The Economist
June 21, 2007

Few of Europe’s ex-communist countries have strong leaders
OPTIMISTS hope that Valdis Zatlers, an orthopaedic surgeon, will grow into his new job as Latvia’s president. But even his doughtiest supporters doubt that he will fill the exquisite shoes of his predecessor, Vaire Vike-Freiberga, a steely-minded émigré polyglot who ushered her small Baltic country into both the European Union and NATO.

Dr Zatlers was at least good at something: he admits collecting thousands of dollars in tips from grateful patients, on which he is now hurrying to pay tax. But he has no experience of statecraft or even of public life. His sole asset is the backing of Latvia’s political chieftains, who foisted him on the country in a secret backroom deal. That may be unfortunate for Latvia. But the sadder aspect of the story is that the doctor fits so neatly into the region’s increasingly dull political landscape.

Post-communist leaders were once big, internationally known figures. Lech Walesa of Poland and the Czech Republic’s Vaclav Havel remain world famous. Poland’s Aleksander Kwasniewski was widely admired abroad for his diplomatic skills. Reformist politicians such as Estonia’s Mart Laar, Russia’s Yegor Gaidar and Slovakia’s Mikulas Dzurinda wowed the policy wonks with their zealous embrace of flat taxes and free-marketry.

Now things are different. Only two leaders really stand out: the presidents of Russia and Estonia. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has many critics, but when he speaks, people listen. Estonia’s president, the Swedish-born and American-educated Toomas Hendrik Ilves, now speaks up for all the Kremlin’s former European satellites. The brainy Mr Ilves is the only senior politician in the region with real experience of Brussels (he was once a member of the European Parliament) and Washington, DC. He has the ear of George Bush: both are keen farmers (although on rather different scales), and both like the same make of Stihl brush-cutter.

Elsewhere, foreign statesmen find few weighty senior people to engage with. Ukraine’s politicians are enmeshed in seemingly endless and exasperating clan warfare. Romania’s president, Traian Basescu, is an ardent Atlanticist and European, but is bogged down in a spat with his country’s old-guard government. Poland’s ruling twins are refreshingly honest, but prickly and provincial. Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic enjoys talking but not listening. Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia presides over rapid growth and reform, but even friends find that he is better when taken in small doses.

A lot more typical are such political leaders as Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, or Hungary’s Ferenc Gyurcsany: wily political operators with good business ties and a populist touch. They show little interest in restarting reforms or in foreign policy. Most other leaders in the region are either past it or a bit dull.

Yet central and eastern Europe desperately needs strong government to catch up with the continent’s older democracies. Unreformed public services gobble money and produce poor outcomes. The demographic decline in prospect, especially in the poorest countries, is scary; emigration is now making it worse.

The Kremlin’s habitual divide-and-rule tactics also tend to work best on weak, opportunist leaders. That may prove to be a problem in Latvia, where the country’s business barons are unnervingly keen to show they can work with the Russians.

When western Europe was led by burnt-out leaders such as Jacques Chirac, Silvio Berlusconi and Gerhard Schröder, the contrast was less striking. But the arrival of Angela Merkel in Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy in France and (next week) Gordon Brown in Britain casts a harsh light on the steppe to the east. It would be nice if new impressive politicians were climbing the ladder there. Sadly, the antics of the current lot seem not to inspire energetic newcomers, but to deter them.