Is the US back in Central Europe?

Washington’s decision to suspend the right of entry to the U.S. for six publicly unnamed representatives of the Viktor Orban government in Hungary due to corruption is a precedent: the Americans have so far been using this instrument mainly against Russia within the framework of the Magnitsky Act, but have never implemented it against a member of the European Union or NATO. Moreover, this radical step was accompanied by open criticism by President Barack Obama, as well as one of his predecessors, Bill Clinton and senior officials of the Department of State, of internal decisions in Hungary. For nearly a year and a half there has also been no American ambassador in Hungary. It became quite obvious that, despite friendly rhetoric and assurances of mutual partnership, Washington’s firm reaction marked the autumn of 2014 as the lowest point since 1989 in contacts between the two states. But the real question is why Washington bothers so much about a small Central European country 1 percent the size of the United States and of very limited economic potential?

The truth is that Obama administration from the beginning has presented a negative stance towards Orban’s constitutional and structural reforms, which, as stated in a 2011 report by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Melia, “could solidify power of the ruling party, limit checks and balances, and unduly hamstring future democratic governments in effectively addressing new challenges.” However, never before was its response was so blistering. Has Washington finally lost its patience with Orban’s flirt with “illiberal democracy”? Indeed, but the sanctions should be explained not only by concerns about democratic standards in Hungary but also geopolitical factors. It doesn’t seem coincidental that the U.S. ban took place shortly after Budapest closed gas interconnector with western Ukraine and announced that in order to avoid problems with the European Commission it would prepare special legislation to release the Russia-backed South Stream gas pipeline from restrictions under EU law. Both these steps, announced just before the Ukrainian parliamentary elections, hit not only Kyiv but also Washington, which has been advocating for energy independence for Ukraine and opposes South Stream.

From the viewpoint of U.S. interests and politics, of particularly alarm is Orban’s turn to the east (its so-called eastern opening), the original purpose of which was to stimulate economic relations with emerging economies in Asia and developing countries elsewhere, but which after the Ukraine crisis erupted took on new meaning in the form of political rapprochement with Moscow. Evidence of this was the invitation to Russian company Rosatom to be involved sans tender in the expansion of Hungary’s Paks nuclear power plant as well as the country’s very restrained response to Euromaidan, the annexation of Crimea and EU sanctions on Russia. Another example of this shift was seen in anti-American statements made by leading politicians from the ruling party, Fidesz, including Orban himself, who, in an infamous speech on 26 July about “illiberal democracy,” contrasted American liberalism with more efficient-in his opinion-political models in Russia, China and Turkey.

However, it is not just about Hungary. The firmer U.S. policy should be also a warning to a few other Central European countries. Orban’s game with democracy is carefully observed in the region, especially in Slovakia and Romania, where governing parties enjoy or – until lately enjoyed – the super majority in their parliaments, as Fidesz does. Orban’s rhetoric is easily widespread as attractive even to left-wing leaders; for instance, in the recent presidential campaign, Romanian PM, socialist Victor Ponta copied many of his Hungarian counterpart slogans. There is a strong need among these elites to create an economically social, conservative in the worldview, nanny state led by a paternal figure. But what is worse is that some of Orban’s companions try to follow his rapprochement with Moscow too. Public statements on “unnecessary and harmful sanctions on Russia” (Slovak PM Robert Fico) or “Ukraine as a failed state” (Czech President Milos Zeman), even if not always fully reflective of the views of their governments, testify to the fact that these Central European elites do not appreciate the importance of the Ukrainian-Russian war and its direct threat to their own region.

In the past, the Obama’s neo-realistic foreign policy, focused on building a stronger multipolar order with other partners such as the BRIC Group, was often perceived as wiping Central Europe from the U.S. agenda. In 2009, many distinguished Central European politicians, including Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, signed up the open letter to Obama, in which they complained that Central Europe have lost their place “at the heart of American foreign policy”. Many regional commentators found it shocking that Obama gave the region at best a marginal position, especially as relations between the U.S. and Central Europe during the past two decades were considered sort of a “beautiful friendship”. The phrase, uttered by Rick Blaine in the iconic movie Casablanca, seems to summarise the long-lasting era, which began with the strong leadership of Ronald Reagan. True, Reagan was in office during the dark last years of the Cold War-an extraordinary and unprecedented time-but his successors from the post-1989 period, when democracy and the free market reached Central Europe, enjoy a good reputation in these countries too. President Clinton supported NATO expansion in the region, marking its complete separation from the so-called Eastern Bloc. George W. Bush in turn – confronted with 9/11 – viewed Central Europe as a new and reliable ally in the struggle against global terrorism and anti-democratic changes in post-Soviet states.

Nowadays, after the failure of “reset” with Russia and with Ukrainian-Russian war on the background, geopolitics matters again. The more that Central Europe seems to be unexpectedly back on a global level, not only because some countries’ eastern policies challenge the West. These governments are also loosing the trust of society, which just few weeks ago turned its disappointment into unprecedented massive demonstrations in the capitals of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania. Although protests are merely inward looking, as they point to corruption, political authoritarianism and economic stagnation, they are profusely accompanied by either EU flags and anti-Putin signs or references to the heritage of pro-Western democrats, such as Czech’s Havel. This autumn, Central Europe-in 25th anniversary of its political and economic transition-is gaining its second momentum. This is surely a warning for pro-Russian elites, but also a signal for Washington: Central Europe is not yet a mission accomplished.

Kalan, a senior research fellow and Central Europe analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, a Warsaw-based think tank, is currently a Kosciuszko Foundation fellow at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Washington D.C.

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton

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