Mar 29th 2016

The Putins of the EU



MOSCOW – One of the saddest ironies of this year’s commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union is that Hungary and Poland, always the most restless of the Soviet empire’s captured nations, are now led by men mimicking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s governing style. They, too, are hollowing out independent democratic institutions and suppressing citizens’ fundamental freedoms. As the old saying goes, we become what we hate.

After the fall of communism, Poland and Hungary declared that they were Eastern European countries no more. Instead, they were part of Central Europe – Europa Srodkowa, the Poles called it – or even of Western Europe, on par with Austria. Today, however, they are embracing Putin-style authoritarianism, to the point that the European Union may impose sanctions against them. Such reprimands are fully deserved.

Poland, now ostensibly led by President Andrzej Duda, is really controlled by former Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński, Chairman of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. Kaczyński is the twin brother of the late President Lech Kaczyński, who died in a plane crash near Smolensk, Russia, in 2010, on his way to commemorate the victims of the Katyn massacre by the Soviets in 1940. Though the crash was deemed accidental, PiS calls it the result of a Kremlin conspiracy – a paranoid charge that is all the more bizarre given Kaczyński’s apparent determination to emulate Putin’s behavior.

Both Kaczyński and Putin are certainly contemptuous of the rule of law. In Russia, the manipulation of trials of the regime’s perceived enemies is among the Kremlin’s favorite tactics. These supposed enemies have included former Yukos Oil Company Chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who doubted Putin’s fitness to be president; the anti-corruption lawyer Alexei Navalny, who was investigating Putin’s wealth; and the punk rock group Pussy Riot, who mocked the Russian Orthodox Church, a core constituency for Putin. Just last week, in a notorious show trial, the Ukrainian helicopter pilot Nadiya Savchenko was handed a 22-year prison sentence on falsified evidence that she was involved in the killing of two Russian journalists during the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Poland’s government, for its part, has canceled the appointment of three new Constitutional Court justices installed by the previous government, led by the Civic Platform. Moreover, it has neutered the Court by barring the justices from questioning the constitutionality of legislation or probing executive decisions without parliamentary approval. And exploiting a quirk of Poland’s legal system, the authorities are refusing to publish some Constitutional Court decisions, a move that essentially nullifies the Court’s powers, because unpublished decisions do not officially have the status of law.

The Polish government is also taking cues from the Kremlin in its response to the civic protest movement that has emerged in response to such actions. Not only has Poland’s government denounced the movement as anti-patriotic and guided by foreign interests; a leader of that movement, the computer specialist Mateusz Kijowski, has come under personal fire from Kaczyński.

The media is another area where Kaczyński is building a Kremlin on the Vistula. In Russia in the 2000s, Putin’s government stripped independent networks such as NTV and ORT (later Channel One) from their media-mogul owners Vladimir Gusinsky and the late Boris Berezovsky, both of whom Putin viewed as enemies. Poland’s new administration recently passed similar laws, enabling, for example, the government to appoint the managers of television stations, thereby ensuring broadcasters’ political fealty.

The situation is no better in Hungary, where Viktor Orbán has been pushing his country toward illiberalism since 2010, when he began his second stint as the country’s prime minister. In fact, he set to work almost immediately changing the constitution to consolidate the power of his Fidesz party and limit the independence of the constitutional court.

Furthermore, like Putin and Kaczyński, Orbán has asserted control over the media, with new legislation empowering it to dictate content and impose sanctions on media outlets, as well as to grant broadcast licenses to favored stations. These laws also ensure preference for Fidesz’s campaign advertising, including by restricting the location of opposition billboards and messages by NGOs. The slogan “Only Fidesz!”, accompanied by the image of a grinning Orbán, are now plastered on 15-foot-high struts across the country.

Of course, “father of the nation” worship is nothing new in countries with illiberal governments. Similar billboards, emblazoned with portraits of leaders from Vladimir Lenin to Leonid Brezhnev, once lined the roads of the Soviet Union. Likewise, as one observer pointed out, in Romania in the 1980s, roads were lined with signs extolling the virtues of communist strongman Nicolae Ceaușescu. Though Putin’s portraits are absent from Russian roads today, incessant footage of him on national television is not. And images of Stalin, the spiritual godfather of Putin’s regime, do line the roads, if sporadically.

In Putin’s early days in power, he proposed a regime based on “sovereign democracy,” claiming that Russia needed a “special system” to protect itself from its many enemies, domestic and foreign. Kaczyński and Orbán subscribe to the same notion, completely missing, apparently, the irony in the use of “sovereign” – a term typically applied to a monarch, not a democratic leader. Indeed, what Putin created, and what Kaczyński and Orbán are emulating, is more like a “sovereign dictatorship.”

For the EU, handling Russia, which has lately positioned itself as the West’s nemesis, would be hard enough. Now it has to address the anti-democratic Putin emulators within its own ranks, at a time when European unity is being undermined at every turn. (The upcoming British referendum on EU membership is one important example.) The question is whether the EU will follow through on its threats to impose political and economic sanctions on Poland and Hungary, or continue, for the sake of unity, to avoid acting against nascent illiberal regimes in countries that were once beacons of post-Soviet hope.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "
Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "
Jan 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, if cornered, any populist might resort to Trump’s endgame methods: trying to coerce elites into committing fraud to prevent a transfer of power, or deploying right-wing extremists on the ground to intimidate lawmakers. These desperate acts signaled Trump’s weakness. But it is important to note that most Republicans still did not disown Trump even when confronted with his blatant lawlessness on January 6. ... Other right-wing populists may well take notice of this fact. The recent events in the United States have shown that elites who are prepared to collaborate with authoritarians will tolerate quite a lot in the end. This ignominious precedent is especially likely to hold true in other countries where crony capitalism has implicated the business community in illegal behavior."    
Jan 21st 2021
EXTRACT: "May, a decent and honest woman, was far outdistanced by her successor and his colleagues in the Trump sycophancy stakes. In January 2017, Johnson’s senior fellow Brexiteer and principal ministerial fixer, Michael Gove (a former journalist with The Times newspaper), conducted an interview with then President-elect Trump that plumbed new depths of oleaginous toadyism. Gove wallowed in Trump’s endorsement of Brexit. It subsequently came to light that Gove’s then-employer, Rupert Murdoch, was in the room while the interview took place. And why not? The owner of Fox News as well as The Times was entitled to keep an eye on his two protégés."
Jan 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Does anyone really think that the vast majority of Republican legislators who could not bring themselves to object to the attempted coup at the Capitol — or any of the other outrageous antics Trump has unleashed on America for the past four years — will suddenly experience sleepless nights and pangs of conscience now that he is gone? Au contraire. This band of spineless, morally bankrupt congresspeople and senators are far more likely to follow Trump and carry Trumpism into the 2024 presidential election." ..... "A recent survey of Europeans revealed that the majority believe that America’s political system is hopelessly broken, that President Biden will be unable to halt its decline on the world stage, and that China will become the world’s leading power within a decade. What if they are right? America’s Trump-inspired death spiral has practically ensured any real recovery will likely take decades — and multiple terms with a Democratic president and Congress at the helm — to achieve."
Jan 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "What our polling tells us is that what the peoples of Middle East want is regional unity and investment in the future that can bring peace and prosperity. They’ve had enough of war and want ​stable employment, education, health care, and better future for their children. It’s time we start listening to them."
Jan 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Trump intentionally and directly incited the insurrection of January 6. But he does not bear sole responsibility. Every one of his enablers, and the enablers of his enablers, is guilty. Fox Corp’s hidden backers, especially those who are so fond of touting their piety, must now ask themselves, as the Gospel of Mark instructs: What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? "
Jan 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "What’s astonishing is that the bottom 50% reduced their borrowing over roughly the same period, but their debt servicing costs increased. Over this time, smaller corporations saw their profit margins dip consistently into negative territory. The decades-long fall in interest rates appears to be the only thing that has kept smaller corporations afloat. Smaller corporations thus appear to be caught in a vicious circle. The fact that their debt-servicing burdens have increased sharply despite deleveraging and falling interest rates points toward rapidly deteriorating financial fortunes. This is reaffirmed by the severe losses registered in their negative profit margins."
Jan 11th 2021
EXTRACT: " The answer can’t be to pretend that the crisis is now over or to believe that the way forward can be found by simply impeaching the President or using the 25th Amendment to remove him from office. That will not do. January 6th had antecedents. And more than one man has responsibility for what happened."
Jan 10th 2021
EXTRACTS: ”Not everyone who mobbed the Capitol on 1/6 was a terrorist, but there were many terrorists among them. Some people came armed, or with ties for taking congressional representatives and senators hostage. Some were desperately looking for Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi in order to assassinate them….” …… ”Although the Capitol police had a major failure when they did not stop the breach of the building by the mob, they were remarkably successful at spiriting the politicians down to the basement and its tunnels that led to nearby offices.” ….. “The goal of the Trump-inspired insurrection was to stop Congress from certifying the election of Joe Biden as president. Trump moved on several levels to accomplish that goal. He conspired with senators to have them object to the Arizona and Pennsylvania vote counts. In fact, he was trying to convince senators to join this effort by telephone even after the Capitol had been breached and senators were being escorted to the basement, according to Mike Lee. He also tried to disrupt the proceedings by encouraging the breach of the Capitol by a flashmob and by cadres. He may have stopped security forces from being deployed, as part of his coup, to ensure that the insurrection was not stopped prematurely.” …… “Significant blows have been dealt to the Trump terrorist network in the past two days, but the vast well of support it has built up among less violent supporters, and among media enablers like Fox, Breitbart and Newsmax, will make it very difficult to root out.”