- Eastern Europe a Decade LaterAnother Great Transformation
The fall of the Berlin Wall and its consequences are transforming a continent that had been divided for 40 years. Western Europe was the “ideal” Europe; freedom and prosperity could be found there. The lands behind the Iron Curtain had a better claim to be the “real” Europe, for authoritarianism and oppression by an alien ruler could be found there. While intellectuals sometimes speak of the Czech Republic, Hungary, or Poland as returning to a golden age, ordinary people in postcommunist societies do not want to return to the dictators, wars, and poverty that characterized earlier European history.
Ten years into this transformation, what kind of a Europe is emerging at the start of the new millennium? Central Europe—which includes Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Poland, Hungary, and even parts of Italy—is once again central to the continent. The fall of the Wall has created a Drang nach Östen (drive toward the east), of which the movement of Germany’s capital to Berlin this year is an apt symbol. The new German parliament will meet in the new Reichstag; the old building has been transformed by the design of a British architect. The problems of the reunified Germany—in the Rhineland as well as along the Elbe—are a reminder that transformation has costs as well as benefits.
Ten postcommunist countries have already reoriented their attention from Moscow to Brussels, applying to join the 15 member states already in the European Union (EU). The five leading candidates are [End Page 51] the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia; Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia make up the second flight. Russia, Ukraine, and Croatia are still outside the pale. 1 If these ten countries gain membership, Europe’s population center—the point equidistant from the population of the entire continent—will be Ulm, a pleasant town in Southern Germany with the tallest church spire in Europe and the birthplace of a quintessential modernist, Albert Einstein. 2 The river that runs through it does not flow toward Bonn or Berlin; it is the Danube, on its journey to the Black Sea.
Achievements of a Decade
Whereas England and Sweden took centuries to evolve into democracies and Germany stabilized democratic rule only under foreign occupation, many of the new regimes in postcommunist Europe have shown substantial evidence of becoming normal democracies in a single decade. In all ten countries, there has been at least one change of government through the ballot box, and often two. For example, in 1990, anticommunist governments were elected in Hungary and Poland. The ex-communists then showed their consistency—“Once an opportunist, always an opportunist”—and won elections campaigning as social democrats. The ex-communists, in turn, have been defeated at the polls and replaced by right-of-center governments.
Voters have consistently rejected undemocratic alternatives. In Hungary, the radical right-wing party of István Csurka cannot be sure of winning enough votes to gain any seats in the parliament. In the autumn of 1998, Slovak voters rejected Vladimír Meciar, who had led the country to a peaceful separation from the Czech Republic but has subsequently shown antidemocratic tendencies. In Latvia, a popular referendum rejected proposals that, in effect, would have prevented most of its Russian residents from ever becoming citizens. Only in Romania does the total vote for fragmented antidemocratic parties begin to approach the vote won in established democracies by parties with dubious democratic credentials, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France or Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria.
The costs of economic transformation have been substantial; establishing a market economy where none had existed for over 40 years is much harder than ending a recession in a country with well-developed market institutions. Still, these costs have been much exaggerated. In the days of the command economy, shortages were frequent, choice was nonexistent, and bribery and party favoritism often determined who got what. People learned to augment their standard of living by household production or by working in second economies; these skills have helped tide them over the worst of the...