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LeftEast

During the Communist era, the governments of East-Central Europe coordinated their policies with one another and the Soviet Union through a variety of institutions, including the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. Opposition movements did their best to coordinate their actions as well, attempting clandestine meetings and communicating with one another through the good offices of émigrés in Western Europe. During the transition period, the new democratic governments made some effort to maintain cohesion as a group of countries going through a similar experience, and organizations like the Visegrad Group (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia) still function. But for the most part, both government and civil society focused on joining the European Union and put considerably less emphasis on subregional solidarity.

The same has held true for Left movements in the region, which in their external relations have tended to look toward Europe as a whole or internationally. Political parties joined the Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists (and the Global Greens and European Green Party). Progressive civil society organizations linked up with their counterparts throughout Europe and the world on an issue-by-issue basis such as economic justice or anti-nuclear power.

But more recently, Left movements in the East-Central Europe have begun to link arms regionally as they identify common interests. At the Subversive Festival held every year in Croatia, for instance, a Balkan Forum began in 2012 to promote stronger cooperation and joint actions. And the Romanian New Left organization CriticAtac recently launched LeftEast, which serves as a clearinghouse for Left voices in the region.

Florin Poenaru is a driving force behind both CriticAtac and LeftEast. He is currently at the Central European University in Budapest completing a dissertation on the post-1989 construction of Communist history. Born in Romania and studying now in Hungary, he is ideally positioned to reflect on the similarities and differences between Left movements in the region.

The Hungarian Left, he told me, was very different from what currently exists in Romania. "The Left here is more powerful and big enough to have its own internal debates," he told me in an interview in Budapest last May. "They have a new generation here as well. The Left here is in their early 20s, which is different from Romania where they're in their early or mid-30s. And they're responding not necessarily to the leftist tradition but to the tradition of liberalism, which was actually in power and put forward a certain agenda before it collapsed in 2009-10 as Fidesz came to power. The Left here is focusing more on organization, public spaces, and networks, and less on theoretical work, like in Romania where less is actually happening, except in Cluj where there's a mixture of critical thinking and activism."

Conservatism is very strong in both Romania and Hungary. The difference in political culture between the two countries boils down to the relative position of liberalism. Liberals became a powerful political force in Hungary (though they are practically non-existent politically today). In Romania, on the other hand, "liberalism never really took root after 1989," Poenaru explains. "It was a tiny minority of people, some of whom have become more open to Left ideas and more critical of these conservatives. Liberals never really had a response to 1989 and didn't build a genuine counterforce to this conservatism."

We talked about his academic work on the writing of the history of Communism, the tendency of Western Europe to assume that history is only a "problem" in the East, and the growing power of the conservative movement in Romania.

The Interview

Is CriticAtac an island in Romania or does it have connections to other movements or trends? And how would you compare it to the Left here in Hungary?

CriticAtac started from this milieu of friends and intellectuals in 2010 with its criticism of anti-communism. It was liberal in a sense, with some leftist elements. It engaged from the beginning with people from Cluj who were more philosophical and more academic. So there was an alliance of different spheres of the Left -- philosophy, literature, political science. After it came out, in the first year, CriticAtac generated a lot of enthusiasm. A number of artist groups were activated and academics as well. But it remains within a certain network, pretty much removed from the rest of society. It consists of young, middle-class professionals with a leftist outlook, critiquing the establishment and with some radical ideas, but removed from the larger part of the Romanian middle class, which is pretty much conservative. From this perspective, it's an island. That's a question for everyone involved: how can we open up this organization, with what kind of language and what means?

We have partnerships with people from Hungary and Bulgaria and have started LeftEast together. But the Hungarians have, first of all, a very different leftist position. The Left here is more powerful and big enough to have its own internal debates. They have a new generation here as well. The Left here is in their early 20s, which is different from Romania where they're in their early or mid-30s. And they're responding not necessarily to the leftist tradition but to the tradition of liberalism, which was actually in power and put forward a certain agenda before it collapsed in 2009-10 as Fidesz came to power. The Left here is focusing more on organization, public spaces, and networks, and less on theoretical work, like in Romania where less is actually happening, except in Cluj where there's a mixture of critical thinking and activism.

Are you suggesting that there is a similar crisis of liberalism in Romania but it isn't recognized as such?

Yes, but Romanian liberalism was very weak. You had the rhetoric, especially after 1989 when everyone said that liberalism was the new game in town and everyone should embrace it. But that was more rhetorical. What happened in practice was a real conservative turn after 1989. This was somehow masked by the constant fight against neo-communists, the so-called remains of the Communist elite like Iliescu. But this was a cultural rather than a political struggle with the past, and it enabled many conservative ideas to take root without being perceived as such. Romanian society is very conservative and becoming even more so with the economic crisis and the dramatic changes of the past few years. You see the enhanced role of the Church and of some groups of the extreme Right offering a moral conservatism around issues like abortion. Liberalism never really took root after 1989. It was a tiny minority of people, some of whom have become more open to Left ideas and more critical of these conservatives. Liberals never really had a response to 1989 and didn't build a genuine counterforce to this conservatism.

Do you think an authentic Left -- an independent Left -- will only emerge in Romania once some version of liberalism takes root?

The funny thing is that what's happening now is that these Left groups are actually building a kind of liberalism. With the many compromises within the movement and the heterogeneous nature of the movement, we have ended up with a kind of liberalism. But it's too late for that. We'll have to engage with what's happening now and that's the emerging conservatism. If that implies an alliance between liberalism and the Left, that's fine. This conservatism is very powerful right now. Over the last few years, this set of ideas has gained momentum, but it's not articulated politically within a certain party or movement. The future shape of this conservatism is currently hard to predict.

Are there any transformative political movements on the horizon?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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