- Twenty Years of PostcommunismIn Search of A New Model
The twentieth anniversary of the fall of communism, the founding moment for democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, comes at a time when the term "democratic revolution" evokes less a frisson of excitement than a slight twinge of embarrassment in the countries concerned. In Poland and Hungary, one could attribute this to their experience of transition as a peaceful, negotiated affair. Not the celebration of revolution, but rather the complete rejection of all revolutionary logic seems to many a Pole and Hungarian to be 1989's best and truest legacy. Not Paris in 1789, but the "Spanish model" of the 1970s was foremost in the minds of the Polish and Hungarian roundtable participants who secured their respective countries' unexpectedly smooth exits from totalitarian thralldom.
But the consensus ends there. In Poland, the twentieth anniversary of the (nearly) free elections of 4 June 1989 was marked by three separate ceremonies held in three different cities. One featured President Lech Kaczyński, one was overseen by Premier Donald Tusk, and the third was held at parliament in Warsaw. In Hungary, the twentieth anniversary of the May 1989 opening of the border with Austria passed with a notable lack of public fervor and the conspicuous absence from any observance of the main opposition leader, Viktor Orbán. In late June, with the global economic downturn pinching badly, a poll was released suggesting that almost half of all young Hungarians thought life under what used to be called "goulash communism" was better than life today.1
Even in Berlin, where the fall of the Wall on 9 November 1989 gave the communist collapse its iconic moment, the atmosphere was muted in the wake of revelations that Mikhail Gorbachev had played a larger [End Page 105] role in bringing the Wall down than had previously been realized.2 More seriously, an astonishing poll released in March 2009 found that a majority in what had once been East Germany thought that life had been better under the old German Democratic Republic (GDR).3 "Ostalgia" seems to have spread to a new generation that remembers the GDR and its one-party communist dictatorship only vaguely, if at all. The democratization of East Germany through its 1990 reunification with the West—the least painful of all the Eastern bloc transitions—is now seen as a mixed blessing by its greatest beneficiaries.
Looking south to the Czech Republic, we see that the globally resonant "velvet revolution" is now spoken of by Czechs with caution and even diffidence. Former dissident and deputy Senate chairman Petr Pithart prefers the term "takeover";4 the actor and Charter 77 signatory Pavel Landovský suggests the "abolition of serfdom"; and the media refer modestly to "the events of November 1989" or simply "November." Interestingly, nobody in Prague claims to own the "copyright" on the term "velvet revolution" or can identify its author. Václav Havel, that revolution's most prominent figure, attributes the name to a Western journalist. The term, like so much of what followed, seems to have originated in the West.
"Ostalgia" notwithstanding, there is no actual desire in Central and Eastern Europe to return to dictatorship. But there is, unmistakably, a "crisis of expectations," and even a sense of "the revolution betrayed" that expresses itself as disenchantment with democracy after two decades of experience with it. No one pines for communism to come back, but it is clear that democracy can no longer derive its legitimacy from 1989 and the overwhelming rejection of the old regime which that year witnessed.
Even a cursory overview of recent developments unlikely to make it into Western newspapers reveals reasons for the absence of "1989 triumphalism" in the old Warsaw Pact countries. The Baltic real-estate bubble has burst, and Latvia in particular is facing social unrest for the first time. Hungary and Slovakia (which has a Magyar minority) are involved in a simmering war of words and nerves. In Prague, an unelected caretaker government run by an ex-communist statistician holds office while fresh elections are delayed due to an intense political controversy over a Constitutional Court ruling.5 Anyone who thinks...