The Politics of Sustained Civil Unrest in Europe

In late October last year in the Czech Republic the extreme right National Party announced the setup of a National Guard paramilitary group. This group was analogous to the Hungarian Guard which was set up earlier in August of the same year. As in Hungary, representatives of the Czech guard claim it is an unarmed body that will serve at rallies and in the case of major disasters. The National Party cited the "police inability to secure calm, order and security to the public" and "fear for the behavior of minorities and immigrants" as reasons to set up the guard. These were more or less the same reasons given when the Hungarian Guard was set up a few months earlier. So far, aside from creating headlines which helped to divert public attention from more pressing problems, the Hungarian Guard has remained more or less invisible to the general public. In the Czech Republic, it’s thought that the same will be the case.

Meanwhile, thousands of kilometers away in Georgia, continued protests against the re-election of Mikheil Saakashvili threaten to destabilize an already unstable situation. Whereas initial reports by OSCE observers labeled the election as more or less free and fair (with a few noted problems here and there), allegations of irregularities during the vote counting process has since led some western observers to question the legitimacy of Saakashvili’s first round victory. Despite the increased pressure, however, the Georgian president refuses to back down. As a result, many fear that Georgia is set on a path of sustained civil unrest.

While it may appear that these two events in two very different parts of the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union have little in common, they are actually quite similar in many respects. The main undercurrent to both is that they represent the latest reaction to globalization, one that is specific to former communist states.

In essence, what is happening throughout this region is not unlike what has happened in many developing countries around the world. For decades, "structural adjustment" was imposed on developing countries by the west through the machinations of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). These so-called structural adjustment policies all had some basic principles in common: they consisted of a set of corporate-oriented, market fundamentalist policies including the slashing of government budgets, the sale of government assets to local elites and foreign corporations ("privatization"), deregulation of the economy, and promoting exports and trade at the expense of local needs. In their wake, these policies left shattered economies around the world, consigned untold millions to poverty, and directly and indirectly destroyed social welfare systems.

In the last few years, however, some of these countries have risen up against these neo-imperialist policies of the west. Recently, Latin American countries joined together to launch the Bank of the South, an effort to create a viable alternative to the structural adjustment dictates of the World Bank and the IMF. According to Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, "politically, the new bank is another Declaration of Independence for South America, which as a result of epoch-making changes in the last few years is now more independent of the United States than Europe is."

Unlike the countries of Latin America, people within the former communist states of Europe have yet to formulate a concrete opposition to the economic dictates that are being imposed upon them from the outside. Yet it’s not just a question of economics, but also of global power. This region represents a strong and a potential rival to Western Europe, especially the countries along the former Iron Curtain: Poland with its port facilities; the Czech Republic with its industrial base; Slovakia with its raw materials; and Hungary with its agricultural output.

When communism within the area began to disintegrate in the late 1980s, there was talk of forming some sort of alliance among these states. This culminated in the formation of the Visegrad Four. This alliance quickly turned out to be ineffective, however, as the Western European strategy of divide and conquer successfully set the Visegrad countries against one another. As a result, the buzzword within each country was one of competition and not cooperation.

At the same time, the need to join NATO became of primary importance. Yet the significance of NATO had little to do with the proposed aims of collective security from outside threats (i.e., Russia); rather, NATO membership serves as a means for legitimizing and securing the post-communist status quo. In this way, sudden change in the form of a revolution isn’t likely to occur; instead, reform is viewed as the only means of change possible, and this is usually dictated by the political elite. In many ways, such reform is nothing more than repression with smiling face, much like the process of globalization itself.

Along these lines, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have become the European version of the National Security State (NSS). The NSS was a term used by Edward S. Herman in his book The Real Terror Network in which he wrote about the workings of the US-based terror network which existed in Central and South America during the 1970s and 1980s. Although the specific situation may differ somewhat between Central/South America and Central/Eastern Europe, there is still no escaping the role that the countries of the former East Bloc find themselves in — that of a client state primarily administered by the EU.

While it’s quite obvious that these client states in Europe are still far from organizing themselves as in Latin America, a revolt against the structural adjustment policies of the west (represented foremost by the EU) has nonetheless begun to take hold. Georgia is merely the latest example of this. As elsewhere within the former East Bloc (such as with Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany in Hungary) opposition to Mikheil Saakashvili is primarily based on the fact that structural adjustment policies are being forced through in an arrogant and heavy-handed manner.

Indeed, the similarities between the likes of Saakashvili in Georgia and Gyurcsany in Hungary are uncanny. Both are relatively young and exhibit a rather aggressive style which invariably leads to violence. In Georgia, for instance, Saakashvili’s aggressive language (as when he advised a former Justice Minister "to use force when dealing with any attempt to stage prison riots, and to open fire, shoot to kill and destroy any criminal who attempts to cause turmoil; we will not spare bullets against these people") is often backed up by action. In fact, protests in November 2007 were exacerbated by the government’s decision to use police force against protesters which subsequently evolved into clashes on the streets of Tbilis. This led to a state of emergency and ultimately the snap elections which were held in the beginning of January, the results of which are still being contested. In Hungary, meanwhile, Gyurcsany likewise exhibited the same attributes in October 2006 when he had no qualms about resorting to the use of state violence — the likes of which had not been seen since the 1956 revolution — as a means to quell street protests.

Along with using the strong arm of the law during demonstrations, anti-globalization protest is skillfully manipulated and channeled toward right wing nationalism. This nationalism is then radicalized and targeted toward minorities and other scapegoats. Thus, in Hungary the government often sounds the alarm against anti-Semitism when needed, this despite the fact that Jewish leaders in Hungary talk of a Jewish Renaissance.

Elsewhere throughout the region, traditional prejudices are exploited. In Romania bilingual signs are defaced with the Hungarian version frequently painted over or removed. In Slovakia, the government has initiated a program to teach what it regards as "proper Slovak history", one which contains a clear nationalist bent. At the same time Jan Slota, the leader of the Slovak Nationalist Party, recently noted: "in Slovakia there are no Hungarians, just Slovaks who speak Hungarian."

Without a doubt, the different countries throughout the former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union aren’t immune to xenophobic attitudes. In the Czech Republic, for example, a recent poll showed that half the country believes there are too many foreigners living in the country, and 12 percent go as far as to say they should not have the right to stay at all. The Czech Republic is a country where about 2.5 percent of the Czech Republic’s 10 million inhabitants are foreigners or of foreign origin, a number well below that of Western European countries.

Sadly such a situation is mirrored throughout the region within each and every country. Nevertheless, some feel that what is going on in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and other areas of Central and Eastern Europe is more manipulation than a real threat. According to Daniel Hnizdo, an international relations fellow at Charles University in Prague, corporate media attempts to paint a uniform picture of the region’s extremist trends. A case in point is the swirl of media attention that surrounded a neo-Nazi march in Prague’s old Jewish town in late 2007. The event turned out to be what some described as an exaggerated portrayal of the growth of right-wing extremist groups in Central and Eastern Europe.

Unfortunately, given the frustration many feel with the structural adjustment policies being forced downed their throats by arrogant politicians, many ultimately do turn to right-wing groups for political and moral support as they don’t see any other alternative. Often, as in the case of Hungary, the political opposition appears to offer more of the same, with a slight difference in style. At the same time, extremists are becoming more professional and sophisticated, slowly abandoning socially unacceptable actions. These groups are shifting more toward autonomous nationalism and adopting new symbols that mask their true intentions.

Still, what is going on in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in terms of right-wing extremism isn’t that much different than what occurs in the west. In fact, some argue that racism and xenophobia is much more apparent in countries such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In France, for example, it’s not unusual to hear of Jewish cemeteries desecrated or synagogues set alight. Such events are rarer in countries such as Hungary or the Czech Republic. The main difference is that western countries are much more polished in the way they keep their extremism out of view. However, sometimes this fails and an explosion occurs, such as in France during the riots of 2005 and the London bombings during that same year.

Whether real or imagined, the end result is still the same: the threat of a re-emergent right plays into the hands of the political elites and justifies further arrogance and violence on the part of the state. The vast majority of people, meanwhile, find they are caught in the middle. Most support neither one side nor the other, but are too afraid to speak out or act. In a nutshell, this is the politics of fear which has now taken hold in the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The question now is how far the Latin Americanization of the region will go before people begin to take matters in their own hands — and whether or not this will be done within or without the EU.

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