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Central Europe: Intellectuals Fret Over Upsurge In Nationalist Rhetoric

A group of prominent Europeans is appealing to politicians and other influential Europeans to speak out against nationalist rhetoric. The group is worried about what it calls "cheap populism," based on old grievances, that it says threatens the unification of Europe.

Prague, 25 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Nationalism is a real threat to Central Europe and to European unification, and it's no use laughing off the key players as actors in a farce.

That's the view of a group of about two dozen prominent Europeans who are appealing to politicians and other influential Europeans to speak out against nationalist rhetoric and what they call "cheap populism" based on old, mostly wartime and post-war grievances.

The group includes former Hungarian President Arpad Goncz; Bela Bugar, a prominent ethnic Hungarian politician in Slovakia; former Austrian Vice Chancellor Erhard Busek; German writer Gunther Grass; Polish intellectual Adam Michnik; Czech bishop Vaclav Maly; and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Green Party deputy in the European Parliament most famous for leading the 1968 student demonstrations in Paris.

The one-page declaration warns that "voices from the center of the continent" are tearing open old wounds and reviving traumas "rooted in the wars of the previous century." The group even brings up Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin as reminders of the murderous excesses extreme nationalism can produce.

"Do we want that figures like Volksgenosse Schicklgruber [Adolf Hitler] and tovarishch Djugashvili [Josef Stalin], intruders emerging from the Hades of history, to make their way into our unifying Europe?" it asks. "Let us not be calmed down by saying that the tragedies of history will repeat themselves as burlesque. Burlesque sometimes ends up in tragedy."

Petr Pithart, speaker of the upper house of the Czech parliament, or Senate, initiated the appeal. "It's not about the revival of nationalism in [Western] Europe that is connected with immigration and illegal immigration. Here in Central Europe, it's about reviving old wounds and calculating who caused whom the bigger wrongs, which is the sort of calculation that can never end well. So it's a reaction to what's going on, to what you can hear some politicians in Central Europe saying," Pithart said.

What have those politicians been saying? Former Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban angered neighbors with legislation that gives economic and social benefits to ethnic Hungarians abroad, many of whom live in Romania and Slovakia.

He also antagonized Czechs and Slovaks by calling on them to repeal the so-called Benes Decrees, post-war legislation that legalized the confiscation of property from Czechoslovakia's German and Hungarian minorities.

Before Orban's comments, the Benes Decrees had already served to ratchet up tension between Prague and its German and Austrian neighbors. Some politicians in Vienna even urged the European Union to link Czech accession talks to a resolution of the problem. Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman waded in by describing Sudeten Germans as Hitler's "Fifth Column."

And the decrees also popped up during this month's Czech parliamentary election campaign. Politicians from both sides of the spectrum used them in a bid to gain votes, promising the decrees would not be abolished and exploiting fears that expelled Germans could return to claim confiscated property.

Pithart said the scare-mongering campaign could bode ill for the Czech Republic's European Union hopes when EU entry is eventually put to the electorate in a referendum. "The danger is that support for joining the European Union after our electoral campaign is falling, falling because in the campaign these old wounds, old threats, were exploited. So that's a real danger. We can't exclude that the referendum will turn out other than what I would like. It's happened. It happened for different reasons, but it happened in Ireland, in Denmark after [the] Maastricht [Treaty on European Union], and you can't rule out that it could happen now, here among the candidate countries. We have to do something against that and show that these threats won't scare the public," Pithart said.

Another signatory to the appeal, French political scientist Jacques Rupnik, wrote in a recent paper that nationalist outbursts in Austria and Germany can fuel anti-EU sentiment in applicant countries. And that sentiment could, in turn, reinforce opponents of enlargement within the EU itself.

Governments across the EU, shaken up by a surge in far-right support among the electorate, are already adopting some of their policies, says Erhard Busek. He's a former vice chancellor of Austria who is now the coordinator of the Balkans Stability Pact.

Just look at the EU meeting in Seville late last week, he said, where leaders agreed on measures to curb immigration. "If you listen to what happened in Seville, you have to be fully aware of this. Because I think for the moment the European governments are bowing to the so-called radical right, and they are making the policy at the moment, by this tendency of 'fortress Europe' and similar things," Busek said.

Busek said he doesn't think mentioning Hitler and Stalin is an over-exaggeration or part of overblown scare tactics. "I think it's always good to start with such criticism at the beginning. Concerning those two figures, at the beginning, I don't think they were [criticized] too much," Busek said.

Michael Shafir is a regional analyst with RFE/RL and an expert on extremism in Central and Eastern Europe. He said nationalism "has been, is, and is likely to be a very delicate problem outside...and inside the European Union."

To be sure, both Orban and Vaclav Klaus, the former Czech prime minister whose campaign had a strongly nationalist flavor, lost out in general elections in the past few months. But Shafir said this was in no sense a judgment on nationalism -- the far-right in Hungary got as many votes as in the last election, and the Czech Communists emerged as the only party to increase its share of the vote.

Shafir said the current appeal just brings the problem to the foreground. "On both sides, there are politicians ready to exploit [nationalism] for their own purposes. Others are even being pushed to the wall and see themselves in a position to react nationalistically, although they might not have liked it. It's a sort of defensive nationalism, if you want, because if you're on the eve of elections, it's very difficult not to react when a political adversary portrays you as selling off the country's interests," Shafir said.

The appeal by Pithart and company does seem from a slightly earlier age: Some of the signatories are best-known as either anticommunist dissidents or for serving in the first post-Soviet governments in the region.

Will people sit up and take notice of this declaration? Shafir said it can do no harm. He noted that the signatories come from both sides of the political spectrum.

If nationalism is perceived as a real threat by so many different people, he said, it cannot be easily overlooked.