Propaganda by Another Name
Prospect’s cherry-picked evidence says more about the authors’ ideological prejudice than the true state of the Central European countries they disparage.
By Benjamin Cunningham
The authors of the current cover piece in Prospect magazine, Anton Shekhovtsov and Peter Pomerantsev, are experts on the European far right and Russia respectively. Shekhovstov has written extensively on the culture and varying forms of political communication in right wing circles and Pomarantsev’s recent book ‘Nothing is True and Everything is Possible’ has garnered significant praise for its analysis of the Putin regime’s disinformation tactics. Given such expertise, it’s no surprise they conclude that Central Europe is drifting rightward, either under or toward Kremlin influence. If only we did not need to wade through 3,000 words of pseudo-intellectual blather to be reminded of their predispositions.
Sweeping Claims and Selective Analysis
The authors make sweeping claims that the so-called Visegard Four countries — the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland — are trending illiberal and pro-Russia, and also contend this is happening now in all four countries. They present some evidence, but also omit key information out of intent or ignorance, and neglect larger European political context. Such methods expose the piece for what it is: hollow ideology masquerading as empiricism.
There are myriad deficiencies, but the discussions of the Czech Republic and Slovakia best expose the twisted reasoning required to make their arguments. Even as Shekhovtsov and Pomerantsev contend the Czech Republic is a part of this worrying political trend they never mention the current prime minister — Bohuslav Sobotka, a social democrat. They also ignore that the current government is more popular, pro-EU and left-leaning than any elected government in recent memory. This also looks likely to be the first Czech government that will serve a full term since 2002. Instead, much like a tabloid newspaper, the piece fixates on the outlandish anti-migrant rhetoric coming from the ageing, pickled, and constitutionally weak president Miloš Zeman.
Next door in Slovakia the authors flip the script and highlight Prime Minister Robert Fico, while ignoring President Andrej Kiska — a liberal former entrepreneur who once lived in the United States. They cite Fico’s 2006-2010 coalition with the Slovak National Party (SNS) as justification that there is a shift underway now, all the while avoiding what has happened in the past six years: A pro-business centre-right coalition ruled the country from 2010-2012, the SNS fell- and stayed-out of parliament, while Fico’s left-leaning Smer party won an election with an outright majority in 2012. Perhaps most relevant is that when Fico sought to transition from prime minister to president in 2014 — a la Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey — the liberal Kiska trounced him in a head-to-head election runoff. None of these developments support the argument that the country is moving right or illiberal — nor any consistent direction for that matter.
In the Slovak case, Shekhovtsov and Pomerantsev might have argued that the nationalist SNS looks set to return to parliament after Slovakia’s March 5 general election, but to do so would have required them to actually know that the election is taking place and also admit that Fico looks certain to see his share of the vote decline. In other words, the figure they credit for Slovakia’s illiberal drift is losing, not consolidating, his popularity.
While Hungary and Poland do come closer to meeting at least one of the authors’ theses, even they are problematic examples. Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, has set his country on an illiberal path — the problem for Shekhovtsov and Pomerantsev is that he has been in power for six years so the trend is not new. While the Law and Justice (PiS) government that took power in Poland at the end of 2015 is new, and spurred justified concerns with at hostile approach to media and the judicial independence, PiS also takes a confrontational approach to the Kremlin — thus severing the correlation between Russian influence and illiberalism.
Selective analysis of domestic Central European politics is paired with a decision to all but ignore trends elsewhere in Europe and the world. Though the authors dedicate one paragraph to Germany and a sentence to Greece, they fail to mention the enduring strength of far right parties in places like Austria, Denmark, Finland and Sweden. In the UK, UKIP received 13 percent of the vote in 2015 and would be major player but for an antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system that saw a majority of votes cast for losing candidates.
Disregarding Context, Disparaging Central Europe
Such disregard for context is endemic. The authors point to Russian efforts to undermine European energy security, but don’t mention that the biggest threat to a common EU energy policy is a conglomerate of Western European — German, French, Dutch and Austrian — firms that want to build more pipes pumping Russian gas under the North Sea into Germany. Central Europe opposes that plan. They also write that “established independent media is [being] squeezed” in Central Europe, but the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland rank 13th, 14th and 18th respectively on Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. Even if Poland drops this year — which seems likely — they have a long way to fall to reach the UK (34th), France (38th) or the United States (49th).
While much of the attention that has focused on Central Europe in recent months comes from sickening rhetoric directed at migrants, Western Europe has not been much better. Denmark is seizing asylum seeker property on arrival, there were 118 attacks on refugee housing in Germany in the first six weeks of this year and a fraction of the 120,000 migrants EU members pledged to resettle as part of a quota scheme have be relocated. The UK just spent months negotiating a deal that would curb the rights of migrants from within the EU — many of which come from Central Europe.
Worse yet, the authors only passingly acknowledge that democracy is in crisis the world over — Le Pen and Trump make cameos, while Zeman receives top billing. Mass political parties are in decline and voters increasingly aggrieved everywhere, but Shekhovtsov and Pomerantsev argue that Central Europe is unique in that it was fairly recently authoritarian and could be moving back that way — warning the region might serve as an example to emulate internationally rather than a subset of the more widespread crisis of democracy. They persist with this reasoning even as they note that Orbán, the vanguard of Central European ills in this piece, has publicly expressed admiration for the Turkish, Chinese and Russian political systems — meaning inspiration flowed in the opposite direction.
So why all the sleight of hand? By cherry-picking evidence and ignoring larger context, the authors expose their loyalty to a discredited, ideological and — to the Central European countries in question — demeaning view of linear historical progress. In what should pass for farce, the piece begins with the authors reasserting the infamous “End of History” thesis that has been renounced by seemingly everybody, including originator Francis Fukayama — though apparently not the Legatum Institute, the think tank where both men work.
One might recall that a quarter century ago Fukayama argued that humanity had progressed to a sort of consensus “final form of human government” in liberal democracy. As Shekhovtsov and Pomerantsev put it, the “triumph of 1989” that saw communism collapse across Europe led to a “final, perhaps most fundamental, narrative” that “risks unravelling” today. Verbage like this, recycled Fukayama-isms, is presented as assumed. In their essay this mode of thinking was not an oversimplification or mistake, but correct until now. For them, only today is this mythical high water mark receding in Central Europe as the region reverts to a sort of pre-pubescent version of the West.
In short, Shekhovtsov and Pomerantsev set out to construct an argument that points to nefarious Russian influence and the rise of the far right in Central Europe — and succeed. To do so though they ignore inconvenient truths and isolate the region from the rest of the world. Prague is west of Vienna and about the same longitude as Berlin, but in their thinking remains caught in a permanent purgatory beholden to outside forces. You might say everything in their piece is true, but almost nothing of substance is included. As the authors well know there is a name for biased or misleading information used to promote a political cause or point of view: Propaganda.
Benjamin Cunningham is a Prague based writer and journalist. He contributes to The Economist, Politico, The Los Angeles Review of Books and is a columnist for the Slovak daily Sme.