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Central Europe: Chaos In Russia Is The Region's Biggest Threat

By Benjamin Partridge

London, 22 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Polish historian Adam Michnik says chaos in Russia is the biggest threat to Central Europe, making it essential for the outside world to encourage democracy in Russia.

Michnik, editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, and a leading former Solidarity activist, spoke at the opening in London yesterday of a three-week-long Central European arts festival.

Michnik was a member of a panel of intellectuals that sought answers to such questions as: Where is Central Europe now 10 years after the fall of communism? What is the relationship of the Central European countries to their neighbors to the east and west?

Michnik spoke of the 1989 "miracle" which brought democracy to the region, and transformed dissidents like himself -- "the criminals and rebels" -- into the governing elites. Michnik spent six years in Polish prisons for his activities opposing the communist regime.

He said the fall of communism allowed the Central Europeans to recover their identity, to end the humiliation of being treated as "part of the Soviet bloc" and to show that they were -- to use Milan Kundera's phrase -- "the part of Europe kidnapped by Russia."

But now that the Central Europeans are on the verge of both NATO and EU membership, Michnik had a warning about the danger of chaos in Russia, and the need to keep a watch on Russian intentions -- or as he put it, to "look closely at her hands."

"What threatens Central Europe is the chaos in Russia. Russia is and will remain a power. A democratic Russia does not threaten the world, and the democratic world does not threaten a democratic Russia. We have to do everything in our power to make Russia a member of the European democratic system. It means opening onto Russia and not causing anxiety or closing Russia off. Russia is a country that can be liked but we have to look closely at her hands."

Another speaker was Hungarian writer Gyorgy Konrad who, with Kundera, Havel, and other intellectuals, wrote and talked about the concept of Central Europe in the early 1980s as a protest against the artificial east-west separation of the common home -- Europe.

Konrad said now the Iron Curtain is no longer in place, or, is "no longer wrecking the view between Vienna and Budapest," Central Europe is about to join the same associations as the west Europeans, sharing the same horizon and "connecting us again." He said the west Europeans should support this integration process:

"It is in the interests of Berlin and Vienna to support the interests of Central European unity, all the more because they may recognize the Central Europeans in themselves. The collapse of the communist system only strengthens the experience of this continuity."

Konrad said the significance of the division caused by the Iron Curtain will decline as Central Europe's elites have "boarded the train and are headed west." They had absorbed what he called Euro-American values, and will certainly succeed in their westward drive, making any future division of Europe impossible.

Konrad said membership of the EU will impose discipline on the countries seeking accession, including the self-evident need to respect the human and civil rights of all their citizens. He said the alternative would be a "series of bloody nationalist conflicts." He said membership of the EU requires that Europeans submit to each others' supervision and monitoring. He put the case against those who say that Germany, the most populous and industrially powerful nation, will seek to dominate the new Europe.

"The Germans have learned that they cannot rule Europe. Their expansion among the economically weaker can only be friendly and lawful and they must respect common European principles in every case. The Germans cannot demand anything the French or English deem improper, and this is true in reverse as well. The nations keep each other in check, a fortunate thing for their citizens. Central Europe, or Mitteleuropa will not be German Europe, even if German capital and connections are significant in it."

In a reference to U.S. trade and business clout, Konrad said that American influence is even more significant than Germany:

"But the American influence is even more significant. Nor can Japanese, Dutch, French, Austrian, Russian influence be discounted. Multilateral dependence is in the interests of the Central European countries, It is the key to their relative independence. No-one nation can rule over Europe, not even Central Europe."

The London festival, featuring 80 events, is the largest showing of Central European arts to be staged in a western country. It was to be formally opened today (1330 CET) by Hungarian President Arpad Goencz.

Emil Brix, director of the Austrian Cultural Institute in London, says Austria -- which is funding much of the festival, and takes over the rotating EU presidency on July 1 -- sees it as a symbol of the cultural enlargement of Europe.