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Borders and what they do: lessons from a lost Habsburg province

By Blog Admin, on 3 May 2013

Contested Frontiers in the Balkans-p17oi0ls081o7l132i1l2ld101al9Why write about a province that has long ceased to be and is currently divided between three states?  Irina Marin explains why she wrote about the historic Habsburg province of the Banat of Temesvár

Well-hidden behind the title Contested Frontiers in the Balkans: Ottoman and Habsburg Rivalries in Eastern Europe is a monograph of the Banat of Temesvár or, by its Romanian name, Banatul Timișoarei. Why write a book about a historical province that has long ceased to be one and is currently peacefully divided between Romania, Serbia and Hungary? Outside the region and a narrow circle of historians, the Banat is a classic Ruritania, a non-existent land for all the reality it has for outsiders.

Everybody will have heard of Transylvania, Bosnia or Kosovo, but I doubt the Banat of Temesvár is at all known in the English-speaking world. Even when events take place there which are worthy of public attention, people usually refer to the present-day countries rather than the historical province, even if the name ‘Banat’ is still in local usage. So why write a history of this seemingly obscure province?

First of all, because no such history is available in English. The region deserves putting on the map of Anglo-Saxon historical scholarship. This, however, is not a strong enough reason and does not forestall the Ruritanian accusation. We instead should perhaps turn the question around and ask what makes a province worthy of interest. Sadly, more often than not the answer is blood and violence: whether blood sucked by vampires (as in Transylvania) or massacres and ethnic cleansing (as in Bosnia, Kosovo). Extremes of violence should, of course, never be ignored or left unexplored and unexplained.

The problem arises when one concentrates exclusively on such places visited by unprecedented violence. It creates the impression that nothing but ethnic violence comes out of Eastern Europe and fuels myths of  ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ as characteristic of the region.

I have therefore stopped at the Banat of Temesvár as a relatively peaceful province, with just as many ethnicities and religious denominations as these, but if anything dogged by myths of harmonious ethnic cohabitation rather than the perennial ancient-hatred myth. My new book is not intended to solve bibliographical disputes, count populations or work out who was there first. It is instead a historical meditation on the destructive and creative effect of ebbing and flowing borders on an ethnically variegated population, who lived and died under several waves of imperial rule, under nation-states and under communist and post-communist regimes. (more…)

The force that is Fidesz

By Blog Admin, on 25 March 2013

Peace March for Hungary 2012.01.21 (9)

Photo: Derzsi Elekes Andor via WikiMedia Commons

Hungary’s governing party Fidesz has recently consolidated changes to the constitution, media laws and electoral constituencies. Yet despite international criticism and tough economic times, Hungarian opposition forces are divided while Fidesz and the radical right party Jobbik remain electorally buoyant. Erin Marie Saltman examines the enduring strength of the Hungarian right and the obstacles facing its opponents.

In Hungary 15th March is a day with a deeply resonating political legacy. The day is a national holiday, created in remembrance of the 1848 revolution when Hungary’s iconic poet revolutionary Sándor Petőfi stood on the steps of the National Museum and read his Twelve Points demanding freedom of speech and national political liberties from the Habsburg Empire. Today Petőfi has become a malleable political symbol of revolution and change for government and opposition alike, with both groups moving to celebrate his legacy.

The conservative Fidesz government sees itself as personified in the Hungarian revolutionary tradition, calling the huge electoral majority that put it into power in 2010 a ‘voting revolution’ –  an opportunity for Hungary finally to rid itself of its history of oppressive powers, first the Habsburgs and then the Communists. In Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s national speeches, there is now wariness towards the assimilating and constricting measures of the EU and IMF, asking whether these international institutions bear the same hallmark of oppression. Backing the government, which still holds a strong lead in polls among decided voters, are throngs of dedicated supporters holding ‘peace marches’ and rallies to show their continued support.

The main concern of domestic opposition and international onlookers remains the increasingly enlarged capacity the Fidesz government to restructure the Hungarian state. Most recently on 11 March  President János Áder signed into law the Fourth Amendment  to the Hungarian constitution, adding a fifteen-page amendment to the forty-five-page document. The constitutional court had ruled against many of the proposed additions, which worryingly mirror some of the larger issues flagged in radical right party Jobbik’s 2010 Manifesto. (more…)

Protests that toppled Bulgaria’s government are part of Europe’s wider crisis

By Blog Admin, on 24 February 2013

Simeon Dyankov Satanah

Photo: Иван via WikiMedia Commons

Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boiko Borisov submitted his government’s resignation last Wednesday following a week of angry demonstrations over high electricity prices, corruption and declining living standards.  The  protests and their aftermath form part of a bigger European crisis, says Eric Gordy.

The main difference between public disorder in Bulgaria and everywhere else in Europe is that in Bulgaria the government responded. Although the immediate catalyst for protests was the state’s failure to control growth in the price of electricity, the core causes are shared in every European state: dissatisfaction resulting from the forced dismantling of social support services brought on by the European debt crisis, and a sense that policymakers are orienting their activity not to the needs of the public but to the service of large European banks.

These forces are accompanied by the perception that national governments have neither the capacity nor the will to address the consequences of a fiscal and social policy that are widely seen as imbalanced against the public interest. In Greece, Hungary and Italy the contribution of public dissatisfaction to the rise of antidemocratic movements of the extreme right is already apparent.

While conservative political leaders in the EU, particularly from Germany and the UK (and until last year, France) have largely been successful in pushing for a shift of priorities to debt service and “austerity,” the consequences of this should concern everybody in Europe. In the period after the end of the First World War, there was a similar euphoric and triumphalist announcement that liberal democracy could declare its inevitable victory across the continent.

Inattention to the responsibilities of states to their publics on the part of that generation of liberal democratic elites led to a rapid and general decay of constitutional systems and an accelerating tendency of governments to neglect of social responsibilities.

If we take one lesson from the failures of democratic order in the 1920s and 1930s, it should be that governments that fail to address social needs will be challenged by forces, some of them extremist ones, that promise to do so.

Eric Gordy is Senior Lecturer in South East European Politics at UCL-SSEES.

This post was first published in the comment section of the  UCL European Institute and is reproduced with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

‘Together 2014’ movement emerges in Hungary

By Blog Admin, on 27 November 2012

Together 2014 rally (Photo: Erin Marie Saltman)

A new opposition grouping has emergence in Hungary, calling for an electoral alliance of grassroots movements and political parties to challenge the dominance of right-wing party Fidesz. However, it may soon find its cohesion  testsed, writes Erin Marie Saltman.

‘Together 2014’ (Együtt 2014) was announced on 23  October  at the large opposition rally against the government, founded by three civil society organizations. With largely divided and conflicting opposition facets competing in Hungary the question remains: how together will Together 2014 be?

Together 2014 is the alliance of three civil organizations joining forces to win a two-thirds majority in the next national parliamentary elections. This is the majority needed to override many of Fidesz’s recent controversial laws. Leading the alliance is Gordon Bajnai, the interim Prime Minister in 2009 and 2010 for Socialist Party, MSZP. Bajnai remains one of the most popular politicians in Hungary as a non-partisan technocrat hoping to bring together disgruntled voters from the centre-left and centre-right. Bajnai brings with him the Patriotism and Progress Association (Haza és Haladás Közpolitikai Alapítvány), a public policy foundation he leads, formed after the 2010 elections developing biannual policy packages. (more…)

Does the eurozone crisis threaten liberal reforms in Eastern Europe?

By Blog Admin, on 15 November 2012

Uncertainties about the EU’s future are undermining mainstream parties throughout Europe. In Central and Castern Europe politicians can no longer sell the European model of liberal reforms when that model is itself in crisis, argues Sean Hanley

OccupyFrankfurt October 2011 EZB

Photo: Blogotron via Wikicommons

Although only three EU members in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), Estonia, Slovakia and Slovenia, have adopted the Euro, the knock-on  effects of stagnation in the Eurozone has pushed governments across CEE towards unpopular austerity programmes, exacerbating social tensions and collapsing support for incumbent parties. The uncertainties about the EU’s future are also undermining mainstream parties in the region. Politicians can no longer sell liberal reforms as part of a successful, tried and tested european model as they once did, when that model is itself in crisis. For many this seems to point darkly towards a turning away from liberal politics in CEE and a growth in euroscepticism, populism and nationalism. (more…)

Fieldwork interviews: From phonebooks to fascists

By Blog Admin, on 8 November 2012

Fieldwork interviews in Eastern Europe can make big demands of young researchers. Careful preparation, creativity and persistence are the key to success, argue Erin Marie Saltman and Philipp Köker.

Ringbound notebook

Photo: Sikura via Wikicommons

Interviews are commonly used across a variety of disciplines – from anthropology to political science, from linguistics to economics.Sometimes, they are the only way to gain important information and, even when they are used alongside other research methods, can give researchers unique insights

However, despite the added value they can bring, conducting interviews is often a more or less a self-taught skill. While there are a few text books, these often remain general, sometimes leaving researchers with more questions than they started with. Courses offered by UCL cover interviewing more directly, but nothing quite prepares research students for using this method in the field.

Given the region’s history, people in Eastern Europe can also be suspicious of (foreign) researchers inquiring about their daily lives or political views. Structures like parties or civil society organisations are sometimes not yet well established enough or sufficiently attuned to help researchers find and contact potential interviewees. And even if you get an interview, the fact that even top politicians and experts often do not speak foreign languages makes interviewing more complicated (although admittedly, this can also be an issue in Western democracies). (more…)

Hungary’s fractured opposition

By Blog Admin, on 30 October 2012

saubere Hände für unabhängige medien

Photo: Beate Firlinger. Creative Commons license via Flickr

Only time will tell if Hungary’s divided liberal and  left-wing opposition will be able to put aside differences and unite notes Erin Marie Saltman

Those less intimate with Hungarian political culture should be aware of the significance of March 15th and October 23rd, national memorial days for the 1848 and 1956 revolutions against Hapsburg and Soviet powers. These national holidays have been used increasingly to stage political speeches, demonstrations and protests in recent years, paralleling the rising discourse around Hungary’s ‘illiberal’ turn, as reported on by international news and human rights watchdogs.

As political forces in Hungary have polarised, so have the streets of Budapest, divided into an array of camps for and against the government. Since the parliamentary majority victory of the right wing party, Fidesz, and the significant electoral gains of the radical right party Jobbik, there has been increasing talk of Hungary’s movement away from liberal democratic values and the country’s increasing Euroscepticism. The lack of cohesion of liberal-left political forces for the past six years has turned political polarisation into political hegemony of the right.

But the events that took place on October 23rd may indicate a fundamental shift toward the development of a united liberal opposition movement. The national holiday was a litmus test for the failing of old opposition powers, the continued strength of right-wing forces, and potential new alliances’ strengthening unity among grassroots and political opposition. (more…)

The Baltics have found their Nordic niche – should the UK follow suit?

By Blog Admin, on 23 May 2012

1 May 2004 enlargement celebration in Parc du Cinquantenaire

Photo: RockCohen via WikiMedia Commons

 Allan Sikk finds that a new book on the Baltic-EU relationship has excellent insights into micro-processes of accession relevant to anyone interested in how states respond to EU pressures and adapt to EU membership.

Could the experience of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia joining the European Union be relevant for the UK? Differences seem to abound – the Baltic states are small, rather remote and their recent historical experiences are obviously very different. However, at a closer look one discovers that the UK and the Baltic states share certain perspectives of the world and even the EU (despite the British elites remaining far more Eurosceptic than their Baltic counterparts). More crucially, both the UK and the Baltic states have a shared affinity to the Nordic countries – an obvious source of inspiration for the Baltic states, but increasingly also for Britain.

Recently, the Prime Ministers of the UK, the Nordic and the Baltic states have twice met for UK-Nordic Baltic summits, initiated by David Cameron in 2011. For someone with an academic interest in Baltic and Nordic affairs, the links are obvious; together with three colleagues at University College London we started an ESRC seminar series on Nordic and Baltic countries a year prior to Cameron’s initiative.

Bengt Jacobsson’s new edited collection The European Union and the Baltic States: Changing forms of governance. (Routledge. 2010) addresses the issue of how domestic politics, more specifically central state administration, has been shaped by the EU accession. Its aim is to go beyond a crude notion of conditionality: that the rewards of membership force states to undertake specific reforms.

Some of the critique of conditionality literature in the opening chapters may be on the harsh side, but the book does provide original insights. It focusses on micro-processes and soft forms of influence – where aspiring member states adapted to formal requirements and, perhaps more importantly, to the Western ways of doing things according to the logic of appropriateness, termed (somewhat cryptically) ‘scripts’. (more…)

Angry mainstream: Eastern Europe’s new ‘centrist populists’

By Blog Admin, on 20 January 2012

Allan Sikk and Sean Hanley detect a new breed of anti-establishment party emerging centre-stage in Eastern Europe.

Magyarországi választás 2010 Jobbik vadplakát Fidesz óriásplakát

Photo: Beroesz via Wikicommons

In both Western and Eastern Europe extremist populism and illiberal movements, we are told, are strong, politically influential and relentlessly on the rise.  In countries such Austria, Slovakia and Poland radical right parties have already held government office. Elsewhere they have sufficient parliamentary representation to influence government formation and help make the political weather. Recent electoral breakthroughs in countries without strong illiberal populist traditions by parties such the True Finns (2011), the Sweden Democrats (2010) or Hungary’s Jobbik (2010) seem to highlight the accelerated growth of such parties.

Given the greater impact of recession and reduced EU leverage in the region, the new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) would seem to be especially vulnerable to such tendencies. However, notwithstanding the spectacular rise of far-right in Hungary, recent elections in key CEE states suggest that voters in the region are turning to new parties, which combine familiar anti-elite, anti-establishment populist rhetoric with mainstream pro-market policies, a liberal stance on social issues and calls for political reform.

 Poland’s October 2011 elections, for example, saw the wholly unexpected emergence as the country’s third force of a grouping led by maverick and political showman, Janusz Palikot, on a platform combining anti-clericalism and social liberalism with flat taxation and a slimmed down, citizen-friendly state. In May 2010 a new pro-market anti-corruption party, Public Affairs (VV), campaigning to kill off the ‘dinosaurs’ of the political establishment enjoyed a similarly meteoric rise in the Czech Republic, winning 10% of the vote. In Slovakia in elections a few weeks later the Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party formed in 2009 by the economist and businessman Richard Sulík entered parliament with a similar vote share on a programme of fiscal conservatism and socially liberal reforms such as the introduction of gay marriage and decriminalisation of soft drugs. Hungary’s Green-ish  Politics Can Be Different Party (LMP) can, with some qualifications, be regarded in a similar light.

 Such centrist or (neo-) liberal populists, or as we prefer to call them anti-establishment reform parties (AERPs), are we believe, a growing and important phenomenon in Central and Eastern Europe and, perhaps Europe more generally.  A more careful and wider look at the CEE region over the last 10-15 years suggests that such AERPs are a widespread and common phenomenon which can, in some contexts, enjoy landslide electoral success: the Simeon II National Movement in Bulgaria (2001), New Era in Latvia (2002) and Res Publica in Estonia (2003) were all new, anti-establishment reformers, which topped – or came close to topping – the poll at their first attempt and headed new coalition governments. (more…)

Who can save the left in Hungary?

By Blog Admin, on 6 January 2012

Two new, very different parties hope to rebuild Hungary’s badly damaged opposition writes Erin Marie Saltman 

DK 2012-09-11 14.31

Photo: Norden 1990 via Wikicommons

Hungary’s opposition made a rare show of unity on 2 January, when it organized tens of thousands of people (some claim as many as 100,000) to protest a new constitution pushed through parliament by the ruling, conservative-populist Fidesz party.

 Like the protests in Russia, they were a departure from Hungarians’ usual apathy. But also like those protests, they could still fail to translate into real political change. The left in Hungary is badly fractured and parts of it remain widely discredited.

 That means that however draconian Fidesz’s legislative maneuvers – which have been pushed through thanks to a supermajority and include clamping down on press freedom; reining in the judiciary and central bank; nationalizing private pensions; and changing the labor, tax, religious, electoral, and education laws – opposition parties still face long odds in the 2014 parliamentary elections. The governing coalition continues to poll far ahead of other parties.

 Undeterred, two new parties, the Democratic Coalition and the Fourth Republic, have stepped into the fray, with very different approaches to reconstructing Hungary’s liberal-left. (more…)