When we think about Eastern Europe, we still have very distinct images and stereotypes in mind. The Cold War painted the East in a communist red that is hard to wash off, but eventually, they tried. In the 90s, many Eastern European Countries were full of hope and motivation to transition and converge to the rich west by means of liberal policies and a free market. But tipping the scales is a risky endeavor, one that would swing Eastern European states from left to right until, eventually, the far right took over. But how did the right-wing come to fruition in those former socialist societies?
Western Germany: From Right-Wing Dictatorship to Liberal Democracy
Western Germany, the pinnacle of economic success and the model state of democracy and capitalism as showcased by its “Wirtschaftswunder“. When the iron curtain eventually came down, reuniting a democratic Europe with the socialist east, there was hope. The hope of the poor to find better lives, the hope of everyone, to have it better than before.
After all, the US and West Germany had shown the way, and they were doing great. Germany, of all countries, found success in democracy and a free market, bouncing back from a horrible far right fascist dictatorship. So if it worked from that right-wing angle, why wouldn’t it work the other way around? Why wouldn’t it be possible for the east to bounce back from socialism and dictatorship on the other end?
The fall of the iron curtain was a triumph both for western and eastern societies, but for very different reasons. For the wealthy on both sides, it opened markets and opportunity, but for the poor, it opened the gate to a new kind of hell. Promises were made and broken, promises of a better western lifestyle under democratic rule and liberal principles – a “rags to riches” mentality that made the US famous.
Breeding Ground for the Far Right in Eastern Europe
But much like the US, it transformed a formerly equal society into an unfair one, one where the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. The gap it created in Eastern Europe was far wider than that of the US is even today, and it brought with it a sense of abandonment. They were promised wealth, they were promised a rich lifestyle, but no one ever gave it time.
What happens when you blindly connect a former socialist dictatorship to the free market? It plummets. Hard. It made things worse for many, while raised living standards for a few. High unemployment rates that kept rising and a plummeting economy were not what people were expecting when reuniting with the gloriously successful European Union. With the dense population of Europe, Eastern European Nations were constantly reminded of their status compared to the west. There was a visible gap, one that was impossible to close. Eastern European Capitals eventually caught up with the west, but, in the process, made the gap even more apparent. Rural areas were largely unaffected by the changes they were promised, instead, it brought fear, frustration, and xenophobia in the form of far right politics of clever right-wing parties.
The Rise of Right-Wing Parties in the East
The harsh transition from socialism to a free market economy created a gap which gave room for right-wing sentiments to grow. Like weeds filling the cracked pavement of the European Union, the far right was and is feeding off the dirt found in its depths and threatens to tip the scales, eventually overgrowing everything. The gap between countries may shrink to a certain extent, however, there is no way in hell countries like Poland or Hungary will ever reach the heights of their rich western neighbors in the current political climate.
This divide can also be seen within Germany, as it was split into a democratic west and a socialist east prior to 1989. Since its reunification, right-wing sentiments have been strongest in the most eastern parts of the country, for very similar reasons. Although Germany has done a lot to rebuild and modernize the east, it still is plagued by high unemployment rates and an aging demographic. Young people still seek their fortunes in the west if they can, instead of staying in East Germany.
European Union: The Right-Wing Threat
The right-wing parties in Europe are incredibly varied, but they do share similar characteristics. They don’t overthrow the system, they work within it, all while claiming to not be part of it. They are an anti-establishment movement, taking a radical view against immigration and promoting a nationally coined social welfare system (welfare chauvinism).
Be it Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, Andrej Kiska in Slovakia or the newly elected Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, they all can be traced back to a growing issue caused by trying to push western principles onto states ravaged by socialism.
Those states have slowly rejected it, culminating in the current situation, where this very rejection grew so big that it may very well tip the scales within the European Union.
The EU is the very representation of the liberal views and policies that failed those countries so miserably when they needed it the most, without any sign to change its course of action. Even if the European Union were to change, it may be a tad too late to get the far right in the east back on board. Right-wing parties are here to stay, the question is, will they eventually infect the rest of the European Union?
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