It could have been different

Post-Communist Europe shows the crucial influence of strong leaders, argues Tony Barber
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The Independent Online
HERE is a question that A-level students of European history may be asked 25 years from now: "How far did the policies of President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia contribute to the outbreak of the wars of the Yugoslav succession?" And here is another: "How far was Poland's peaceful transition from Communism to democracy attributable to the political skills of Lech Walesa?"

As any history student will tell you, every "how far" question conceals a bigger question beneath. In the above examples, the hidden questions are "What caused the Yugoslav wars?" and "What caused Poland to move peacefully from Communism to democracy?" The examiner wants a discussion of all the causes, with special emphasis on the roles played by Mr Milosevic and Mr Walesa. Indirectly, he is asking a much broader and almost philosophical question about the power of individuals to shape events around them.

For many years it has been fashionable in some academic circles to play down the impact that individual leaders can make on history. Great events, the argument runs, are provoked by great causes, which may be social, economic, cultural or ideological; the choices and actions of individual human beings count for little. The English Civil War, for example, was about class, or religion, or parliamentary democracy; the human protagonists such as Charles I and Cromwell were driven and dominated by these forces.

One distinguished historian who taught 19th- and 20th-century European history cared so little for the role of the individual that he used to warn his students against biography. Even where it concentrated on the political career of the subject and left out the affairs with actresses and the psychological analysis, he insisted, it was not a serious form of inquiry.

The great events in central and eastern Europe over the past six years offer us a different lesson. They suggest that it matters quite a lot who is in charge of a particular country, and how he or she chooses to behave. The fact that the Czech lands, Hungary and Poland threw off Communism peacefully in 1989 and have since made great progress towards becoming stable, prosperous democracies surely owes something to the courage and talent of many of their leaders - people such as Mr Walesa and his Solidarity colleagues in Warsaw, Vaclav Ha-vel and Vaclav Klaus in Prague, and the reformist intellectuals of Budapest.

Yes, historical and cultural factors have played their parts in these successes, but progress and peace were not inevitable. The edifices of democracy, of institutionalised pluralism and tolerance, needed to be built, and this is where the contribution of intelligent and fair-minded leaders has been so important.

Equally, the descent of the former Yugoslavia into war owes much to certain leaders, above all Mr Milosevic in Serbia and Franjo Tudjman in Croatia, who consciously pursued goals likely to result in conflict. In Mr Milosevic's case the process began as early as 1987; in Mr Tudjman's case 1990. Of course, the history of Yugoslavia, especially of brutal civil war in the 1940s and the structure of Tito's Communist state, created the preconditions for conflict. But that conflict could perhaps have been avoided or limited if Mr Milosevic and Mr Tudjman had exercised restraint, and if they had not encouraged the rise of tin-pot local strongmen such as Radovan Karadzic and Mate Boban, respective leaders of the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats.

In short, at a pivotal moment, some individuals provided far-sighted leadership for their countries, others let their countries down. In both cases the most important choices they made concerned nationalism and the challenges thrown up by nationalist movements and ethnic minority issues after the collapse of Communism. Broadly speaking, leaders in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland have taken a moderate approach that stresses respect for minority rights and the need to avoid armed conflict. Conversely, leaders in Serbia, Croatia and to some extent Romania have encouraged strident nationalist attitudes that have led either to war or to a state of fear among their ethnic minorities.

In 1989, Poland, Hungary and the then Czechoslovakia may not have faced nationality problems quite so acute as those of the Balkan countries, but all was not calm. Poor leadership could easily have pushed them towards domestic instability and damaged their international reputations. In the case of Slovakia, separated from the Czech Republic in 1993, that is more or less what has happened.

In Poland, a sizeable German minority, living mostly in parts of western Poland that had belonged to Germany until 1945, emerged from four decades of Communist repression and self-imposed silence to demand educational, cultural and political rights. To their lasting credit, the Solidarity leaders who had taken power in Warsaw granted these rights, accepting that modern Poland should not be a state whose institutions were crafted exclusively for the benefit of Poles. The Solidarity leaders, again to their credit, stuck to this position even when some ethnic Germans began erecting war monuments in western Poland that commemorated soldiers who died fighting for Hitler.

Czechoslovakia's break-up, inspired partly by Slovak nationalism and partly by Czech impatience with a poorer, less reform-minded region, caused dismay at first in western Europe. But it occurred without violence, an achievement which says much for the Czech and Slovak leaders. Since then, concern has centred on the ethnic Hungarian minority of southern Slovakia. Relations among ordinary Slovaks and Hungarians are, in fact, fairly free of tension, and official discrimination against the Hungarians waned noticeably last year - until, that is, Vladimir Meciar, the boxer turned populist politician, became Prime Minister for the third time since 1990.

Mr Meciar has not turned against the Hungarians in the same way that, for example, Mr Milosevic has cracked down on Serbia's ethnic Albanians. Still, the Slovak leader gives the impression that he considers the Magyar minority a potential "fifth column" more loyal to Hungary than Slovakia. Far more than most Slovak politicians, he uses aggressively anti-Hungarian language and without doubt this has made it more difficult for Slovakia to win the confidence and support of the United States and the European Union. When the West thinks of reformist democracies in the ex-Communist world, Slovakia does not come first to mind, and Mr Meciar is primarily responsible for that.

And Hungary? Hungarian politics since the 1980s has been heavily influenced by the question of how to secure better treatment for the Hungarian minorities in Romania, Slovakia, the Serbian province of Vojvodina, Ukraine and elsewhere. Yet both the dissident intellectuals who came to power after 1989 and the reformed Communists who won last year's elections have taken care to stress that they seek improvements through sensible dialogue.

No serious Hungarian politician talks of changing borders in central Europe or of using force to protect or reclaim their Hungarian brethren in neighbouring countries. No doubt this is largely because Hungary would stand no chance of joining the EU or Nato if it expressed such ambitions. Still, politicians have to show responsibility, and this Hungary's leaders have done.

By contrast Romania's leaders, including President Ion Iliescu, have allowed anti-Hungarian sentiment to flourish in their country since 1990, particularly in the Transylvanian capital of Cluj. Romanians and ethnic Hungarians co-operated in toppling the Ceausescu dictatorship in December 1989, providing an opportunity to overcome old suspicions, but men such as Gheorghe Funar, the Romanian nationalist mayor of Cluj, have wasted the chance.

For some Western politicians and commentators, the wars in former Yugoslavia, especially Bosnia, are proof that the area is a kind of hellish pit where hatreds have boiled for centuries, making periodic war inevitable among Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Here, of all places, forces appear to be at work which it are beyond human leadership to restrain.

This view is not only historically inaccurate but it overlooks the crucial role played by today's leaders, above all Mr Milosevic. He deliberately whipped up Serb nationalism in the late 1980s and, from 1990, actively fomented rebellion among the Serb minorities of Croatia and Bosnia. To say this is not to heap all the blame for the Yugoslav wars on Mr Milosevic, nor to ignore the many historical reasons why Serb nationalism was a powerful latent force in the 1980s. It is rather to point out that it was one man, not some impersonal force of history, who fanned the flames of war from the Serb side.

In the flow of human events, individuals matter; they are not wholly prisoners of their circumstances. Leadership, for good or ill, can make a difference. Before they sit their exams, those A-level students of the year 2020 will be well advised to dip into a good biography of Slobodan Milosevic.