Lost illusions or new hopes: Central Europe and the Arab Spring

With the arrival of the first anniversary of the Arab Spring, commentators have conspicuously retreated from drawing parallels with 1989. This silence is all the more deafening, given the ubiquitousness of articles with such material in early 2011.

Foto: Creative Commons/ Gwenaël Piaser

At present, expectations about the capacity of Central and Eastern Europe to help Arab reformers are apparently more modest. Is this a sign that the Arab Spring is no more than yesterday’s news for Central Europeans, or has it become clear that they must make long term investments of energy and resources, forgoing near term recognition?

Before 2011, the Visegrad countries hardly noticed the Middle East and North Africa. In the end, extended relations with this region belonged to the bygone era of international socialism, something the new “champions of democracy” were quick to forget. And although the Middle East generates massive attention in international politics, the Visegrad foreign policy strategies would usually include it only as a compulsory “must have” – an issue to be kept on the radar for new responsible members of the Euro-Atlantic club. Their interference in the MENA region was limited mainly to contributions to wars and postwar reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. Beyond that, interest in the region was alive only among small pockets of Orientalists.

But they could hardly be blamed for not prioritising the region. For a large portion of their post-89 lives, Central Europeans were submerged in their own struggles with authoritarian pasts and concentrated on reforming their own countries. And once they freed their hands from the immediate concerns of domestic transition (late 90s – early 2000s) and could spare some energy for foreign engagement, there were more obvious candidates for cooperation than the Arab states. The Western Balkans and Eastern Europe – the key foreign policy priorities of the V4 states – were historically and geographically much closer, not mentioning cultural and linguistic proximity in case of the Slavic-speaking nations. What mattered crucially was that once the V4 states joined the EU, they had to find something to contribute to its policies – in order not to remain eternal students and recipients of assistance. The V4’s recent euro-integration trajectory and East European and Balkan aspirations in the EU were a clear match, and the dominance of these two regions in the V4’s international cooperation is unlikely to be replaced anytime soon.

Fifteen Minutes of Fame or a New Partnership?

Yet, 2011 did bring a new element into the V4’s rhetoric and policies, and we are yet to see if it will be a lasting one. Poland and Hungary were on the front lines, as they both held the EU presidency during the Arab uprisings and thus had to play a part in their own bilateral tracks and in terms of contributing to the EU policy. Erzsébet Rózsa, head of the Hungarian institute of international relations, emphasizes Hungary’s contribution to the EU’s efforts in Libya – its embassy played a crucial role both in diplomatic efforts and in the protection of civilians. In his 2011 foreign policy annual address, Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski named the Arab Spring as one of the two main challenges facing the EU – together with the economic crisis.

All four countries hurried to “do something” and invested their limited resources into a number of mini-projects. Bratislava, Warsaw, Prague and Budapest hosted a number of workshops, in which Central Europeans and their Arab colleagues jointly brainstormed over the same question: How could CEE utilize its relevant experience to assist Arab reformers. Former V4 dissidents and intellectuals traveled to Tunis and Cairo and answered questions about dismantling the security apparatus and old party structures, measures to eradicate corruption and reform public institutions. Sometimes they had to cool down the hopes of their Arab colleagues, suggesting that after twenty years Central Europe has still not been able to deal with all the ghosts of its past. Jan Piekŀo, director of PAUCI, a Polish-Ukrainian NGO, who participated in some of these exchanges, says that these encounters have forced him to rethink Polish transitions: “For MENA folks, democracy is like a panacea. Like for us at the time of martial law in Poland. Today we understand that democracy is a problem in itself.”

Although it is clear that the V4 governments went beyond declarations and provided real assistance – we have yet to see how lasting this support will be, since MENA is not at the top of V4’s priorities. The representatives of the V4 civil society interviewed for this article agree that funding, provided by their respective MFA’s, was important in helping them to get a foot in the region. In the end, the noble idea of sharing transformation know-how and establishing links in civil society can be implemented only after one buys plane tickets, makes a hotel reservation and hires an interpreter. Without a partnership with their MFA’s, most Central European NGOs cooperating with Egypt or Tunisia would not be able to run activities.

Ivana Raslavská, with the Bratislava-based Pontis foundation, who runs a capacity building project for NGOs in Egypt has underscored the Egyptian enthusiasm “to change things, to achieve something”. Although no major reforms were adopted in Egypt a year after toppling Mubarak, CEE intellectuals engaged in cooperation projects speak about changes that have occurred at the level of individuals – they are hungry for information, and interest in politics has been awaken in segments of society where it previously never existed.

Despite tremendous interest in information about politics, the Egyptian authorities do not seem to be supportive of dialogue with foreign organisations. A number of CEE activists have complained that the present military regime keeps searching for an “invisible Western hand”, and therefore a number of workshops in Egypt simply had to be cancelled or postponed indefinitely. The initial premise of many in Visegrad, “CEE is more fit to help the Middle East because we have never colonized it and are not well-known for our oil interests”, might crumble. And although the Central European experience attracts interest, it is only one of many examples under consideration that is being studied.

Thus, the Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians who volunteered to launch cooperation projects with Egypt or Tunisia are struggling on various fronts – they have to reiterate that the domestic funding should not dry out while at home and in the Middle East, they have to explain that they are well-intentioned and not part of a consipracy of the “Western intrigue”. Is this balancing act working?

Zora Hesová, from the Prague-based Association for International Affairs, cautions against inflated expectations: “Our impact might be comparable to a drop in the sea. But that does not mean that our work is useless – once there are people interested to engage in open discussion, and we are able to provide them with various contacts and information, we should do it.”

Only the Beginning

Yet the non-governmental organizations from the V4 are still generally in the phase of searching – for contacts, partners and useful fields of future activity. As Klára Bednářová, who works with the Prague-based ‘People in Need’ puts it, “Although the lessons of 89 are important, we really have to move beyond them. It is interesting to discuss the parallels and share our expertise, but now it is time to address very specific concerns of the Egyptian civil society. The state is not listening, so we can work only with the civil society now and for this we need time”.

Given the similarity of CEE post-communist experience and limited resources of the Visegrad countries, it makes sense to ask why we have not seen much V4 cooperation on this issue. The Visegrad Group has adopted a common declaration in support of Arab democratization (March 2011), but has not yet pursued joint action. Of course, NGOs do talk about the need and importance of regional cooperation, but the debate often comes to a halt once the question of funding is raised. The prerequisite for joint projects is that donors would have to give up their demands for “ownership” or individual “visibility”. The dust and debris have not yet settled, but once it is clear which V4 NGOs want to work in the region long-term, it is necessary to come up with a joint V4 strategy – one that could actually be implemented. As Raslavská suggests, “If we plan a long-term strategy and allocate resources, more people would believe in the possibility of making an impact. However, if more people believe that our engagement in the region is just short term, we are unlikely to succeed.”

This article was published in Visegrad Insight 1/2012.

Lucia Najšlová

Lucia Najšlová

is the editor in chief of the V4 Revue. She is a lecturer at the Charles University in Prague and at UPCES CERGE-EI and associate fellow at the IIR in Prague.