Publicado no Le Monde Diplomatique - Fevereiro 2011 - http://mondediplo.com/2011/02/12farright
The radical right in the new democracies and semi-democracies of eastern Europe harks back to the apparent security of the old style nation-state. In doing so, it gives public voice to a fairly widely felt desire
by Michael Minkenberg
Radical rightwing groups are pitting themselves against the new neoliberal order in eastern Europe as they did against the state socialism that preceded it. Their existence is not surprising, and some specialists consider it a normal pathology that affects all societies that are modernising rapidly. What is really interesting is the regional specifics of the phenomenon.
Eastern Europe’s radical right distinguishes itself from its counterparts in the West. Since the regime changes, it has often captured impressive numbers of votes that have, nevertheless, fluctuated depending on the place and time.
Another particularity is openly pre- or anti-democratic ideology: unlike their western equivalents, the groups proclaim their nostalgia for the old despotic regimes, and the ethnic and territorial conception of national “identity” that prevailed under them. This sweeping nationalism allows some variation. There is a fascist autocratic right, inspired by the dictatorships of the interwar period, which persists in Russia, Romania and, more recently, Bulgaria, and is linked to the “national-communists” created by the collapse of the Soviet empire. There is also a more ethnocentric, racist right, which enthusiastically supports territorial revisionism, particularly in Hungary and the Czech Republic.
The desire to redraw frontiers is not unique to Russia, where since the 19th century nationalists have dreamed of owning ports in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Czech “Republicans” (SPR-RSV) demand that their country should fit the borders of the former Czechoslovakia, within which only a “homogenous” population would have the right to reside. In Romania, the Greater Romania Party (PRM) promotes inter-war borders as a way of demanding the annexation of Moldova. The desire for reconquest is strongest in Hungary. The Hungarian Justice and Life Party and the Movement for a Better Hungary both favour revising the Treaty of Trianon (1) and restoring Hungary’s Habsburg borders. All these parties adapt the symbols of the fascist movements and regimes of the 1930s, such as Hungary’s arrow cross or Romania’s Iron Guard.
In Poland, the phenomenon has been influenced by religious fundamentalism. At the beginning of the 20th century, Roman Dmowski, the theorist of “national democracy”, was already claiming that only Catholics made good Poles; the Christian-National Union (ZChN) insisted in the 1990s that Catholic dogma must be the foundation of Poland, and that it must defend the interests of all “ethnic” Poles scattered throughout eastern Europe. Since then the League of Polish Families (LPR) has taken up the banner, and re-activated the networks of its defunct predecessors (ZChN, the Movement for the Reconstruction of Poland or ROP, and the National Party or SN), and gained the support of Radio Maryja, an ultra-Catholic station that regularly broadcasts traditionalist, xenophobic and anti-semitic speeches to millions of listeners.
The asymmetry of East and West can also be seen on the organisational level. The eastern groups often support violence and share – to varying degrees – racist tendencies, a cult of the strong man and a disdain for elections and institutional politics. In Poland, hundreds of activists regularly gather in towns and cover walls in fascist and anti-semitic graffiti. The All-Polish Youth, a movement affiliated with the LPR until 2006, is notorious for its violence. In the Czech Republic, a radical “scene” has prospered, which likes to attack Roma people and therefore has the sympathy of part of the population. In the 1990s Hungary’s skinhead movement had about 4,000 members. The media estimate that the Russian equivalent has at least 50,000 supporters, to which can be added other violent groups, such as Aleksandr Dugin’s ultra-orthodox partisans, or the xenophobic militants of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration.
The extreme right is less structured in these countries than in the West, as is true with most political parties. Its electoral fluctuations, and its tendency to reconstitute itself from one election to the next, make it disconcertingly fluid. This also contributes to the permeable border between radical right movements and radical right parties, and between the radical right and the conservative right.
The distinctive characteristics of recent members of the European Union can be explained by regime changes, and by the region’s very specific history, which is layered over the democracy. The first layer is a compound – the immediate consequences of the dismantling of the USSR that began in 1989, plus the improvisation that shaped the transition towards democracy and the market economy, and the huge efforts made to enable the former members of the Warsaw Pact to join the EU. This severely tested the social fabric, creating a previously unknown gap between rich and poor, and a brutal discrepancy between people’s needs and a lack of available capital (including a lack of trust). Rightwing extremists knew how to exploit the popular discontent caused by this.
Then come the legacies of former communist regimes: a badly equipped bureaucracy; a political culture not given to tolerance; elites that have not been educated in the new system; parties that are weakly rooted in society; and an economy weighed down by a half-century of authoritarian centralism. This balance sheet has provoked resentment, which benefited the extreme right in a poorly structured political space. There are no immigrants (western Europe’s scapegoats) in eastern Europe. This role falls to local minorities and neighbouring countries, and will have a lasting impact on relations between states.
The third layer is thicker, made up of the lack of long-term democratic experience, from which all the countries have suffered since national independence (with the notable exception of Czechoslovakia). Hence the difficulty that their elites face in adapting to modernity, unlike the elites that ran Germany and Austria after 1945. Their task is made even harder because they cannot refer back to an older democratic tradition, such as during the inter-war period. So it is unsurprising that the rare reactions to the extreme right come almost exclusively from state institutions.
The construction of these countries began in the 19th century, was repeatedly interrupted during the 20th, and is still not complete today; almost all the countries that won independence after the fall of the Berlin Wall had belonged to multinational empires, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman, until the first world war. The national consciousness created in them during the 19th century adhered to an ethnic conception of nationhood because it lacked a state to guide it. That is why the continuity of the state and its frontiers remains uncertain. Since 1918 the triangular configuration of these countries has barely evolved: a nation-state, with “foreign” minorities within its borders and, scattered beyond, pockets of autochthonous populations more or less interested in reintegrating into the “mother country”. During the era of Soviet socialism, internationalism concealed these tensions. Since 1989 they have emerged and been fanned and exploited by ultra-nationalists.
The anti-communist pressures created by 1989 have rehabilitated the concept of the nation-state in eastern Europe. That is why nationalist and ethnocentric rhetoric is not marginal there, but an axis that structures public and political life, especially in a post-communist context that grants civil society only a minor role. Once the repudiation of elites and popular disenchantment with politicians have been added, it is hardly surprising that eastern European society increasingly leans to the right.