EU ready to welcome a team of fresh faces

Posted in Europe | 10-Mar-04 | Author: Thomas Fuller| Source: International Herald Tribune

East Europe poised for leadership roles

BRUSSELS - They are younger and perhaps more experimental than their West European counterparts. They revolve in and out of power at a sometimes dizzying pace. They generally admire the United States.

There is, of course, no single definition that groups all of Eastern Europe's up-and-coming leaders. But if they have one thing in common it is this: a few hundred kilometers away, in London, Paris or Frankfurt, hardly anyone knows their names or faces.

West Europeans are more likely to recognize the old generation of leaders who are well into retirement, people like Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, the former anti-Communist dissidents who became presidents of the Czech Republic and Poland.

But they probably do not know Ivan Miklos, the deputy prime minister of Slovakia who last year introduced one of the most innovative fiscal projects in Europe, a flat tax of 19 percent on income, corporate profits and retail sales; Sandra Kalniete, the Latvian foreign minister who grew up exiled in Siberia and who will soon serve as European commissioner in Brussels; Stanislav Gross, a rising star in Czech politics who began his working life as a railway engineer; or even Viktor Or-ban, who began his career as a leader of young Hungarians revolting against Communism and rose to become prime minister from 1998 to 2002.

The young and not-so-young leaders of the Central and East European countries joining the European Union in May operate in a very different environment from their Western colleagues, one where Communism has definitely collapsed but its distortions still cast long shadows on political life. Nearly 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the discovery of Soviet-era files periodically causes scandal or ends careers.

Russian influence also still looms large in some countries.

President Rolandas Paksas of Lithuania faces impeachment proceedings in April for alleged connections to a Russian underworld figure. And Kalniete, the Latvian foreign minister, recently vowed not to give into "the pressure of Russia" on language issues.

The new and often relatively weak democracies tend to dwell on often minuscule debates and to chew up shaky coalition governments and several emerging or established politicians with rapidity. Corruption is commonplace.

In the policy sphere, the traditional ideological debates of Western Europe are often turned on their head farther east, especially when it comes to economics. In Hungary, for example, former Communists have advocated aggressive privatization of state assets while the rightist nationalists have opposed it.

Analysts say there is greater consensus on economic policies in the post-Communist countries - at least among thriving elites and the emerging middle class - perhaps because those East Europeans are still largely in thrall to the simple contrast between communism and capitalism. There is widespread agreement, especially among younger people, on joining the euro and free markets.

The eight Central and East European countries joining the Union are the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. The Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Malta will also become members, and will each send a commissioner to Brussels.