying away of violent interethnic conflict.

Dr Busek speaks in calm, understated way – more as if briefing a group of seven than addressing to an audience of seventy – doesn’t waffle and finishes his presentation on time in about 40 minutes. I like his style. Questions immediately raise the issue of Kosovan final status and it is suggested that the EU really should take education into the acquis so it can intervene to put South Eastern Europe’s dilapidated higher education system into order, which has been bled dry by the departure of talented young for the West or better paid work elsewhere.

Through a haze of fatigue, my mind wanders and I can’t help thinking of him as a kind of latter reincarnation of Austro-Hungarian adminsitrator patiently sorting the woes of the Balkans. Dr Busek is a Christian Democrat, but I then began to think of Hayek’s(or was it von Mises’s?) vision of a Europe run from Vienna by a multinational bureaucracy of neutral West Europeans dissolving the failed Ruritanian nation states into a new market- liberal order. The EU is, of course, has democratic as well as bureaucratic structure and is more of a social-liberal compromise (Busek is Christian Democrat). Still Dr Busek gets my vote – except that he doesn’t need it, of course.