Leading Article: Ten years after the fall of the Wall, there is more to celebrate than lament

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The Independent Culture
THE FALL of the Berlin Wall, 10 years ago today, was perhaps the most extraordinary political event that any of us are likely to witness in our lifetimes. An emblem of oppression was swept away. The tumultuous scenes as crowds chipped away at the object that had come to be a symbol of political evil encapsulated all the other changes of that dramatic year in which communism so suddenly collapsed.

In the intervening years, it has become fashionable to express pessimism about all that has gone wrong. "We are the people," chanted the demonstrators in 1989 in defiance of the people's police. Then, "We are one people," in the heady run-up to German unification.

But finding optimists in Germany today is a tough business. The "wall in the heads" - the mutual distrust between east and west Germans - scarcely seems to diminish. The resentments mean that the former communists, now cutely restyled as Democratic Socialists, are successful in a way they could never have dreamed of when the Wall itself came down.

The single most mocked phrase in Germany in the past 10 years has been Helmut Kohl's declaration that east Germany would be full of "blooming landscapes" within just a few years. In failing to deliver the proverbial "blood, sweat and tears" speech, Mr Kohl was indeed misguided. When times looked tough, voters felt betrayed. None the less, eastern Germany enjoys a standard of living that would have seemed unthinkable to anyone who looked soberly at the disastrous state of the East German economy 10 years ago.

Germany's greatest problems are not economic, but social. East Germans feel bitter that they are patronised by their affluent western cousins. West Germans took decades to liberate themselves from the legacy of a totalitarian regime after 1945. But they were scornful when East Germans were disoriented by being thrust overnight into an entirely new political and economic world. East Germans resent being perceived as less capable than the west Germans. West Germans are contemptuous of the fact that the easterners, despite the billions of marks in subsidies that they have received, still complain of being badly off.

Partly, the problems are generational. The distance between a 50 year old from Dusseldorf in the west and a 50 year old from Dresden in east Germany is likely to remain. The Dusseldorfer will continue to think of the east Germans as grasping and ungrateful; the Dresdener will think of west Germans as arrogant and condescending. But their children are growing up less conditioned and, gradually, the psychological scars will fade.

Elsewhere, too, there is cause for optimism. The fall of the Wall was only the most dramatic of all the changes that took place in the extraordinary year of 1989. Political collapse in Poland and Hungary paved the way for the destruction of the Wall; Prague followed hard on Germany's heels. Within two weeks, the Czechs' own revolution was complete. A month after that, even the hated Romanian dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu had been swept away.

In these countries, there was no east-west divide, which meant that the problems of coming to terms with life after totalitarianism could be addressed in relative privacy. There was no know-it-all rich sugar daddy offering unwanted advice. Although economic recovery was less dramatic than in east Germany, the psychological effect has been more positive: everybody knows economic progress has been achieved by their own efforts, not because of a financial drip feed.

Following German unification, less than a year after the Wall came down, east Germany was absorbed into the European Union. For countries such as Poland and Hungary, the fact that they are now leading candidates for EU membership is itself a remarkable achievement. Even Romania, once seen as a basket case, is clawing its way towards economic self-confidence and political stability. The relative progress is just as remarkable as the fact that the challenges remain enormous.

In the region formerly ruled by Moscow, the most obvious exception remains the former imperial power itself. Russia has scarcely come to terms with the loss of its political colonies. More importantly, it has little understanding of what has gone so badly wrong. When the Soviet coup by hardline communists failed disastrously in August 1991, there was brief optimism that Russia could break free of its own repressive history. In reality, Russia - which has a highly educated population, and is rich in natural resources - has stumbled from one disaster to another, always blaming others for its woes.

Some former Soviet republics, most notably the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - whose economic viability was questioned by Western economists before the Soviet Union broke up - have proved well able to adjust to the rigour of the free-market economy. Potentially rich Russia, by contrast, remains enmired.

The war that Moscow has (re-)launched against the little republic of Chechnya in recent weeks, where civilians have been the principal victims, is only the most glaring example of Russia's failure to connect. The economy, despite a partial recovery after last year's disasters, remains brittle; the criminal mafias sometimes seem to be the most powerful branch of government in Moscow.

Even in Russia, however, there are signs of hope. After 70 years of totalitarianism (and centuries of feudal rule before that), it is hardly surprising if the first years of attempted democracy have been chaotic and difficult. Russia is as capable as Poland or Germany of becoming successful. Like the school bully in the playground, weighed down by many complexes, Moscow throws its weight around while seeming unable to believe that things can ever get better.

The message of 1989 - that change is possible, even in the most unpropitious circumstances - remains valid. Changes in Moscow helped unleash miraculous change in the rest of eastern Europe. If Russians can believe in themselves, they may look forward to the return of the boomerang of democratic reform that they helped to launch, and the economic prosperity that it could bring in its wake.