Culture

Eastern Europe: 25 Years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall

A quarter century ago on the eve of 9 November 1989 the Berlin wall, regarded to that time as everlasting as the communist regime(s) itself, collapsed. Its demise marked a new era for the nations living on the east of Oder. For the majority of those citizens the end of the communism meant a new beginning, a more promising start towards a brighter future, which entailed hope for a better and more dignified life where the freedom of expression and travel, laws and economic welfare were no more a private domain of the communist party elites, but a civil right that every single citizen was entitled to. Now, 25 years later, it is useful to note how much of these hopes and dreams became reality.

From Communism to Democracy A Region in Chaos

The first few years after the end of the communist regimes in the Countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CCEE) were harsh. The central-planned economies of those states failed to produce the most commodities in a satisfying quantity and quality even before 1989. Therefore, when the Eastern Block collapsed and the communist economic model was dissolved, the situation in many countries deteriorated rapidly and soon became dire. Galloping inflation, devaluation of the national currency, empty market stands, bankrupting enterprises, and skyrocketing unemployment were among the most apparent signs of the failed central-planning governance in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).

Alongside the poor economic performance and chronic absence of goods and food supplies the region experienced probably the most acute political crisis since the II World War. In every country of the former Eastern Block the old regimes stepped back from the scene and newly formed political entities started a competition to seize the power. In most of the countries of CEE those political upheavals and reshufflings appeared to be peaceful, but in others tensions and violent clashes took place. For instance, the Velvet Divorce in Czechoslovakia went quite differently than the events in Romania, where the communist dictator Nicolae Chaushesku was arrested and, consequently, executed. However, neither of what happened in those two countries can be compared to the war and violence that erupted in Yugoslavia and destabilized the region of South-East Europe for almost a decade. In a similar way the dissolution of the Soviet Union did not go without complications. In struggling for independence the former Soviet republics either faced a fierce opposition from the centre (in the case of Lithuania and Latvia) or entered into conflicts with ethnic minorities that strived for unification with their homelands (e.g. the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh region), fought for their own independence (South Ossetia and Abkhazia), or wished to remain in the Soviet Union (Transnistria in Moldova).

Eastern Europe today

The early 1990’s were a turbulent period for Eastern Europe. The political instability, the sluggish economic performance, and the military conflicts took their toll. However, at the end of the last decade of the 20th century the situation began to improve. With the ceasefire in Yugoslavia, the stabilization of Russia under Vladimir Putin’s first mandate, and the Euro-Atlantic prospects for 10 post-communist countries[1] Eastern Europe started to normalise.

Today, 11 of the former communist countries of CEE are members of NATO and the EU; 4 of them – Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, and Slovenia – have adopted the euro as their national currency. Two other ex-Yugoslavian states – Montenegro and Serbia – are not only recognized as EU candidates but are currently negotiating with the EC to become full members. In addition, Albania, which has been considered to have had one of the most conservative communist regimes, joined NATO in 2008 and earlier this year was granted with the status of an EU candidate.

A quarter century after the fall of the Berlin wall the majority of Eastern Europeans do not consider a trip abroad as a luxurious dream anymore and law as well as freedom of speech and gatherings are at least stipulated in the national constitutions, if not largely applied in practice. The welfare of the average citizen compared to  that of the early 90’s has increased significantly and the deficit economy[2], so typical for the times before 1989, is a distant memory.

Challenges and perspectives

Nonetheless, the region of Eastern Europe is still facing a great number of challenges. The recent events in Ukraine demonstrated that the process of democratization and even Europeanization of the continent’s eastern borders is far from completed. Moreover, the picture in the new EU member states is not very bright either. The Ukraine crisis exacerbated the relations between Russia on the one hand and Poland and the Baltic states on the other. In central Europe, Hungary, which in 1956 rose against the communist regime and whose revolt was brutally crushed by the Soviets, is embarking on an authoritarian path under Victor Orban, who in a speech held in July this year in the Romanian city of Baile Tusnad in Transylvania promised to abolish the liberal democracy in his country.[3] The attempts of the socialist government in Romania to impeach the former president Traian Basescu and to seize control over the constitutional court and the judicial system in 2012 faced the strong criticism of the USA, the EC and other EU member states, including Germany. Bulgaria, which entered a period of political instability in February 2013, when as a result of the street protests the right-wing government of the prime-minister Boyko Borissov resigned, has reached a fragile parliamentary majority, which might be insufficient to solve the acute problems related to the reforms of the judiciary and healthcare systems, and fight against corruption and organized crime.

It would not be incorrect to say that 25 years after the democratic changes in CEE the majority of these nations have broken up with its communist past, but its legacy is still haunting them. To overcome it, the people of Eastern Europe would need to put more effort, decisiveness, and will. Whether they manage to do so is a question to be answered in good time.

Aleko Stoyanov

[1] Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia

[2] With the term deficit economy can be described to a great extent the constant shortages of goods and services in the countries of the former Eastern Block

[3]Mahony Honor, Orban wants to build ‘illiberal state’, EUobserver, 28.07.2014, http://euobserver.com/political/125128

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