Rampant corruption, massive protests. Is Eastern Europe coming undone?
The Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary all provoking large protests, EU ire
It's the "Wild East" of the European Union. Here nationalism, cronyism, anti-Semitism, anti-Roma racism and corruption — above all corruption — strut and dominate the public arena.
Where to begin?
Perhaps in the Czech Republic. They're holding parliamentary elections on the weekend. The reason? The Czech government collapsed because the prime minister, Petr Nečas, was forced to resign.
His senior aide, who was also his lover and is now his wife, had ordered the country's security services to spy on the prime minister's then wife and report back. The aide wanted to push through a speedy divorce.
Then there's Romania where large street demonstrations against corruption are the order of the week, the month, the year, not to mention last year and the year before.
The demonstrations have brought down ministers and governments without ending the problem.
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The added twist this fall is that the demonstrations have been against corruption AND the development of the Rosia Montana open-pit gold mine, the biggest in Europe, which is owned by a Canadian company.
Next door, in Bulgaria, things are even wilder. In February, 100,000 people stormed through the streets protesting against unemployment, corruption and high electricity prices. The government resigned.
In June, a new government appointed a so-called security czar, Delyan Peevski, a 32 year old referred to coyly as "a media mogul with dubious friends."
He also had no experience in policing or security. Within 36 hours he was gone, the victim of a huge public backlash. The backlash continued for 40 days, with demonstrations getting bigger and bloodier.
The irony is that bringing these countries into the union in the last dozen years was supposed to be the first step to emptying the swamp of corruption.
Each of these nations had to sign "governance agreements" that committed them to cleaning up their acts. That clean-up hasn't happened.
Instead European money, rivers of it, has flowed in to build roads, restore buildings and improve a stagnant infrastructure.
Large chunks of that money has simply gone missing. In effect, Europe has magnified, not reduced, the corruption problem by putting more cash up for grabs.
Hungary, a special case
Hungary doesn't quite fit the mould of the other three countries as it combines nationalism, corruption and the rise of the extreme right.
Once, a dozen years ago, Viktor Orban, Hungary's prime minister, was hailed by outsiders as the best post-Communist leader the country had had.
Now, three years after his return to power in 2010 he has become a strident nationalist who denounces Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, of which his country is a member, as the "new Moscow."
The EU parliament returned the compliment, officially rebuking his government for working to strip the Hungarian judiciary and media of their independence and for rewriting the country's constitution to suit its whims.
But that's only a taste of Hungary's current anxieties.
The country's fastest growing party is Jobbik, an extreme right-wing group that polled 17 per cent in the 2010 elections, largely by attacking the Roma minority (roughly 800,000 in a country of 10 million) in virulent terms.
Roma were "Gypsy criminals," Jobbik leader Gabor Vona, shouted from podiums. Other Jobbik leaders railed against "Jews and financiers" as well.
Jobbik created its own vigilante group, calling it the Hungarian Guard and giving it uniforms and symbols that intentionally recalled those of the pro-Nazi militia of the 1930s and '40s.
The Orban government tolerated this and then, this spring, went further when its minister of culture awarded the country's highest award for journalism to a man who had called the Roma "monkeys" and was known for his scarcely-veiled anti-Semitic remarks.
Oligarchs and mafia
Hungary's position on the Roma is the most glaring, but official attitudes towards that group in all four countries are unforgiving.
It's an ongoing headache for Brussels and for countries like France that find themselves trying, and failing, to cope with the inflow of Roma from Eastern Europe.
Just as worrying for Brussels is the continuing rampant corruption in these former Soviet satellites.
Bulgaria is the worst case. It is the poorest country in the EU and many leaders in Brussels, not to mention the legion of Bulgarian protestors, believe that much of the state is beholden to "oligarchs" or "mafias."
So glaring is the problem that when tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets of Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, this summer to denounce corruption and the government, European justice commissioner Viviane Reding went along, to meet the demonstrators, and tweeted, "Here in Sofia my sympathy is with Bulgarian citizens who are protesting against corruption."
Alas, the tweets and weeks of protests were not enough to force the government to resign.
Compared to Bulgaria, the Czech Republic is far richer but hardly immune from corruption and cronyism. In the two-year period before Nečas was forced to resign, a former defence minister, a former top aide to a prime minister, an MP and governor of a large province and the mayor of Prague were all charged with crimes relating to fraud, bribes and corruption.
In Romania, a report in July by the country's National Agency for Integrity said that half the mayors should resign because of conflicts of interest. They sat on the boards of companies their cities were giving contracts to.
Throughout all of this, EU leaders look on and cluck censoriously. They do little more.
It has been less than a quarter-century since these countries cast off the Communist yoke. But whether it's the centralization of all power, as in Hungary, or the dead hand of corrupt elites, the ways learned in the days of Soviet domination persist.
The Wild East still thrives.
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