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Intermarium goes viral: Twitter discourses of Central European leaders in the time of COVID19

Any longer-term consequences of the current pandemic are only a matter of speculation for now. As in many areas of life, such speculations on its political and social impact were plenty. Among the commonplaces, one heard a lot of strengthening of authoritarian-minded leaders, eager to consolidate their power in increasingly closed nation-states. This would be, [...]

5 V 2020

Any longer-term consequences of the current pandemic are only a matter of speculation for now. As in many areas of life, such speculations on its political and social impact were plenty. Among the commonplaces, one heard a lot of strengthening of authoritarian-minded leaders, eager to consolidate their power in increasingly closed nation-states. This would be, at least, a frequently repeated forecast for Eastern Europe, also known as Central Europe or, more fancifully, Intermarium. And as Central/Eastern European leaders are confronted with such great expectations, it is tempting to verify empirically to what extent they (or rather – their public personae) stand up to these hopes.

To see it, I decided to collect Twitter activity of the most prominent local politicians they produced until recently during the COVID19 outbreak. The political scene was represented by the PMs, with the exception of Serbia, where, despite his scarce constitutional prerogatives, the role of the President Aleksandar Vučić seems to be so prominent that it may be more interesting to examine his discourse instead of a pretty much figurehead PM Ana Brnabić. Consequently, the corpus consisted of the tweets of Mateusz Morawiecki (Poland, ECR), Sebastian Kurz (Austria, EPP), Aleksandar Vučić (Serbia, EPP), and Andrej Plenković (Croatia, EPP), published between 2020-02-20 and 2020-04-15. At a first glance, we can discover certain differences both in the tweeting strategies of the discussed politicians (which are of lesser importance to us now), and in the topics they covered.

Politician

Mateusz Morawiecki

Sebastian Kurz

Country

Poland

Austria

Political party

Prawo i Sprawiedliwość

(‘Law and Justice’)

Österreichische Volkspartei

(‘Austrian People’s Party’)

European affiliation

European Conservatives and Reformists

European People’s Party

Tweet count

40

168

Word count

1645

6788

Top 10 hashtags

#koronawirus 9x ‘coronavirus’

#COVID19 47x

#V4 2x ‘Visegrad 4’

#Österreich 17x ‘Austria’

#PiatkaNa100 1x ‘5 [Projects] for 100 Days of the Government’

#Coronavirus 6x

#Katowice 1x

#EU 5x

#CzystePowietrze 1x ‘Clean Air’

#London 2x

#fakenews 1x

#UK 2x

#zostańwdomu 1x ‘stay home’

#Israel 2x

#TarczaAntykryzysowa 1x ‘Anti-Crisis Shield Act’

#Austria 2x

#solidarity 1x

#Weltfrauentag 2x ‘International Women’s Day’

#WeStandTogether 1x

#WesternBalkans 2x

Politician

Aleksandar Vučić

Andrej Plenković

Country

Serbia

Croatia

Political party

Srpska napredna stranka

(‘Serbian Progressive Party’

Hrvatska demokratska zajednica

(‘Croatian Democratic Union’)

European affiliation

European People’s Party

European People’s Party

Tweet count

32

151

Word count

891

5076

Top 10 hashtags

#Srbija 6x ‘Serbia’

#OdvažnoZaHrvatsku 35x ‘With Courage for Croatia (slogan of the Plenković’s platform within the Croatian Democratic Union)’

#ostanikodkuce 5x ‘stay home’

#COVID19 26x

#koronavirus 2x ‘coronavirus’

#EU2020HR 16x ‘i.e. Croatian 2020 EU presidency’

#coronavirus 6x

#EUCO 5x ‘i.e. European Council’

#EUBudget 3x

#ZagrebSummit 3x

#fondoviEU 3x ‘EU funds’

#FAC 2x ‘Foreign Affairs Council’

#EU 2x

A twofold division becomes apparent in our corpus: Kurz and Plenković are more active on Twitter, and the accounts of Morawiecki and Vučić seem to be more neglected. Obviously, we could go along the stereotypes and explain the smaller activity of Morawiecki and Vučić with imperialist stereotypes, stressing more Western credentials of Plenković and Kurz. However, Vučić’s relative absence on Twitter is especially curious, given laborious efforts of his bots on this social network.

Keeping in mind differences in their social media aptitude, all the leaders focus on the coronavirus pandemics in the hashatgs they use. The more frequent Twitter users have to share their attention onto other topics they find significant. This is especially visible in the case of Andrej Plenković, who mentioned his own platform inside the ruling national right-wing Croatian Democratic Union (Croat./Serb. Hrvatska demokratska zajednica – HDZ) more times than the COVID19 disease. But also Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz took the occasion to congratulate on the International Women’s Day, while Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki mentioned the Visegrad Group (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary), although in the context of the pandemic.

Keyword analysis

The hashtags most frequently used by the Central European leaders are of a surprisingly little informative value. To grasp with numbers what the politicians would like to convey – and, what is way more interesting, what they would like not to convey, but they do it anyway – we have to make use of keywords. In an everyday parlance, it’s rather an ambiguous notion. In corpus linguistics, a keyword is a word selected by a  statistical algorithm (e.g. log-likelihood), which is too complicated to be discussed here in any detail. Briefly speaking, it takes another collection of texts as a reference point. With respect to this point, the algorithm checks whether potential keywords occur in our analysed text corpus more frequently than they would by pure chance. If they do, they are ascribed higher ‘keyness’ values.

As a reference for keyword selection, articles published between 2019-11-01 and 2019-12-31 (i.e. before the pandemic outbreak) in popular local dailies were used. For Poland, it was Gazeta Wyborcza, for Serbia – Politika, for Austria – Kurier, for Croatia – Večernji list.

Morawiecki

Vučić

Rank

Lexeme

Keyness

Rank

Lexeme

Keyness

3

#koronawirus

‘coronavirus’

115.68

6

hvala

‘thank’

43.88

4

dziękować

‘thank’

36.40

7

Srbija

‘Serbia’

34.00

5

‘<PL flag>’

31.83

10

ostanikodkuce

‘stay home’

24.38

6

poświęcenie

‘devotion’

31.83

11

!

24.38

7

odwaga

‘courage’

31.45

13

hteti

‘will/want’

21.90

10

GIS_gov

‘General Sanitary Inspectorate’

25.71

14

prijatelj

‘friend’

19.50

11

MZ_GOV_PL

‘Ministry of Health’

25.71

15

naš

‘our’

19.42

12

#V4

‘Visegrad 4’

25.71

16

podrška

‘support’

18.35

13

Pawlukiewicz

25.71

19

težak

‘hard’

14.63

14

BorisJohnson

25.71

20

AIPAC

‘American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee’

14.63

15

ambitny

‘ambitious’

24.05

21

prijateljstvo

‘friendship’

14.63

17

aspiracja

‘aspiration’

21.89

22

narod

‘people’

14.63

21

niech

‘let’s’

21.02

23

koronavirus

‘coronavirus’

14.63

22

dyskusja

‘discussion’

20.74

24

značajan

‘significant’

14.63

23

wszystek

‘all’

19.98

26

sav

‘all’

12.92

24

ogromny

‘huge’

19.51

27

građanin

‘citizen’

12.75

25

jedność

‘unity’

19.35

28

kineski

‘Chinese’

12.75

26

wasz

‘your’

19.32

31

pomoć

‘help’

10.49

27

sanitarny

‘sanitary’

18.99

32

nikada

‘never’

10.31

29

dziś

‘today’

18.55

33

partija

‘party’

9.75

The keywords of the Morawiecki and Vučić’s tweets are indeed somehow boring. On the other hand, there is more to them than one would expect at the first sight. Much was said that thankfulness is cheap for the ruling, so they thank the public servants a lot (for their ‘devotion’, for their ‘courage’), but less eager are they to value their labour materially, especially when it comes to non-middle class professions.

There are two points which would be interesting to investigate in more depth at Morawiecki. Firstly, ‘unity’, secondly – his ‘ambiton’ and ‘aspirations’. Well, the ‘unity’ brings us at least once explicitly to the concept of a nation as an integral, organic being, and if that were not enough, in a context of continuity with a controversial event:

10 lat od katastrofy smoleńskiej. To moment, w którym czas się zatrzymał. Tamten krzyk dzwoni wciąż głośno w uszach. Przeżywaliśmy narodową tragedię jako wspólnota. Dziś, w innych okolicznościach, też potrzebujemy jedności. Cześć pamięci ofiar Katynia i tragedii smoleńskiej.

‘10 years from the Smoleńsk catastrophe. It is a moment when the time stopped. That yell still loudly rings. We experienced a national tragedy as a community. Today, in different circumstances, we also need unity. Honour to the victims of Katyńs and the Smoleńsk tragedy.’

A problematic point in this message is the ‘yell’. It evokes an image of a 2010 Smoleńsk catastrophe as intentional killing, shared by hardcore supporters of the ruling Law and Justice party, an image surely not uniting a polarised landscape of the Polish political audience.

Now, ‘ambition’ and ‘aspiration’ turn out to be at the margin of the pandemic discourse:

Dyskusja o budżecie to dyskusja o prawdziwych aspiracjach UE. Grupa przyjaciół spójnosci to kilkanaście krajów. To Grupa Ambitnej Europy. Europy, która musi stawiać sobie ambitne cele w kontekście globalnej konkurencji i lokalnych wyzwań. Analizujemy nowe propozycje KE.

‘Discussion about the budget is a discussion about real aspirations of the EU. A group of friends of cohesion is constituted by a dozen of countries. It is a Group of Ambitious Europe. Europe that has to set itself ambitious goals in the context of global competition and local challenges. We analyse new proposals of the European Commission.’

In fact, the problems Morawiecki is talking here about are at the margins of any political discourse, regretfully. As Ambitious Europe, the Polish PM is trying to label a group of countries from the Eastern and Southern European Union – self-named Friends of Cohesion, somehow recalling factions of the good old days of the French Revolution – trying to pursue a common tactic in negotiating the capital distribution inside the Union. However limited and belated it would be, it is pleasant to see co-operation between the East and the South, especially in the context of the margins of the Kurz’s discourse.

The Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić is even less active on Twitter than Morawiecki. Nevertheless, there is more to see in his keywords than expressions of gratitude towards the medical staff. When a political leader talks of ‘friendship’, more often than not, it is a friendship between governments. It is no different here. ‘American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee’ is rather unimportant here, it is the ‘Chinese’ which play a significant role in the Vučić’s pandemic tweeting. Besides, we have seemingly innocent keywords, such as značajan ‘significant’ or pomoć ‘help’. Interestingly, a ‘significant help’ in one tweet was offered by Russia, in another by Serbia to Bosnian Serb federal entity, Republic of Srpska, led by increasingly authoritarian- and nationalist-oriented Milorad Dodik. Of course, this Vučić’s gesturing was already noticed by experts on the region and is interpreted as a possible exertion on the EU.

Kurz

Plenković

Rank

Lexeme

Keyness

Rank

Lexeme

Keyness

2

wir

‘we’

504.08

6

<HR flag>

214.12

3

#COVID19

243.25

9

HDZ_HR

‘Croatian Democratic Union’

115.56

4

Maßnahme

‘measure’

201.32

10

mjera

‘measure’

91.08

6

alle

‘all’

124.47

11

COVID19

88.37

7

Ausbreitung

‘spread’

121.62

12

OdvažnoZaHrvatsku

‘With Courage for Croatia’

74.77

8

unser

‘our’

120.40

13

županija

‘province’

58.59

11

#Österreich

‘#Austria’

97.30

14

EU2020HR

‘i.e. Croatian 2020 EU presidency’

57.78

13

ich

‘I’

88.77

15

VladaRH

‘Government of Croatia’

54.38

15

Dank

‘thank’

87.57

18

gospodarstvo

‘economy’

52.17

16

!

86.68

19

zaštita

‘protection’

50.98

20

notwendig

‘necessary’

70.42

20

<EU flag>

47.58

21

Beitrag

‘contribution’

70.29

21

zdravlje

‘health’

44.18

22

bestmöglich

‘best possible’

63.24

22

potpora

‘support’

43.90

25

Land

‘country’

53.61

23

širenje

‘spread’

37.39

26

Mensch

‘person’

52.83

24

razvoj

‘development’

37.39

27

schützen

‘protect’

50.86

25

kn

‘kuna (currency)’

37.39

28

verlangsamen

‘slow down’

48.65

26

suzbijanje

‘containment’

37.39

29

Maske

‘mask’

48.65

27

razgovarati

‘talk’

34.14

30

leisten

‘offer’

47.13

28

kriza

‘crisis’

34.14

32

Situation

‘situation’

45.43

29

radni

‘working’

33.21

Sometimes, it is the very structure of a language that reveals facts about a discourse that otherwise would be missed. It is the case with the Sebastian Kurz’s tweets. At the first place of keyword rank list (ignoring the punctuation and lemmatisation errors generated by URLs), we find a personal pronoun wir ‘we’. In many cases, it is unclear who is the ‘we’ – whether it is Kurz’s pluralis maiestatis, or if he uses an exclusive we to denote his government, or, not that rarely, whether he employs an inclusive we to speak in the name of the whole nation. If the latter fits – and it seems to be so in many cases – it explains the high position of such keywords as ‘Austria’ and ‘country’ (as well as, possibly, Vučić’s ‘Serbia’). Under a caring, biopolitical guise, we may sense some sort of retreat to völkisch idea. For caring it is, the pater patriae (ich ‘I’!) paternalistically tries to convey that it is ‘necessary’ to ‘protect’ the ‘country’ and the ‘people’ with the ‘best possible’ ‘measures’.

By the way, interesting phenomena emerge when one investigates the keyword Beitrag ‘contribution’. While a communitarian notion of everybody doing its share for the sake of the common good prevails, we find also a more material understanding of this word:

Ich erwarte harte Verhandlungen zum #EU-Budget in Brüssel. Unser Beitrag darf nicht ins Unermessliche steigen, daher habe ich die Interessen der österreichischen Steuerzahler klar im Blick.

‘I expect hard negotiations on #EUBudget in Brussels. Our contribution cannot rise immeasurably, so I will keep an close eye on the interests of the Austrian tax payers.’

It is quite instructive to see how at the margins of the pandemic-dominated discourse, one can find material conflicts between European core and periphery. As we can remember, at the discursive level Morawiecki for a few times tried to situate Poland sympathising with the European East and South. Obviously, it is reasonable to question how real this solidarity can be, but this is not the point of this text.

Anyways, the Kurz’s manner of speaking stays in some contrast to the keywords of the Plenković’s tweets. Apart from the already mentioned sphere of party politics, his messages try to be meritocratic. While both Kurz and Plenković make use of the goal-means scheme, it is the latter who rarely explicitly evokes political actors, prioritising apparently objectivised economy and a related national currency, wrapping it in a concept of ‘crisis’ management. In this context, we also find an adjective radni ‘working’, most often referring to ‘workplaces’. As a model neoliberal politician, Plenković would be justifying supportive measures directed to entrepreneurs with the interests of workers.

Part-of-speech frequency analysis

Our analysis can be complemented with one more tool, i.e. an insight into a frequency of the parts-of-speech. Keywords mainly originate in nouns, so it may be interesting to see what are the most commonly used adjectives and verbs. The latter denote actions, and for this reason they will convey what public personae of the politicians would gladly see themselves doing. Adjectives, on the other hand, very often provide a more detailed view on the evaluative meanings and values discourse actors try to persuade their audience to.

Morawiecki

Vučić

dziękować

‘thank’

7

moći

‘can’

3

chcieć

‘want’

4

željeti

‘want’

2

móc

‘can’

3

pružiti

‘offer’

2

musieć

‘must’

2

izlaziti

‘go out’

2

należeć

‘have to’

2

doći

‘come’

2

prosić

‘ask’

2

działać

‘act’

2

Kurz

Plenković

können

‘can’

35

nastavljati

‘continue’

12

geben

‘give’

26

razgovarati

‘talk’

12

müssen

‘must’

25

apelirati

‘appeal’

7

setzen

‘set’

21

ići

‘go’

7

schützen

‘protect’

16

pomoći

‘help’

6

halten

‘hold’

15

moći

‘can’

6

leisten

‘offer’

14

poduzimati

‘undertake’

5

unterstützen

‘support’

13

morati

‘must’

5

tun

‘do’

12

voditi

‘lead’

5

sollen

‘should’

10

razvijati

‘develop’

5

verlangsamen

‘slow down’

10

imati

‘have’

5

To disappoint all Polish exceptionalists, Morawiecki’s ‘to thank’ is just reflection of a fact that gratefulness in (official) Polish cannot be expressed more conveniently by a noun. Now, what we are left with, is a whole spectrum of modal verbs, quite explicitly expressing a potential of power (real or imagined, it is not a question here). This is the function of the ‘wants’, ‘cans’, ‘musts’, ‘should’, very often with the ambiguous majestic/governmental/national ‘we’. There are other subtle means to evoke a state of exception, for instance, Plenković’s ‘appeal’ to citizens or Morawiecki’s ‘asking’, both stressing that the rulers are in an exceptional situation. Last but not least, the authority’s face is not severe, it would be infelicitous to resemble an omnipotent fascist state too much, and a coalition with the Greens would be less likely, too. The lesson of a welfare state is learned, so we also come upon ‘support’ ‘offers’.

Morawiecki

Vučić

nasz

‘our’

8

sav

‘whole’

7

wszystek

‘all’

7

kineski

‘Chinese’

5

polski

‘Polish’

6

težak

‘hard’

3

kolejny

‘next’

5

srpski

‘Serbian’

3

cały

‘whole’

5

značajan

‘significant’

3

trudny

‘difficult’

4

dobar

‘good’

2

ogromny

‘huge’

4

ponosan

‘proud’

2

wasz

‘your’

4

medicinski

‘medical’

2

ambitny

‘ambitious’

3

velik

‘large’

2

nowy

‘new’

3

Kurz

Plenković

weit

‘broad’

23

sav

‘whole’

35

gut

‘good’

20

hrvatski

‘Croatian’

21

notwendig

‘necessary’

16

velik

‘large’

16

gemeinsam

‘common’

15

radni

‘working’

13

klar

‘clear’

14

europski

‘European’

12

andere

‘other’

13

nov

‘new’

12

bestmöglich

‘best possible’

13

snažan

‘strong’

12

schnell

‘fast’

12

zajednički

‘common’

10

groß

‘large’

11

parlamentaran

‘parliamentary’

9

sozial

‘social’

11

nacionalan

‘national’

8

wichtig

‘important’

9

ključan

‘crucial’

7

The adjectives are mostly confirming our previous findings. They offer, however, some new insights in the means of discursive construction of the national unity used by the Slavic-speaking politicians. An abundance of adjectives and pro-drop nature of their languages enabled them to pass unnoticed – until this moment. The relatively position of the adjective srpski ‘Serbian’ in the Vučić tweets is somehow surprising and may prove that he does not treat his Twitter seriously. On the other hand, once again we see that the supportive ‘Chinese’ – tacitly contrasted with the EU – play a significant role.

Morawiecki and Plenković use adjectives ‘Polish’ and, respectively, ‘Croatian’ way more often (as well as nasz ‘our’, in Polish POS-tagging classified as adjective – but this is a relative thing), even if the latter dilutes the ethnic content of the adjectives, from time to time referring to ‘Croatian citizens’. Plenković employs also the adjective nacionalan ‘national’ frequently and while in many cases it is because this word constitutes a part of many institution names, we come upon more explicit examples of appeal for national unity, too:

Borba protiv #COVID19 najveća je kriza od Domovinskog rata. Potrebno nam je jedinstvo, a zdravlje i životi ljudi naš su prvi prioritet. U ovom trenutku čvrsto upravljamo krizom, ali za uspješni ishod potrebna je odgovornost svakog od nas. Ovo su teški dani i ispit zrelosti za <HR flag>.

‘Struggle against #COVID19 is the largest crisis since the Fatherland War. We need unity and the people’s health and lives are our first priorities. In this moment we strongly manage the crisis, but for a succesful result responsibility of each of us is necessary. These are hard days and a test of maturity for <HR flag>.’

Military metaphors referring to diseases are so banalised that we even don’t notice them. However, talking of struggle with a chronic illness one suffers from seems to entail different consequences than a contagious disease, where organised social efforts are necessary to contain it. In the cited case the metaphor is even more concrete and refers to the armed conflict 25 years ago. The war between Croatia and Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia is quite an ambiguous reference. It evokes both a sense of banal, everyday patriotism, fond of defending own country from a nationalist aggressor, but also a violent expulsion of Serbian minority from Croatia and a rise to power of a nationalist right, with its obsession with military.

However, this kind of discourse seems to be clear enough to be immediately recognised and critiqued by the local engaged press. Critique of meritocratic parlance and seemingly mild patrnalistic measures seems to be much more difficult.

At the end, some conclusions…

  • Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki (ECR) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić make a smaller use of Twitter, therefore, less conclusions can be drawn from their activity.

  • All the politicians in question – Morawiecki, Vučić, Croatian PM Andrej Plenković (EPP), and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (EPP) focused very much on the COVID19 pandemic in their tweets.

  • Expressions of gratitude for the medical staff were especially characteristic for Morawiecki’s and Vučić’s tweets, which obviously stays in a contrast with precarious realities e.g. nurses are faced with.

  • Appeals to national unity were noticeable in the keywords used by Morawiecki. Vučić tended to stress Russian and Chinese support for Serbia.

  • From the keywords occurring in the Kurz’s tweets, there emerge an image of a leader identifying with his own country (‚we’ the nation / pluralis maiestatis?) who takes ‚necessary measures’ to ‚protect’ the ‚people’. In fact, he seems to have the most ethno-nationalistically integrist persona of all the analysed politicians!

  • Plenković activity is generally more technocratic, paying a lot of attention to the ‚economy’. This would be in line with the victory of a neoliberal wing of the ruling right-wing Croatian Democratic Union over the more nationalistically oriented factions. Obviously, it is a question of the future where such politics will lead, given its contempt for public sector workers – derisively en bloc called uhljebi (Croat./Serb. ‚nepotists’) – and considering very possible aggravation of austerity measures.

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