Eastern Europe Turns Right: Can Burkeans Prevail amid Socialism and Ethnic Fury?

Article excerpt

Ever since Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire in the streets of Sarajevo almost 100 years ago, nationalism has been a defining feature of inter-European relations. Indeed, the same city in which Princip began Europe's descent into war at the beginning of the 20th century was again the scene of ethnic violence and mass killing at its end. What the last hundred years have shown is that nationalism can be put forward as a remedy for a variety of ills--such as empire, rampant inflation, humiliation, and poverty--and countries all across Europe, from Ireland to the former Yugoslavia, have at times fallen into its spell.

Lately nationalist and ethnocentric movements have undergone a resurgence in Europe--not least in the formerly communist East, where classical liberal and Christian conservative parties have often struggled to take root. Nationalist parties in the region include Hungary's Jobbik, Slovakia's Slovak National Party, Latvia's National Alliance, and Romania's Greater Romania Party.

In some countries, ethnic minorities have formed their own parties, such as the Slovakia's Most Hid, a center-right leaning group that focuses heavily on the relationship of that country's Hungarian minority to its the Slovak majority. In Romania, a Hungarian minority is represented by the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania. In Lithuania, the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania exists as the voice of the Polish community. Not all countries have welcomed this kind of minority politics, however: in Bulgaria, for example, ethnic Macedonians are refused the ability to form political parties.

Far-right parties are enjoying a new vogue in Western Europe as well, partly as a reaction against the super-national pretensions of the European Union and partly in response to the growing Muslim presence. Resentment of the EU helps stoke Eastern European nationalism as well, but more importantly there are older ethnic divisions that have long been repressed--and which now threaten to combine with a lingering authoritarianism that is held over from the Soviet years.

But it is not easy to draw the line between nationalism and populism, or even simple democracy. And Burkean conservatives in Eastern Europe must compete not only with the nationalist far right but also with other rightwing groupings that are statist but not explicitly ethnocentric, such as Hungary's Fidesz party.

Indeed, Hungary is a case in point. Last year the Fidesz government passed a law requiring that all media outlets register with a government-controlled regulator that has the power to impose fines of up to 700,000 euros for "unbalanced news coverage" and material deemed "insulting to the majority" or in violation of "public morality." Yet despite such authoritarian media laws, Hungary is something of a conservative success. The country has come under fire from European leftists for its new constitution, which went into effect Jan. 1 and is a decidedly Burkean document. The constitution recognizes the place Basic Law has in forming a contract between all Hungarians, acknowledges the role of Christianity in the nation, abolishes the statute of limitations on prosecution of ex-Soviet thugs, and recognizes human life from the moment of conception. It's not hard to see why some of these provisions would unsettle bureaucrats in Brussels.

Viktor Orban's government has also come under pressure from the unelected International Monetary Fund and European Commission for proposals that would put the Hungarian central bank under the oversight of elected officials. Foreign-policy analyst Daniel McAdams, writing on the American libertarian website LewRockwell.com, summed up the irony of this situation: "It is particularly rich to see the European Commission threatening legal action against the Hungarian government unless it 'returns to democracy.' ... The European Commission, that paragon of democracy, is as we know an entirely unelected body that meets and votes in secret. …