Sunday, February 22, 2009

How to betray something non-existent?

At the weekend a prominent Hungarian politician, as he was attending a public discussion in Vienna, made a harsh remark on the present situation in ECE. According to reports in the press he accused Western Europe for betraying Central-Europe in the crises. He argued that banks from the western part of the continent were eager to buy financial institutions in the region following the regime change and in the process of transformation, but they are seemingly reluctant to provide them with the necessary means to keep their solvency among the present circumstances. Even governments can be accused with betrayal - followed this politician - as they are bailing out the mother institutions in their home countries, that way making the difficulties in ECE more apparent, and putting more pressure on the financial systems of the region, instead of helping where it would be necessary. "Western Europe denounced its agreement with Central Europe."

It is arguable that those remarks were not quite important (there is an abundance of critic on the governments of the EU these days, moreover even the daily Der Standard, co-organizer of the event was not generous with details, the report on the event was soon substitued by others at its website) but the problem is a significant one. Not the politician's opinion - I would like to avoid the bit too widespread practice of taking quotes out of context and making a devastating critique of them -, rather the sudden emergence of the idea of ECE as an existing region. As I can recall the last two decades, only a handful of politicians and intellectuals were keen on the idea of ECE as something real or at least something to be constructed necessarily, and our hero from yesterday was not among them. ECE was forgotten for a long time and noticing this sudden change I would like to pose the question how was the region perceived and whether this event is a signal of a significant change?

I would admit that it is not easy for a superficial observer to accept that notwithstanding the almost obligatory rethorical invoking of ECE in the last two decades by politicians and intellectuals, its content never was to accept the existence of the region as a specific entity, rather an exercise to be fulfilled in order to be let in to the good company of Europe. ECE or Eastern Europe or Central Europe - synonymous for many - has a long story as an idea but much shorter as a real entity. I won't say that it was non-existent in a geographical sense (from a political, geopolitical point of view), as a distinct zone identified by processes of economic and social history, but it rarely has a coherent history as a region conscious of its own existence. Even though common fate in the period between the end of the WWII and the fall of the Berlin Wall seems a possible constituent element, the countries belonging to the COMECON never constituted an area of free movement and a common market. Quite the contrary, frontiers and administrative restrictions limited the visits to other (so-called) socialist countries significantly and the ruling parties often effectively used age old techniques to depict “friendly” nations as inferiors in order to strengthen their position at home. (An example and a kind of self-critique: after the introduction of martial law in Poland the official propaganda in Hungary tactfully used the well known lamentable situation in that country – lack of elementary consumable goods while those were relatively in abundance on the shelves of Hungarian shops – to develop an image of the Poles as lazy people. The contrast, of course, served the political aims of the Hungarian party as well.) Although small groups of the opposition in the different countries were aware of the existence of each other, the process of the regime change was neither a result of their cooperation, nor were their efforts coordinated, the individual transformations run simultaneously, sometimes influencing each other and the former one strengthening the later, but every country has its own, separate story, regardless of the others. Therefore on January 1, 1990, when the collapse of the regimes was clearly irreversible, no united ECE emerged as an entity. A post on a web log is not the most appropriate place for an in depth analysis, my point is only to emphasize: even if the simultaneity and the identical substance of the events conveyed some coherence to the region, it was only momentary and rather a result of the perspective from outside.

Nothing really changed in the next two decades. While a handful of intellectuals were searching for ECE, they had no real influence on the events. Although dominant parts of the elites in almost every states that regained their sovereignty were speaking of a “return to Europe” or a “reunification with Europe”. Plans of the transformation process, later proved to be illusory, expected an early accession to the EEC (later EU), but in every country this process meant a separate, individual integration, regardless of the other states. It was really paradoxical, as the “West” set the same preconditions for the accession and the transformation required the same policies: adaptation of the legal and institutional frameworks of market economy and liberal democracy, according to models proposed by experts from the “West” and later according to the aquis communautaire. Once again the outer world bound these countries together (although not based on substantial similarities in the societies, only because of the identical program of change), but their respective elites were conceiving of the situation differently. Even though some initiatives of regional cooperation (most notably the so-called Visegrád Countries – today V4) existed, the societies in ECE were living in a permanent competition with their neighbors for the integration. It is hard to tell whether it was a concept really accepted in broad parts of the societies or large groups remained simply indifferent, but it dominated the public discourse. The integration of the own country was represented as an individual process, independent from the other countries, or, even worse, as something to be achieved on the expense of those. (In Hungary there were calls for blocking the accession of some neighbors, because of conflicts regarding Hungarian minorities, in case Hungary would have been joined the EU earlier than those countries.)

ECE soon turned into a bunch of front-runners and laggers. Politicians, experts, articles and studies measured progress as compared to the results of the other countries. Prime ministers, presidents requested from the EU not to stall the accession of countries supposedly having advantage because of some obscure principles and let them in as soon as they fulfill the accession criteria or, quite the contrary, called for the equal treatment of every state in the region. (Obviously in order to avoid being left out from the first round of accession.) Czech politicians glady get rid of Slovakia in the hope to reach the safe harbor of Europe easier without that ballast. Romanian leaders saw their country doomed if Hungary would have become EU or NATO member earlier. Polish governments were fighting for farmers of their own, ready to make compromise on the expense of the others. To make things worse, at least from the perspective of the existence of ECE as a region, the evaluation of the state of the competition was usually based on very peculiar criteria. Which country was more successful in privatization, which country attracted more FDI, which country has more car making plants? Later other elements were added: adaptation of certain tax systems (flat tax), and fiscal policies (low redistribution rate measured with a ratio of GDP, cutting of social expenditures in the budget). Moreover, the whole process was conceived as synchronic, linear with one stage and a clear target: catch up with the EU. It is not allowed to assume the possibility of distinct stages in the transformation, transitional periods with new challenges. According to the dominant opinion the application of a model free market economy is the only necessity and will automatically lead, without interruption, to the desired result. Therefore problems with the economic performance while other countries seem to have a perfect development can only be a signal of imperfect realization of the theories.

The competition was perhaps inevitable, but the way the elites handled the situation was far from helping the emergence of a kind of coherent ECE. There was not much eagerness to know the realities and similarities of these societies, the social processes accompanying the transformation, the very similar role in and the almost identical ways and models of integration into the European economy, the similar demographic changes and challenges and the negative effects (for example mass emigration of the workforce from some countries with rapidly aging populations) of supposed and real successes. Instead the public discourse was and is full of news of differences presented as factors behind the perceived success of the other country and proposed as the only possible solutions for problems in the own. Success is almost always conceived as a front runner position in this strange competition, continuing even after the EU accession, and the aim of the proposed changes at home is to retain this role. The reward? More car making plants, more praise from the EU Commission for budget cuts even if the respective government has surplus, more mortgage denominated in foreign currency, widening social differences … The image of other countries and societies? Slovaks are those rapidly developing guys with flat tax and the highest per capita production of cars. Profound knowledge of a country only fifty kilometers far from the Hungarian capital, isn't it?

One should mention, at least in the case of Hungary, another important element of this discourse, clearly in opposition to the existence of a coherent ECE: the use of national prejudices. Those, who are familiar with the history of the region know that in the course of the last century many tension arose between Hungary and its neighbors. Although today it is not a major driving force of politics and not a significant factor, it has its remnants in the public perception of the other nations in the region. Based on traditional elements of the Hungarian national consciousness the image of Slovaks or Romanians consist many negative characteristics. Like Romanians are considered to be lazy, deceitful, thief by many Hungarians, Slovaks are perceived as backward people, their culture inferior to the Hungarian. (This view is not unanimously shared, but prevalent in broad parts of the Hungarian society.) Therefore if a politician cries out that Hungary is lagging behind Slovakia or Romania it not only means that we have to work harder. There is an underlying message to understand: those inferior people are overtaking us, it is impossible, a national disaster, the highest injustice. Maybe it is a useful political tool (the actual government has to bear the full responsibility for this catastrophe), but many politicians (among them the one invoked in this post) honestly share this view. (Every new car making plant in Hungary was an subject of national pride and proof of Hungary's grandeur, every new plant in other countries an opportunity for national shame and lamentation.) It is not hard to see that this perception of the competition of countries in ECE is far from supporting the idea of an existing and coherent region. It would be relieving to say that this practices are confined to the periphery of the Hungarian political spectrum. Sadly, it is not only prevalent in the non- or not-so- nationalistic circles, but even accompanied by another peculiar view and construct: self-stigmatization. For many liberals and leftists, who think of themselves as flag bearers of progress, the presumed advantages of the other countries serve as proofs of their conviction that Hungary's historical development run into a dead end sometime in the 19th or 20th century, that we should overcome semi-feudal remnants of the Kádár-era (the period between 1956 and 1989), or that Hungarians are natural losers, unable to understand their real interests and give up social security. Supposedly lagging behind is only the result of those deficiencies in the history and/or in the national character, once again neglecting the transformation of ECE as a regional phenomenon and possible subject of analyzes.

To sum up the mental map of ECE, both seen from the “West” and from the region itself, the result is a very peculiar one. While those countries seen from outside has something coherent (the EU even made pressure on the accession countries to institutionalize ECE in the form of CEFTA), for most of the inside observers not only ECE dose not exist, but even the individual countries lack any coherent image. Their own country has a special, privileged position in the middle of nowhere, connected only to the “West”. Although there are other states around them, those are again individually connected to the “West” and not to each other and they are only important as threats to the privileged position. Therefore the “competitors” has only very obscure images, always focusing on differences. ECE is not a result of its inner coherence (perhaps existing as similarity of its societies and their social processes), but a construct of the outside world.

Otherwise, I'm a supporter of the idea that the EU has its responsibility in saving ECE from disaster. But as long as we do not construct our own region, we can not be betrayed.

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