Thirty years ago, the Iron Curtain dividing Europe lifted.  

Next week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel travels to Hungary to commemorate the anniversary of a peace protest on the border with Austria that helped pave the way for the mass flight of East German citizens to the West. The Berlin Wall was torn down three months later, and 1989 went down as an era-changing year that ended the three-decade-long Soviet occupation of the countries of Central Europe.

The commemoration on Aug. 19 will include an ecumenical service in the Lutheran church of Sopron, and is to be held near where 600 East Germans plowed through the border gates to enter the West. Hungarian authorities had announced the border would be opened symbolically later for three hours, but the crowd was too impatient to wait for freedom — and in no mood to receive it as a gift from increasingly superannuated Communist bosses. 

FILE – An East German refugee shows off a newly acquired West German passport just before crossing the Hungarian border into Austria, Sept. 10, 1989.

Three years later, political scientist Francis Fukuyama published his triumphalist book The End of History and the Last Man, celebrating the ascendency of Western-style liberal democracy. Humanity, he argued, was reaching “not just … the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

But history did not end in 1989. 

Hungary only ‘partly free’

For some, the awkward pairing next week of Germany’s Merkel and Hungary’s authoritarian-inclined prime minister, Viktor Orban, will be symbolic of the return of history, of a new, unfolding east-west cleavage. The pair will be celebrating the rebirth of democracy, but Orban has been accused of backsliding on democracy by systematically dismantling the Western-style institutions his country has struggled to establish since the crumbling of Communism. 

This year, Freedom House, a U.S.-based research group, described Hungary as only “partly free,” the first time it has withheld from a European Union member state the designation “free.” It has accused Orban’s government of having “moved to institute policies that hamper the operations of opposition groups, journalists, universities, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) whose perspectives it finds unfavorable.”

FILE – German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a news conference in Bratislava, Slovakia, Feb. 7, 2019.

Hungary’s firebrand populist, an anti-Communist liberal-turned-conservative who’s enjoying a burgeoning friendship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, has remained undeterred in shaping what he likes to call an “illiberal democracy.”His warming relationship with Putin is seen by some as an alliance between two emblematic nationalistic strongmen.

Other populist leaders in the Central European states of Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have also been accused of seeking to erode democratic checks and balances, of curbing judicial independence, politicizing the civil service and seeking to expand state control over the media and civil society, prompting protests and liberal outrage at their linking of Christianity with patriotism.

Their current populist governments have been the strongest critics of the migrant policies coming out of Brussels, refusing to accept migrants under an EU burden-sharing refugee resettlement plan. They have strained and bellyached at the restrictions and strictures placed on them by EU membership and what they see as an overbearing Brussels.

Growing EU divisions

All four members of the so-called Visegrad group of nations have been labeled in some ways as “flawed” democracies by rights monitors as their governments surf a powerful wave of Central European populism that they hope will reshape the regional bloc by reducing the power of EU institutions and returning it to national governments. The drumbeat of populism has been heard in the neighboring former Communist states in the Balkans and the Baltics.

Their clashes are seen by some liberal critics as tempting geopolitical fate. “It’s hard to deny that divisions between so-called old and new [EU] member states are growing,” according to Jakub Wisniewski, a Polish political analyst and director of the Slovakia-based GlobSec Policy Institute, a research organization. 

He places the political differences now between east and west as having their origins in the past. “Central Europe is still markedly different from the rest of the EU — politically, economically and, most of all, culturally,” he argues.

National electorates in Central Europe are “more conservative, and more preoccupied with health care and local corruption than melting ice-caps or #MeToo. They are also less self-assured, hence their anxieties about Muslim immigration or leftist internationalism,” he adds.

The populists of Central Europe say their critics make the mistake of equating “liberal democracy” only with versions espoused by the political left or center and that there are quite legitimate conservative and nationalist varieties, too. 

Liberal pessimists lament the rise of the nationalist populism, but optimists highlight the rambunctious politics of the region, which, this year, has seen liberal gains in electoral politics. 

FILE – Slovakia’s President Zuzana Caputova reviews the guard of honor at the Presidential Palace after her swearing-in ceremony in Bratislava, Slovakia, June 15, 2019.

In March, an environmental activist, Zuzana Caputova, became the first woman to be elected president of Slovakia. Her election followed massive anti-government street protests last year triggered by the slayings of an investigative reporter and his fiancee that led to the fall of Robert Fico’s conservative coalition government. 

Farther south, April saw nationalists defeated in the presidential election in North Macedonia and pro-European moderates winning elections in Latvia and Lithuania. Street protests have been mounted in the Czech Republic against Andrej Babis, the prime minister, who’s been charged with fraud. They have been the largest seen since 1989.

For all of the rise of nationalist populism, pollsters and analysts say the voters of Central Europe remain firm adherents to the EU.

Populists have to be careful not to push too far on the anti-EU front. Julius Horvath, an economic professor at the Central European University told VOA earlier this year, “Populations would not like a rupture with Europe.”

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