In Central European politics the EU used to matter. Not any longer
To stitch together patches of clashing colours, you will need a solid neutral thread. The result may not be aesthetically pleasing, but it will do, provided the thread doesn't break. The latest developments in the four new Central European EU members, however, have shown that this is inevitable. And Bulgaria, with a tri-partite coalition of clashing colours in power, and due to join the EU in January 2007, might get caught up in the same political game for years to come.
Two years after EU accession, the Visegrad Four countries are governed by coalitions comprised of politically incompatible parties, which wouldn't survive long if it wasn't for EU membership requiring political and economic stability. The EU, however, appears not to be the driving force in these countries any more. Not for citizens whose EU enthusiasm is wearing off and giving way to disappointment. Recent months have seen four astoundingly similar versions of the same political scenario: the coalitions in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia fraying around the edges, making political crisis almost impossible to escape.
Poland's governing coalition, comprised of the conservative Law and Justice party and the populist Self-Defence, collapsed just a year after it was formed. EU membership proved to be too weak an argument for the parties to overcome their differences. As a result, Poland is now facing the possibility of early elections, with none of the political parties likely to win the majority of the votes.
The outcome in the Czech Republic after the election stalemate this summer was similar, resulting in a coalition fiasco: the attempt to form a grand coalition of the centre-left Social Democrats and the centre-right Civic Democrats was unsuccessful as the weakly stitched together, highly experimental cabinet lost the confidence vote in parliament last month.
The political situation in Slovakia is even more alarming with Social Democrat Prime Minister Robert Fico forming a coalition with the Slovakian National Party, known for its ultranationalist and xenophobic ideas. Fico pledged to soften the economic reform undertaken by Mikulas Dzurinda's previous Liberal government, raising fears that his coalition might roll back some of the reforms which made the country an investment paradise.
Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany's videotaped admission that he had lied to the people "night and day" about the state of the Hungarian economy, coupled with the severe, yet necessary reforms he started in the summer, triggered widespread protests that the opposition party, Fidesz, vows to uphold until Gyurcsany steps down.
The scandal was followed by the governing Socialist Party-Free Democrats coalition suffering a heavy blow at the local elections: it lost in 18 out of 19 constituencies. The only relief was that Budapest's Socialist Mayor Gabor Demzsky was re-elected for the fifth time with a narrow win of 1.6 percent. Gyurcsany, however, is determined to stay in office and to continue with the reforms - a week after the local elections he won a vote of confidence in parliament.
Opposition party leader Viktor Orban's populist approach has fuelled the Hungarian electorate's disappointment. Orban has called for all citizens to take part in what he has labelled "a new Hungarian revolution", drawing parallels with the 1956 uprising, the 60th anniversary of which Hungary marked in October.
Last month, Lajos Kossuth Square played host to opposition supporters waving the orange Fidesz flag, freelance activists handing out nationalistic anti-EU leaflets, and people lighting candles in memory of the victims of the 1956 Revolution. Although the protests might not topple the government, they are a sign that the next election will be a serious test for the political stability of the country.
The political crisis in the Visegrad countries, whose memories of EU accession celebrations are still fresh, is due to people's fears that the reforms required by the EU won't be implemented in the way they should.
"We are not against the necessary economic changes, we just think this lying government we have now is not able to make them," says Peter Harmat, a doctor of physics from Budapest. Disappointment and frustration in Central Europe is paving the way to anti-European and nationalistic feelings, thus making the people easy bait for populism. The latter might result in slow or no progress in implementation of the necessary reforms.
Meanwhile, in This Neck of the Woods
The European Commission's latest monitoring report concluded that the political situation in Bulgaria was stable despite the multicoloured tri-partite ruling coalition, which was stitched together as a last resort to avoid a political crisis. Forming the coalition was an effort to counter rising support for nationalistic, xenophobic far-right party Ataka which had emerged from the elections with unexpectedly strong backing.
Political observers claim that EU membership is the only thread that holds the three parties together. Supposedly, once Bulgaria accedes to the EU, the coalition will come apart at the seams under the pressure of reforms and public disillusionment, the latter being already visible in the plummeting interest in politics and the fact that no single cabinet has been elected for a second mandate since the fall of the Communist regime.
The Bulgarian Government is faced with a choice: either diligently patch in the reforms required by the EU, or risk letting the thread break.