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  • The Splintering of Postcommunist Europe
  • Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (bio)

There are two radically different versions of the postcommunist narrative. One tells the triumphal tale of the only world region in which the reforms recommended by the “Washington consensus” worked, where democracy quickly consolidated and the transition came to completion—a model for the rest of the world that Western policy makers and development agencies seek to transplant to the broader Middle East and other places. “Transition” and the policies that are said to have aided it weigh heavily in this account, so that with a good transition textbook anyone should be able to duplicate the achievement. History came to an end in a successful Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the only region to have redeemed Francis Fukuyama’s prediction.

The other and more realistic account speaks of a historic window of opportunity that lasted for only a quarter-century, during which efforts by the West and patriotic CEE elites managed to drag the region (including the Baltic and Balkan countries) into Europe proper, leaving Europe and Russia pitted against each other along the old “civilizational” border between them. In this version, Samuel P. Huntington is the one who was right, even if he got his geography wrong: Not the Carpathian Mountains, but the Dniester River a modest distance to their east is the real European border. In Roman times, the Dniester marked the farthest frontier of empire, one that barbarians were forbidden to cross. Later, it was where the Bolshevik revolution was stopped from entering Europe: Ukraine was fought over for a while after World War I, but by 1921 Soviet forces had seized most of it, and Ukraine was lost to Europe.

Both accounts have their attractions and their risks. But they cannot [End Page 88] both be right. They might seem like mere caricatures, but they have been shaping policy arguments and people’s lives for many years, and their widely divergent practical consequences are deadly serious. In the “end-of-history” scenario, human agency is everything and building a critical mass in favor of change is the essential factor. This was so, for example, in the struggle against Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević in 2000 (when he finally lost a national election), and in the “color revolutions” that began erupting in parts of the former Soviet Union a few years later. In the “border-of-civilizations” scenario, by contrast, a critical mass can be built to some effect only on the right side of the geopolitical border: On the wrong side, you can have countless Orange Revolutions without putting a country on the right path.

For the European Union, the choice between these scenarios is important. If the first one is true, then all that we need to do is to help any willing country make progress along the path of reforms until it comes close enough to EU standards on all counts, economic and political. Integration will follow as a logical consequence, and every country has an equal chance on the basis of merit. This view was stated by Günter Verheugen, who as European Commissioner for Enlargement presided over the “big bang” accession of 2004, when ten countries—eight of them ex-communist CEE states—joined the EU:

Today’s decision concerns the millions of people who paved the way for a free and united Europe with courage and determination. The peoples who have earned their place amongst us. The millions of people who for many years have shouldered the hard and far-reaching reforms needed to build modern Western societies. We are talking about the Hungarians, who in the summer of 1989 opened their borders. About the Czechs, who allowed East German refugees into Prague. About the Poles, whose indomitable desire for freedom and democracy triggered the start to change in Europe. About the Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians, who have regained their national identity. About the Slovenians who, after the collapse of Yugoslavia, resolutely set course for Europe. About the Slovakians, who have unflagging confidence in their future in the European family.1

But if the second scenario is the valid one, then all countries that are located within the border of Europe need...