Alexandra Barcea gives Bright Green an Eastern European perspective on Trump’s inauguration

A photo of the WOmens March in Budapest
Budapest protesters on the Women’s March on Saturday, 21st January. Credit: Lidia Klingenberg

The Trump inauguration and the protests that it sparked received some well-deserved attention, given that they may hugely affect our lives for many years to come.

However, as always, in the shadow of the games played by the big boys in the USA, less publicised but perhaps equally significant jockeying for position is taking place across Europe. We already know that Theresa May is about to meet Trump at the end of this very week to negotiate (some say grovel) for a continued ‘special relationship’ and that various right wing parties in various Western European countries are rubbing their hands with glee, while Angela Merkel seems to emerge as a lone voice of resistance, but is also forced to make compromises with the new US administration.

I hope I am not right about this, but in this context it may yet turn out to be significant in deciding which sphere of influence the governments of Central and Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans choose to side with: the US, Merkel’s EU or Putin’s Russia, and how they comport themselves in the process. So far, the region’s governments are falling over each other to either make friends with Donald Trump or cozy up even more to Putin, which does not bode well.

I know less about the Western Balkans situation, although a close friend from Macedonia is telling me to pay special attention as the region may re-ignite the powder keg that was burning so horribly brightly and with such awful consequences in the early 90s.

However, I have some insight into Central and Eastern Europe, the so-called New EU Member States, who are yet again showing a marked degree of spinelessness vis-à-vis the big powers of the moment. On the one side, we have Mr Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary, hoping to but not receiving an invitation to the Trump inauguration, in spite of angling for it as hard as he can, especially by early on styling himself as Trump’s only friend and calling up the new administration with warm congratulations even before they have taken power. On the other side, we have the newly minted and already deeply unpopular government of Romania, who are said to be leading in the race to Trump’s White House. Sorin Grindeanu, the new Romanian social democratic PM, and Liviu Dragnea, chairman of the Romanian Social Democratic Party (PSD), delightedly turn up at the Trump inauguration and a host of related events, and communicate this as a clever coup for their country. In the process, old regional rivalries are reignited and feel hilarious if they were not so tragic. But at the same time, perhaps more obscenely, old patterns of servility and home-grown autocracy (Hungary) or bare-faced opportunism (Romania) are strengthened and emboldened. Neither of these serve the people of the two countries well. Not that the people were asked whether they love Trump or would rather stand against what he proposes.

Some of this is the logical result of the enormous disempowerment that Central and Eastern Europe has justifiably felt for centuries at being the plaything of empires that muscled in on them from every side (Russian, Austro-Hungarian, would-be Nazi, and so forth), with no regard as to what actually happened in this part of the world. For a very instructive read of how this panned out at the end of World War I, I recommend Margaret Macmillan’s Peacemakers: Six Months that Changed the World; and again at the end of World War II, there is the minutely researched Yalta: the Price of Peace by SM Plokhy. That disempowerment and frustration constantly simmers and occasionally burns bright in the policies and proposals of far right parties such as Jobbik in Hungary or Kotleba’s People’s Party Our Slovakia. But it is alive and well in the mainstream, showing itself in the modus operandi of current governments in the region. Unaddressed and unprocessed – and clearly we are light years away from doing so – those historically created but now dangerously misplaced feelings of superiority, ‘what about me’ and ‘let us show you who we are for once’ are ruling supreme in Central and Eastern Europe politics, with effects just as toxic as Brexit in the UK and trumpism in the US. Hence the affinity with those political trends.

Of course, as always, Central and Eastern Europe may be forgiven for preferring to be part of the US sphere of influence rather than that of Russia, were it not for the fact that right now there seems to be little difference between the two.

On the other hand, there is a sinister side to the region’s governments’ unseemly scramble to get into bed with Trump. This has to do with the intentional and declared policies by the current governments of Central and Eastern Europe of demolishing any remaining democratic or ‘liberal’ tendencies in their countries; and the huge chance that the Trump ascendancy provides to do just that. This is opportunism at its worst; it has betrayed the people of Europe repeatedly, most darkly of course in the 1930s. At the very least, this trend deserves to be understood, highlighted and talked about in UK progressive circles, in spite of the usual weak media coverage of anything East of Berlin.

Beyond that, it would be good if progressive organisations in the UK and elsewhere continued to seek out, pay attention to and try to cooperate with their counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe. As has been pointed out before, the fascists are doing this really well; we need to keep up with them. But it is an effort; the UK is still beholden to its insularity that led it to Brexit, and to its own historical amnesia in spite of huge numbers of Central and Eastern Europeans living on the streets of London, Sheffield or Edinburgh.

To become more aware, then, of Central and Eastern European resistance movements is the first task. In Romania, for example, thousands of people have taken to the streets for the past week or so to prevent the new government headed by the same PM that waltzed with Trump in Washington, rescinding anti-corruption laws. In Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, committed if comparably tiny band of feminists marched on Saturday, 21st January in solidarity with their sisters elsewhere. And in Poland, valiant opposition MPs are staging parliamentary sit-ins in response of the ruling PiS party’s latest plans to curb civil liberties and access to information.

The next step would be to get in touch with the international sections of our political parties or movements and ask the question: how connected are we, really, with our comrades in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Poland or the Balkans? Whom do we know that we can learn from? In our parties, how many times have we met someone who is from those countries and could facilitate those links?

I invite you to work with me on making that solidarity happen in a way that brings change. Not to be too urgent, but time is of the essence.