>CEE: If it ain’t nationalism, and it ain’t violent, then it ain’t news


Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia and perhaps stretching a point Ukraine seem belatedly – and thus in somewhat different form – to be undergoing the politics of liberalization and decommunization played out in most core CEE states in 1990s. I hadn’t taken a big interest in this until recently. In the same way, London taxi drivers won’t go South of the river [Thames] without good reason, I’ve tended to be a bit reluctant to go South of Danube. Prompted by a slew of exam answers on Romania’s presidential-parliamentary stand-off, which has just seen President Traian Basescu avoid impeachment procedures as the result of an overwhelming referendum with underwhelming (25%) turnout.

The immediate culprit was my energetic teaching assistant, who specializes in Romanian politics, and spotted that – along with President Yushchenko’s recent contretemps with the Ukrainian parliament – it was a useful case for testing out the contradictions of semi-presidential constitution as vehicle for effective reform in new democracies.

Coincidentally, in the run up to the Romanian referendum media outlets, including no less than Al-Jazeera and BBC World, were energetically firing off emails and phone messages in trying to find talking heads at short notice. The media, broadcast media especially, have mistaken assumption that any academic with a specialism in East European politics is basically current affairs analyst manqué with their fingers on events of any one of a dozen countries, able to offer sound bite sized insights on… well just about on just about anything dramatic anywhere in the region. Most academics can, of course, say interesting and informed things about some issues and some countries. Some can even do sound bites but I had no desire to try and navigate the complexities of Romanian politics on live TV (or pretend to).

Perhaps because it is a large country Romania with a deal of political and economic problems and (always good copy) sizeable numbers of nationalist extremists, it seems (occasionally) to register much more than the rest of CEE. The drama of Romania’s political crisis seemed to have caught Western media attention – with coverage in print media such as The Times, the FT and The Guardian and, it seems, on news TV – although similar events in Lithuania in 2004, which actually saw President Rolandas Paksas impeached (admittedly fairly overwhelmingly by parliament and without a referendum) barely caused a ripple in the international media. I guess that the image of embattled reformer fighting off obstructive politicos has more pathos than a populist outsider being booted out for dodgy dealings with a Russian businessman. Here, I think, Boris Yelstin’s conflict with the Russian parliament in 1992-3 was probably the master frame for such coverage. Curious though, how such conflicts tend often tend to pit presidents against erstwhile allies in parliaments that initially appear reformist and supportive. Could be that such standoffs are as much about coalition dynamics – as big reform blocs quickly splinter having gained power – than as a life or death struggle for reform and the soul of the nation?

Of course size matters too. Poland is the only other state in the region to have a similar profile: this currently centres on sensitivities and oddities of its governing Terrible Twins and illiberal attitudes to homosexuality on the Polish right, although the Roma-bashing antics of Czech politicians (Jiří Čuněk, Christian Democrat leader and deputy PM is currently the best known exponent) also sometimes get an airing. Bar that you need a sprinkling of violence and extremism to make the headlines. The Hungary (far) right street politics that emerged in the wake of Fidesz’s narrow election defeat in 2002 and continued in fits and spurts until it managed to take Hungarian TV off the air Hungary’s Socialist PM got himself into dire trouble last year with some taped truth-telling about the parlous state of the Hungarian economy and how he had fibbed to win an election. And of course, recent riots in Estonia have garnered more coverage for that country than any amount of e-government and flat taxation …

Basically, if don’t have a have a charismatic head of state playing the Lone Ranger of post-communist reform, and it ain’t got nationalism, and it ain’t violent, then, really, ain’t news…

I guess that demonstrates a kind liberal agenda for Central and Eastern Europe so perhaps I should approve.

But somehowI don’t…

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply