Is the Czech Republic Turning on the West?

Andrej Babis, the leader of Ano, an anti-establishment party that won 30 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic. Credit Michal Cizek/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Andrej Babis, the leader of Ano, an anti-establishment party that won 30 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic. Credit Michal Cizek/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As Communist Europe collapsed in the early 1990s, four countries on its western periphery — the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary — came together to form the Visegrad Group. The four were relatively modernized, and the goal of the new organization was to coordinate closer ties between them and the European Union, which they joined en masse in 2004.

The Visegrad Group once stood as a beacon for post-Communist integration, but today it symbolizes the failure of the West to completely integrate Central and Eastern Europe. Across all four countries, leading politicians agitate against the European Union, portraying it as an imposing, undemocratic force, even as the second coming of the Soviet Union. Visegrad members consistently decline to follow the Western mainstream, refuse to take in Muslim refugees, and regard democratic checks and balances as annoying hindrances to real men doing real politics.

This trend strengthened over the weekend, when an anti-establishment party, Ano, won 30 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic and a far-right party got just over 10 percent, both coming in far ahead of the center right and center left. Though Ano has committed to staying in the European Union, it also rails against overreach from Brussels and the flow of migrants across its borders.

The shift in the Visegrad countries is nothing new; it has emerged over the past decade, while Europe was distracted by the debt crisis and focused on northern creditors and southern debtors. This was such an energy-sapping endeavor that Europe overlooked the other growing division: between Western believers in the European Union and Eastern nonbelievers. Meanwhile, a cult of outsiderism has taken hold in Central Europe.

Both West and East share some of the blame for this development. The Westerners have assumed that the Easterners would be content with less — that they would be happy simply to be included in the European Union and could therefore be treated as second-class equals (for example, workers from the East face extensive discrimination in Western employment markets).

At the same time, Visegrad leaders have made political hay out of such mistreatment, rather than working to correct for it. That’s not to say that the Visegrad Group doesn’t put forward constructive responses or that there isn’t a way forward. But the rhetoric ensures that the group’s proposals will be ignored or rejected out of hand in Brussels. As a result, governments from Warsaw to Budapest retreat into sulking mode.

While Hungary, Slovakia and Poland have taken the authoritarian route, the Czech Republic, with its more secular, democratic grounding, long seemed like the best hope for a bridge between the two sides. But the victory by Ano and its billionaire leader, Andrej Babis, make that unlikely.

People who know Mr. Babis’s business style warn that he is a ruthless businessman, more interested in expanding his personal power than in furthering the common good. Apart from an empire in agricultural industry, he owns several newspapers and a radio station. After allegations of tax fraud, he was removed as minister of finance in May. There are also investigations into claims that Mr. Babis illegally received European Union subsidies for one of his hotels.

Yet all of this does not seem to impair his popularity. On the contrary, in the eyes of many Czechs it makes Mr. Babis one of them, a guy who stands up against the bigotry and double standards of the establishment, or, as one slogan goes, against the Prague “coffeehouse thugs.” Almost 30 years after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the heritage of freedom fighters like Vaclav Havel has been replaced by the chauvinism of the underdog.

Of course, a certain disillusionment with the promises of the West is understandable. When today’s Visegrad states joined the European Union 13 years ago, they expected stability. Instead they joined a club that soon slipped into permanent crisis mode, first over the future of the eurozone and then over the mass influx of migrants. Freedom, it turned out, did not mean security — just new insecurities. To many Central Europeans, it was shocking to learn that you could be part of the West and still fear being left behind.

Along with that shock came a lack of cultural preparedness for the new competitiveness. Forty years of Communism left people with an immense distrust of one another and of the political class. The era of totalitarianism was never really processed. Even young Czechs, who did not experience Communist rule as adults (if at all), describe their society as being shot through with distrust, leaving them wary of their neighbors.

Czech society places a premium on scapegoating and victimization, says Erik Tabery, the editor in chief of Respekt, a newsmagazine based in Prague. In his book “The Left Nation,” Mr. Tabery argues that the Czech Republic needs a more proactive, cooperative foreign policy that will push the country farther into the West. But he admits that positions like this have left him and like-minded colleagues very lonely in Prague.

It is true that Western Europe has cared too little for its new Eastern members since they joined the union, and it is understandable that many there feel treated like second-class Europeans. The West never took seriously the different experiences and legacies east of the Elbe River. American soldiers never set foot there after 1945, nor was there a 1968 generation to force a phase of messy, republican puberty.

But the Central Europeans have done too little to make themselves fit for freedom and ready to be taken seriously by the West. While liberalizing their economies, they have forgotten to liberalize their minds. East and West need to engage in couples therapy soon. Otherwise, Brexit might eventually look like one of Europe’s minor problems.

Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.

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