Visegrad Insight publishes regular news and reports on the future of the Visegrad Group countries and the wider region but also keeps tabs on what other magazines and news outlets are writing. That is why we share noteworthy stories and analyses we have read and appreciated elsewhere this year. Here are some of our favourite 2019 reads.

Liberalism and its challengers have seen a regular mention on our website, as we discussed illiberal governments, attacks on independent media and pressure from civil society. Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes’ essay in the Guardian caught the many attention of many readers, for its analysis linking populism with emigration, population loss and the refugee crisis.

“This was the moment when central Europe’s populists issued their declaration of independence not only from Brussels but also, more dramatically, from western liberalism and its ethos of openness to the world. Central Europe’s fearmongering populists interpreted the refugee crisis as conclusive evidence that liberalism weakened the capacity of nations to defend themselves in a hostile world.”

Although not wholly uncontested in the ensuing debate, Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes argued to what extent the post-1989 emigration from eastern and central Europe had awakened fears of national disappearance and hostile reactions to the refugee crisis in 2015. Would populism have taken hold without populists’ anti-immigration politics? While there are underlying causes that explain the populist turn across the V4, the refugee crisis was turned into a “branding opportunity” for Central Europe.

Green Europe

Climate change and mankind’s impact on its environment has had resonance within the region, as negotiations are underway on how to pursue a comprehensive strategy of decarbonisation through energy efficiency and renewables. In the margin of this green trend and for our 2019 reads, we took an interest in how the region’s natural landscapes are perceived and evoked in the written word.

The tv series Chernobyl has certainly aided to bring the long-term effects of environmental disaster into focus, as well as the  “dark-tourism” it has provoked in Ukraine.

More significantly in terms of historical legacy, is how the Iron Curtain has become an important symbol for green renewal in the wider region. According to a Euractiv long read, the Iron Curtain trail has been turned into a European Green Belt project involving 24 countries, 49 national parks, 7,319 protected areas and benefits.

“The European Green Belt combines the ecological and historical dimensions in a unique way. And this other part of the project, the historical part, has become more and more important, it goes beyond the classical nature conservation, it is something that engages, fascinates and motivates people.”

Building a European memorial landscape while protecting the environment has given the former divide a new purpose.

1989 in focus

The importance of the 1989 commemoration in the fall of this year can hardly be overstated and is not overlooked in our 2019 reads. Thirty years after the downfall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe brought myriad opportunities to disentangle and reimagine the transformation to liberal democracy, European integration and its stumbling blocks. Personal anecdotes enrich many of the big picture analyses.

Eurozine published a series of long reads on 1989 which are all worth your time. Mary Kaldor writes about the role of popular movements in East and West and how cross-border dialogue was instrumental in creating a global language of transnational civil society and humanitarianism.

“There was something very new about the 1989 revolutions that profoundly affected the way the world is ordered. But what was new cannot easily be located at the national level. Rather, it had to do with a vision of Europe and the world – a new or reconstructed European Utopia from Below. It was a utopia that came out of the dialogue across the Cold War divide, between western European peace movements and the eastern European human rights movements.”

Meanwhile, Bogdan Iacob, James Mark and Tobias Rupprecht seek to frame the question of populism around the anniversary of 1989. “To understand the rise of populism, we need to rethink the 1989 revolutions. They amounted not only to the victory of westernizing liberalism, but were also littered with authoritarian, populist, and socialist visions.”

Aleida Assmann, on the other hand, takes direct aim at the essay written by Krastev and Holmes (above), by reintroducing the ideological substance of the new authoritarianism into the debate. Finally, Florian Bieber retraces the roots of today’s populist turn in the angst-ridden politics that came with the perpetual transition after 1989.

Between the V4

Relations between the Visegrad Group countries and their changing dynamics and impact on society are of great interest to Visegrad Insight and occasionally get picked up by journalists elsewhere. In his essay, Dariusz Kalan writes about a thriving Slovak community in Hungary and a positive relationship between the two countries.

“Bratislava ranks among the most expensive cities in Central Europe, and its unique position on Slovakia’s border with Austria and Hungary has led to many Slovaks to set up home in cheaper areas of rural northern Hungary.”

Not every story about rural Central Europe has been positive, however. The risk of demographic decline and rural depopulation is increasingly pronounced and high on the agenda of V4 politicians. A New York Times story on EU farm subsidies highlighted how European-wide policies can be riddled with corruption and a lack of oversight at the local level.

Leadership fetish

Perhaps most significant of 2019 reads on the region was the growing interest in the politics and ideas of Victor Orbán, who became the central subject of profiles and pieces in international media. For the New Yorker, Elisabeth Zerofsky addressed the Hungarian Prime Minister’s far-right vision for Europe: “For far-right, and even mainstream-right, movements across Europe, Orbán’s speeches have amounted to something of a manifesto.”

A similar echo can be found in Jacob Mikanowski’s essay for Harper’s Magazine, where he digs into Hungarian history to explain today’s nationalist force and Orbán’s central position in this symbolic play:

“I came to understand that the historical nationalism that’s taken hold in the country is a genuine political force. Moreover, it isn’t confined to a few select spectacles like the Kurultáj, but comprises an entire alternative culture of its own. It has its own convention circuit and faiths. It has its own literature, its own cartography, its own musical genres. It’s possible to live entirely within its orbit—to eat from nationalist plates, worship according to purportedly ancient nationalist rites, and send your children to nationalist summer camps, where they can sleep in ancestral yurts, drink fermented mare’s milk, and learn the art of shamanic drumming.”

Orbán’s decision to close down the Central European University in Budapest also met with consternation across the Atlantic, perceptible in an essay that looks at leader’s attempt to undermine Hungary’s education system. It is unlikely the obsession with the Hungarian prime minister will dissipate in 2020, hopefully not at the cost of attention to bottom-up renewal, urban resistance and more positive developments for the region.


Visegrad Insight

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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