For about two years now, Europe – by which I refer to the mainstream side of the public opinion – watches with dismay how polls indicate a shift in political preferences towards conservatism and even far right political movements.
In the West, where political elites have been well established for a very long time, this phenomenon is relatively tolerated. In Italy and Austria, the new populist governments neither overthrew the constitutional order, nor will they completely overthrow it. The dialogue exists and the traditional center powers are slowly beginning to understand the need to change approaches regarding a range of subjects such as migration, security policy and terrorism, national sovereignty, and international trade regimes. Simply put the pendulum has swung and the new reality is to the right.
However, you Westerners rarely if ever accept the same tendencies when they are manifested in Eastern Europe – in former communist states that are newer members of the European Union, to be more precise.
The leadership in Hungary, Poland, or the Czech Republic is criticized in Brussels not as just for the policies they promote, but also for their legitimate wish to be equals to the older member states. This gives the sensation that Western Europe closes the door for the Easterners. It looks down on them and despises them. It treats them a second class.
From the other side of the Atlantic, the United States shows more fondness and realism towards Eastern Europe. The diplomatic and military relations with the Baltic States, Poland, or Romania are excellent, especially in the context created by the new policies drawn up by President Trump, who put the European Union’s leading states in their place, opening the door for the newer democracies in Eastern and Central Europe to affirm themselves. His speech for freedom and Christian civilization was given in Warsaw, Poland, I remind you. This was on the Eastern Front. It played very well in the East even if Western Europe which is in a secular decline took umbrage.
I am unsure, however, if in D.C., the fondness I mentioned is doubled by an accurate understanding. Because we are talking about small states, the tendency of many US politicians is to treat them as undifferentiated due to the challenges and high stakes the US has in the region. However, like in commercial marketing, real and durable success comes from treating places, people, and situations differently. They are not the same. National sovereignty suggests this truth.
In Romania, for instance, there has always been a sentiment of aversion towards Russia. The communist regime that was brought by the Soviet occupation at the close of WW II was treated accordingly. But the Romanian politicians of those times, Ceausescu especially, understood that the people would support a policy of dissidence towards the Soviet Union, and they acted accordingly. At least between 1968-1980, Romania’s political leadership was the most distant from Moscow, compared to the other Eastern states.
Romania’s post-communist history has been marked by this paradox.
What became known as “the left wing” benefitted from the support of a large category formed of small-scale landlords, adopted right wing measures, and always supported traditional values (family, church, sovereignty, etc.). What became known as “the right wing” generally brought together intellectuals, adepts of what the West calls the “liberal left”. This “right wing” has militated for European integration, minorities’ rights, church opposition, etc. Westerners were misled and empathized with this “right wing” of Romanian politics, perhaps believing that the “left wing” might be close to Russia, which was not the case.
In Romania, as well as in other Eastern countries, these misunderstandings came at a high cost: money, time, and, most importantly, stranded lives. Because of this, polls indicate an increase in people’s lack of trust in the West, or a refusal to respond and get involved in civic exercises and wider community life. This comes at a cost.
The East is not in a position to generate development and prosperity by itself. It needs foreign investment and real partnerships. To this extent, the West, and the United States especially, must focus its support towards truly gaining people’s approval, and, therefore, a durable presence in the region.
Without such engagement, exchange, and understanding –all will not be quiet on the Eastern Front.