Louder, clearer: the voice from this side of Europe

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán visited Serbia recently as the country prepared for last weekend’s elections. The visit was all about strengthening Hungarian-Serbian relations at a time when, as many observers of recent geopolitical trends in Europe have said, the significance and influence of Central and Eastern Europe is changing.

This region – be it EU member states or candidates on the path to joining the EU – has always been important, of course. However, over the last century and since 1989, it seems that the countries of this side of Europe have typically become the center of attention only when a crisis or tectonic shift occurs. The First World War started after a bullet killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The Second World War started as Nazi Germany invaded Poland and the Free City of Gdansk.

The region rarely made the headlines during the Cold War era, except perhaps when an uprising took place in Budapest, Prague or Gdansk. This is the region where that Cold War came slowly to an end in the late 1980s and early 90s and– look no further than the former Yugoslavia in the 90s and Ukraine today – where the aftershocks of that collapsed political order reverberate for years.

Eastern Europe includes the major cities and borders where East meets West and North meets South. It once contained the frontiers of the Holy Roman Empire and the lands where the expansion of the Ottoman Empire came to a halt. Lately, it has become a busy migration route into Europe from the southeast.

The press sometimes uses occasions like the prime minister’s visit to Serbia, the meetings of the Visegrad Four, his support for Bulgaria entering Schengen, his firm stance on supporting visa-free travel for Ukrainians into the Schengen zone or his support for the Polish government, to depict him as a leader in the broader region. Such descriptions exaggerate unnecessarily. It might sound like an interesting news angle, but Hungary is not in a position to amplify the voice of the entire region.

But the point, as the prime minister himself has suggested, is that the region does have a voice, a perspective and position that matters. And the region’s influence is growing because, once again, challenges have put the region in the spotlight. There are two lessons to take away here: (1) Eastern Europe is so much more than the Visegrad Four countries, and (2) in times of crisis, it would be prudent to listen carefully to what Eastern Europe has to say.