From the commemoration of 1989 to an opposition pact in Slovakia and bottom-up attempts to find progressive alliances in the capital cities, the Visegrad region demonstrates a vibrancy of debate about the past and fresh initiatives to keep populism at bay.
All but SMER
Opposition parties have signed a “non-aggression pact” not to cooperate with the ruling social-democratic (SMER) party, after the parliamentary elections scheduled for early 2020. The Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and the coalition of Progressive Slovakia (PS) and Spolu signed an agreement back in summer but this week have been joined by the non-parliamentary party For the People (Za Ľudí). Another party, Freedom and Solidarity, may soon follow.
Slovak politics has seen the continued fall-out from a corruption scandal in recent months, which has implicated a high number of senior legal figures as well as politicians.
Last year, Prime Minister Robert Fico was forced to resign following the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak. In March 2018, he was replaced by Peter Pellegrini, also a member of SMER.
Despite political setbacks, SMER is still polling to remain the largest party of the Slovak National Council. Currently, SMER governs in a minority coalition with the Slovak National Party and the inter-ethnic Most–Híd (and supported by non-affiliated members of parliament). The opposition pact may limit further SMER’s coalition-building options after the parliamentary elections.
Babiš looks abroad
The subject of growing scrutiny at home, Czech Prime Minister Andrzej Babiš is seizing upon Czechia’s foreign policy attention to distract attention. After last week’s Friend of Cohesion Group gathering in Prague – to insist on a similar level of cohesion spending under the next EU Multiannual Financial Framework – this week the Prime Minister took aim at the European Council, which gathers heads of state and government of the EU member states.
Babiš has come out against a European Council agenda driven by officials rather than politicians. He suggested to encourage greater debate and to increase the overall number of meetings.
The preference of the Czech Prime Minister to give more weight to the political character of the European Council does not come as a surprise. The European Council gives political guidance to the negotiators part of the Council of Ministers who will flesh out an agreement (subject to approval by the European Parliament). With the upcoming negotiations for the next Multiannual Financial Framework, Czechia and the other V4 countries are keen to coordinate closely their positions and speak with a common voice in the European Council, thereby raising the stakes for the inter-institutional debate.
In recent years, local elections have turned the political landscape of the V4 a little more complicated. While governing coalitions at the national level have retained power or have sought to extend their authoritarian tendencies, major cities of the region have been a hotbed of opposition and civic resistance.
Currently, all four capitals of the V4 are run by young and progressive mayors who are at odds with their national counterpart.
Deutsche Welle sees in this “Little Visegrad” potential for a close alliance that could help to restore the rule of law and see electoral success in the future. Much will depend on the extent to which capitals can come up with solutions and implement reforms. The possibility is considered for the V4 mayors to apply for direct EU funding, thereby bypassing the central authorities.
It remains to be seen whether this fight for local interests can create wider reverberations in Brussels and weaken the national level in the distribution of EU funding. Also, the mayors want to cooperate in several areas, related to environmental protection, smart city technology and individual rights.
Reading about 1989
Last weekend saw the thirtieth anniversary of fall of the Berlin Wall, one of several events which sparked the end of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. Many commentators seized the opportunity to reflect on the impact of the events in 1989 and whether there are grounds to be hopeful about the future.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States launched a major report on the model of 1989 and how to (re)assess it thirty years later. Eurozine took the rise of “Eastern European populism” as an angle to look at the democratic revolutions that took place in the region.
In the New York Times, journalist Alison Smale who reported on the fall of the Berlin Wall reflects on the transition to democracy and why opinions remain divided. A similar voice appears in The Guardian, where Europe correspondent Jon Henley relies on Pew research data to mark the set of divisions that characterise Central and Eastern Europeans.
New Eastern Europe has published an accessible interview with Markus Meckel, a German theologian and politician who also was an active member of the opposition in East Germany. Finally, Arch Puddington looks at the state of freedom in Central Europe thirt years after the events of 1989.
Undoubtedly, these are not the last words written about the tumultuous year that set off the democratic transition and the process of Euroatlantic integration.