When the four Visegrád countries—Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic—were joining EU and NATO, hopes were running high for a reinvigoration both of the transatlantic partnership, and of sclerotic EU structures and institutions. Ten years later, instead of a new generation of forward-looking leaders, the region’s political debates are dominated by the likes of Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński, or Miloš Zeman. Reforms in Central Europe have not only stalled, but some of the main achievements of the post-1989 era, including independent media, judiciaries, and openness to foreign investment, are now under attack.
But the tide might be turning again. Across Central Europe, new reformist parties are hoping to emulate Emmanuel Macron’s success France. In Poland, there is the Nowoczesna (“Modern”) party, founded in 2015 by economist Ryszard Petru. The Momentum Movement in Hungary, led by the 28-year old András Fekete-Győr, was transformed into a political party in March this year after successfully pressuring the Hungarian government into withdrawing its bid to host the 2024 Olympics. In Slovakia, there are two emerging political groups with similar goals: the left-liberal Progressive Slovakia and the center-right Spolu–Civic Democracy (“Spolu” means “together” in Slovak).1
These new movements appear to be drawing support mostly from young urbanites who are waking up to the geopolitical choices that their countries face—striving to integrate into the EU’s core versus remaining outside of the eurozone—but also to the reality of incomplete post-communist transitions that have left the quality of public services in particular lagging far behind the economic progress achieved in the past 28 years.
Between 1992 and 2015, the population of Central and Eastern Europe shrank by 6 percent, as citizens of new EU member states sought a better life elsewhere. The emigration flows have slowed down as of late but the diasporas remain large—close to 10 percent of Slovak citizens, for example, live in other OECD member states—and are not in a rush to return to countries with subpar education and healthcare systems.
To many young people, post-communist democratic politics is an unsatisfying way of changing things. In fact, extremists in Hungary and Slovakia enjoy a disproportionate level of support among the youngest generation of voters, who lack direct experience with non-democratic rule. For that reason, Hungary’s Momentum Movement aims to “bring politics closer to the people by making it more direct and more social,” as its deputy leader Tamás Soproni explains. “What most people see in us is the potential to mobilize, to bring politics to the streets,” he adds.
Characteristically, at the “ideas conference” of Progressive Slovakia in Bratislava in September, the crowd had an overwhelmingly millennial, urban, iPhone-wielding bent to it. Many of the movement’s representatives lean Left but most appear to embrace markets and innovation. Quite a few, including the movement’s leader, Ivan Štefunko, are coming into politics from technological start-ups. Štefunko founded several business ventures, including Pelikan.sk, Slovakia’s successful competitor to Kayak and Expedia. He also offers a powerful personal story. In 2007, shortly after his daughter was born, doctors found a malformation in his brain. Three surgeries later, few expected him to be able to regain the ability to speak and write. Since then, he has launched new business projects and now is hoping to become the leader of Slovakia’s center-left.
Poland’s Nowoczesna, which came fourth in the 2015 election, is by far the most seasoned of the new political groups in the region. Its leader, Ryszard Petru is a former student of one of the country’s first post-Communist reformers, Leszek Balcerowicz. After a stint at the World Bank in Washington, he returned to Poland in the mid-2000s where he worked in the private sector and also built up a presence as author and public intellectual.
The decision to start a party was “a result of liberal discontent which was growing during the entire second term of the Civic Platform (PO) government,” Mateusz Sabat, Nowoczesna’s co-founder and its current head of research, tells me. “It was caused by their lack of a long-term vision and political will to modernize the country.” Although Poland successfully weathered the Great Recession, the Civic Platform government, led by Donald Tusk and Ewa Kopacz, was complacent about economic policy and preparing Poland for the challenges that lied ahead: automation, globalization, and ageing. To plug a growing hole in the country’s public finances, in 2013 the center-right government simply nationalized the assets held by private pension funds, ignoring PO’s own free-market principles and creating a dangerous precedent for economic populism to come.
Since the election of Mr. Kaczyński’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, the stakes have gone up for Nowoczesna. “We had to stand fast against PiS to protect the Constitution and the very principles of our democracy to stop the quasi-Bolshevik revolution started by the ruling party,” Mr. Sabat says. Nowoczesna’s story is also a cautionary tale—after its rapid rise in the polls after PiS’ electoral in October 2015, when Nowoczesna was seen as a genuine alternative to both PiS and the flailing PO, its support has started to decline and is now hovering at around 10 percent, down from above 20 percent in early 2016.
Mr. Petru’s background resembles that of Miroslav Beblavý, the young leader of Slovakia’s Spolu and a member of Slovakia’s parliament. A UK-trained economist who has spent time both in the policy world and academia, he served as junior minister at the ministry of social affairs in the early 2000s. His ambition is to fill the void created by the implosion of the country’s catch-all Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU), once led by the reformist Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda.
Unlike the Left-leaning Progressives, Mr. Beblavý has already recruited several parliamentarians from fragmented political parties on the center-right. He also believes that the popular appeal of political groups tailored to center-left, millennial audiences is limited. Although Slovakia is not as socially conservative as neighboring Poland, with 62 percent Catholics and one of the smallest urban populations in Europe, a successful leadership will require navigating away from the divisive cultural wars. The region has also seen very little immigration and the idea of accommodating any number of refugees from Africa and the Arab world stirs strong emotions. Attempting to confront them head-on seems a fool’s errand for an aspiring political leader.
A more compelling way forward involves offering practical solutions to people’s grievances and stressing the importance of the region’s place in the EU’s integration core. With the exception of Slovakia, Visegrád countries remain outside of the eurozone. The problem is not only that, by staying outside, Central European countries are excluding themselves from important conversations about the bloc’s future—conversations which will likely affect them economically and politically. For Poland especially, as Mr. Sabat tells me, joining the euro as soon as possible is a matter of national security, given the country’s proximity to Russia.
One country appears to be in a very different mental place and is ostensibly not experiencing the same ferment in its political center: the Czech Republic. There, that space had long been filled by Andrej Babiš’ movement, ANO. A member of the liberal ALDE family in the European Parliament, ANO (the acronym for “Alliance of Dissatisfied Citizens”—also meaning “yes” in Czech) was founded before the most recent election in the autumn of 2013. Its success catapulted its leader, also one of the wealthiest Czechs and the owner of the country’s two leading broadsheet newspapers, straight into the office of Finance Minister.
The sheer concentration of economic and political power in the hands of one person is making many Czechs uneasy. As junior coalition partner to the Czech Social Democrats, Mr. Babiš’ impact on policymaking has been limited to small, overwhelmingly technical, reforms. As of late, his large conflicts of interest are also limiting his popular appeal, especially as one of his signature business ventures is being investigated for fraud involving EU subsidies.
Still, after the parliamentary elections held later this month, Mr. Babiš is expected to become the Czech Republic’s next Prime Minister. Although his centrism has a populist flavor and his promises are poor on details, it offers an important lesson to the aspiring reformers of the region. For better and worse, his politics never aspired to forcibly drag ordinary Czechs outside of their comfort zone, whether it came to immigration or EU matters. Simultaneously, his party has given a platform to a number of high-quality individuals, including the current defense minister or the European Commissioner Věra Jourová.
Mr. Babiš might end up disappointing voters—especially if his campaign slogans prove to be more effective than his policies. However, to all those who are seeking to anchor Central Europe in the West, they should serve as a reminder that the right instincts, professionalism, and a certain degree of ruthlessness are necessary conditions for political success. Until then, the lofty ambitions, such as the hope to build “a new kind of politics, in which we organize ourselves from our roots, and we put a greater emphasis on our local groups and communities”—as Momentum’s Mr. Soproni explained his movement’s goals to me—will have to wait.
1 Full disclosure: Rohac co-authored a position paper of Spolu – Civic Democracy on foreign policy, together with Vladimír Bilčík and the party’s founder, Miroslav Beblavý.