Panel IV: Which Way Forward for Central Europe?

How will Central Europe deal with its experience as a passive victim of history? Will it still be able to assert the value of human rights? And what role will it play in a multipolar world?Barbara Coudenhove-Kalergi, Adam Michnik, Laurent Binet, László Rajk and Andrey Dynko contributed to this debate chaired by Martin Bútora.

Journalist Barbara Coudenhove-Kalergi talked about the changing attitude of Austria to its neighbours and former Austro-Hungarian fellow-countrymen. While in the 1980s the Austrians looked up to their neighbours to the East as heroes who dared to fight communism, in the 1990s negative clichés started to prevail, for example of Poles as car thieves. These days it is primarily Slovak nurses who look after Austrian pensioners and Polish builders have been redesigning Austrian homes. Central Europe’s shared heritage includes anti-Semitism but in the 21st century its place is being taken by anti-Islamism. Most Austrians want to limit immigration, yet a cursory look at the phone directory reveals that a third of the Viennese were born outside the country. In terms of developments in Central Europe, recent elections in Slovakia and the Czech Republic have shown that the post-Communist countries are able to correct their course. Western media are currently threatened by commercial interests and are expected to generate ever greater numbers of readers and viewers and quality suffers as a result. But that is all the more reason to stand up for journalists who are oppressed. The role of the media is to ensure that society is in dialogue with itself – that is the essence of democracy.

Architect László Rajk began by raising a rhetorical question: is there a de facto or de jure martial law in Hungary? However, it hardly matters since the current government has a two-thirds majority and can therefore pass almost any legislation it wishes to. It has already adopted a range of anti-democratic measures, such as curbing the authority of the Constitutional Court and nationalizing the aluminium plant that caused the ‘red sludge’ ecological disaster. Prime Minister Orbán cannot stand transparency and uses a rhetoric that combines nationalism with anti-globalism. He said Central Europe was a linguistic invention that we used to differentiate ourselves from Eastern Europe and to prove our closeness to Western Europe. Now the term West Balkans has been invented. Central Europe has been vanishing culturally and otherwise. It would make more sense to think in terms of the Danube as the core of a region – then it becomes clear why Croatia and Serbia need to join the European Union.

Journalist Andrei Dynko criticised the tactic the West uses vis ? vis Belarus and suggested that the West ought to think in terms of economics. The world has not realized that Lukashenka has managed to create a Chinese system in Europe. The West ought to give more support to Belarus and Ukraine because these countries are morally important: they give Central Europeans a chance to become aware of themselves as subjects of geopolitics and history. If Europe does not want to go the way of Byzantium, it has to do something about Belarus. Lukashenka relishes the fact that Belarus is a buffer state and the West ought to make tactical use of this fact.

French writer Laurent Binet wondered whether the spirit of Central Europe was disappearing, and expressed the hope that in this region the spirit of Franz Kafka would prevail over that of Václav Klaus. Speaking from a historical perspective he said he felt a sense of shame for the French betrayal of Czechoslovakia in Munich and for the fact that the French today cannot distinguish Slovakia from Slovenia. He recalled Chamberlain’s infamous statement about not wanting to risk war for a “far away country of which we know nothing”. In the case of the wars in former Yugoslavia the French attitude was different since this country is only two hours away by air.

Polish journalist Adam Michnik insisted that the only reason the term Central Europe was invented was because we wanted to prove we were not part of the Soviet bloc. He pointed out that dissidents under communism used to tell other countries what they ought to do, but that was pointless: nobody could do for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves. Similarly, nobody will help Ukraine or Belarus if they don’t help themselves; and we have to give up the thought that the West will come to the rescue. The problems of transition from communism can be summed up as follows: we wanted justice and what we got is the rule of law. Transition has been completed, we have crossed the Rubicon and the question now is what port we choose to drop anchor in – a German or a British one? It’s a question of values. Another problem of the dissident way of thinking was to perceive everything in terms of good and evil. That does not augur well, as we have seen with Orbán, Kaczyński, and Gamsakhurdia. All of them were rooted in the dissident movement, and they all regard their adversaries as the epitome of evil: this is anti-communism with a Bolshevik face. But Europe’s real threat has two faces: those of Putin and of Berlusconi. Nevertheless, I don’t subscribe to a Manichaean view of Russia. Putin is not exactly a hero of mine but I’d like to have the difference between him on one hand and Stalin and Brezhnev on the other in US dollars. The key question is whether the democratic order will turn out to be the future of the world or just an insignificant incident of history, doomed to extinction. The answer to this question will come from China. Lately a new populism has become a worldwide problem. Nobody in Europe can understand why the Hungarians and the Slovaks are arguing about passports in present-day Europe, where nobody needs passports anyway. The Poles are a very gifted nation and nationalism can thrive in Poland without any minorities: we have anti-Semitism without Jews and Ukraine-bashing without Ukrainians.

Photo Peter Župník