Photographer: Vladimir Simicek/AFP via Getty Images

politics

Disillusionment Is Sweeping Eastern Europe

Cronyism, populism and general suspicion of power have made former communist Europe look increasingly unpredictable.
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For three weeks, people in the Slovak capital of Bratislava left work on Friday, headed to the main square and jingled their keys in unison to demand a new government.

This week, they got one. A new leadership was installed on Thursday after protests following the murder of a journalist and his fiancee led to the resignation of the country’s three-time prime minister.

But rather than an isolated event, Slovakia is just the latest example of how Europe’s east looks increasingly volatile with nations embittered over cronyism, allegations of corruption and a lingering mistrust of power.

From the Baltic to the Adriatic, the Iron Curtain that fell across the continent has been replaced by a belt of instability almost 30 years after communism ended. It’s one that poses arguably the biggest challenge for western leaders who accuse newly re-elected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s of meddling in the region to undermine the European Union and NATO. 

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov warned of an escalation in tension with Russia at an EU summit in Brussels on Friday. 

As calls mounted for Slovakia’s leadership to go, the prime minister in Slovenia suddenly resigned ahead of elections after being hit by a series of strikes. Both came after Latvia was plunged into turmoil in February when the central bank governor, a prominent post-communist figure, was briefly detained over bribery charges.

Then there are the nationalist governments that have been clashing with the EU over rule of law and taking in refugees, emboldened by the kind of populism that swept Donald Trump into the White House.

Poland this week stood defiant against EU claims its political takeover of the country's independent judiciary is illegal before proposing legislation with minor changes to the power grab. Polls show Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a supporter of Trump and Putin, is on course to win a third straight term next month in what he calls his “illiberal state.”

“In some sense what’s happening in the region is a legacy of communism,” said Zbigniew Janas, one of the Solidarity union leaders who challenged the regime in Poland. “Children are being raised by parents who grew up in that system and there were millions of them. Democratic opposition was just a fraction of a percent.”

Orban delivers a speech on March 15, Hungary’s national day.
Photographer: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

It leaves countries that symbolized hope and the triumph of capitalism over dictatorship now looking more like a collage of misfits just as the EU tries to maintain unity after Britain’s decision to leave the bloc.

The political ramifications are far greater, if not the economic ones. While the U.K. was never the most enthusiastic member, the former Soviet bloc is an integration project that’s bigger than the Marshall Plan after World War II. It cost 229 billion euros ($282 billion) in aid alone for Poland, the largest net recipient of all 28 EU states.

Slovakia, Slovenia and Latvia are members of the single currency, the euro, and were staunch allies of Germany during the European debt crisis and Greece’s collapse.

The disillusionment comes from the perception that politicians are on the make. There’s no doubt prosperity has soared, with places like Bratislava now richer than parts of western Europe. Yet relatively low wages and hardship in regions of countries like Poland displaced pro-EU governments.

While Slovakia has moved up the rankings in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, it’s at the same level as Italy, the birthplace of the mafia. Hungary was 66th last year, above only Bulgaria in the EU and down from 48th in 2014 when Orban won his last election.

“The level of corruption by the political elites in eastern Europe is much more serious than in the West and serves as a lightning rod to produce upheavals capable of washing away entire political systems,” said Andras Biro-Nagy, a political analyst at Policy Solutions in Budapest. “There’s basically not a country in the region that’s been unaffected by this in the past decade.”

People take part in a rally against corruption and to pay tribute to murdered Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova in Bratislava.
Photographer: Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images

The upheaval in Slovakia started in late February after a reporter and his wife-to-be were killed in what the police said was related to his work investigating mafia links to government officials. Protesters demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico after he led for 10 years. On Thursday, Slovakia’s president appointed the cabinet of Peter Pellegrini, the new premier and a pro-EU ally of Fico.

Slovenian premier Miro Cerar resigned just months before the former Yugoslav state goes to the ballot box. Now a comedian-turned-mayor leads all polls, vowing to make sweeping personnel changes at top of institutions.

“People are people and I guess they just have to fall on their faces every now and then to realize that this is the wrong way to go,” said Karel Schwarzenberg, a diplomat who was exiled under communism and supported dissidents from the bloc. “Of course I imagined things would have turned out a little differently 30 years ago.”

— With assistance by Andrea Dudik, and Hayley Warren

(Adds Bulgarian prime minister in fourth paragraph.)
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