My Europe: Torn between the ′urban′ and the ′rural′ self | In Depth | DW | 12.01.2019
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My Europe: Torn between the 'urban' and the 'rural' self

Several Eastern European countries are seeing a spike in demonstrations; protesters demand political change. But there are many others who don't join the crowds. What they want is stability, writes Boris Kalnoky.

Perhaps it's like this in every country, but I believe it's particularly true for us citizens of East-Central Europe. As a society, we are a bit schizophrenic. There are always two of us. One looks wistfully to the west, the other frowns, angered by the former's "I know it all" stance, their arrogance and — at least so goes the stereotype — pure, unspeakable stupidity. We are, perhaps, dominated by the latter sentiment.

You're likely to meet this incarnation of the citizens of East-Central Europe primarily in the countryside and in the hearts of those who are neither really young anymore nor really old, who are neither very wealthy nor very poor, who have both families and jobs. This group particularly includes married women with children. They are the people who are responsible for Prime Minister Viktor Orban's two-thirds majority in Hungary.

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Fighting right-wing populism in Hungary

All the others are predominantly big city dwellers. They are adolescents, students, those without commitments, young women who favor the right to abortion over mother duties, those who have a good grasp of foreign languages and enjoy traveling. Setting their sights to the future, they want to see a lot of promise. You see them out in the streets frequently these days; they love protesting, and they do it often, in Poland, in Hungary, in Serbia, in Romania, in Slovakia. For them, maintaining the status quo is not enough, and they abhor stability — the biggest virtue according to our other, conservative self.

Read more: Eastern brain drain threatens all of EU

'Urban' vs 'folksy' camps

Those two camps have always existed in our societies. In Hungary, where I come from, they were already known during the 1920s and 1930s as the "urban" type (read: urban elites) and the "folksy" type. Both were involved in creating culture, literature, music, and art of remaining value. In the West, however, all they saw — and wanted to see — was our urban side. Only that camp's literary works were translated into western languages. Only urban intellectuals were in great demand by Western media after German reunification and the decline of communism. And that's the state of affairs still today.

Belgrad Anti-Regierungsproteste (Reuters/M. Djurica)

Anti-government protest in Belgrade, Serbia: Lukewarm interest by the West

Where I come from, however, folksy writers — those who, in their works, portray rural societies in loving and meticulous detail — have always been much more popular. We prefer to listen to the voice deep down inside ourselves, the voice of folk music and of tragic love. We busy ourselves with the eternal elegy of the nation.

Even now, the West views those of us who protest against those in power in their respective countries with lukewarm interest. Perhaps, it is thought, those guys in the East are not too screwed up after all. The rest — the majority — is of no interest at all.

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Concentration of power

It's a fact, however, that a new generation is emerging, to whom "anti-communism" means nothing. As a point of reference, it has been superseded by the current "evil" powers. In some way, they are right — the spirit of delight about the future, which was noticeable at the time of the turnaround, has long since disappeared. Whether they are Social Democrats in Slovakia or Romania, whether they are conservatives in Poland, Serbia and Hungary, whether they are critical of the EU or glorifying the EU, as in Serbia — the governments in our countries try to get a grip on all the positions of power within our societies and keep the economy under control.

An integral part of this approach is corruption. Our governments strive for maximum power, which is completely removed from the spirit of freedom that inspired people at the time of the turnaround — the generation of the parents of today's protesters. Their children are saying today: "We must finish what our parents started."

Read more: Artists explore the exodus of Romania's youth

Structural conservatism in the East

The old generation will pass away at some point, while a new generation is growing up; so the potential for change is tangible. Regrettably, many of those young people want to emigrate to western EU countries, which are better suited to their ideals and where salaries are higher. This results in structural conservatism in the east of Europe. Our conservative self does not run away — it stays at home and shakes its head, looking at those who scamper away.

Opinion polls indicate that governments in Poland, Serbia and Hungary have nothing to fear for the time being. Things are different in Romania and Slovakia, where the upcoming elections could bring about change. Maybe that's because those countries are not governed by conservatives, who keep referring to the family, God and fatherland, but by corrupt social democrats without a message of their own and who traditionally struggle with the "people's voice" in rural areas.

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EU is trending among young people in Europe

Stability in the center

The future is unavoidable, and the young people in our cities, tomorrow's elite, want a different country from the one they live in today. This new generation is fond of the EU, but the EU obviously does not understand them: The bloc has plans to assign fewer funds to East-Central Europe, which will lead to more emigration among the more industrious youngsters. The key to change is a pledge of prosperity to the young generation at home, and not a promise of a better future in Germany or the UK. That's something Brussels should take note of.

For our part, there's no reason to be at odds with ourselves. Our urban and our rural selves may be two different souls, but, alas, they are both dwelling within us. We belong together — those who are aspiring and those who are reluctant. The balance all of us are aiming for is right in the middle.

Boris Kalnoky is a Hungary-based correspondent who writes for the German daily "Die Welt" as well as other German-language media.

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