Emerging from the shadow of communism

Five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the collapse of Soviet domination of eastern Europe, freed peoples were starting to look West 


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The Independent Online

9 November 1994

Late one night in Vaclav Havel’s local basement pub, at the height of the ‘‘velvet revolution’’, I asked the veteran Czech dissident (and soon to be foreign minister) Jiri Dienstbier what he thought would come after the revolution. Taking a deep swig of beer, he replied: “Either the counter-revolution or a Western consumer society.”

Amid the euphoria, it was a pretty sober guess. What none of us quite anticipated, however, was that in some places it might be a bit of both: consumer society and counter-revolution. All over post-Communist Europe there has been this fantastic release of raw entrepreneurial energy, and conspicuous consumption cheek-by-jowl with conspicuous immiseration. Even in Russia, where it was often said that all traces of entrepreneurial spirit had been eradicated by 70 years of Communism, the entrepreneurs are back – albeit in the guise of gangsters.

On the other hand, there has been the extraordinary return of the former Communists. We have seen this most recently in the former East Germany. Despite (or partly because of) the uniquely swift and comprehensive incorporation of that former Communist country into a Western state, with financial transfers from the West of about £60bn a year, nearly one in five of the easterners who turned out for the Bundestag elections last month voted for the post-Communist PDS. As a result, Berlin-Mitte, the borough that includes the Brandenburg Gate and used to be hidden behind the Berlin Wall, now has an MP put up by the direct successor to the Communist party that was responsible for building the Berlin Wall. It is a rum way to mark the fifth anniversary of the fall of the Wall.

The complexities of post-Communism don’t end there. For that MP is not an old functionary but a former dissident writer, Stefan Heym, who stood on the PDS ticket as a gesture of protest against what he saw as the inequitable consequences of reunification. Elsewhere, post-Communists have been voted back into parliament, and in Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and Ukraine also into power, on the votes of the losers from the traumatic process of economic transformation: the unemployed, the pensioners, the unskilled workers and state employees who can barely make ends meet.

Yet at the same time, former Communist functionaries are to be found among the most successful businessmen, bankers and speculators. Many of them initially used the wealth of the old Communist parties (and the states those parties effectively ‘‘owned’’) to set themselves up in business. Now some of them repay the favour by contributing a little of their new riches to their new-old parties. The apparatchiks who were smart enough to swap their political power for economic power before (or while) the combination of Gorbachev’s reforms and their own people’s anger was taking it from them, have now partly reconverted their economic power to political power.

At this point – at the very latest – one has to say that of course the differences between the post-Communist countries are now so great that it is impossible to generalise about them. The distance in political experience between Bosnia and Bohemia is much greater than that between Bohemia and Bavaria. Even in the worst cases, this is not a “return of Communism” as a system. (In that sense, to talk of “counter-revolution” is obviously a deliberate overstatement). But it is the return of former Communists, and of some bad old ways of governing and doing business which mean that the transition from Communism will not necessarily be the transition to democracy.

In the best cases, however, the distance travelled since 1989 has been immense. I am writing these lines in Prague. Five years ago, this city was still locked in a time warp, frozen under an unreformed Brezhnevite regime. Now all around me there roars and blares the evidence of a Western-style consumer society, fuelled by a tourist boom which has swamped the city with millions of foreign visitors and turned Prague into the Venice of Central Europe.

The change is not merely superficial. A friend of mine, a writer, was recently invited to talk to secondary-school children about life under the Communists. A veteran of 32, Jachym told them how in those days you could be stopped by the police and arrested simply for not carrying your identity card. “No, incredible!” said these teenagers. And then, said Jachym, you had to stand up with your hands behind your back when the teacher came into the classroom. “You must be joking!” laughed the lounging pupils. When it was their turn to question him, they asked: how many video shops were there in Prague before 1989? And again, they were incredulous when he told them: none. So swiftly has history moved on, so self-evident has the new freedom become.

Yet even in fortunate Prague, it is a messy thing, this new freedom. The emphasis placed by the Czech Republic’s Thatcherite prime minister, Vaclav Klaus, on the primacy of economic transformation, with massive, rapid privatisation, has resulted in a certain free-for-all, Klondike atmosphere, with all the associated corruption. The recent “Liznergate” scandal – with the head of the so-called voucher privatisation, one Mr Lizner, apparently caught red-handed taking a bribe of nearly £200,000 in cash – is but the latest example.

“Speed is more important than accuracy,” says Klaus. But his critics say that “accuracy” really means the most basic standards of public life and the rule of law. Moreover, the businessmen – the heroes of this time – are a motley crew, with former secret policemen and former dissidents jostling for position in the race for riches.

The result is that many people are disoriented. I talked to a young woman who was in the front line of the student demonstration of 17 November 1989, which started the “velvet revolution”. She told me that while everyone appreciates the immense progress, the freedom, she is worried that her generation has no obvious role models – beyond the get-rich-quick businessmen – and no clear hierarchy of values.

When he came here in the bad old days before 1989, the American writer Philip Roth memorably observed that whereas in the West everything goes and nothing matters, in Prague nothing goes and everything matters. In this respect, Prague seems to have caught up all too rapidly with the West. And the ideologues of the Klaus government positively embrace this cacophony of the market, with a curious kind of neo-liberal post-modernism: anything goes ... Against them, President Havel tries to reassert a more traditional hierarchy of values, a broader understanding of culture, a ‘‘spiritual dimension’’ to politics. His voice is not heard as widely as it was at the beginning, although it may yet be once again.

The overall orientation remains the “return to Europe”. (The road to the airport used to be called Leninova; it’s now Evropska, Europe Road.)

But here too there is confusion, because the real institutional ‘‘Europe’’ of the EU has turned out to be so very different from the idealised, philosophers’ Europe of which they dreamed for so many years under Communism. Measured by its own previous standards, the EU/EC has done more for East Central Europe than for any other part of the world. But measured against Czech or Polish or Hungarian expectations, it has been a great disappointment: slow-moving, polit-bureaucratic, a protectionist cartel. The former Czech prime minister Petr Pithart compares their experience in the ‘‘return to Europe’’ to Columbus setting out to discover India – and finding America instead. Except that America would have been more generous.

So the biggest question for Central Europe five years on is actually quite close to the biggest question for us, in Britain, as we enter the next round of our great European debate. That question is not: “Do we want to be in Europe?” It is: “What kind of Europe do we want to be in?” That was the most fundamental question posed five years ago by the revolution of 1989. Maastricht was no answer to it. Let’s hope we do better this time.

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