Eastern Europe now

Eastern Europe’s image
The awkward squad
Why do some east European leaders court bad publicity?

Aug 13th 2011 | BUDAPEST | from the print edition

POOR countries needing investment and favours from their richer
counterparts should polish their images and avoid rows. So it may seem
odd that so many politicians in ex-communist Europe, with wobbly
economies and security, often do the opposite. A prime example is
Hungary, where Viktor Orban’s government has attracted a blaze of
outside criticism since it took office in May 2010. Contested issues
have included supposedly confiscatory taxes, a law that threatens
media freedom and central-bank independence.

The latest row concerns possible legal action against three former
prime ministers from the opposition Socialists for mismanaging the
public finances. A parliamentary committee investigating the growth of
public debt between 2002 and 2010 from 53% to 80% of GDP has called
for a probe into Peter Medgyessy, Ferenc Gyurcsany and Gordon Bajnai.
The results will be handed to prosecutors. The government has not
ruled out criminal charges.

The announcement caused outrage in Hungary and abroad. Mr Gyurcsany,
widely seen as the main target, decried it as political manoeuvring.
The probe may yet be postponed. The spectacle of former prime
ministers in the dock would play well to loyalists of Hungary’s ruling
Fidesz party but would do little for the country’s already-tarnished
international image.
In this section

Goodbye to Berlin
Better than a war
Keep calm and carry on
Don’t cross Viktor
»The awkward squad
Rotten harvest

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Related topics

Ferenc Gyurcsany
Jaroslaw Kaczynski
Vaclav Klaus
Europe
Hungarian politics

But Mr Orban’s government is not the only concern. Georgia’s
president, Mikheil Saakashvili, is toying with staying in power as
prime minister once his term expires, dismaying some Western fans who
saw in him a challenge to the eternal rule of ex-Soviet autocrats such
as Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus. In
2009 the Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, joyfully threatened to derail
the Lisbon treaty; more recently he has attacked Western diplomats who
expressed their support for a gay-pride march in Prague. In Poland
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, prime minister for 16 months from mid-2006, and
his late twin brother Lech, who was president from 2005 to 2010,
picked spectacular fights at home and abroad. Polish politics is
considerably less extreme today (see box), but the memory lingers.

Snooty outsiders, both commentators and policymakers, tend to lump all
this together. They see Mr Orban as merely the latest example in a
long line of erratic eastern politicians prone to mystifying and
ungrateful bouts of troublemaking. That analysis goes down badly in
the region, not least because it seems so selective. Where, ask Mr
Orban’s supporters, were outsiders when Hungary was run by sleazy and
rapacious ex-communists? The leftists bequeathed a bankrupt and
ungovernable country, they say—meaning that their own remedies must be
robust. Poles who back the Kaczynski approach have similar complaints:
they find the world deaf to their concerns about moral decay,
lingering secret-police influence in public life, corruption and
kowtows to Moscow.

The awkward squad tends to despise conventional diplomacy and public
relations, and is therefore bad at them. Mr Klaus, for example,
usually refuses to talk to foreign journalists unless they promise to
print his answers in full. The Kaczynskis’ chaotic media strategy was
legendary. The other side’s spin-doctors are liberal-minded, polyglot
and accommodating. Their half-truths and distortions, say their
opponents, get an easy airing abroad. Mr Orban’s people in particular
think that their enemies at home have a hotline to foreign news desks,
think-tanks and chancelleries.

Politicians in the region also point out that they were elected to
make changes, not friends. Hungarian voters strongly back Mr Orban’s
brusque approach. Many Czechs relished their president’s stand against
the Euro-federalists. The Kaczynskis’ scepticism about rapprochement
with Germany and Russia chimed with some Poles’ deep historical fears.
In many countries (and not only in Europe’s east) facing down foreign
foes is a sign of virtue.

Emollient behaviour, such as Poland’s current diplomacy under its
polished prime minister, Donald Tusk, may bring modest rewards, but
stroppiness has incurred little visible penalty. Foreigners sniped and
griped about the Kaczynskis, but life went on. Sneers about domestic
politics hurting Hungary’s presidency of the European Union in the
first half of 2011 proved largely groundless. Rows are not the end of
the world; after the sound and fury, they can bring concessions, not
isolation. That is because, although some easterners may be
irritating, noisy and unfashionable, in modern Europe they are
indispensable.