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Weekend Elections & Why Europe Still stuggles

Updated: Apr 17, 2022

We became used to the idea of a progressive and peaceful Europe, but the idea never really was reality; my political commentary on the state of Europe.

Moscow's "Beautiful Square" (rather than Red), 2017. Those nations that border Russia have long had a much more skeptical view of Putin and Russia for decades. They've been right and western Europe has been terribly wrong.

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Europe has probably surprised you this year. The war, particularly at this massive scale, surprised pretty much everyone here who didn’t have access to the kind of intelligence that the US government did. Analysts and observers, as well as European political leaders, were all expecting President Putin to use something akin to logic before going about his campaign of territorial conquest. That campaign, which Putin seriously miscalculated, has turned into an awful atrocity-laden failure of historic proportions.

Most of us have seen the images coming out of Bucha and other communities surrounding Kyiv, and are following the continued horror that is Mariupol, but this entry isn’t about that. I’m not ready to write about that yet. This entry is more about the politcal state of Europe, and particularly with how I experience it in the eastern two-thirds.

Since the start of the war, the reaction around the continent has often been framed as unified, but it’s really not. There are a handful of countries bordering Russia that have wanted heftier NATO involvement and have been critical of the large European countries for not doing more sooner. Those include Finland (non-NATO), the Baltic states, and Poland. Some in that region have bluntly called their Western allies cowards.

Germany, with Europe’s largest economy (more than twice the size of Russia’s), has grabbed the most attention because it has been one of Europe’s most reluctant members to recognise the reality in which we’re living. Germany was even blocking arms from being sent by other European countries to Ukraine, and didn’t remove that ban until days into the war. The reason for the ban wasn’t specific to the Ukraine crisis, but based on a previous pacifist principle similar to starving a fire of its oxygen. For that to work, though, you have to pretty much cut off all oxygen, so obviously that kind of thinking was simply naive. Now, six weeks into the devastation, Germany is thinking that maybe energy sanctions should be on the table. Generally, whatever is being discussed in Berlin is probably about 2-3 months behind what reason would otherwise dictated.

The Germans have not taken a leadership role in Europe and they seem really far away from doing that anytime soon. President Macron of France tried negotiations, but even he, with his long tenure in Paris, doesn’t know the creature with whom he is dealing in Moscow. Putin looks for military weakness, political indecision, and the delay of consensus building, and in Macron and Europe he sees all of that. Putin backs down when confronted with superior force, but not reason and bargaining, unless your willing to give him what he wants.

The Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofie, Bulgaria (photo 2015) where the war has brought to the surface old fissures in Bulgarian society and politics, some very ugly.

The weakest voices have been out of the Balkan Peninsula, where the people there also retain an admiration for strong-man dictators and military force. The worst case has been Serbia (surprise!) and factions within EU-member-state Bulgaria, which has been particularly troubling. Serbia’s neighbours, themselves wary of Serbian posturing and regular meddling (including an attempted coup in Podgorica in 2016), have been vocally more supportive of Ukraine, but have little capacity to do anything themselves.

Serbia’s President, ALlexandar Vučić, has recently been crying foul over the criticism he's been receiving because, Vučić claims, Serbia has done nothing wrong. According to Vučić, there’s nothing wrong with witnessing a crime and saying nothing about it. In reality, Serbia just wants to keep Putin on side, and for them it doesn’t really matter how awful their partner is if the other party bolsters Serbian nationalist claims or simply supports Vučić himself.

There’s a long history of jugo-Slavs (southern Slavs) trying to play all sides to get the best deal. It’s not simply comparative shopping, but rather ideological ambiguity, which seems to be the pinnacle of statecraft among many Balkan figures. In the end, those nations line themselves to be little more than panhandler nations. They think themselves quite clever not having to work for their spoils, all the while going home each night to some of the deepest squalour in all of Europe. A man like Vučić has no backbone or imagination or decency.

He also won re-election on Sunday.

Even more disappointing for both me and Europe was the result of the Hungarian election on Sunday. Incumbent Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party won a resounding victory over a unified opposition. That was in line with last week’s analysts’ predictions, and not surprising given how Putin-like Orbán’s regime has become. Cynicism runs high among Hungarians in the matter of politics. Most would rather not talk about it, and so the idea that anyone can do anything about it is even more rare.

Fidesz and Orbán don’t really do anything for Hungarians, and certainly have created one of the worst business environments in the EU despite having some of the lowest before-tax operating costs. What Fidesz does well is fabricate villains: immigrants, Hungarian-American businessmen, politicians of two decades ago, “gender insanity”, you name it, as it’s never the same from one year to the next. Their campaign motto effectively is “we’re pretty bad, but those guys are worse,” and that logic works pretty well on many of the people I’ve met. Time and again I hear it, “Fidesz is bad, but the alternative is worse”. The problem is the alternative hasn’t been in power since before 2010. I’ll hasten to point out, as well, that without EU money pouring into Hungary since 2004, the country likely wouldn’t be off much better than, say, Serbia (also a large recipient of EU funds, but not a member).

Orbán’s response to the war was not outright supportive of Russian “aggression”, but he clearly stated that he’s in the job to defend Hungarian interests, not those of Russia, Ukraine, the US, or the EU. In his words, he’s not taking sides and wants to keep Hungary out of it. In the words of the Czech defense minister, Fidesz and Orbán value cheap Russian gas more highly than Ukrainian blood. For a party that parades its “Catholic values”, compassion and courage seem a constant convenient omissions for Orbán and Fidesz.

The Hungarian government’s spineless and reprehensible response to Russia’s war is based on a couple things. The first is trying to keep in Putin’s good graces for the aforementioned favourable gas and petroleum deal. They get the EU’s best prices from Putin in return for a lot of brown-nosing.

The second factor is a five-year-long spat between Budapest and Kyiv regarding Ukraine’s language law, which was passed to shore-up Ukrainian unity in the wake of the Crimean annexation and the on-going invasion in Donbas. Among other things, the 2017 law required all public schools to teach in the Ukrainian language. That meant a handful of ethnic Hungarian schools in Transcarpathia – the pretty area I ride through coming from Hungary – had to change over to teaching in Ukrainian. This got Fidesz’s knickers all in a bunch since a centre piece of their nationalist policies is unity among all Hungarians, including the nearly three-million that live outside of Hungary.

I’d like to say it’s like Mexico getting into a diplomatic spat with the US and Texas for requiring English in Austin public schools, but the analogy falls apart because the number of Americans with Spanish-speaking heritage is a much larger percentage than Hungarians in Ukraine. Those people make up less than .4% of the Ukrainian population, and the number of Hungarian-speakers is less than that of Crimean Tartars and Romanians. It’s tiny.

Petrovaradin Fortress, across the Danube from Novi Sad in present day Serbia. Circa 1900, the most common first language was Hungarian followed by Serbia. This overlap hasn't been a source of tension between Belgrade and Budapest likely because all European autocrats realise they need each other.

In any case, it’s important to Fidesz to keep the Hungarian language alive outside of Hungary, not because of some practical irredentism, but because those folks are allowed to vote in Hungarian elections. The Hungarian diaspora votes for Fidesz at twice the rate of people inside Hungary (about 95% and 47% respectively, I believe). In the end, I suspect more of Orbán’s beef with Ukraine’s language rule comes from Putin himself, who probably called in a favour to his little buddy in Budapest: “sow discord in Ukraine, pozhaluysta.”

Interestingly, as far as I know there’s no similar beef between Vučić and Orbán over Vojvodina, the northern part of Serbia with a significant Hungarian population. I suspect this is evidence that the true goal isn’t recreating the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or Greater Serbia, since the two overlap in large areas. No, the real reason has more to do with just keeping both autocrats at the helm; covering each other's back.

Hungary has a belief, not unlike Serbia and much of Europe, that history has been disproportionately unjust to them. In a more fair world, it’s commonly held that Hungary would be much larger than it appears on maps today. Hungarians learn that the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 shrank Hungary by a whopping two-thirds after losing WW1, and that the allies didn't even handled the Germans that harshly. What Hungarians don’t seem to remember, or were never taught, is that Hungary initiated a territorial war against Romania and Czechoslovakia in 1919, one they lost badly, and led to Romanian troops occupying Budapest leading into the Trianon talks. It was the French and Americans who were preventing the Romanians from stealing much of Hungary’s national assets in the name of war reparations, like railroad rolling stock. It was also the West who kept Bucharest from keeping more than half of what is actually modern Hungary today.

History really gets sticky when you get into the details, and so I’ll try to keep from getting deeper in the weeds of Hungarian history, of which I am more a student than any sort of expert. Still, it’s hard to imagine a nation that lost more wars than Hungary has and still has a place on Google Maps. Hats off to those 9-million people and their unique language for keeping the tribe alive. I, for one, am grateful for the great many Hungarians I have had in my life. Truly.

[Ahhh crap… This is like our fourth air raid siren of the day. Busy day.]

The problem is that after twelve years of Fidesz pep talks on the inherent greatness of being Hungarian (and Catholic) is that Hungary really isn’t thriving. Economic opportunities for Hungarians are quite limited, especially if they don’t speak English or German. My employees in Szeged keep less than half of their gross pay, and the benefits they receive for that hefty tax bill are not much better than those here in Ukraine, which is one of Europe’s poorest nations.

There’s no question that Hungarians are an able population, capable of contributing at the highest level of science (Katalin Karikó) and commerce (George Soros). Still, if they’re going to really do anything with that talent and hard work, they pretty much have to leave. Fidesz and Orbán have not only done nothing about that, they haven’t even tried to stop the exodus. What’s left is a population who is relegated to the back of the line in the EU, and so turns to its history and national myths for pride and comfort. The majority of Hungarians support the party that tells them, “you have someone to blame for your low-standing and we’ll make you feel the greatness, and the glory, even if we do nothing for you.”

And that’s exactly the story Vladimir Putin has been selling to the Russian people for the last 22 years, most of whom have been lapping it up because, well, they have little else. I’m not talking about the St Petersburg architect or the Moscow fintech innovator, but rather the everyone-else that makes up the majority of the 150-million that are impoverished or just one personal setback removed from poverty. This is why we still have state-sponsored cheating in sports by Russia. The population is so cynical that they just believe everyone does it, and only they get caught because the world is out to get Russia.

The shoe memorial on the bank of the Danube is one of the most emotionally charged monuments I've ever experienced. Dec '44 to Jan '45, Nazi puppets in Hungary, the nationalist Arrow Cross Party, executed as many a 20,000 Jews, many of whom were stripped of their clothes and shoes before being shot and falling into the river.

Hungarians might be thinking that their situation is meaningfully different, especially since the Hungarian armed forces aren’t anywhere near as combat ready as, say, the Pennsylvania National Guard. But they do have the national police, and if Hungarians are willing to turn a blind eye away from atrocities next door, how much longer will it be until we have a 2020s version of the Ebredj Magyar (1944-45) or AVH men (circa 1956) in Hungary? Fidesz voters may be telling themselves that’s not going to happen, but how many of them thought there would be war next door even just a few months ago? Hell, how many Hungarians, after a centuries-old history of conflict with Russia ever thought they’d be paying soft support to Moscow’s military misadventures?

Perhaps, the truth we all need to remember was best said, I believe, by [corrected] English historian Lord Acton: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Single-party rule is inherently corrupt and at odds with democratic and even market values. George Washington was well aware that he needed to set the precedent that no president should be in office in perpetuity. To die in office would set up the expectations for an irregular transfer of power, like that of a king.

Much of Europe, however, continues to accept neo-monarchist views not because they improve social or economic opportunities, but rather because they project the myths on which nations have built much of their pride. Right now Russia is by far the worst actor, but there are plenty of Europeans not averse to following its lead, and it’s not just bad boys Orbán and Vučić.

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