VISEGRAD BLOG: The Central European populists rooting for Trump

VISEGRAD BLOG: The Central European populists rooting for Trump
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow October 31, 2020

With just days to go before the US presidential election, politicians across Southeast and Central Europe, like those elsewhere in the world, are watching anxiously to see what the outcome will be. 

For those on the populist right, especially the so-called “illiberal democrats” in Hungary and Poland, US President Donald Trump’s re-election would be an affirmation that there is no stopping the global resurgence of the right wing. Conversely, a victory for his Democratic challenger Joe Biden would most likely lead to a softening in the two governments’ aggressive challenging of the European Union’s liberal ethos. 

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban was the first European leader to come out in support of Trump during his first presidential candidacy four years ago, and this time he and members of his government have openly backed the US president. The two politicians have broadly similar views on issues such as illegal immigration and border protection, while Orban has repeatedly portrayed Hungary and Central Europe as defenders of conservative and Christian values against the liberal West. 

“[W]e’re … rooting for Donald Trump’s victory because we know only too well the foreign policy of US Democrat administrations built on moral imperialism. We had a taste of it, and we didn’t like it, we don’t want a second helping,” Orban wrote in a two-page op-ed published in pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet in September. 

Biden managed to anger politicians in both Hungary and Poland when he likened the two countries to the authoritarian regime in Belarus. "You can see what is happening everywhere from Belarus, to Poland to Hungary and the rise of totalitarian regimes in the world,” Biden said at a town hall meeting in Philadelphia earlier this month. 

This drew an angry response from Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, who struck back in a Facebook post where he advised Biden to address corruption allegations concerning his son Hunter Biden’s activities in Ukraine before resuming dealings with Hungary. In an earlier post Szijjarto said that bilateral relations between Hungary and the US under Trump are the best they have ever been.

Janez Jansa, the conservative prime minister of Slovenia US first lady Melania Trump’s birthplace also publicly voiced his support for Trump in a tweet on October 23. 

“We respect [the] difficult, tragic personal life of Joe Biden and some of his political achievements years ago. But today he would be one of the weakest presidents in history. When a free world desperately needs strong US as never before. Go, win, Donald Trump,” Jansa wrote.

Jansa has been pursuing Orban-style reforms in Slovenia since returning as prime minister earlier this year, including a thorough overhaul of media legislation. Thousands of Slovenians also joined bicycle protests earlier this year, accusing his government of using the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown to undermine freedoms of expression and association. 

In Poland, ruled by the United Right coalition led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), comments made by politicians to local media indicate a clear divide with figures from the ruling party and its coalition partners backing Trump and most of the opposition favouring Biden. 

Trump, in fact, helped the PiS candidate Andrej Duda to re-election in June when he hosted the Polish incumbent just days before the presidential vote. The visit the first by a foreign leader to the US after the spring lockdowns were lifted had little substance but gave Duda a much-needed boost that allowed him to narrowly see off a challenge from the centrist mayor of Warsaw, Rafal Trzaskowski. 

Duda hasn’t explicitly returned the favour (yet), but his support for Trump is clear. In one indirect comment on the campaign playing out in the US, for example, Duda retweeted a tweet by US academic and conservative commentator Gladden Pappin, which said: “The real reason that Poland & Hungary have been demonised by Biden & the US media is that they represent a successful alternative to the failed American combination of industrial & family collapse.” “Worth reading. Insightful commentary from @gjpappin," wrote Duda.

An eupinion poll published on October 28 by the BertelsmannStiflung foundation shows that Europeans would overwhelmingly back Biden if they were able to vote in the US with the exception of Poland, the only EU country that would have delivered a larger share of the vote for Trump.

For other natural supporters of the controversial US president, the coronacrisis has overshadowed international politics. Top Czech politicians, for example, have been too focused on reining in the region’s worst surge in new cases to weigh in on the US election. It’s a similar story for the right-wingers in power in Bulgaria.

Old battle lines in the Balkans 

Trump has more fervent supporters in the Western Balkans, particularly in Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina’s Serb entity Republika Srpska. Unlike the ideologically motivated support from Central European leaders like Orban, however, this stance is rooted in the ethno-nationalist dividing lines in the Balkans. Trump’s 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton was welcomed in Serbia, where many people believe the opposition Democrats hate Serbs. They also blame former US president Bill Clinton for the US-led Nato bombing of Serbia in 1999 and the subsequent loss of Kosovo. 

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, for example, could well be described as a populist but he has made balancing Serbia’s position between the global powers the US, the EU, Russia and China a central tenet of his politics and has a similarly broad church of politics for domestic consumption that helped deliver his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) an overwhelming victory in the June general election. But right at the time when the Polish authorities were outlawing almost all abortions, Vucic nominated his close political ally Ana Brnabic (the region’s first openly gay prime minister) for a new term and announced the cabinet would be 50% women

When Trump was elected in 2016 there were high hopes in Belgrade this would lead to a revival in relations between the US and Serbia. There was even speculation that Washington might broker a deal between Belgrade and Pristina involving a land swap, a controversial idea that had been circulating for some time and might find favour with a US president keen on deals and not too squeamish about the implications for peace and security elsewhere in the Balkans. 

Four years on, while there hasn’t been as much progress as some hoped, there has been a reinvigoration of Washington’s activity in the region with the appointment of ambassador Richard Grenell as the special presidential envoy for Serbia and Kosovo peace negotiations. This was followed by the summit in Washington where Vucic and Kosovan Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti signed agreements in Trump’s presence in the Oval Office. Again, these were relatively short on substance, but allowed both politicians to claim a diplomatic breakthrough, as well as giving Trump’s campaign a much-needed foreign policy success to boast about which the president did by tweeting that it was a “great day for peace with Middle East”. 

Accordingly, Vucic has maintained his support for Trump, saying on September 10 that he was certain he would be re-elected despite the “dirty campaign” against the US president he had observed during his visit to Washington. 

“If I should talk not only about the pre-COVID period, in which Trump was extremely successful, but also about the future of America, I am certain that he will win the election," Vucic said as quoted by Serbian public broadcaster RTS. 

The Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik despite being on a US sanctions blacklist came out more strongly in favour of Trump, urging Serbs living in the US to vote for him and calling Biden a “Serb hater”. 

“Serbs will probably not vote for Biden, who is an ordinary Serb hater and gathers around himself those who, if they come to power, will surely direct everything against our community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in a political sense even against Croats,” Dodik was quoted as saying by N1. 

A new approach to Europe 

In contrast to the open support for Trump from some politicians, those who would favour a Biden win have been quieter, possibly because they don’t want to antagonise the US’ notoriously vengeful president should he be re-elected. Only a few voices have come out in support of Biden, such as Kosovo’s left-wing nationalist former prime minister Albin Kurti, who blames Grenell’s interference for the collapse of his government. 

But the outcome of the vote in the global superpower will inevitably have important consequences for Central and Southeast Europe as well as for other world regions. 

A change of foreign policy direction, including in relations with Europe, can clearly be expected in case of a Biden win which, according to a comment from US public policy think-tank German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMFUS), “Given the global role of the United States, significant shifts in its foreign policy have particularly strong and multifaceted implications in contested geopolitical spaces such as Central and Eastern Europe.” 

Among the likely changes are an easing of tensions between the US and EU, and a re-commitment to the transatlantic partnership and European integration. In particular, a Biden White House would most likely focus on rebuilding damaged relations with Germany, while those states that have challenged liberal EU values, notably Hungary and Poland, would no longer have a powerful sympathiser in Washington, as Biden has made clear in recent comments. 

This could see the two countries sidelined. “It is hard to imagine that Poland, trampling on the rule of law, pilloried by organisations monitoring the observance of democracy and human rights, and sympathetic to Orbán, could be perceived by Biden as an important partner in the implementation of its key task,” wrote Piotr Buras, director of the Warsaw office and Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think-tank, in a recent comment

By contrast, another four years of Trump can be expected to see the rift between the US and EU widen, and divisions between the EU’s liberal and illiberal members continue. 

Just as importantly, the battle for the White House can be viewed in the context of the battle between liberal democracy and the resurgent populist right. 

Trump’s election followed the appointment of right-wing illiberal governments in countries like Poland and Hungary, the rise of the far right in several West European countries and the Brexit referendum. The verdict of the American people in November will therefore have implications that go far beyond the US in indicating whether the rightward turn is a fundamental shift in global politics or more of a blip. 

In the UK, for example, the government is understood to be waiting for the result of the US election before making a final decision on whether to really risk a no-deal exit from the EU.

A defeat for Trump would embolden centrist parties in Europe and elsewhere to see the swing to the right as losing steam, while perhaps forcing right-wing politicians to become more accommodating. Conversely, a Trump win would give fresh confidence to right-wing leaders like those in Hungary and Poland that they are on the right side of history. 

Contributions from Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje, Wocjciech Kosc in Warsaw, Denitsa Koseva in Sofia and Tamas Szilagyi in Budapest.