Point of Reference

What We Read in 2020

31 December 2020

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 2020 reads.

Much of what was expected for the year 2020 came to be upended by the unexpected strike of COVID-19. While the pandemic tainted most if not all of the perceptions and writings in the region, reframing present-day challenges into future post-pandemic concerns, Central Europe was bound to experience more than an eventful political year. Several elections took place throughout 2020, some of which overturned the political status quo while others consolidated the rule of governments.

Slovakia went to the polls in late February at a time when the impact of the pandemic crisis was yet to be felt all across Europe. While the outgoing Slovak government, as well as the new cabinet, were praised for their handling of the first wave, the perception of how the country and its Visegrad neighbours have managed the second wave was strikingly different.

“If it was indeed true that the “civil and disciplined” Central and Eastern Europeans, marked by the collective unconscious formed by decades of totalitarian rule, were programmed to face pandemics by being model citizens with responsible leaders, then the following months would not have happened as they did,” wrote Prague-based Kafkadesk while the second wave was underway.

Widespread discontent

Unlike the Slovak parliamentary elections, Poland’s presidential election was perhaps most influenced by the outbreak and response to COVID-19. The push to organise the vote at any cost in early May was eventually overturned through a closed-door deal in favour of a poll in the summer of 2020. While the final result was much closer than initially predicted (after Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski joined the race), the odds were always stacked in favour of incumbent Andrzej Duda, heavily supported by the Polish public broadcaster.

Timothy Garton Ash did not hold back in a strongly-worded piece on the presidential election:

“Polish state television makes Fox News look like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It is still notionally meant to be a public service broadcaster, but since the Law and Justice party won both parliamentary and presidential elections five years ago it has become a partisan mouthpiece, widely known as “TVPiS”. With the ruling party obviously rattled by the Trzaskowski challenge, it has now plumbed new depths.”

Not only did the Polish presidential election take up a lot of attention, but also the ongoing debate over the rule of law let the ink flow on numerous occasions during the year. The governing coalition’s handling of an abortion issue of its own making created the perfect storm for ongoing protests and reopening heated debates about the political engagement of the Church in Poland as well as the place of gender (including queer rights) in Central European society. As Marta Bucholc and Maciej Komornik note, however, the government’s tactics may yet backfire:

“Law and Justice is experienced in opening many different fronts at the same time, in order to accumulate resistance and thus to prevent prolonged popular discontent, even at the expense of temporarily intense confrontations. The pandemic has posed a new challenge to this Machiavellian technique. Discontent is too widespread and emotions have risen too high. The government has found it difficult to adapt to these new circumstances.”

Of maps and men

The year 2020 also marked the commemoration of several events with significant political implications for the region. The centenary of the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’ was meant to be a significant reminder of Poland’s return as a nation-state on the European map but somewhat overshadowed by the Polish political agenda, while the Treaty of Trianon took centre-stage in the Hungarian government’s communication, with frequent references to the border changes that resulted in a smaller and land-locked Hungary after the First World War.

Both on Visegrad Insight and elsewhere, Trianon was a popular point of reference to describe Hungary’s place in Europe today and Viktor Orbán’s legacy as prime minister.

The past is very much part of the present, as Emily Tamkin contends, “armed with the indignity of history, Hungary has positioned itself as the defender of Christian Europe, well aware of the offences committed against it in the past and so dedicated to protecting it in the future – even if that defence means migrants are kept in camps, and that those who would help migrants and asylum seekers are engaging in illegal behaviour owing to laws introduced by Orbán.”

The fascination with Viktor Orbán continued well after the centenary celebrations, in large part due to his grandstanding at the European stage (while benefitting from EU subsidies) as well as his dubious business interests.

In terms of history, perhaps the impact of German reunification on Central Europe went mostly unnoticed in the region, despite its implications for European security and the eastward enlargement of NATO.

Fortunately, Poland’s invasion of Czechia turned out to be a ‘misunderstanding’ and did not cause a rift in the Transatlantic alliance.

Picking sides in the global conflict

Larger geostrategic battles had their repercussions for Central Europe, however, in particular the growing rivalry between China and the United States. Questions over Huawei and its 5G-technology were a dominant news theme in Czechia as well as political support for Taiwan, creating a diplomatic storm with the People’s Republic earlier in the year.

As such, it was hard not to see reminiscences from the Cold War and division in Europe reappearing behind the headlines. Meanwhile, real battles took place in Belarus – provoking questions about the nature and future direction of the nation (as well as its Russian neighbour):

“It might be more useful to think about the protests in Belarus as the revolt of the state against the people rather than vice-versa. The regime remains the only party responsible for introducing the condition of lawlessness and unchecked violence in its attempt to circumvent constitutional order.”

People taking to the streets in Belarus has been a crucial reminder about the price of freedom but also the fact that liberalism cannot rest on its laurels and should reinvent its agenda in the fight against authoritarianism.

 

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