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1999 In Review: Recent Past Signals Brighter Prospects

  • Jan de Weydenthal

From the Mongol invasions westward in the 12th Century to the Soviet consolidation in the 20th, the rise and fall of empires dominated the history of East and Central Europe over the millennium now passing. At the millennium's very end, however, a bright possibility gleams that the region is shunning empire for self-governance. RFE/RL correspondent Jan de Weydenthal stands back to take a historian's perspective on the region's last thousand years.

Prague, 30 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Armed conflicts, invasions, and rises and falls of kingdoms both characterized and determined the history of Central Europe and regions farther east during the last thousand years.

Conquerors, arms and armies shaped politics, culture, and social and economic development over the centuries, stamping imprints that still mark the region's countries and peoples.

In the late 12th century, Mongols began a conquest of the lands of several feudal kingdoms comprising the current states of Central Asia, the Caucasus and Russia.

They stopped their westerly march after a major battle in southwest Poland, but not before they had established control over Russia and other Eastern lands that lasted for centuries. The Mongol style of governing local populations influenced the way Eastern societies came to become organized and the way they behave now. The Mongol style of authority endures in many ways still.

Then, in the 14th Century, the Ottoman Empire emerged, altering the development of much of southeastern Europe.

Having conquered the Balkans and Constantinople -- modern Istanbul -- and moved into what is now Romania and Bulgaria, the Ottoman Turks imposed their style of rule on the peoples of the area. The empire collapsed only in the 19th century.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth arose in the 15th century. This unitary Polish-Lithuanian state also embraced Belarus and Ukraine. For more than two centuries it was the largest political entity in Europe.

The commonwealth introduced a unique system of restricted democratic monarchy, where rulers were elected by landed gentry and governed under rules of parliamentary consensus. Internal political disarray and international intrigues ultimately undermined the commonwealth.

Its fall was connected with the emergence of Russia, Prussia and Austria as centers of political, social and cultural influence. By the 18th century Russia had emerged as the dominant power of the Eastern regions. Russia built that position by conquering the Baltic lands and eastern Poland. It continued to expand by force into Central Asia and the Caucasus.

The advent of Moscow-centered communism through most of this century was less revolutionary than it claimed to be and than it seemed in the October Revolution in 1917. Communism merely solidified the former Russian empire into the multinational, Russia-dominated Soviet Union.

Austria had imposed control over large parts of Southeastern and Eastern Europe, shaping regional politics during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Its power and influence ended in the conflagration of the First World War.

Prussia united with several principalities and kingdoms in the 18th Century to create an influential German state. It influenced politics and economics in both Central Europe and Russia. Germany was instrumental in starting both the World Wars in this century.

These wars set in motion immense changes in the East, and laid the ground for communism to emerge and expand.

There were other influences -- in science, the arts, commerce and industry -- that might stake claims to be among the seminal events of the millennium in the region, but the flows of armies and the rise and fall of empires overpower their bids.

But while the history of the millennium now passing is punctuated by wars and conquests, as it ends, there is a promise of change.

There is growing conviction in the region that the era of dominant empires is receding. As new independent national states proliferate, a nascent, determined movement toward liberal democracy emerges. The nations of East and Central Europe seem more open to positive international influences than at any time in the last thousand years.

Economies expand, albeit unevenly and often painfully slowly. The quality of life improves, though not at the same pace for all. Perfection remains out of sight, but progress is in view.