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Back to Instability

Central Europeans seem to be forgetting the horrors they inflicted on the world in the last century when they generated the two bloodiest wars in human history. Ghosts of the past are awakening in Central Europe, as Central European politicians, in a short-sighted desire to score cheap political points at home, have been evoking the ghosts of nationalism. Many of these politicians apparently hope that when the autumn elections in Slovakia and Germany bring Central European electoral contests to a close, they will be able to tame the genie of nationalism and force it back into its bottle. The history of Central Europe teaches us, however, that they may be wrong.

One of the tools being used to conjure nationalist and xenophobic sentiments are the so-called Benes decrees under which almost all ethnic Germans and some ethnic Hungarians were expelled from post-war Czechoslovakia and their property confiscated. There is nothing wrong with the fact that some European countries are now suggesting that before the Czech Republic and Slovakia join the European Union the decrees be reviewed from the point of view of their compatibility with EU law. Nor is there anything wrong with a discussion of this subject, as long as it is conducted in a matter-of-fact way. Such a discussion, as well as possibly making symbolic steps towards reconciliation and forgiveness, could, after all, be a good way of coming to terms with the region's troubled past and, ultimately, be beneficial for the health of democracy in the region.

The problem, however, is that the decrees have been made into an instrument of the electoral struggle and manipulation in Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. Austria will not hold elections for two more years, but even there the Benes decrees are being used as a tool of electoral propaganda. The discussion of the decrees has thus degenerated into political muscle-flexing. The rest of Europe looks on in surprise at what is happening in a region that once seemed an island of peace.

In reality, however, the current tension in Central Europe is to some extent a product of the region becoming one entity again. As those Central European countries that had long been separated from the West by Communism find themselves at the doorstep of the European Union, all the countries of the region, including those which are already members of the EU, are realizing that when the boundaries which separate them disappear definitively they will become again one geo-political entity. This fuels, quite understandably, both positive and hostile passions.

Old grudges are suddenly emerging from seemingly long-forgotten recesses of the past. Some politicians and intellectuals in the region sincerely hope to "solve" these ancient grievances, or at least find acceptable common interpretations for old problems. They endeavor to do so because they know it will be difficult to live with such problems, once all Central European countries are under one European roof. Certain politicians, on the other hand, are abusing those old points of contention in an effort to sabotage processes of integration in Europe.

The most dangerous, however, are the politicians who are "merely" short-sighted in that they believe they can use old controversies to boost their chances to win elections. They naively think they have things under control. In reality, they are playing into the hands of those who want to escalate tension in Central Europe and slow down, or totally destroy, European integration. It is the Haiders of Central Europe who in the end will be the only beneficiaries of more moderate politicians' pre-election populism.

The current tension in relations among various states of Central Europe is, however, fueled not only by real or invented historical grievances, some countries' anti-immigration moods, or anti-European campaigns by certain prominent politicians. It also taps into reemerging patterns of political behavior, which have their roots in the late Hapsburg monarchy.

Political culture based on cabinet politics, dividing the spoils of power behind closed doors, clientelism, nationalism and exclusivity is reemerging across the region. A moribund, and to some extent reactionary, political culture which Bavaria and Austria inherited after WWII from the old Mittleeuropa has, after the fall of Communism, quickly spread to the post-communist countries of the region.

On the one hand, nationalist and populist politicians across the region are locked in a number of conflicts ranging from the debate over the Benes decrees to the use of nuclear energy to the rights of ethnic minorities; on the other hand, they need each other. If they win across the region, and join forces with the current populist/nationalist political establishment in Italy (whose northern parts are historically Central European) the process of European integration may be threatened. Many politicians know very well that if they were ultimately to find themselves in a common European house, their political fortunes would be less rosy. It is exactly for this reason that the process of EU enlargement is being seriously jeopardized just now, when it seems to be within reach.

Prague Post - 27. 3. 2002