With the migrant crisis and recent national elections, many Western observers are surprised – and disappointed – at the state of Eastern Europe. Many fear that the region is slipping away from the Western democratic model and a new East-West divide is emerging. Hungary in particular has come under criticism, as well as Poland, Slovakia and the Baltics. There are not many attempts to understand why Eastern Europeans – including Hungarians – think differently. However, unless we do so, a new iron curtain will descend and this time it will not be the fault of external powers but of our own doing. The adage goes that history is written by the victors. Adding to this, one can argue that certain values and standards of evaluation are promoted by the most powerful actors: since World War II, the Bretton Woods institutions (World Bank and International Monetary Fund) and other international bodies such as the United Nations (especially the Security Council) are led by major Western powers endorsing certain economic and political principles. Following from this, interpretations of Eastern European developments are most often seen through the lens of the West, and particularly Western media. While the norms propagated are valuable in themselves – values such as freedom, democracy, pluralism and solidarity – how they translate across contexts can overlook differences in political culture and history.
In addition, exasperation towards Eastern Europe and Hungary also manifests a forgetfulness of many Western European countries’ own troublesome past before arriving at these engrained values. Let’s explore further.
One key difference between Eastern and Western Europe is in the formation of the cherished idea of the nation-state: the correspondence of a territorially-based “nation” (people) with a “state” (administrative and legal structure). The idea, which formed and developed first in the Western European countries of Britain and France, relied on well-defined and stable borders, a shared community and common culture. Furthermore, timing is important: nations arose within states, or simultaneously as the state developed.
However, the idea of a nation-state couldn’t translate directly to Eastern Europe in the 19th century: Eastern Europe was made not of states but of empires (such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Empires had flexible borders, contained several national communities and often operated with hierarchical relationships between the “main” or core national community and minority communities.
Nevertheless, the nation-state idea whetted the appetite of already existing nations within the multi-national empires by providing a goal to aspire to. In the case of Hungary, the nation-state dream received a harsh reality check after World War I and the Treaty of Trianon: Hungary lost two-thirds of its land and more than three million ethnic Hungarians to neighbouring countries. For other newly established countries, the idea of the nation-state was finally achieved, albeit with national minorities dotting the demographic landscape.
At the same time, Western Europe’s own path to the nation-state and the establishment of democracy was far from rosy, and indeed was often characterised by violence. The effort to create a shared national community and culture was frequently through civil war (particularly between religions) or a strong top-down approach from the state to suppress smaller regional identities or minority groups.
Democracy, expressed as the will of the people, needed a unified people in order to work. A glance across the Pond also shows that the construction of the American nation was violent: it involved conquering the Native Americans, a civil war in the 1860s and the eventual enforcement of voting rights of African Americans in 1965.
Another difference between the two halves of Europe is that the 20th century can, as a whole, be characterised as a century of authoritarianism for Eastern Europe. Shortly following the horrors of World War I, Hungary (and other countries) suffered not only from the German occupation but from Soviet occupation. The time of the Iron Curtain was an externally imposed division by the Soviets to promote the communist ideology, control domestic politics and subsume nationalism.
Therefore, while Western Europe experienced economic growth, peace and recovery, Hungary’s authoritarian regime initiated a life of terror and secret police, as Budapest’s House of Terror reminds us. The regime – led by dictator Mátyás Rákosi – inaugurated secret forced labour camps to send dissidents at whim.
Work camps include Recsk, where well-known poet György Faludy spent three harsh years (which he writes about in “My Happy Days in Hell”). We all know of the 1956 Uprising, soon to celebrate its 60th anniversary, and the subsequent execution for treason of Imre Nagy (pictured is his statue).
While a lighter form of communism followed – commonly termed “goulash communism” – the effect of communist rule was nevertheless to destroy civil society, promote a homogenised identity and invasive state structures, as well as a black and white simplified worldview, with low tolerance for diversity and distrust of others .
With the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Eastern Europe looked automatically to “returning” to Europe and joining the European Union, identifying with the values of freedom, democracy, pluralism and solidarity. Many changes occurred at once: the establishment of a new democratic political system, the return of control over domestic politics and the creation of a market economy
To guarantee that nationalism’s expression would not lead to ethnic war (as it did in Yugoslavia and WWI), Eastern European countries also ratified legal conventions to protect their national minority populations.
To summarise then, the development of the “nation-state” and democracy has had – on the whole – different trajectories in Eastern and Western Europe. The difference between states and empires, effects of communist rule, shorter history of democratic institutions, and the attainment of a long sought-after national sovereignty while having to deal with national minorities, are important elements to take into account when analysing current events.
With this in mind how have Eastern European countries, and Hungary in particular, translated the values of freedom, democracy, pluralism and solidarity? Two issues are worth touching upon: the debate about the nature of democracy in Hungary and the migrant crisis and possible Western (mis)perceptions.
It is not uncommon to hear that Hungary is turning into an authoritarian regime and edging away from democracy. There are many ways to define democracy, but fundamentally it includes free and fair elections and the guarantee of fundamental freedoms, present in Hungary. One criticism has been the use of the Fidesz-KDNP two-thirds majority in Parliament, with an underlying judgment of the unfairness of their majority.
It is true, with 53% of the vote, Fidesz-KDNP garnered 68% of the seats. However, this is part of the nature of voting systems, there is rarely a 1:1 ratio of votes to seats. The 2015 UK national election saw the Conservative-Labour 37% and 30% vote share translate into 331 and 232 seats. The 2000 US presidential election saw Al Gore actually win the popular vote but lose the presidency because he did not secure the adequate votes in the Electoral College.
At issue is more the collapse of the political left in Hungary and the rise of Jobbik on the right. Therefore, one may fairly critique Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s charism, ruling style and public policies, but his government still has democratic legitimacy.
The second set of values – pluralism and solidarity – are important in Eastern Europe but are understood differently. Western Europe has focused mainly on the integration of immigrants since WWII, whereas Eastern Europe struggles foremost with its historic ethnic minorities. These include the Roma, ethnic Russians in the Baltics, ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia and Romania, and others.
Because integration of these minorities has often been difficult or controversial, many countries’ resistance to the EU resettlement quota (whether rightly or wrongly) is rooted in an unease about the difficulties of integration. In addition, solidarity is a concept that generally has meant focusing on the country’s own population and poor, given Hungary’s fewer economic resources than Western European countries (the average median salary in Hungary was EUR 570/month in 2016).
Whether we agree with what is happening across Eastern Europe and Hungary is an observation that needs to be put into a deeper historical and cultural context to facilitate dialogue. If dialogue does not happen, leaders will continue to speak different languages to each other: in a concrete and metaphorical sense.
A new curtain may be falling in Europe but this time if it is drawn it will be from lack of communication rather than from external imposition.