Hungary’s Orban and Poland’s Kaczynski have openly hitched their wagons to Trump’s extreme brand of populism, but the Czechs and Slovaks would welcome more predictable policy out of Washington.
By Tim Gosling
Donald Trump has spent the past four years sowing division across the globe. The man hoping to replace him as US president could bring more of the same to Central Europe.
A virus-ravaged world can’t tear its eyes away as the US heads into perhaps its most viciously-fought election. What would it mean for the populists of the Visegrad Four (V4) region if Trump is deposed by Joe Biden on November 3?
The Democrat frontrunner has made no secret of where he stands on the region, which although dominated by populist governments, is split down the middle.
On one side, despite some concerns, Czechia and Slovakia remain liberal democracies and their governments would welcome more predictable policy in Washington. However, a Biden presidency would be bad news for the regimes of Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, which have openly hitched their wagons to his rival’s extreme brand of populism.
“The Trump administration highlighted good relations with Orban and Kaczynski because they are both nationalistic populists like him,” said Jiri Pehe, director of the University of New York in Prague. “Biden would return to putting emphasis on democratic values, the rule of law and human rights, which does not bode well for Poland and Hungary.”
Indeed, Biden has spelled out just how bad news his election would be for the pair. In comments on the campaign trail, he appeared to describe the governments in Hungary and Poland as “totalitarian thugs”. He has also outlined plans to pull the rug out from under the world’s illiberal populists and “rehabilitate” the EU. No wonder Budapest and Warsaw are praying for a Trump victory on November 3.
Thoughts and prayers
“We… support Donald Trump’s victory because we are well-acquainted with American Democratic governments’ foreign policy built on moral imperialism,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban wrote in the right-wing Magyar Nemzet daily in October. “We have sampled it before, even if involuntarily. We did not like it, we do not want seconds.”
Should the incumbent lose, the region’s illiberal regimes would lose the veneer of legitimacy that Trump has offered them over the past four years. They would be jolted from a populist comfort zone that has given them the green light to wage cultural wars, and left to face opposition from Western institutions alone.
Biden has made clear that he sides with the European Commission in its confrontations with Orban’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law & Justice (PiS) over these parties’ attacks on the judiciary and media. He has also condemned the pair’s assaults on LGBT rights and resistance to taking action on the climate.
“A Biden White House would mean that illiberal leaders would not be able to see themselves as part of a global trend, but rather would face stronger reactions to their anti-democratic moves,” said Andras Biro-Nagy, director at the Budapest-based think tank Policy Solutions.
Indeed, the Democratic candidate would need to fully restore relations with the EU if he is to honour his pledge to push back the advances made in recent years by Russia and China. Following Trump’s failed unilateralism, reasserting the necessary US global leadership to achieve that task will demand close cooperation with all manner of multilateral organisations. Restoring strong relations with the EU would be top of the list.
This return to multilateralism would strengthen the EU and the other international platforms so hated by nationalist populists. In this scenario, not only would Orban and Poland’s de facto leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski be unable to point to bilateral White House tête-à-têtes as evidence of their bold leadership, but they would be forced to accept Brussels as the major conduit of relations with the US.
From transactional back to transatlantic
The return of Washington’s enthusiasm for multilateral bodies may well be welcomed on one level in Poland, which is deeply wary of Russia and reliant on NATO for security. The uncertainty that Trump has cast over the alliance has left Warsaw to broker its national defence on little more than bilateral dealmaking and the US president’s whims.
By way of contrast, Biden would redirect US foreign policy to restore it as the cornerstone of the alliance. In a recent opinion piece in Foreign Affairs, the candidate noted the importance of NATO networks for the US, calling it “the most effective political-military alliance in modern history”.
“The Central and Eastern European region holds strategic value for the US, specifically when dealing with Europe’s eastern flank,” points out Daniela Piatkiewicz at the Prague-based Europeum think tank. “Biden has recently called for more cooperation in the region including support for NATO, the continued development of the region’s defence capabilities, and prioritizing the Three Seas Initiative.”
Warsaw would also be happy to see the US clarify its opposition to the Kremlin after four years tolerating Trump’s strange fetish for the world’s strongmen.
A Biden presidency would “expose the current schizophrenic foreign policy situation in which Poland seeks assurances and military presence from the US regarding Russia, but at the same time PiS has to try to ignore Trump’s positive view of [Vladimir] Putin,” said Jacek Kucharczyk at Warsaw’s Institute of Public Affairs.
The Democrat candidate has already sought to remove any such confusion for Warsaw. “Joe Biden believes NATO’s Article 5 pledge – that an attack on any NATO member is an attack on all NATO members – is an unshakable bond between the United States and Poland,” his campaign has pledged. “Joe Biden will affirm America’s commitment to NATO and end the Trump administration’s pandering to Vladimir Putin.”
Such clarity would be welcomed by most of Poland’s regional peers, but Hungary’s positioning regarding Russia and China and its commitment to NATO interests are more open to interpretation. Budapest may well find that with Biden in charge, Washington would be more willing to confront it over the difficulties it is causing, including its veto of Ukraine’s NATO negotiations and its support for Beijing in the South China Sea.
Mind the gap
By way of contrast, the end of Trump would be positive for Czechia and Slovakia, most analysts agree.
Despite maintaining good relations with their two illiberal neighbours and boasting populist governments at one time or another, the pair is regarded as firmly dedicated to liberal democratic standards, the rule of law, and a pro-Western orientation. A Biden White House would have few complaints to press them on.
Although often tarred with the same brush as Hungary and Poland in international coverage, the pair would likely welcome the return of non-transactional US engagement in the region.
“The last four years have not been good for the region,” said Branislav Kovacik, an associate professor of political science at Banska Bystrica’s Matej Bel University. “We’ve seen a rise in activity by Russia and China aimed at increasing their influence.”
Like their peers in Czechia in recent years, the Slovak security services have become increasingly vocal about the threat from the east, the academic points out.
Hence, the gap between the Visegrad Four’s liberal and illiberal stablemates threatens to widen should the election put Biden in the hot seat, as Czechia and Slovakia pull closer to Brussels as the main channel of transatlantic relations while Hungary and Poland face increased confrontation.
“A Biden administration will place continued pressure on the region’s diverging policies on democracy and rule of law, and may create further political divisions,” suggested Piatkiewicz. This could, in turn, push those on the liberal side of the fence closer to the EU, she added.
In Prague, the billionaire prime minister, Andrej Babis, will at least hope for an end to the comparisons between himself and Trump that he reportedly so hates. In addition, he is also seeking a role as a bridge between the US and EU on one side and the region’s troublemakers on the other. Igor Matovic, Slovakia’s prime minister, might also fancy that job.
A Biden White House should also offer an economic bonus for the less troublesome members of the Visegrad Four, following Trump’s tariffs and threats. “The trade wars have been very bad for Slovakia,” pointed out Kovacik. “We have a very open economy, and so cooperation with the US and global markets is vital for us.”
In fact, Czechia and Slovakia rely on exports for over 80% of their GDP, and cars – a specific target for the 45th US president – are by far the biggest ticket item. Both then would be immensely relieved to consign four years of trade war tantrums to the dustbin of history.