Democracy under pressure
BUDAPEST--These days, as far as Europe is concerned, most eyes are fixed on the discussions about the financial aftershocks of the crisis, namely the debate on Greece. Other aspects, among them the social effects, remain sidelined. Struggling under increased pressure, most decision-makers seem to overlook that in many new member states, there has been a troubling growth in extremism and social exclusion that indicates much deeper tensions in these societies. The fact that the character of some of Europe's democracies is at stake is being disregarded. If one takes Hungary, for example, the dust has just settled after the country elected a new government in April--and voted for a far-right party in unprecedented numbers (the party got 12 percent of the vote). While many--especially the international press--frantically expressed concern, they seemed to overlook the fact that tensions had already outgrown party politics. It seems that 20 years after the fall of communism, Hungary has to learn that the success story of its democratic transition has another, darker side. For most Hungarians, it remains beyond doubt that the formal fabric of their democratic institutions is solid--a notion confirmed in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, which found that 66 percent of Hungarians think that"democratic values are very important." But while Hungarian support was the highest among the eight Central and East European publics surveyed, it is also obvious that there is a long way to go in terms of a bigger challenge: cultivating a deeper and more profound culture of democracy. A series of shocks have made the above clear as the country has witnessed a robust entrée of extremism lately. Last year, in a series of widely reported, racially motivated killings, perpetrators gunned down six Hungarian Roma. Since these supremacists hoped to threaten the Roma community as a whole, their act also qualifies as domestic terrorism. At the same time, a homegrown extreme-right militia--the so-called "Hungarian Guard"--marched throughout the country with the purpose of "defending Hungarians against Roma crime." Additionally, a group of semi-amateur conspiracists tried to exert pressure on politicians by repeatedly targeting their homes with live rounds of ammunition and Molotov cocktails. Added up, these are clear distress signals. A post-communist society with a shattered social fabric, further torn by current political and economic crises, has to renew itself and redefine its understanding of being an inclusive, liberal democracy. There is no room for misconception: these incidents are not simply inevitable side-effects of modernization or minor disturbances generated primarily by the financial crisis. No, these are critical symptoms of much deeper tensions with which the country struggles. Hungary is at a crossroads--with some other countries in the region--and must choose which course to follow. If it follows the current one, it has a fair chance of becoming a"dual society," one part of which could be found in a Manhattan Starbucks or in a boutique on Rue de Rivoli, and another part that spends its days in the worst non-formal segregation, violence, and poverty that one would never imagine in the heart of 21st-century Europe. The other course is to realize that the current tensions are already an obstacle of further development and that these tensions can also become direct threats to democratic institutions--hence the necessity to reverse the most harmful tendencies. To achieve lasting change, it is clear these countries have to face the challenge primarily by themselves. As tasks are immense, most players--from"corporate citizens" to NGOs--have to gear up and champion a more active role, and those influencing the public debate have to abandon the historical cultural reflex of"deserting through complaint." On the other hand, it is also obvious that the upcoming government must provide leadership: while building momentum, its primary task will be to repair the integrity of the law enforcement and intelligence communities as their members are at the forefront in any struggle against the most destructive forms of domestic extremism. But in itself, this will not be enough. As the challenge has already outgrown the phase in which it could be regarded as a simple policing issue, more fundamental answers need to be found in fields ranging from education to the social welfare system. Without doubt, these efforts must be indigenous to have serious impact. But there are steps that the European Union and the United States can and should take--even if they concentrate on other, more troubled regions of the world. The United States and the EU should assist new member states to modernize, not just in terms of economics or infrastructure, but in their values and attitudes too. The new leadership in Brussels should raise its voice and make clear that Europe will not be able to accomplish its global aspirations if it cannot counter challenges to its core values at home. Beyond symbolic gestures, there is more serious work to do: it is high time to reconsider the role the European Union plays in the post-accession period. Maybe it is time to have fewer--less and less credible--debates about European competitiveness in general (sorry, but no one needs another Lisbon Strategy) and pay more attention to specific solutions. Why not partially restructure EU funds and make them available to governmental and non-governmental actors in a streamlined process, generating room for"rapid reaction?" Why not encourage greater competition within the European civil society by building up a mechanism for assisting start-ups? At the same time, Washington should capitalize on the leverage and credibility it built up in the past decades while creating a more inclusive, multi-colored society at home. U.S. Ambassadors, following their predecessors who played an important role in '89, should look for opportunities for engagement. They should also push for broadening the channels of learning and adapting best-practices--why isn't there anything like a"Roma History Month" anywhere in the region? These steps combined would certainly amount to a substantial contribution, but also a feasible way to maintain the United States' commitment toward its Central and East European allies. At the end of the day, however, Hungary has both a chance and the responsibility to form its own future and decide what its values are. Its new government has to prove that it will indeed open a new chapter and not simply administer another period of stagnation--leadership and statesmanship will both be required to meet the challenge. Kristof Domina is a foreign policy analyst based in Budapest, Hungary. He was a Marshall Memorial Fellow of the German Marshall Fund in 2009.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.