New kids on the bloc

When Communism collapsed across Eastern Europe 10 years ago, a whole generation of apparatchiks went into early, ignominious retirement. The new leaders, from MPs to Prime Ministers, are still only in their 20s and 30s. Adam LeBor finds out how the children of the revolution are coping with the reigns of power. Photographs by Justin Leighton
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We are sitting, two males in our mid-thirties, in a side-room within the magnificent gilt-encrusted Hapsburg edifice that is the Hungarian Parliament, on a Wednesday afternoon in late March, sipping coffee and discussing mittel- European affairs of state. Outside, the Danube flows by majestically, a reassuring constant in this region of collapsing empires and invading armies, a process that even now continues. Just a few yards away in the main chamber, MPs are debating whether or not Hungary should allow Nato to use its airports, as well as its airspace, for the coming onslaught against Serbia.

These are the kind of matters that occupy the waking hours of the young politician sitting by me. Dressed in a snappy light brown suit, with carefully chosen co-ordinating tie and shirt, hair neat and tidy, his manner confident and articulate, he could be mistaken for an up-and-coming MP, one tipped, in a few years, for a minor ministry, to be followed in due course by perhaps greater things. Fast-forward that prediction, because Viktor Orban, of the Federation of Young Democrats Civic Party (Fidesz) has already reached the top. At 35 years old he is the Prime Minister of Hungary. He has not just a career and a family to look after, but a medium-sized European country.

Ten years on from the collapse of Communism, the governments of half a continent have skipped a generation. From the Baltics to the Balkans, the thirty- (sometimes even twenty-) somethings are taking over, elbowing aside the tottering relics of the Communist-era gerontocracy that once ruled the former Soviet bloc. Educated and trained in Western universities, armed with mobile telephones, laptops and modern management techniques, they are swooping down on Central and Eastern Europe's corridors of power; the grey apparatchiks are being replaced with designer-clad officials who speak the languages of Brussels and Washington, as they steer their nations into Nato and the EU.

Viktor Orban is not even post-Communist Europe's youngest prime minister. Pandeli Majko, Prime Minister of Albania, who led student demonstrations against the Communists, is 31. The sports and youth minister in Mr Orban's government is Tamas Deutsch, 33, a former Levi's model. In Warsaw, Krzysztof Kwiatkowski, private secretary to the Prime Minister is 27. In Prague, Monika Horakova, a Roma (Gypsy) MP, is 26. And Janos Zuschlag, a Hungarian Socialist Party MP, is just 21.

The reason for youth's triumph is simple: this is the untainted generation, who have reached maturity during the decade since 1989 and the collapse of Communism, who study management science instead of Marx, and for whom the word "party" means a long night of drinking and dancing, instead of studying dialectical materialism. It's an unprecedented historical phenomena, this generation leap, and one not confined to politics. Across all areas of society in Eastern and Central Europe, in business, the media and academia, those in their 50s, 60s and 70s are being written off as dinosaurs, trained only to lumber along to the routines of Marxist-Leninism, and unable to dance to capitalism's new tunes.

"It is an enormous change. The generation which is in its 30s bears far more responsibility, and has higher positions than in Western Europe," says Viktor Orban. "Somehow the knowledge and education that my generation got at university in the Eighties proved to be more useful under the transformed circumstances than the knowledge of the older generation. Not because we are better than them, but we are just simply lucky. The education, the materials, the ideas, the books, the literature we got in the Eighties at university are all far more suitable to present-day life ... it is interesting and exciting. I cannot say now whether it is good or not, only in 20 or 30 years' time. But now we enjoy it."

As a good politician, Orban learnt long ago to play the long-term strategic game. However comfortably he sits in the Prime Minister's chair, it has been a long haul to reach government. And while young British opposition MPs have only to help change a governing party, the young Orban and his dissident colleagues first had to topple an empire that even Nato once had doubts about defeating. That process began in the late Eighties, that once vitally exciting but now largely forgotten era of Gorbachev, perestroika and glasnost, of crumbling ideologies and a collapsing Berlin Wall. It was June 1989 and tens of thousands of Hungarians had gathered in Budapest to commemorate the re-burial of Imre Nagy. Nagy had been the leader of the glorious but doomed 1956 revolution, hanged for his role in supporting the uprising and consigned to the anonymity of Lot 301 in a Budapest cemetery.

Nagy's second, public, funeral was one of the pivotal moments in a country's history, when the writing was spelled out large on the wall of public opinion: when so many people take to the streets to commemorate the death of a man, a national hero, executed by a Communist state, that state has entered into terminal decline. And it was Viktor Orban, then 25, speaking at the re-burial, who voiced the great, hitherto forbidden demand: that the Russians should go home.

Orban was catapulted on to the national political stage as he articulated the demands of millions for a Hungary free of Soviet domination. "It proved to be the right sentence, because it was true and came from the public's heart. It was doubtful at the time, whether or not this was the right moment to say it, and did it have any reality in political terms? It was difficult then to imagine that it could become reality, but it is obvious now that it was right, and the Russians left ... I was very confident that it would happen in my lifetime and in Central Europe that is a very optimistic scenario." In Hungary, unlike Romania where Nicolae Ceausescu was executed after violent street clashes, or even Czechoslovakia where hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demonstrate, the handover of political power was fairly smooth. The Communists, eventually, packed up and went home, peacefully.

I ask Viktor Orban if he feels any gratitude for the way the former dictatorship just dissolved itself and the older generation surrendered quietly. "I don't feel any kind of gratitude," he replies. "There are some people who behaved in the right way, people who are considered as reformists. But my understanding about the late Eighties is that it was a result of the pressure coming from the public, it was not an enlightened action on behalf of the ruling government. They were in retreat. Therefore there is nothing, no reason to say thank you. To understand this whole process you have to take into consideration the other side of the coin: this was the only way for them to survive in physical terms, that there would not be another 1956."

Orban's party, Fidesz, was founded in 1988 while Hungary was still a Communist dictatorship. It was the voice of the young generation, led by opposition students, lawyers and economists. Initially socially radical, it even restricted membership to the under- 35s, but has since dropped any age limit. Like Tony Blair, Viktor Orban has dragged his party to the right - and won it political power; cultivated a populist image (Orban is a keen footballer) and attempted to set the domestic media agenda, although spin-doctoring is still a nascent science in Hungary.

Critics accuse Fidesz, now in coalition government with the decidedly right-wing Smallholders Party - a fairly reactionary rag-bag of populists and nationalists - of betraying its radical, youthful origins in pursuit of power. Orban's government is no longer seeking the youthful, non-conformist vote - Hungary's new soft drugs laws, for example, are some of Europe's harshest.

I ask Hungary's young Prime Minister about the reality of political power. Is it what he expected? "It is far better." He laughs out loud, with gusto.

For Orban's colleague, Hungary's sports and youth minister Tamas Deutsch, that excitement still bubbles. The former model, and fellow founder of Fidesz, admits that he still gets a buzz when he goes to work every day. "Each morning I get out of my car here at the Ministry and the porter says, `Good morning Mr Minister,' and I have to say to myself, `Oh, that's me he is talking to.' "

Less polished than Orban, Deutsch's enthusiasm is very evident as he speaks, sometimes so quickly the interpreter can barely keep up. His long, flowing locks have been trimmed, but the gold hoop in his left ear, symbol of that student rebellion, remains. Like Orban, the former student dissident is surprised at how almost tangible political power is. "Now that I am in the government, I feel that power is something real and existing. I have been a minister for two and a half months, which is not a very long time. For me power means that if I have an idea, I can realise it. When I was in the opposition, in the Eighties, life was about making speeches, declarations, nothing had any effect. Nowadays I come to work, I decide on things, I distribute tasks to my colleagues, they do their work, report to me and I can feel it is being done." But the concomitant of political power is compromise, and Deutsch's radical student dreams have been somewhat tempered in the harsh light of reality.

Fidesz has moved to the right, to fill a gap in the Hungarian political spectrum. When I first met Deutsch, eight years ago, soon after he became an MP, he proudly told me that Fidesz was the only party that refused to enter the classic debate beloved of Central European nationalists, about who was a more "real" Hungarian - in short, a coded argument about whether or not Jews could be considered "real" Hungarians, a debate from the Thirties that had been deep-frozen under Communism, only to re-erupt with the advent of democracy. This is just the sort of spurious camouflage for anti-Semitism beloved of some MPs in the Smallholders party, Fidesz's coalition partners. A tricky issue for Deutsch, who is proud of his own Jewish parentage.

"In this question life gave me a bitter experience," he says. "Anti-Semitism is anti-democratic and unacceptable and both sides here have equally unacceptable and anti-democratic views. I am a Hungarian citizen of Jewish origin, I don't have a double identity, my identity is Hungarian and I don't have any problems with being Jewish. I never denied it and my father would smack me if I did."

The young radicals such as Orban and Deutsch who set up Fidesz over a decade ago have learnt that political power can exact a price, in both principles and personal relationships. Many of those who helped set up what they thought would be a left-leaning, radical party have deserted in droves for more sympathetic groups. Others mutter about betrayal, angry and horrified that Fidesz governs in coalition with those of such antiquated views as the Smallholders. "The country has changed a lot in the past 10 years, thank God. People have changed a lot and each one of the political parties has changed as well, including of course, Fidesz. But we never betrayed anyone," says Deutsch.

Snapping at the heels of politicians such as Viktor Orban and Tamas Deutsch is an even younger generation of would-be MPs and political leaders, in their 20s, or even their teens. In Poland they study at the School for Leaders, in downtown Warsaw. It was set up by Professor Zbigniew Pelczynski, who taught at Oxford University for 40 years and was a one-time tutor there to Bill Clinton and Viktor Orban. The school's aim is to mould the country's future politicians, and social activists. "The problem was how to train the new generation of social, political and civil leaders," says Pelczynski. "The business world can arrange this itself, but in the rest of society there was nothing on any systematic scale. So we teach subjects like project management, teamwork and leadership, negotiation and conflict resolution. Politics is a form of public service and demands professional skill."

Under Communism in Poland, and in its neighbours, for many politics was a very dirty word. Now, after a decade of freedom, the young generation is realising that given Western tools and expertise, they can help shape their country and its future. "Communism destroyed civil society," says Pelczynski. "Everything had to be organised by, be under the framework of, the Party. The very notion of politics was debased. Politics was associated with manipulation. A large number of young people have turned their backs on politics and this is unhealthy in a democracy, because if people contract out or don't exercise their rights, democracy is a sham."

That generation which has grown up under democracy has little memory of living in a one-party state. The post-Communists take freedom, its costs and benefits for granted, and are evolving rapidly, competing with their Western counterparts on all levels, says Dr Andrzej Waskiewicz, who teaches political philosophy and theory at the school. Himself still only 36, he has watched the latest generation of students mature in many ways. "My students think of themselves as the old intelligentsia, but I tell them they are would-be yuppies," he explains with a smile. "But they insist to me that they are not the `me generation', and they want to work for the public good. In the beginning politics was an adventure for them, but they are more career-oriented. They have better taste now, more of a sense of humour, they are more knowledgeable. They have changed as politics changed."

Krzysztof Kwiatkowski though retains some old-world Polish charm. Private secretary to the Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, he kisses our interpreter's hand when they are introduced, a gesture usually confined to Polish gentlemen in their 50s and 60s. Kwiatkowski, a graduate of the School for Leaders, is just 27, and charged with running the Prime Minister's day. Kwiatkowski is from a small town, Zgierz, near the regional centre of Lodz, and previously served as a councillor. Should national politics prove disappointing, he says, he will move back to local issues.

"I jokingly say that I am the guardian of his timetable," he says. "The relevant ministries decide the matters of substance, but somebody has to manage these 24 hours. I spend several hours a day with him, my working hours are the same as his, over 12 hours a day. Our relations are cordial, but he is very exacting and strict."

Like Viktor Orban and Tamas Deutsch, Krzysztof Kwiatkowski first came into politics through the anti-Communist underground. That environment bred politics of a confrontational nature - that those who "are with them are necessarily against us" - a zero-sum game that does not breed a healthy democracy. Initiatives such as the School for Leaders help generate consensus instead of conflict, says Krzysztof Kwiatkowski. "It broadens the field of political compromise. You meet people there of different political orientation and realise they don't have to be your enemy, that some fields, such as foreign policy, for example, can be a matter of consensus. Politics in Poland did not used to be considered as a real profession. Either it was a mission, such as the former Solidarity activists carried out, or the careerism of the former Communists. That's why the School for Leaders is so useful, because it made me realise that politics is a career."

As the region hurtles headlong into full-blown capitalism, one group is still fighting hard for its civil rights. A free press, freedom of speech and travel, all of this means nothing when Roma (Gypsy) people cannot take the tram into the centre of the Czech capital Prague for fear of being attacked by skinheads.

Monika Horakova, 26, is a Roma woman, and Czech MP, from the city of Brno. Like her fellow Roma, she has been refused entry to nightclubs and harassed and abused on the streets. We met in her office in the Czech Parliament building in the centre of Prague. Smartly turned out in a blue trouser suit and equipped with the requisite computer and telephone, she looks every inch the young, successful politician. But her status as an elected representative gives her little protection against the endemic anti-Roma racism in the Czech Republic. "I live in a country where they don't let me into restaurants, clubs and discos," she says. "I made a complaint against a disco in Brno which refused to let me in. The state prosecutor stopped the case, because he didn't find a reason to treat it as racial discrimination. I know how to use the media and get a good lawyer. So if I can't get my rights, as an MP, how can an ordinary Roma?"

Beneath the Czech Republic's liberal image, with its former dissident President Vaclav Havel - himself a strong fighter for Roma rights - lies a deeply racist heart. "It's not safe to travel by tram, or metro, or go to certain parts of the city centre, where there are known places where we don't go," says Horakova. "Our experience with the police is not good, we don't believe in them, and we have to push Roma people to go and see them."

Monika Horakova has herself been the victim of racial violence. "Three weeks ago I was attacked by two skinheads near Brno. They stood around me and attacked me, they knew who I was. I felt simply angry, that they were stupid. I had never met these two men, and still they had all these feelings against me. One of them told me that all Roma were criminals, and asked me why I was doing this job as an MP."

Monika Horakova is an elected MP in a constitutional democracy, but I ask her if she feels that she is a full citizen of the Czech Republic. She pauses before she answers. "It can sound strange, but not really. I am an MP, I have a position in society, I am doing public work. But how can I feel a full citizen if my own legal case was just stopped like that? But I have hope still, I couldn't do this without hoping, that I believe the situation will be better, although sometimes it's very difficult to keep this hope alive."

That hope, for an end to the prejudice against minorities, whether Roma, Jews or homosexuals that still bedevils Eastern Europe, lies with the new generation of politicians who are still in their 20s.

Hungarian MPs such as Janos Zuschlag - who are younger even than established politicians like Viktor Orban - say that they have no interest in the old-style politics of mittel-Europa. At 21, Zuschlag is Hungary's youngest MP, for the Socialist Party. "I cannot bear the idea of going back to the traditional ideas of God, patriotism and the homeland. I'm not interested in the Treaty of Trianon [by which in 1920 Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory] or the Hungarian minorities in the neighbouring countries. I'm interested in youth politics, issues such as civil associations and higher education."

For Janos Zuschlag and his generation, those Communists who handed over power in 1990 - some of whom are now reinvented as Socialist MPs - are relegated to history. It's like asking a child of New Labour what he thinks about the Wilson government. "I don't have any opinion about the old regime," he says. "I was 12 in 1990, and I didn't join the Young Communists. I regard the Socialists as the best party, based on its current policies. The ideology now is completely different to that of the past 40 years."

His hope now is that attitudes, too, as well as ideologies and political systems, will change. "There is not much respect for other people's opinions among the parties. Lots of MPs tell jokes about Jews, and there is a lack of tolerance of homosexuality, but that is all among the older generation. People don't change - if they had the values of 40 years ago, they didn't suddenly alter in 1990. In 20 years' time people's thinking will be changed again."

Are they too young for such power, these slick-suited, fast-talking young politicians?

The experience of Central and Eastern Europe, ruled for decades by the grey men of the Kremlin, is that age itself is probably of little intrinsic value. What counts in politics is a willingness to learn and evolve. Churchill after all began his political career in his mid-20s.

Perhaps the last word should go to Viktor Orban.

I ask him if he is too young to have such responsibility. "I think the practice is the answer to that question. If the government led by me proved to be a bad one, then it would be right. If it proved to be a good one, then not. I think we got responsibility at just the right moment"

Captions: Above: Janos Zuschlag, 21, MP in Hungary: `I don't have any opinion about the old regime. I was 12 in 1990.' Facing page, right: Tamas Deutsch, 33, former model, now Hungary's sports and youth minister: `Each morning I get out of my car at the Ministry and the porter says, Good morning Mr Minister, and I have to say to myself, Oh, that's me he's talking to'

Above: Monika Horakova, 26, MP in the Czech Republic. Below, right: Czech MP Vladimir Mlynar, 32. Right: Viktor Orban, 35, Prime Minister of Hungary: `The knowledge and education that my generation got at university in the Eighties proved to be more useful under the transformed circumstances than the knowledge of the older generation'

Above and below: the School for Leaders in Poland and Professor Zbigniew Pelczynski: `The problem was how to train the new generation of social, political and civil leaders. Communism destroyed civil society, the very notion of politics was debased. A large number of young people have turned their backs on politics'

Top: Krzysztof Kwiatkowski, 27, private secretary to the Prime Minister of Poland: `Politics here did not used to be considered a real profession. Either it was a mission, such as the former Solidarity activists carried out, or the careerism of the former Communists.' Right: Czech MP Michal Lobkowicz, 35: `In November 1989 I was 25, young and idealistic. The main topic we spoke about was freedom'