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Eastern Europe Since 1989

  • Vladimir Tismaneanu

The author says "supragovernmental actors were almost more important than domestic ones in the process of a successful exit from communism."

The author says "supragovernmental actors were almost more important than domestic ones in the process of a successful exit from communism."

Since 1989, Eastern Europe has made the transition from Leninist pseudo-modernity to the real thing.

That transition entailed overcoming both the absence of a long-standing domestic democratic tradition, and traumatic political memories in most, if not all, countries of the former Soviet bloc. Indeed, most of those countries had experienced both right- and left-wing totalitarianism in the course of the 20th century.

At the beginning of the 1990s, I underlined that the most important cause, and a critical consequence, of the extinction of Leninism was the resurgence and development of civil society, without which the former communist regimes would have morphed into "enlightened despotism."

Civil society was at the heart of the East European dissident movement, whose representatives realized that the only way to defeat "state socialism" was by means of "a long war against its institutions" and by establishing a cultural counter hegemony. The fundamental concept of this strategy was that a state cannot claim to be democratic as long as it does not respect and protect basic human rights.

Therefore, one of the main conclusions of the postcommunist years is that the main driving force of the transition process is the re-creation of the social cohesion so necessary for these societies in the struggle against the widespread corruption in which they were bogged down. I fully agree with the American political scientist Ken Jowitt, who argued that communism was a form of misdevelopment.

In the first decade after 1989, I argued that the most serious challenges for Eastern Europe were containing the resurgence of nationalism, the democratization of political culture (the varying pace of progress in this sphere being one of the explanations for their unequal development), and the transition from a planned to a market economy (shock therapy vs. neo-socialist paternalism). The revival of nationalism was obviously discussed against the backdrop of the secessionist wars in Yugoslavia.

The epilogue of my volume "Reinventing Politics" underscored the fact that ethnocracy was, at the time, a real possibility for postcommunist polities. During the second decade after 1989, however, the pathology of primordialism was gradually neutralized and banished to the realm of political ridicule.

Moreover, no analysis of the evolution of nationalism in Eastern Europe can ignore the factor that played a fundamental role in the acceleration of democratization in these societies: integration into NATO and accession to the European Union.

A Crucial Choice

The seemingly grim and unpromising political circumstances of the early 1990s gave way to an extremely favorable situation in which supragovernmental actors were almost more important than domestic ones in the process of a successful exit from communism. Jowitt rightly stated a couple of years ago that accession to the EU was the best news for the former communist countries in the last 500 years.

Immediately after 1989, we didn't anticipate this development. We fought for it, but we did so hoping against hope.

I should add that such a scenario would have been very difficult to imagine if it were not for the shock caused by the violence and anarchy of former Yugoslavia. The unfortunate example of the peoples of that federation ultimately convinced the EU and NATO of the possible disastrous outcomes for the region of continued rejection of the idea of enlargement eastward.

Today, 20 years after the demise of Leninism, the crucial choice remains that between personalities, parties, and movements that emphasize individualism, accountability, and risk in an open society, on the one hand, and those that promise safety and social security within the confines of a culturally, socially, and politically homogeneous ethnic community, on the other. To paraphrase the eminent political scientist Ralf Dahrendorf, who died earlier this year, the citizens of Eastern and Central Europe are still in search of a meaning.

Charismatic politics and particracy have staged a momentous comeback over the past two decades.

In order to prevent such phenomena taking root permanently, the region must overcome the two most grievous legacies of the communist past: anomy (which led to fragmentation, neo-traditionalism, and the total lack of civility that Romanian philosopher Andrei Pleu dubbed public obscenity); and a culture of lies (which generated dissimulation, the undermining of consensus, and the omnipresence of what one Russian sociologist called homo prevaricatus, the heir of homo sovieticus).

The lesson of the revolutions of 1989 is therefore multifaceted. It encompasses both the rebirth of citizenship (practically abolished under both fascism and communism) and the revival of the truth.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, director of the University's Center for Study of Postcommunist Societies, and the author of numerous books including "Stalinism for All Seasons: A Political History of Romanian Communism" (University of California Press, 2003). In 2006 he served as chair of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania. The views expressed in this commentary are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL