Monday, 6 August 2012

Bad things come in threes

Misfortune never comes alone. And that is especially true for Europe. With all eyes on the economic problems of the South, other diseases are festering on the continent, infecting the very founding principles that have made Europe prosperous. The EU institutions are overwhelmed with managing the economic crisis, they cannot cope with other issues. Considering the energy that is being consumed to keep the economic union from falling apart, you would assume that an even greater threat to the stability of the region would be forcefully dealt with. But that is not the case. In fact, the EU is treating the democratic crisis of Hungary, Romania and Serbia with very little interest. The authoritarian  trend that has started in Hungary has now spread to three countries in the region, three countries that have very complicated ties and a complex history that needs to be managed in a pro-European mindset in order to avoid conflict, the very reason the EU was founded in the first place.

After a few steps back from the Orban government, Hungary has managed to get away with some very important legislative changes that violate democratic principles and install a Putin-like style of politics. Viktor Orban's recent declarations that he hopes the government would not need to change the political system of the country from democracy to 'something else' have been largely ignored by the media and, as far as I could find, have provoked no official reaction from any of the EU officials. Furthermore, he has started a media campaign to portray himself as the defender of Hungarian interests against the greed of foreign lenders as he prepares to enter though negotiations with the IMF. Helped by the system that he has already put in place, he is very effective at creating a Soviet-style leader image  for himself. His measures go far beyond those proposed by populist forces in Western Europe, firmly directing the country to the far-right. And this is just the beginning. As the radical nationalistic party, Jobbik (whose neo-fascist paramilitary group has only recently been outlawed), seems to be falling apart, the danger that factions would form an even more radical movement is rapidly increasing. 

As Viktor Orban tightened his grips on Hungarian governance, another Victor came to power in Romania. Victor Ponta, the leader of the leftist PSD, became the Prime Minister of Romania in May and shortly after that he proceeded to dismantle many of the checks and balances of the public institutions and to tighten control over them.  In a one week blitzkrieg operation, he changed the heads of both houses of Parliament (through illegal procedures), he replaced the ombudsman with one of his party members and he took away the Constitutional Court's power to judge on Parliamentary decisions. He then impeached the President and replaced him, on an interim basis (for how long exactly it is now unclear), with his political ally, the leader of the centrist PNL. The rapid pace of the moves (which one respected Romanian journalists described as a 'brutal group rape of democracy') has attracted dire warnings from the EU and the US. Although the PM has tried to convince his EU and US partners that he will repair any steps that have broken democratic principles, he has backed his words with little action. Furthermore, the interim President, Crin Antonescu, has used some very strong language to condemn any interference from the outside, calling into doubt the US's and EU's power and declaring the sovereignty of Romania against foreign 'ex-powers'. Some important steps from Romania in August and September will show exactly to what extent are Mr. Ponta and Mr. Antonescu prepared to breach the democratic principles that they swore to protect.

(Permit me a personal opinion on the Romanian situation: the country is run by muppets, amateur politicians who do not understand the weight of their words and think that doing politics is nothing more than a small scale power game that they can play for fun. They simply do not understand the consequences of their actions or of their words, or the impact that they have on society, managing to create a very dangerous rift based on political affiliation.)

And then there is Serbia. A non-EU country but an EU candidate, Serbia has recently elected a nationalistic president that denies that the Srebenica massacre. He appointed Ivica Dacic as Prime Minister, the former spokesman of Slobodan Milosevic. It is in Serbia, ironically, where the weakness of the EU is most obvious. The EU used to have the most influence in candidate countries, steering them towards reform and state-building, working with them to chain nationalism and promote freedom. It now looks weak and strange, giving lessons to Serbia on issues that itself badly mismanaged. It is to no surprise then than Serbia chose to ignore the EU's recommendations on banking reform and went on to put the National Bank under the control of the Parliament, move that mirrors Hungary's recent actions.

The political discourse of the three countries is now dominated by populism and nationalism. The media fuels a state of panic continuously revealing imaginary threats, from outside and from within, to create an almost Dali-like view of society. Threats towards ethnical minorities and even towards each other  (see the referendum spat between Romania and Hungary) point to an escalating crisis that the EU chooses to ignore. Badly affected by the economic crisis, the people of Hungary, Romania and Serbia are looking to fresh policies to help them out of poverty. With a second wave of the crisis soon to hit the region, things can spiral out of control very fast. The EU's biggest threat might not be the economic bankruptcy of a southern state, but the democratic failure of an eastern one. 

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