The Failed Promise of Eastern Europe

Next month marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful revolutions of 1989, when the nations of Central Europe overthrew communism. At that time, Václav Havel—the playwright and dissident turned president of Czechoslovakia—promised the world that his region would become a benevolent force in European politics. But 20 years later, Central Europe's record is decidedly mixed. Though it has managed to erase the continent's Cold War divide, its nations have also diluted the European Union's progressive consensus and reintroduced a chauvinistic populism into Europe's mainstream.

In his famous speech of Jan. 1, 1990, Havel talked about the "great creative and spiritual potential" of Czechoslovakia and its "humanistic and democratic traditions." Recalling that Central Europe had been at "the spiritual crossroads of Europe" before, he predicted that it would play a vital role once more, bringing something positive and new to the continent—what he called "the art of the impossible."

In some ways, Central Europe's progress since then has been enormously impressive. The best sign of this is the fact that its countries were all able to join the EU years ago, proof that they've put the basic elements of liberal democracy—elections, institutions, and protections for human rights—in place. On a deeper lever, however, the democratic cultures of these countries still lag behind the rest of the continent. Soviet-style dictatorship took an enormous toll on these societies, and the scars linger. On the right, some profoundly illiberal nationalist forces—even openly bigoted extremists—are disconcertingly popular. And on the left, former communist parties continue to play a prominent role, despite having never undertaken full-scale reckoning with their totalitarian pasts.

Unsavory parties exist in Western Europe too, like France's National Front and Belgium's Vlaams Blok. But in Central Europe, these kinds of groups aren't marginal; in fact, they regularly come to power. Hungary's Fidesz, Poland's Law and Justice Party (PLJP), and Slovakia's National Party have all occupied their country's highest offices, despite their far-right stances. The PLJP, for example, champions an arch–Roman Catholic line on family, women's rights, and homosexuality. And in Slovakia, the current coalition government includes a ultra-right-wing party that soft-pedals Slovakia's WWII fascist past and has been condemned by the European Parliament for inciting "ethnic prejudices and racial hatred."

These parties and movements have been remarkably successful at tapping and impacting popular opinion, which remains highly problematic on an array of social issues. The World Values Survey, for example, shows that Slovenes, Poles, and Romanians are nearly twice as hostile as are Brits or Spaniards to the idea of living next to someone who's gay or of another skin color. According to Human Rights Watch and other groups, anti-Semitism also remains disturbingly high in Central Europe, and is sometimes promoted through the state-run media—despite the fact that the region has almost no Jews. And polls find that Central Europeans today have much less faith in democracy, mainstream politics, and the EU than do their counterparts to the West.

At times, these sentiments have bubbled over into actual violence. In Hungary this year, the rise of an ultranationalist, paramilitary party (which won 18 percent of the vote in the country's European Parliament elections), was accompanied by anti-Roma murders and arson attacks.

Such forces have started to have negative impact on the European Union itself, where the Central Europeans have bolstered right-wing factions in the European Parliament. Overtly xenophobic parties like Bulgaria's Ataka and the Greater Romania Party now have seats in the European legislature, and half of the members of the Parliament's newly formed Euro-skeptic Conservatives and Reformists Group come from Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Hungary.

None of this is to suggest that all of Central Europe's politics are right wing and illiberal. But one can't help wishing for more of the inspiring civil spirit exhibited during the street demonstrations of 1989. The region's democrats—a tenacious and courageous bunch—have plenty of work cut out for them. Much more, in some places, than most of us would have expected 20 years ago.