NEW YORK -- It's been more than 20 years since the fall of communism in Eastern and Central Europe. But for a number of leading thinkers who gathered on February 27-28 at Columbia University to discuss the demise of communist Europe, there remain more questions than answers about that tumultuous period.
Panels explored the demise of communism, the nature of postcommunism, the legacy of dissent, the promise of democracy in the region, and the creation of narratives about the communist past.
The level of political commitment within the various communist parties in the Soviet bloc varied from country to country, according to Erhard Busek, a former Austrian politician and current professor at the Vienna-based Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe. He noted that it was the Czechoslovak communists that became the most retrograde after the events of the 1968 Prague Spring, when Soviet troops invaded the country to crush a period of liberalization.
After that point, Busek said, the party's more liberal members were purged or imprisoned. In that sense, he said, even the Communist Party under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev appeared more progressive.
"They were not divided, and for sure by power -- they had stronger capacity," Busek said. He said many who were "famous later on as Czech intellectuals" left the party over disagreements, "kicked out" after 1968.
Mircea Mihaies, vice president of the Romanian Cultural Institute in Bucharest, said that unlike the dissident movements in Czechoslovakia, Poland, or even Bulgaria, dissidents in Romania were weak and had low social standing in Romania.
The more vocal critics of Romanian communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, he added, were silenced by the country's notorious Securitate secret service, either by assassination or by sending dissidents into exile.
Despite the toppling of the Ceausescu regime, the same people stayed in charge, one panelist says.
"The repression of the Securitate system was more violent than in any other communist country. There was no real dissident tradition," Mihaies said. "The technique by the regime was to send them away. And I think that this role of the dissidents was supplemented by institutions like Radio Free Europe."
Besides being the only Eastern European country to summarily execute its communist leader, Mihaies said, Romania also earned distinction by replacing one communist regime with another.
"It was just a change of masks. The fact is that the same people [who led Romania before 1989], they claimed, 'We're not party members anymore, but we still want to govern the country,'" Mihaies said.
"And until 1996 it was extremely painful for the country, because in the special case of Romania we just initiated a kind of perestroika. This is a kind of delay that is still to be felt in Romanian everyday politics."
Because of the path chosen in 1989, Mihaies said, in terms of developing its civil society Romania remained in a state of hibernation, with sizable unfulfilled potential. The violent nature of the 1989 Romanian revolution also left an imprint on the domestic political developments for the next decade.No Country For Old Men
Timothy Frye, the director of Colombia's Harriman Institute and professor of political science, said that a notable distinction in the measurement of happiness between Western and Eastern Europe was that while people in the West were feeling less satisfied in their middle age but more so in the later part of their lives, the trend in the East was overwhelmingly downward from middle age on.
According to a survey conducted by the Harriman Institute, he said, the absence of marketable skills for middle-aged and old people in Eastern Europe led to a significantly lower life satisfaction and standard of living.
"I don't know what the explanation is for it," Frye said. "Part of it is probably that older people's human capital is even less suitable for the market than younger people. The collapse of pension systems in many countries in the region certainly contributed to it as well."
But the survey, Frye, said, clearly indicates that older people with useful job-skills in the market are much happier than their counterparts without such skills. The sense of happiness is not only a function of age, he said, but also the feeling of satisfaction and purposefulness.
Poles, for example, feel more cheerful today than a decade ago, according to Elzbieta Matynia from the New School for Social Research in New York. She said that "people feel much more positive after 2007. I think they have much more to say now and the situation in [the] economy is much better, and they have something more to say in Europe. I think the European element was very important, the extension of the European Union."Positive Signs
Lack of transparency, corruption, and the involvement of organized crime during the early privatization period in the 1990s left many Eastern Europeans feeling they'd been robbed.
Among other interesting findings of his survey, Frye said, is that while 80 percent of Eastern Europeans disapprove of the way in which state property was privatized and would like to revisit the results, 70 percent of them would prefer to have it in private hands.
Frye also singled out Bulgaria as an underappreciated success story. While the presence of organized crime and corruption is significant in Bulgaria, he said, there hasn't been a lot of violence, economic growth was relatively stable, and there have been a succession of peaceful and democratic transfers of power.
"What happens in Bulgaria is that after 1997 and after 2001 in particular, the political spectrum becomes much more populated by centrist parties and it forces the two right/left-wing parties that have been at each other's throat for the last decade, to take more moderate positions," Frye said, "and by narrowing the political spectrum towards the center Bulgaria has become a much more stable and much better-run country."
Benjamin Barber, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey and a frequent contributor to major periodicals, argued that the demise of communism in Eastern Europe after 1989 created some unexpected consequences.
Barber said that "in the absence of a theory, a paradigm that allows us to think about justice and that allows us to think about the inequities and problems of capitalism, we will not be able to deal with the new pathologies, which are no longer pathologies of the command economy and the totalitarian state, but the pathologies of capitalism and the pathologies of liberalism that are now the new problems that people in Poland, in Hungary, in the Czech Republic, in Slovenia are facing."
The experiences of the past 20 years, Barber said, indicate that people in Eastern Europe for the most part continue to live in the shadow of communism. The decisions made and the policies implemented are to a large extent a reaction to their communist past.