EUROPE IS PREPARING to mark 30 years since the fall of communism. On August 19th Angela Merkel will travel to Sopron. With Viktor Orban, Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, she will commemorate the anniversary of a peace protest on the border between Hungary and Austria that helped chisel the first chink in the Iron Curtain. The event will have a grotesque quality: a German chancellor celebrating the rebirth of democracy alongside a leader who is systematically dismantling democratic institutions in his country. And it will doubtless lift the curtain on an autumn of commentary lamenting the failed promise of 1989. Expect doleful references to Europe’s new east-west cleavage and sardonic asides about the predicted “end of history”.The images from Sopron will not do central and eastern
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EUROPE IS PREPARING to mark 30 years since the fall of communism. On August 19th Angela Merkel will travel to Sopron. With Viktor Orban, Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, she will commemorate the anniversary of a peace protest on the border between Hungary and Austria that helped chisel the first chink in the Iron Curtain. The event will have a grotesque quality: a German chancellor celebrating the rebirth of democracy alongside a leader who is systematically dismantling democratic institutions in his country. And it will doubtless lift the curtain on an autumn of commentary lamenting the failed promise of 1989. Expect doleful references to Europe’s new east-west cleavage and sardonic asides about the predicted “end of history”.
The images from Sopron will not do central and eastern Europe justice. Democracy and liberal values have indeed come under attack in the region. The Economist Intelligence Unit (a sister of The Economist) finds that since 2006 democracy has deteriorated more there than in any other part of the world. And yet there have been quite a few glints of hope—especially in the past few months.
The prelude to this “eastern European summer” came in March with the election of Zuzana Caputova, a liberal anti-corruption campaigner, as president of Slovakia. She has since stood up for independent judiciaries and publicly rebuked Mr Orban’s illiberal abuses in neighbouring Hungary. April brought a presidential election in North Macedonia in which nationalists were defeated by the Social Democrats, who had just settled a long-running dispute with Greece over the country’s name in order to pave the way for EU membership. And May brought wins for pro-European moderates in the Latvian and Lithuanian presidential elections.
Slightly further afield, in June a re-run of the Istanbul mayoral election put an opponent of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the helm of Turkey’s largest city, confirming that the autocratic leader’s grip on the country is faltering and prompting breakaways from his political party. Czechs protested in the largest demonstrations since the fall of communism—some 250,000 marched in Prague—after Andrej Babis, the prime minister, was charged with fraud and appointed a crony as justice minister. Protests also burst onto the streets of Moldova, where an “anti-oligarch” coalition ultimately ousted Vladimir Plahotniuc’s crooked regime, and onto the streets of Georgia in opposition to Russia’s ongoing occupation of parts of the country. In July, across the Black Sea, Romanians and Bulgarians also staged demonstrations: the former over police incompetence and the latter over cronyism in the judiciary. Ukraine’s parliamentary election delivered the only absolute majority in its post-communist history for Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian promising to tackle corruption and to anchor the country to the West.
Now Moscow is centre-stage. On July 27th some 20,000 people took to the streets, the largest demonstration there since 2012. Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings are sinking. So are real wages. The surge of patriotism that followed Mr Putin’s annexation of Crimea, part of Ukraine, has faded. And Muscovites are bridling at an upcoming election in which non-approved independent candidates will be barred from the ballot. Another protest on August 3rd saw thousands return to the streets, despite the threat of arbitrary beatings and imprisonment. One major figure in the Russian opposition is Lyubov Sobol, an anti-corruption campaigner. Women are at the heart of many of the rebellions against the strongmen. Ms Sobol, who has now been arrested, and Ms Caputova are two. Others include Canan Kaftancioglu, a leading force in the Turkish opposition; Laura Kovesi, a Romanian graft-buster set to become the EU’s first public prosecutor; and Barbara Nowacka, who led women’s protests against reactionary social reforms in Poland.
To be sure, this is no new 1989. The encouraging protests and election results mostly concern local issues—though they have common factors, such as lots of young people and a pro-EU bent. Poland’s election, set for October 13th, will probably see the governing populists triumph. Mr Orban is going nowhere. Mr Babis is still riding high in the polls. It is far from clear that Mr Zelensky will break from Ukraine’s oligarch-dominated past. In Russia and Turkey change is most likely to come from shifts within the ruling party, albeit ones that may be catalysed by street protests.
History is back
And yet the events of this summer prove many of the western European clichés about eastern Europe wrong. States scarred by communism are not incapable of producing strong civil-society movements. Slavs and Turks do not have some innately “Asiatic” preference for authoritarian leadership. Nothing lasts forever. History never ended.
Eastern Europe’s liberal marchers and voters deserve more support from the continent’s west. While protesters on the streets of Moscow are being beaten and countries like Ukraine and Georgia are striving for independence, Germany is embracing NordStream2, an unnecessary gas pipeline tailored to the Kremlin’s geopolitical and financial interests. Meanwhile Mrs Merkel and Emmanuel Macron are pouring cold water on North Macedonia’s hopes of joining the EU. The union spends far too much of its budget on misguided priorities like farm subsidies, and not enough on supporting independent media and civil-society organisations on its fringes. Dissenting voices in countries like the Czech Republic, Romania and Turkey receive scant coverage from western European politicians and journalists. That should change.
To assume eastern Europe is all Orbans, Erdogans and Putins is to do the region a grave injustice. This summer has proved that eastern Europe is in fact teeming with democrats and liberals willing to put their own interests on the line for their cause. If the EU stands for anything, if it truly values the promise of 1989, it will stand by them. ■