Central and Eastern Europe Have Never Been a Homogeneous Entity and Never Will Be

People have short memories and few remember what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain.
Things like visa-free travel, study abroad and harassment-free life are being taken for granted, says Paul Lendvai, an Austrian journalist originally from Hungary in an interview with Robert Schuster.

For many years you have been following developments in Central Europe. Would you say that this region has, once again, found itself at an important crossroads?

In short yes, yet this part of Europe has always been at a crossroads, and a crisis of one sort or another is almost part of its DNA. Now the situation is difficult on many fronts and we can see that each country is trying to find its own way out of it.

Is there a country today in Central and Eastern Europe that gives you hope when you consider its future?

There is the Czech Republic, or Poland, for example, that have not jumped on the bandwagon  of right-wing populism and appeasement towards the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. That is why the results of the Polish election were so important for the whole of Central Europe, as it has shown that it is indeed possible to replace authoritarian, or semi-authoritarian, regimes. Of course, that is not the case for all the countries in the region. Take Hungary, for instance; after 14 years of such government it is almost impossible. When it comes to the Czech Republic I find it extraordinarily positive that the current president is an energetic general Petr Pavel with his unabashedly pro-European agenda, and that the unfortunate experiment with his predecessor seems to be over. On the other hand, there are other less fortunate examples, such as Slovakia or the Balkans. There are time bombs ticking in Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina or in Northern Macedonia as well, so we do have plenty  to worry about.

The biggest disappointment for you being your home country of Hungary, I presume….

Unfortunately, that is the case. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has systematically established his authoritarian system so well that there is little hope for a change in the foreseeable future. Neither the collective West nor the EU can do much at this point. I do think thatin any given country, real change can only come from within, when its own elites and ordinary citizens actually do something about it. The EU or NATO cannot really do it for them. That’s why I consider Hungary such a bad case.

It has been said that the focus of the EU has shifted in recent years towards Central and Eastern Europeans due to the fact that war is being waged in Ukraine, in their own backyard. What consequences do you foresee?

I am of a different opinion. There have been many times when a new  slogan takes up center stage which  sounds profound and original, yet soon enough it always turns out to be a bubble that unceremoniously pops. I am wary of generalizations and I do not see “Eastern Europe” as a homogeneous entity. In other words, even during Communism there were pronounced differences. It became apparent during the fall of Communism, which every country experienced in a slightly different way and even more so in their subsequent post-communist development. There have been some unpleasant surprises along the way, see the aforementioned Hungary. Who would have thought that one day it would present an obstacle to Sweden becoming a NATO member? It goes to show what is indeed possible in history.

So do I believe Orbán when he said “We are the future of the West?” No way. God help the West if it were to have such a future.

I think that the real importance of each state depends on many factors; its internal situation, its alliances and their stability. Those in particular are not guaranteed even within a body as large as the European Union.

For its continuous existence and prosperity, it is very important that its two largest countries, France and Germany, cooperate together well, especially after the unfortunate Brexit. Or take a look at the Baltic States, where today their common denominator is a fear of aggressive Russia. Now we have an unexpected turn of events in Finland and Sweden joining NATO. That goes on to show you how Putin has overplayed his hand. Instead of weakening the Alliance by attacking Ukraine, he actually made it stronger. When we talk about the future of the European Union, I do not believe that now it will be the era of Central or Eastern Europe. They are still states with different national interests. A big role is also played by historical coincidences and personalities involved.

Still, wouldn’t you say that even within the EU  the realization has dawned that it can no longer be reduced to its western part, and that voices from Central & Eastern Europe need to be heard far more?

Yes, that important change has indeed taken place. On the other hand, I have always thought of the debate about the role of the Visegrad Group, i.e. Czechia, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, as an artificial one. Even Orbán has confirmed this, albeit indirectly, when he stopped mentioning Visegrad altogether after Poland and the Czech Republic had started pursuing different policies. It only shows that he has never cared for the overarching interests of the region, but only for maintaining his power. Take the current relationship between Slovakia and Hungary, for example; both Fico and Orbán are nationalists and pretend to be the best of friends. I remember when my book about Orbán came out, or the book about Hungary, and I personally gave Fico its Slovak edition, and he would then talk about Orbán and Hungary very differently than he does today. That brings me to underscore how important the national leaders are.

One of the most important leaders of this region is now Donald Tusk, the Polish Prime Minister.

His political experience in this context is almost unparalleled – under his belt are the mandate of chairman of the European Council, eight years of Polish premiership previously, and now he has returned to lead the government once again. It is thanks to him that Poland will be able to tap into previously frozen European funds. I would not hesitate to call his current role historic; of entirely positive proportions. In this regard, he is a true counterbalance to Orbán; Tusk the builder, Orbán the destroyer.

When it comes to Tusk and his new Polish government, there are many expectations that it will remedy all that went wrong during the previous administration. Is that really possible during one election cycle, and aren’t the expectations too high?

It is a big question whether the current coalition will last. The key will be, in my opinion, if conservatives from the Law and Order party, led by Jaroslaw Kaczyński, continue in their rabid campaign against Tusk and his government, aided by President Andrzej Duda, whose current conduct is far from impartial. My hopes are that the government coalition will last, also thanks to the rapid and active response from the European Commission and Ursula von der Leyen personally.

Of course there are, as in any party and coalition, various personal rivalries, vanities and so on. It is therefore difficult to predict what the future will bring. Nevertheless, I do hope that Poland is now charting a correct course. It is important because it is the most important country within the reach of Russia, and that is why Poland is crucial for Ukraine.

Post-communist transformation in Central and Eastern Europe after the year 1989 was, for a long time, thought of as a success story, and there were foreign investors lining up to do business with most of the countries. Yet all that changed. What do you think happened?

Well, on one hand, you have this great burden of history. Let us not forget for how long these states were under Communism. Whole generations came up under this system, and even parts of the new bourgeoisie established after 1989 come from the old Communist elites. On the other hand, I do strongly believe in the role of individual personalities, and also partly in coincidences. The fact is that Hungary was leading the pack, as it were, but then some sort of “Kádár-ist” twist took place. (János Kádár was a long-time leader of Hungarian Communists).

When Hungary destroyed its Communist regime in 1956, it did so in twelve days, and then it got reinstated again. What is happening in the country now is that there is a hybrid system  being established, clearly dominated by one powerful individual.

What is new is that this  regime is clearly the most corrupt in the history of the country. This means there are many people in whose self-interest it is to keep the regime going. It is also determined by Orbán’s personality. I will put it this way: there are people who possess talent for evil. There’s no doubt in my mind that Orbán, who’s a very skilful political player, is one of them.

But again, each country needs to be considered separately. One cannot compare Slovenia with Bosnia and Herzegovina, even though for a long time they used to belong, with other republics, in the one federal state of Yugoslavia and shared a constitution together. History plays a big role, who your neighbors are, your economic development or whether there are substantial ethnic minorities in your territory. All these factors together meant that the promising start after 1989 was not fulfilled. Mind you though, even the great German thinker Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel would say that in history, years filled with happiness are blank pages. That’s the way it simply is, good times alternate with bad ones. We must also not forget the role that previous democratic traditions played, which is a great bonus for the Czech Republic as it had, after 1989, a sense of continuity in its history.

Now, who would have thought that Ukraine would one day be going through such a development? Or that power in Russia would be hijacked by a revanchist clique of secret services and siloviki? No one could have imagined then that a KGB lieutenant colonel would one day turn into a pure dictator. Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened. And what is also worrying is that this development shares features similar to the journey Chinese society has taken, off the course of a once-promising path. Not to mention the U.S., where there is a real threat that Trump actually returns to the White House again.

With all this populism on the rise could it also be possible that it activates civic society, and that it could actually lead to a strengthening of democracy?

Unfortunately, there’s also the reality of short memory. Nobody really remembers what it was like behind the Iron Curtain. The good things, such as visa-free travel, study abroad, scholarships such as Erasmus, and a life free of government harassment are being taken for granted. Then we have a confluence of two or more crises and the balance is off. After the epidemic, there was an economic crisis, inflation, etc. There are wars in Ukraine and in the Middle East; we see that many leaders are very eager to grab more power for themselves. We have just witnessed this in China, which has gone through various stages of development in the last few decades, that there are failures that can lead to regress. One can only hope that this doesn’t lead to a large-scale war. Even when things do not go well it is important to not give up. This is an individual task for each and everyone of us, as one is responsible for oneself and for the development in one’s own country. What gives me hope is, for example, the attitude of the Baltic countries, namely the role of women in Estonia, Finland and Latvia. They have learned from their history, know the danger they are facing and know what it is to lose freedom.

 And what countries are at the other end of the proverbial spectrum?

Today the worst situation is in Hungary, of course, but one can take a look elsewhere, for example to Serbia. Nominally, its government, along with President Aleksandar Vučić, is still pursuing EU membership, yet keeps up the coziest of relations with Russia and China. Not to mention they might decide to ignite local tensions by attacking Kosovo. Bosnia & Herzegovina itself resembles one giant powder keg. Then there is Northern Macedonia, which is not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination, yet the premiership there has been recently assumed by an ethnic Albanian – a glimmer of hope. That goes to show you that even intrinsically complicated countries should not be readily written off. Sadly, it needs to be said that in all these above-mentioned instances Mr. Orbán’s Hungary chooses to interfere and stoke up the flames, rallying its supporters. Just to give you an example – for many years now Hungary has been providing asylum protection for a corrupt Macedonian ex-prime minister Nikola Gruevski, who had been deposed and found guilty in a corruption trial by a court of law. He continues his lavish lifestyle in Hungary with full government protection. Corruption by itself has been the most problematic, recurring theme, along with a seemingly never ending cycle of political crises. Even the EU member states, such as Bulgaria and Romania, have corruption as their biggest issue.

Then you have some downright stupid decisions made by the states in the West – such as when Austria, for no good reason, kept blocking their full access to the Schengen system. It is a purely political, populist game aimed at domestic voters.

An open chapter is going to be Slovakia. It remains to be seen whether authoritarian Fico succeeds in weakening the democratic institutions and brings about even more damage than during his previous years in government. Current demonstrations against his policies seem to show that civic society in Slovakia is still alive.

We have not mentioned Austria yet, where there will be parliament elections in the Fall. Is there a chance that the premiership will be assumed by someone from the far right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ)?

There is a real danger that FPÖ becomes the party with the most mandates. I do hope the survival instinct of Austrian democrats kicks in and they will form a coalition. I also hope that Professor Alexander Van der Bellen, who has been elected President for the second term, knows exactly what dangers lie ahead and will chart his course correspondingly.

Do you consider FPÖ to be an extremist, far right party?

For the most part, yes.

Are they even capable of governing? Do they have people for that, an infrastructure?

They have been part of several administrations so far, and from what I have seen there is little reason for optimism when one considers their competence or moral integrity. It is a completely different ball game to be a junior partner in regional government, and to sit in the federal government in Vienna. Their ties to Russia worry me the most.

Do you think that FPÖ in government could form an alliance with Orbán, for example, in the EU?

The chairman of the party Herbert Kickl has said that he views Orbán as an inspiration, and just like him he would like to turn Austria into a fortress. His own convictions are unimportant, he only cares about winning votes. And so he plays the card of migration, refugees, xenophobia and so on.

What is the state of Austrian civic society? Is it strong enough to face off a potential Chancellor Kickl, or FPÖ, in the government?

I do hope that the civic society will make itself heard. We can see that its voice is not strong enough yet when compared to Germany, where huge protests were organized against the plans to expel millions of foreigners out of the country. I do hope though that there will be a similar mobilization as there was in 2000 against the first coalition of Christian Democrats with FPÖ, when other states of EU froze their bilateral relations with Austria.

For our freedom it is absolutely essential to maintain the independence of the media, mainly of public service and the newspapers as well.

One must not forget that the Constitutional Court has done excellent work so far, in my opinion, along with the Federal Fiscal Court;  the whole of the justice system has functioned very well. The recent sentencing of former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is testament of that.

Now that you have mentioned Kurz, what is left from his era?

In my last book, which deals with the issue of hypocrisy in politics, I dedicated an extra chapter to Kurz, where I portrayed him as a virtuoso of hypocrisy. I basically view his tenure as catastrophic for Austria. He allowed the FPÖ to take over the key ministries, such as defense, foreign affairs, the interior or the central bank. Today when he talks about his time in office there is absolutely zero reflection on what was going on, and one can tell he is still proud of his tenure. I know there are speculations about his return to politics, but I do believe his time is over. The verdict in his sentencing has set an important bar for other similar cases and I am convinced that more of that will come.

Why don’t the opposition Social Democrats benefit from these scandals?

After the departure of the last Social Democratic chancellor Christian Kern, and it needs to be said it was a catastrophic departure, the party found itself in deep crisis.The party nomenclature is, to a large extent, made up of professional intriguers and plotters who instead of creating an environment of solidarity devote their time and energy to making snake pits. Andreas Basler, its new chairman, is perhaps the last chance for this traditional party to play any role of substance in our politics. Their obsession with scheming and personal vanities has reached such a proportion that even the scandals of Christian Democrats, with their corruption and so on, pale in comparison. The same goes for FPÖ’s scandals; they now pretend that they weren’t even there. On the whole, it needs to be said that it would not be good for  Austrian democracy if the parties that successfully built the country up after the war, that means center-left Social Democrats and center-right Christian Democrats, broke up and were replaced by different outfits. There is a real danger this might happen and it needs to be prevented. I try to do my own bit as a journalist who warns against the hollowing out of democratic institutions. A quote from Lessing’s Faust comes to mind; nothing in history is faster than switching from good to evil. We have already experienced that in Austrian history and I do not wish to go through it again.

One has a feeling that Social Democratic politicians keep harking back to Bruno Kreisky, the great former chairman and chancellor, in any circumstance possible? What is his legacy in today’s Social Democratic Party?

Yes, that is a fundamental question. I even authored his biography. For all his greatness what remains today from his legacy is his portrait on the wall in the party headquarters. Not much is left from his policies or uncanny ability to appeal to voters outside the traditional demographics.

The last great chairman of the Social Democrats was Franz Vranitzky, who brought Austria into the E.U., and his public reflections on Austria’s role during World War II were an important milestone in our modern history.

Social Democracy is in decline and the question remains whether someone other than Babler would be able to prevent the worst. It also depends whether in case of election defeat there would be another change in party leadership or not.

Kreisky was known for his acumen in foreign policy, especially towards the Middle East. Is Austria following in his footsteps?

No. Austria’s foreign policy in recent years has been problematic. Our current Chancellor seeks out questionable characters such as Orbán or Serbian President Vučić. To this day, I have not understood his journey to see Putin in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, where he went as the only Prime Minister from the EU. I have already talked about the nonsensical blockade of Romania and Bulgaria from Schengen. Unfortunately, little is bound to change until the elections. We should count ourselves lucky if we are going to be spared more political silliness but that, I guess, remains to be seen. In any case, Austria has lost a lot of its reputation due to its sycophantic policies towards Russia in Putin’s era. One can only hope the next government will assume a much clearer position.

Not only are you a founder of the Eastern European desk in the public service television broadcaster ORF but you were its chair for many years as well. What is your opinion on how Austria is being informed about what is going on in our region?

It is, generally speaking, a problem not only in Austria. There are few reporters out there who know the region and speak the local languages. There are some exceptions, true, but in general the reporting is superficial. And it is a problem.

In general it is a problem that politicians read very few books, quality newspapers and mostly just go through aggregate daily news on the Internet. Another issue are opinion polls as politicians tend to only make decisions based on them.

In any case, it is positive that the fear mongering predicting that Austria and the West would be swamped by masses of migrants from Eastern Europe failed to materialize.The people who did come integrated themselves well, in Austria and elsewhere. At the same time, no country should be overburdened. The media, radio and television namely, still play an important role in providing information, and are an important indicator of the health of democracy, as indicated in the report compiled by Reporters without Borders. It is always a warning sign when newspapers are closed down or when established titles are being taken over by new owners with an unclear structure. Freedom of the press and the media in general are the foundations of democracy.

Any idea how to bring traditional media closer to the young “Internet generation”?

This presents a global danger. We can see that in the Middle East, in America. Unfortunately, young people are more under the influence of Twitter/X or TikTok. It is the governments’ remit to establish a proper legal framework and then enforce it so the social media cannot be abused for supporting racism or spreading nationalist sentiments. That is the main task of this century for the judicial system and governments. As often in history though, we should not be expecting immediate positive results.

Paul Lendvai (94) is an Austrian journalist, TV commentator and writer of Hungarian origin, who is considered one of the foremost experts on Central and Eastern Europe. In the 1980s, he built and led the Central and Eastern Europe desk in the public television broadcaster ORF, and later he was the main editor of the World Service of Austrian Radio Service. He comes from a Jewish family in Budapest. After the Second World War, he studied law and started working for Social Democratic newspapers. In 1953, he was arrested by the Communist regime and forced to stop working for three years. After the Hungarian uprising was quashed in 1956, he managed to flee to Vienna via Prague and Warsaw. In 1959, he received Austrian citizenship, became a Financial Times correspondent and published for other periodicals. He founded and led Europäische Rundschau, a quarterly review for politics, history and the economy. For many years, he was also a moderator of the TV debate program Europastudio. He has authored many books, in some of which he critically analyzes the situation in Hungary led by Mr. Orbán. In 2001, he founded, along with his wife Zsoka Lendvai, the publishing house Nischen Verlag specializing in translation of Hungarian works.

Robert Schuster

is the managing editor of Aspen Review Central Europe. He was the editor-in-chief of Mezinárodní politika monthly from 2005 to 2015, and a correspondent for the Austrian daily Der Standard in the Czech Republic from 2000 to 2012. He has been a foreign correspondent of Lidové noviny daily since 2015, where he covers news reports from German-speaking countries. He is a regular guest in commentaries broadcast by Český rozhlas Plus.

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