The 1989 revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe signaled the demise of the communist bloc. They represent the triumph of civic dignity and political morality over ideological monism, bureaucratic cynicism, and police-state dictatorship. Their significance cannot be overestimated. The ousting of communist rule across the region that began that year irrevocably altered the geopolitical landscape. But it also gave rise to a potentially dangerous situation, as the absence of norms and predictable rational behavior in the postcommunist states conceivably could have led to global chaos.
This is not to wax nostalgic for the Cold War–era world order, but simply to point out that the end of Leninism and the fall of the Iron Curtain created a radically novel situation. It in no way diminishes the triumph of 1989 to acknowledge that ethnic rivalries, rampant political and economic corruption, and the rise of illiberal political parties and movements as well as collectivist and nativist trends have afflicted much of the postcommunist world since then. Understanding the repercussions of "the upheaval in the East," however, will help us better to grasp the meaning of ongoing debates about liberalism, socialism, nationalism, civil society, and the very notion of human freedom in the aftermath of a most atrocious century.1
After 1989, Central and Eastern Europe had to make the transition from Leninist pseudomodernization to genuine modernity. This was no simple task, for at the root of most postcommunist problems lay the misdevelopment of society under Leninism. As Tony Judt noted, "seventy [End Page 128] years of energetic claims to the contrary notwithstanding . . . there was indeed no Communist society as such: only a wilting state and its anxious citizens."2 At the beginning of the 1990s, I argued that the leading cause of communism's collapse was the resurrection and development of civil society.3 Absent an active civil society, the revolutions of 1989 would have been replaced, at best, by a so-called enlightened despotism. With the end of state socialism came the crucial task of restoring the social glue that had been dissolved by the endemic corruption and moral disarray that plagued these societies.
Caught up in the romance of revolutionary excitement, most observers glossed over the diversity of the anticommunist movements. Not everyone who rejected Leninism did so because he or she was dreaming of an open society founded on liberal values. Among the revolutionaries were populist fundamentalists, religious zealots, and those who longed for the return of the undemocratic precommunist regimes. It was only after the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the "velvet divorce" between the Czechs and Slovaks that scholars and policy makers began to realize that the liberal promise of these revolutions could not be taken for granted and that communism would not necessarily be followed by liberal democracy. In the early 1990s, it became unmistakably clear that the postcommunist era was fraught with all manner of threats, as much of the region descended into bloody ethnic conflict and social unrest, and saw the infectious rise of old and new kinds of populism and tribalism.4
Nowhere were the perils of postcommunism more evident than in the Balkans, where democratic values completely shattered under ethnocratic pressure soon after communism fell. The wars of secession in Yugoslavia proved to be Eastern Europe's paradigmatic worst-case scenario. In the former Yugoslav federation, we witnessed what I once called the "Belgrade syndrome," a form of populism instrumentalized through militaristic, expansionist policies and demagogic nationalism. Its purpose was to preserve the political domination of the ex-communist, radically nationalist elite that was loyal to Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, whose personalistic, ethnocentric, and authoritarian regime rested on the ruling Socialist Party, secret police, and army.
This type of politics was not ideological; it was neither left nor right. Rather, policies were adopted only in accord with the needs and whims of the power holders. Elites deployed nationalistic, manipulative political slogans with utter disregard for their long-term consequences. The popularity and manifestation of this genre of "government" (identifiable to varying degrees at the time in such countries as Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia) in the first decade of postcommunism seemed to confirm the fears...