Christine Stone (23rd December, 2014)
The EU’s biggest players may be loyally lined up behind Washington when it comes to sanctioning Putin’s Russia, but lower down the European pecking order, some member states are not so happy with the economic consequences of the White House’s zero-sum approach to economic warfare against Russia. Unlike with the Baltic States and Poland – usually praised for their “patriotic pride” meaning selfless subordination to Brussels’ Diktats – it took some arm twisting to get the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary to agree to punish Moscow for annexing Crimea.
Although like the Poles and Balts, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians are also heavily dependent for their energy on Russia as well as other valued economic ties to the east while remaining net importers of Old EU goods and services. Prague, Bratislava and Budapest have to varying degrees and with different decibels of dissent chosen to rock the Euro- sanctions boat.
Part of the reason is that, despite tabloid hyperbole in Washington and London claiming that Vladimir Putin was intent on taking them over and rebuilding the iron curtain, in reality, Russia has been an unproblematic neighbour for all of these countries for a quarter of a century.
If there has been a-symmetric warfare it has been the “plucky” Balts sacrificing their own economic well-being to cut out trade with Russia. The Balts like to twist the Russian bear’s tail and get brownie points from NATO for their “civic courage” but apart from unsubstantiated rumours of cyber-warfare in 2007 against Estonia, Russia’s commercial ties continued as normal. It was, for instance, Lithuania’s choice to drop Russian-supplied gas and turn to importing expensive US-sponsored LNG whose fixed price now soars relative to Russian energy exports!
But Hungary’s Viktor Orban argued against shooting oneself in both feet to get applause from a trans-Atlantic claque that not only pays no price for embargoing Russian trade but actually gains market share from Central Europe’s cutting off its nose to spite Putin’s face.
Could these ripples of discontent with the Western consensus on isolating Russia develop into something more troubling for both the U.S. and Brussels? What can they do about it? All three countries are members of both NATO and the EU. Promoting regime change in Ukraine to replace a disliked but elected president and parliamentary majority and install a client president and parliament might be acceptable to ordinary people in the West – or they may be indifferent to it – but what if dissident but elected governments inside the EU come under attack from externally-sponsored so-called “civic” protests because those governments have queried the Washington-Brussels consensus?
Would promoting street-protests and media campaigns to undermine elected presidents and parliaments be any more problematic for the Western elites who have used similar tactics against governments just a little further east? After all much-trumpeted “people power” protests have been turned on against governments whose legitimacy like that of Eduard Shevardnadze toppled in Georgia in 2003 the West once extolled as a model of transition to market democracy. Loss of favour in Washington and Brussels can seriously erode democratic legitimacy at least in the eyes of Western elites.
Passing through the Czech Republic on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the start of the so-called “Velvet Revolution” offered a snapshot of the new battleground for hearts-and-minds in Central Europe.
On 17th November 2014, it was drab and raining in Prague as official Czech celebrations of the “Velvet Revolution” took place. The weather contrasted with the freezing early winter day of 17th November, 1989, but the evident lack of interest of the mass of Czechs in the anniversary, let alone a desire to celebrate it, was striking.
Maybe ordinary Czechs, whose healthy cynicism saw them through Communism, because they could see through it, also had a scepticism about the anti-Communist bombast since 1989. After all, everyone now know that what happened in 1989 wasn’t quite the fairy tale still peddled in neo-conservative media in the West.
Demonstrations to mark the events of 17th Nvember, 1989, were slated to take place in Prague and a mass of candles filled the passage way on Narodni Třida (National Street) where the key spark for protests took place. A traditional Communist youth wing anti-Nazi march commemorating the killing of protestors by the German occupiers in November, 1939, was hi-jacked by students shouting anti-Communist slogans and clashing with riot police.
As reported by both Western and Communist media on the day, a student “Martin Šmid” was said to have died at the hands of the police,. Another death was rumoured. Unused to such violence and aware of the fall of the Berlin Wall a week earlier, Czechs in Prague responded to the event with more protests that was said to have triggered the collapse of the communist regime. But, hold on: it soon emerged that “Martin Šmid” didn’t exist; he had been invented by the Czechoslovak security services, the St. B. (Státni Bezpečnost) as part of a ploy to bring a new, reformed post-communist regime to power to replace the stultified post-1968 regime as Gorbachev’s allies still hoped to rejuvenate Communism across Eastern Europe.
Let’s forget the bizarre machinations of the St.B back in 1989, and consider rather the bizarre nature of holding emotive commemorations of a death that never took place. It seems weird but, in a way it sums up the banality that lays at the heart of all things connected with the ‘velvet’ events. After all, their nominal hero, Vaclav Havel, had insisted that anti-Communists “live in truth” but their takeover of power depended on a Big Lie.
The “late” Martin Šmid, aka Ludvik Zivčak, had a second life as an anti-capitalist and anti-globalist protestor so he at least would have seen some consistency in the presence on Prague’s streets on 17th November, 2014, of a group of anti-capitalist protesters snaked it’s way through the city centre wearing papier mache masks caricaturing their hate figures. Were they central bankers or global financiers? No. For the counter-cultural protestors of Prague 2014 their masks were faces of the vile Putin, others wore the reviled (at least, by the local cogniscenti) Czech president, Miloš Zeman. A few Ukrainian flags brought up the rear. Other banners denounced Ecuador’s left wing president, Rafael Correa, hardly a household name in Prague. As the hundred or so protesters passed the Rudolfinum concert hall, a group of elderly rock musicians with lank, grey hair plugged away at some ancient protest songs watched by a handful of leather clad biker types.
Over the river, at Prague castle, a more serious group had been gathering during the afternoon: students bent on delivering a message to President Zeman that it was time to go. They did this by leaving a trail of red cards inside the presidential palace complex. These neatly-cut red cards were intended to recall the ones used by the referee in a soccer match to send a player off the pitch. Several hundred protesters ended up under the ceremonial balcony demanding Zeman leave. Fluttering over the courtyard was the presidential flag denoting that Zeman was in residence. It is difficult to imagine such protests taking place in front of the doors of White House or 10 Downing Street but, no one tried to remove the students who did not, to be fair, behave in a violent or intimidating manner. However, there had been scuffles earlier in the day at a “Velvet Revolution” ceremony attended by various European dignatories, including Germany’s President Gauck when students pelted Zeman with eggs who was protected by an umbrella but one misdirected egg managed to hit Gauck.
What, then, had caused the animus against Zeman? The president is a rather shambolic figure who, his detractors allege, besmirches his office by drinking heavily and speaking ‘off the cuff’ (he even smokes and is regularly photographed with a lighted cigarette as if to highlight his malevolence). As long time leader of the Czech Social Democrats and a former prime minister, Zeman earned the ire of the chattering classes by joining a coalition with former president Vaclav Klaus between 1998 and 2002. By now, Klaus had developed a healthy scepticism towards the EU and both men opposed U.S. sponsored wars in Kosovo and later Iraq which led to their being anathematized by Brussels and Washington and, by extension, the local bien pensants, whose hero, ex-dissident Vaclav Havel, in 1999 became the first Czech to advocate bombarding Belgrade since the Good Soldier Šweijk in 1914!
When Klaus’s term ended in 2012, such people assumed that their candidate, Prince Kari Schwarzenberg, would be effortlessly elected to replace him. However, even though the Czech Republic is the repository of much Hapsburg charm in the form of castles and cultural artefacts, the electorate consists of a majority of post- communist bumpkins unlikely to feel represented by a Knight of the Golden Fleece. 54.8% voted for Zeman while 45.2% (mainly in Prague) chose Schwarzenberg.
As the role is mainly ceremonial, the president could have been ignored but Zeman has chosen to speak out on numerous occasions and in ways to infuriate his imperial masters. He has regularly demanded normal relations with Putin’s Russia, called the Ukrainian crisis a “civil war” and then, in a radio interview categorised Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a criminal while reminding listeners of the double entendre involved in the moniker ‘Pussy Riot’. Despite their usual boasts of über-liberal sexual mores, the intellectual elite of Prague expressed outrage at this outburst of vulgarity. “They don’t like him because he’s naughty” a young reporter from Czech Television said of the student protesters. “How can we have a president like that” they moan. “He must go”.
Added to their woes has been the seemingly inexorable rise of a new political party, Ano 11, which came a close second in the 2013 parliamentary election and is now in coalition with the Social Democrats. Many people take it for granted that Ano’s founder, the billionaire, Andrej Babiš, now the country’s minister of finance will end up as prime minister since the party did well in autumn, 2014 local elections. What, then, is wrong with Ano 11?
According to the frequently German-owned Czech media (and the Euro-American orientated elite) Babiš is a Berlusconi clone, boss of one of the Czech Republic’s largest conglomerates, Agrofert, who, like Berlusconi, is also buying up media outlets. Ano is composed of old secret policemen and headed by Informer-in-Chief, Babiš according to this media rumour-mill. A Slovak by origin, Babiš took the allegations to court and was cleared, but the rumours have persisted as has the intention to appeal. However, it seems clear that, apart from the twitterings of the Prague elite, ordinary Czechs are not particularly concerned by such allegations, nearly 30 years after the Communists fell from power. Anyway, many of the alleged Ano nest of spies and informers were too young at the time of their ‘service’ to have been very important cogs in the machine. All this is a smoke screen. Babiš has trodden on various entrenched local interests. He has also supported the extension of nuclear power in the Czech Republic which has angered the EU’s generously subsidised renewables lobby which probably sees the troubles with Russian gas as a golden opportunity to cash in. Whether European consumers will appreciate paying ever higher premiums for “clean” energy as the price of oil and gas falls is open to question, but it is a question European voters have never been asked.
Are things any better, more reliable from the Euro-Atlantic perspective, in neighbouring Slovakia? The answer is: not entirely. Slovakia has thrown up politicians frowned upon by the West since its independence was secured by Vladimir Mečiar in 1993. Milan Knažko, an old ‘sixty eighter’ and sometime dissident feared that all the elderly would have to die off before Mečiar finally exited the stage. “Slovaks are stupid” he said. But, it took twenty years to eliminate Mečiar as a political force only for him to be replaced by another ‘populist’, Robert Fico, whose leftish Smer (Direction) party won an overall victory in the last Slovak election in 2012. Fico has criticised the EU’s sanctions on Russia and seems to have been forced against his will to implement them, as well as allowing the reverse flow of gas to Ukraine from Slovakia’s own reserves. Of course, his hands are tied as Slovakia is a member of the EU and the single currency. Nevertheless, the empire demands 100% obedience, nothing less. Fico stood as a candidate in the March 2014 presidential elections but was surprisingly beaten by a maverick outsider, businessman Andrej Kiska who made what is described as his “fortune” in hire purchase. Unlike, Babiš his business back ground is regarded as a plus rather than an exercise in predatory capitalism, Kiska is popular with the elites both at home and in Brussels (unlike Fico) and will be an ideal advocate for pushing Slovakia in the ‘right’ direction, for example, by recognising Kosovan independence, something it has refused so far to do to avoid trouble with its restless Hungarian minority.
But, nothing said or done by politicians in Prague and Bratislava equal the level of disobedience that has been coming from further down the Danube in Hungary. There, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has adopted an openly defiant position on a range of issues that have infuriated the EU, but even more dangerously for his long term survival, he has fallen into the cross hairs of Washington. Since summer 2014, demonstrations regularly take place on some pretext or other against the Orban government and long-term regime change watchers can only debate how the situation will finally be resolved. Supporters are confident Orban will survive as he is “popular” but that never stopped the engine of regime change. Viktor Yanukovich’s party handily won elections in 2012 but was deposed a year later; the hugely popular Hugo Chavez and Muammar Gaddafi both ended up dead.
Viktor Orban has come a long way from the days of his Soros scholarship at Pembroke College, Oxford. His party, Fidesz, was a classic middle of the road liberal outfit – a proud member of the Liberal International where it now sits somewhat uneasily. However, Hungarians have always been more nationalistic than many Europeans – with their almost unique language, their sense of national identity and solidarity goes back a long time. When Fidesz won an overwhelming majority in the 2010 parliamentary elections, Viktor Orban, now prime minister, started to put Hungary first. In the wake of the 2008 financial collapse he threw out the IMF and cancelled Hungary’s debt repayments in foreign currency thus lowering the pain for ordinary Hungarians. In 2011, he threw out Monsanto – Hungary has banned the use of GM crops, lowered fuel prices and in the same year changed the voting system to a mixed majority and proportional system modelled on Germany. A new constitution has reduced the number of MPs by half. Something must have gone right because in spring 2014’s parliamentary election, Fidesz again won an overall majority. All this took place against the back drop of a broken political order with most Hungarian parties, particularly on the left, scarred by corruption and failure. The ultra-right Jobbik remained as the only effectively functioning opposition party, since the Socialist Party’s internal scandals have compounded its heavy defeats in national elections. Jobbik’s anti-Roma, xenophobic rhetoric and para-military pranks make it unappealing to most people, including in Hungary, but it represents a significant minority of up to 20% there..
Accusations of Orban’s ‘authoritarianism’ have gone on for some time, bolstered by a growing number of NGOs in Budapest (mainly foreign funded and backed) as well as tame academics like Princeton’s Kay Schepperle who has tied herself in knots trying to show that Fidez’s successive victories at the polls (in 2014 alone the party overwhelmingly won parliamentary, local and European elections) were really failures because of modest turnouts! Perhaps this might just rumble along, going nowhere while – as in Prague – providing low level political gossip for the chattering classes in Budapest to feed on, were it not for Orban’s rather bold foreign policy moves in the past year.
In January 2014 he announced that a deal had been reached with Russia to fund the expansion of Hungary’s Paks nuclear facility. As the Ukrainian events unfolded and energy security came under the spotlight, this could have been viewed as strategic foresight. Not so; the Americans were now very angry. On top of this, when sanctions came up for discussion after the Crimean annexation, Orban baulked at implementing them: “Why should Hungary ‘shoot itself in the foot?’” he asked. Like Fico, he dragged his heels over providing Ukraine with reverse flow gas from Hungary’s reserves. As the Western hate campaign against Putin entered the stratosphere, Viktor Orban remained committed to participating in the South Stream gas project. The scheme only came undone when Bulgaria, the weakest link in the chain, pulled out followed by Russia itself redirecting the pipeline to Turkey. According to observers on the ground in Budapest, Orban was now being “warned” by the Cosa Nostra in Washington that he was going “too far”.
At this time, Hungary was without a U.S. ambassador. Colleen Bell, a TV producer of soap operas was stuck in the congressional vetting process so, finger wagging was left to the Chargé d’Affaires in Budapest, André Goodfriend. Goodfriend has an impressive CV for such a diplomat holding a relatively lowly post and his excursions into Hungarian political life, ranging from support for LGBT events to the dramatic announcement that six members of the Hungarian government were to be sanctioned and prevented from visiting the U.S. No names were mentioned but rumours abounded as to the whys and wherefores of the decision – and who is on the black list.
What to do? With a hopelessly divided and weak left-wing opposition and with the para-military ultra-nationalist Jobbik as the only substantial alternative to Orban’s party given the implosion of the Hungarian Socialists who backed EU-demanded austerity all the way, all that remains is to split Fidesz in the hope of producing something more compliant.
On 23rd October, 2014, as if on cue, the BBC’s long time Budapest correspondent, Nick Thorpe reported that “cracks” were appearing in the ruling party although he failed to put any substance behind the allegation, or name names. Otherwise, there are the NGOs of which there are numerous as well as blogs and online publications which trash Orban and the Fidesz government. In September 2014, the authorities cracked down on the Ökotárs Foundation, which disbursed grants to local NGOs from Norway. In a way, this was a clever ruse as it followed an expose in the New York Times detailing Norway’s many involvements in influence peddling via NGO in Washington.
Do these expressions of dissent in Prague, Bratislava and Budapest mean that the Euro-Atlanticist order that has ruled the post-communist world so comprehensively since the early 1990s is under threat? Not quite: in the end, even Orban caved in to Brussels’ demand for sanctions against Russia. He still maintains that Hungary is a loyal EU and NATO member. Ditto, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. But, there does seem to be a change in the air. After years filled with allegations of corruption, most political parties in Central Europe are morally bankrupt and derided by local populations. Massaging election results is becoming more difficult when parties acceptable to Brussels and Washington can barely make single percentage points. In the Czech Republic, Ano 11 is heading in the same direction as Fidesz with the prospect of getting overall control of parliament in the next parliamentary elections. Another headache for Washington looms if that happens.
These unexpected shifts from subservience in the Central European heartland of Euro-conformity only a few years ago may explain why many of the old anti-communists from the era of perestroika and glasnost are being brought out and dusted down. On 11th December, the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) “the only U.S. think-tank dedicated to the study of Central and Eastern Europe” announced it was beefing up its membership with many formidable regime change figures including Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Anne Applebaum, Carl Bildt, Eliot A. Cohen, Timothy Garton Ash, and other supporters of the freedom underground in 1989. It is hard to see these old regime-change advocates changing much without the kind of cash and technical resources to put into play twenty-five years ago. Even with similar resources, the regime-change in Central Europe second time around will run up against the harsh realities of post-Communist life.
Before 1989, people had illusions that with the end of the one party state prosperity would follow automatically and at once. However, they now remember the successful application of the regime-changers’ economic policies after 1989 which resulted in socio-economic collapse and mass emigration from Poland and Baltic States. Ironically, the absence of young people there leaves their regimes able to parrot the required Western line without fearing protests because the younger generation has gone west! But Central Europeans have enough austerity to make them question sacrificing their modest well-being for the geo-political ambitions of Washington’s neo-conservatives.
Mobilising a few thousand frustrated and under-paid Central European “artists and intellectuals” in big cities like Prague, Bratislava or Budapest is one thing, but turning electorates on their heads is quite another. 2015 will see whether the street or the ballot-box rules in Central Europe. If Maidan-style regime change comes west, will it stop in Budapest, Bratislava or Prague? What democracy will be safe from the well-funded and determined regime-changers?
 The US embassy was listed at the top of the backers of the protest in a leaflet handed out as the procession marched by. This so-called “Prague Maidan” was an obvious imitation of the protests in Kiev’s main square a year ago which toppled the Ukrainian president.
 Ano is short for the Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (Akce nespokojených občanů). “Ano” also means “yes” in Czech. The party was founded in 2011.
 Princeton scholars never de-legitimise President Obama by pointing out that he has been elected by at most 25% of resident US adults.