Regional inequities in wealth are extremely high in post-communist countries, according to the latest data from Eurostat. The richest regions of Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania — including the capital — show relatively solid economic figures, while regions far from the capital show remarkably poor results. It is as if the “East-West” frontier isn’t drawn along international borders, but within these countries.
The most shocking difference is in Slovakia: GDP per capita is 160% of the EU-27 average in the western Bratislavsky kraj region — more than three times higher than in the Vychodná Slovensko region in eastern Slovakia, where per-capita GDP is 46% of the EU average.
In Romania, per-capita GDP in the Bucuresti-Iflov region is also more than three times higher than in the Nord-Est, Romania’s least-developed region:
We can see similar imbalances in Hungary and the Czech Republic:
The EU’s new member states also show a much higher imbalance in regional economic production than the EU-15:
These inequities may have crucial political consequences. People in formerly communist countries are nostalgic for big-government paternalism, have strong egalitarian ideologies and a need for high state redistribution. The majority of voters feel that the transformation to a market system has brought unbearably high gaps in income levels and huge social injustices.
These figures show that national governments and the EU have a lot of work to do in increasing social and regional cohesion. Although a huge amount of money has been spent on closing the gap between the regions, people!s wishes remain unfulfilled.
Possible risks of these regional economic imbalances:
- Social instability and a rise of social (or agrarian) populism. Regional inequities can be used as a political tool to mobilise voters in the poorest regions. Political parties can build upon the voters’ feelings of relative deprivation and fuel dissatisfaction in the countryside. As in most countries, the capital is by far the most developed region, and agrarian populism built upon the urban-rural rift can be a driving political force. On the other hand, if governments raise spending on regional integration, the more developed regions can accuse the poorer regions of “free riding”.
- Ethnic tensions. In the CEE countries mentioned, the majority of the Roma population lives in the least-developed regions. Frustration over unemployment is high in these places, and anger over the lack of opportunities is even stronger. Welfare chauvinism can become a powerful force in politics.
- A good opportunity for extreme right. Far-right populist parties can capitalize on the above factors, using dissatisfaction over living conditions and ethnic conflict to harvest votes. This is exactly what is happening in Hungary’s 2010 parliamentary elections, where the far-right Jobbik party stands to make the biggest gains in the least-developed counties. In some counties, Jobbik may even beat the governing Hungarian Socialist Party into second place.
Csaba Molnár- Péter Krekó
Nationalism loves nothing like uncertainty. People who feel insecure about their place in the global pecking order compensate with patriotic zealotry. Politicians love to manipulate this anxiety with vague, hard-to-pin-down policies on national greatness. Ambiguity is key: It makes it easier to deflect criticism from uppity liberals at home and gives them broad wiggle-room in the face of international condemnation.
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has demonstrated a genius for nebulous nationalism in his handling of Slovakia’s amendments to its language law. The new rules, which took effect in January, are designed to force Slovakia’s ethnic Hungarian population to speak more Slovak. Yet they are shrouded in such obscurity that people have broad freedom to read them as they please. This is a gift for nationalists not just in Slovakia, but in Hungary, with even Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai – not known for chauvinistic posturing – getting in on the game. The opposition Fidesz party, which is all but certain to replace Bajnai’s Socialists in Hungary’s April elections, is likely to escalate the tension. The ultra right-wing Jobbik party, which could conceivably beat the Socialists into second place next April, will certainly hold Slovakia’s feet to the fire.
The gist of the law is that Slovakia’s 520,000-strong ethnic Hungarian minority can get fined up to €5,000 if they use any language other than Slovak in government settings, unless the local population is more than 20% Hungarian. This raises Fico’s standing among nationalist voters and scares the stuffing out of ethnic Hungarians, which increases the likelihood that Fico will keep his job in Slovakia’s elections in June. The fact that not a single individual has been prosecuted under the law – and Fico has pledged that none will – is immaterial.
Bajnai, who knows a vote-magnet when he sees it, established a HUF 50 million (€183,848) fund on February 1 to pay the fines of ethnic Hungarians who breach the language law. Anyone can contribute to the fund, raising the possibility that wealthy Hungarian emigrés will rally to the cause. The fund is fodder for nationalists. Slovakia’s Culture Ministry complained that Bajnai is interfering in Slovakia’s domestic affairs. The Slovak National Party, a member of the governing coalition, accused Hungary of encouraging Slovak citizens to break the law.
In Hungary, Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán pledged his wholehearted support for the fund. Fidesz takes a much more strident tone on Slovakia’s Language Act than Bajnai’s Socialists: “They need to get over the fact that we exist,” said Zsolt Németh, Fidesz’s point man on foreign affairs, in a July 2009 interview with FigyelőNet. “When [Hungarian diplomats] are on the offensive, their words must not be subject to interpretation.”
What is subject to interpretation is the Slovak Language Act itself. Under pressure from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Fico’s government adopted a set of 21 non-binding criteria under which the law is to be enforced. The guidelines say that any fine must be justified by at least six of these criteria; however, the law contains no such provision, according to Lukáš Fila, who writes on the language law at Slovak newspaper Sme. It is thus unclear what constitutes a punishable violation.
Fico’s criteria contain other absurdities. “You are not allowed to use a minority language when talking to the postman if you are in a place where fewer than 20 percent of the population belongs to that minority,” Fila said. “The guidelines say you can, providing you both agree to do so – and everyone else who is present also gives their consent.”
This is what happens when national insecurities clash: Fico, whose country has only existed in its current form for 17 years, sallies forth like Don Quixote to slay the dragon of Hungarian hegemony – a threat that does not exist. The Hungarians, still miffed about losing most of their land after World War I, rush to help their kinfolk fight a ridiculous law that has little chance of being enforced. All the more absurd, given that Hungary is Slovakia’s fifth-biggest foreign investor, having sunk nearly €2.1 billion into the country.
It is no accident that all this is happening against the backdrop of elections in both countries. The likely winners – Orbán and Fico – share the same admiration for big-government policies tinged with nationalist rhetoric. It is precisely this similarity that will make it impossible for them to cooperate.
We have recently released the results of our latest research on right-wing extremism. The fact that right-wing extremism is on the rise comes as no surprise. More and more extremist political parties are achieving political success in local, national or European elections. What we were interested in was the social background of extremism: How deeply is it rooted in different societies in Europe and beyond?
The most important conclusion is that while Western societies seem more or less reluctant to embrace such ideologies, some of the new EU members in the east are highly predisposed to right-wing extremism, as are countries beyond the EU’s eastern borders.
This phenomenon poses several threats to the European Union:
- A new division is evolving between East and West. It is similar to the Iron Curtain, though its borders do not exactly follow the original. It is not made of barbed wire, but of ideas and politics. Still, it is capable of separating Europe’s two halves for a very long time.
- Mainstream political parties in Central and South Eastern Europe are reacting to the new popular demand for extremism and may apply some of its features to their own political agendas. It’s not that these mainstream parties will become extremists themselves; however, since politics is about hunting for voters, moderates will have to attract more and more extremists to win elections.
- Common features of this new political extremism are Euroscepticism and pro-Russian foreign policies. Both undermine the core values of the European Union.
So what now? Countries that are most infected with right-wing extremism have developed different strategies to cope with it, but none of them seems to work. It is therefore extremely important that decision-makers in Brussels not leave these young democracies to their own devices. Brussels should:
- Put more effort into analysing and understanding the rise of right-wing extremism;
- Understand that this is not a problem of faraway exotic countries. It will punch Europe in the face sooner than expected;
- Set up a network of experts from outside the political sphere and help them cooperate with one another;
- Collect best practices on coping with extremists;
- Create a European strategy to halt the spread of extremism;
- Tell Central Europe’s mainstream political parties very clearly not to meddle with extremism.
The rise of extremism represents a wake-up call to Brussels.
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Political Capital’s team