10 November 2019

Communism is gone, but there is still a burning desire for change in Eastern Europe

By Eszter Szucs

With the support of the Atlas Network, CapX is publishing a series of essays and podcasts on the theme of Illiberalism in Europe, looking at the different threats to liberal economies and societies across the continent, from populism to protectionism and corruption.

The Berlin Wall didn’t just come down in one place in 1989. It came down in thousands of smaller ways in the minds of millions of people.

For me, it came down that year in the living room of my family’s small country house in the Hungarian countryside. I was 11 years old, it was summer and we were on vacation. Normally we would have all been outside, but instead my entire family was glued to the TV. That is how I knew the news was significant. Prime Minister Imre Nagy was being buried.

A prime minister’s burial would be news in any country, but Nagy had been executed and left in an unmarked grave in 1956 after the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and bloodily crushed the Hungarian revolution. Though not uncontroversial, he represented a connection to a part of our past that had been walled off. As we watched the television, a charismatic 26 year-old activist took the stage on Budapest’s Heroes’ Square, and described Nagy has a man who pushed back against the “blind obedience to the Russian empire and the dictatorship of a single party.” His name was Viktor Orban.

Thirty years later much of the unbridled optimism of 1989 is gone, and countries in Eastern Europe now find themselves again on a frontier. In Hungary and Poland, the governments have worked to restrict civil society, with people like Orban leading the way. Meanwhile Romania has struggled to successfully prosecute corruption cases, Slovakia has seen the rise of far right extremists, and the Czech Republic has dealt with continuing controversy concerning its prime minister’s business interests.

Despite these challenges, as a new generation comes of age that never experienced 1989, there are reasons to be hopeful. Generation Z, born stating 1997, is far from apathetic or uninterested in public issues. According to the report on Attitudes in Central and Eastern Europe 30 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall, this generation is aware of the danger democracy and the rule of law are facing. But that interest doesn’t always translate into traditional politics.

What we have seen, though, is a global blooming of issue-specific movements for change. In those movements—including #Metoo and the People’s Climate March—young people have taken the lead, including in the former communist counties of Eastern Europe. For many, it is their interest in one specific issue that first brings them into progressive politics.

One example that makes me hopeful is the town of Banská Bystrica in Slovakia. It is a centre for far-right politics in the region, and in 2013 Marian Kotleba was elected governor after targeting Roma in his election campaign and calling them “parasites”.

In response, young people took the lead in the local chapter of Not in Our Town, which was first set up in Billings, Montana in 1995 to fight hate crimes. Some of those who started coming out to join were so young that the organisers asked them to get their parents’ permission first. Other young people came after leaving far-right organisations. Not In Our Town included all of them, providing a venue for inclusion and progressive activism that organised events to bring different populations in the city together. In 2017 they celebrated a major victory when Kotleba lost his bid for re-election.

Having worked with community organisers for years, that example shows me how far youth enthusiasm can go when coupled with experience and organisation. When those elements come together they can yield surprising results, as they did in the Hungarian town of Szeged when LGBTQI youth activists came together to deal with the shortage of places where LGBTI youth could go and be safe.

Working with a well-trained organiser, they created a network of restaurants, cafes, bars and other public spaces in Szeged that welcomed LGBTI people. They faced hurdles, including a community centre the refused to allow them to hold their meetings there, but overcame them both creating the network, and successfully bringing a case to the Equal Treatment Authority against the community centre, and winning.

These principles of combining enthusiasm and experience also work on a larger scale. In October this year, the opposition took back Budapest when Gergely Karácsony became mayor. That was possible because activists played a major role in pushing for organising the first opposition primary, which allowed one candidate to be put forward in the election, and win. There too the enthusiasm of the young combined with the know-how of experienced activists delivered results.

That is what I see as one the most important connections between and 1989 and today. Young people still care and want change, but they need the skills to achieve it. If remembered that way, the fall of the wall is not just about a historic event, but a reminder of the tools that made it possible, and how to hone them.

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Eszter Szucs is Program Officer for the Open Society Initiative for Europe