Waking up from Havel’s dream

Democracy, the free market, and the transatlantic bond were the three pillars of Václav Havel’s vision of Central Europe. And while the former dissident and Czechoslovak President witnessed these things come true, by the end of his life, he saw them eroded as much by Central Europe as by its role model, the West. Mitteleuropa is again at a crossroads.

Foto: Creative Commons/ jamretsam324


As Václav Havel’s coffin wrapped in the Czech flag entered Prague Castle’s Saint Vitus Catedral on 23 December 2012, even his long-term political rivals shed a few tears. By some he was mourned as an avid defender of human rights, by others as the man who “returned the Czech Republic to the community of free and democratic countries,” as Czech President Václav Klaus put it, leaving behind his 20-year old political struggle with Havel.

A day before and four thousand kilometers away, the situation was anything but peaceful. The departure of the last convoy of U.S. troops from Iraq on December 18 was followed by coordinated terrorist attacks on December 22 that killed 69 people in Baghdad.

Havel and Iraq: the link is not accidental. It was chosen by the former president himself, when he supported the 2003 US intervention to topple Saddam Hussein. And it clearly exposes the shortcomings in Havel’s dream of Central Europe as well as the need to rethink it.

Embracing the Western model…

At the end of 1990s, although the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia were far from political and economic stability, they nevertheless appeared to be moving successfully towards the fulfillment of what might be called, with some degree of simplification, Havel’s vision for a new Central Europe. They had left behind the initial turmoil embodied most egregiously by the corrupt authoritarianism of Slovakia’s Vladimír Mečiar and followed the Western model with Western aid. Their economies were even more liberal and their ties to the U.S. even stronger than some of the EU’s and NATO’s member states.

In 2004, when the Visegrad Group was joining the EU, it successfully passed both the EU test of economic competitiveness (thanks to fiscal advantages for firms and flexible labor markets) and the NATO test of being a reliable ally (the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia). Even though the rule of law was lagging behind, building trust in post-communist regimes seemed possible.

And yet, they had already passed the symbolic turning point: the Iraq war. Indeed, Bratislava, Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw unequivocally supported the US-led project of eliminating Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and democratizing the Middle East. Three days before the end of his last mandate, on 30 January 2003, Czech President Václav Havel together with the Hungarian and Polish prime ministers and other European leaders published an editorial in the Wall Street Journal in support of the US:

“Today more than ever, the trans-Atlantic bond is a guarantee of our freedom… (It) must not become a casualty of the current Iraqi regime’s persistent attempts to threaten world security… We must remain united in insisting that his regime be disarmed… The combination of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism is a threat of incalculable consequences.”

… and participating in its decline

The Iraq war was a failure – and it is not only the 69 victims of the December 2012 terrorist attacks in Baghdad that remind us. Besides the human toll, the war had a high political price, dubious legal legitimacy and exorbitant economic costs. (In their 2008 book, The Three Trillion Dollar War, economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes place a conservative estimate of the war’s cost at $3 trillion.) And despite all that was sacrificed, the war did not enhance US power in the world; on the contrary, it became a terrible symptom of diminishing US authority. As Washington now refocuses its attention on the Asia-Pacific region, and consolidates its forces, its European allies take on secondary importance. And that hurts old allies at least as much as new ones. The Visegrad Group hurried to prove its loyalty to NATO only to see the alliance fade a few years on.

The transatlantic bond is, however, not the only pillar of Havel’s dream that has been undermined. The financial crisis attacked the economic one. The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008 triggered the breakdown of Western financial markets and was followed by massive bank bailouts, which initially had repercussions on Western economies and then moved on to affect Western public finances as a whole. Although the cause of the sovereign debt crisis, which is most visible in the US and in the Eurozone, is disputed, there has been an unambiguous result: an erroneous Western economic model.

Central Europe, of course, has been suffering from the economic crisis not only because of the breakdown of its Western markets. But, as the Hungarian case shows most clearly, Central Europe has also suffered from its own unique economic mismanagement, which forced Hungary to ask for help from the International Monetary Fund and the EU long before the sovereign debt crisis erupted. Yet, it should be recognized that the Western understanding of state management has become obsolete.

Nevertheless, there is something even worse than the international and economic decline of the West that Central Europe has witnessed and participated in: the crisis of legitimacy. Jacques Rupnik believes that Bratislava, Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw were “imitating a model which was already showing signs of fatigue, even crisis… a steady decline of voter participation, the huge gap between citizens and political elites, low trust in parliamentary and state institutions, [and a] rise of populist and nationalist challenges to liberal democracy,” as he writes in his forthcoming book, coauthored by C. Lequesne, 1989: Europe and the World Transformed.

The way out. Or in?

It is difficult to interpret post-2010 Central Europe as a linear sequence of interconnected events. But since 2010, the major developments in the four countries’ domestic political scene and in their external relations have been determined by the triple crisis of Havel’s vision: politics, economics, and international relations. It is also highly questionable whether the new decade has brought any sustainable solutions. But before it can invent a new model, Central Europe has to rediscover its identity.

Even for the price of a turbulent transition, which is indeed the case for Hungary, the elections resulting in a majority for a populist-nationalist party with anti-liberal tendencies were, according to Antonela Capelle-Pogacean, actually an answer to a valid question: “How to quit post-Communism, which has turned out to be a failure?”

The Czech Republic and Hungary did not necessarily resort to outright nationalism, but rather reconsidered their relationship with the European project. While the Czechs reiterated their skepticism towards Europe by taking the sides with isolated Britain and rejecting the 2012 Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance, Slovaks virtually invented their own version. Even though they signed the fiscal treaty, their 2010 refusal to participate in the first rescue package for Greece represents the first major break with the consensus established in Brussels.

Poland is the only country in the Visegrad Group that was not hit seriously by the economic crisis (due to strong domestic demand) and that sees its way out in moving closer in. In a remarkable speech in Berlin in November 2011, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski added a new dimension to Warsaw’s EU policy and offered an example to the other capitals: “I demand of Germany that, for your sake and for ours, you help (the Eurozone) survive and prosper. I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”

Havel’s vision that emphasized following the Western model has been fulfilled and has now become exhausted. Central Europe, which has its own identity built on its own experience, now needs a new dream. Sikorski produced the frame, now it is time to paint the picture. The current decade will show if the Visegrad Four can offer its citizens anything more than (economic) nationalism.

Pavol Szalai

Pavol Szalai

is senior editor at Euractiv.sk