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Eastern Europe: Historian Says Eastern Europe No Longer Exists

By Jeremy Bransten and Jolyon Naegele

Prague, 5 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - British contemporary historian and expert on Central Europe Timothy Garton Ash says it is quite clear that Eastern Europe no longer exists.

Garton Ash made the comment in Prague today to RFE/RL during the Forum 2000 conference on the state of the world at the turn of the millennium.

As Garton Ash put it, today there is east-central Europe, southeastern Europe and several other Europes, and each of their sets of problems, he says, are quite different.

Garton Ash, a professor at Oxford University, is the author of works on Poland's Solidarity free trade-union movement, the Czech velvet revolution and German unification. His latest work, just now being published in the U.S., is his recounting of having read his communist East German secret police (Stasi) file.

Garton Ash notes that he was among those who in the 1980s popularized the notion of Central Europe.

"We meant it of course in contra-distinction to the Soviet Eastern Europe," he said.

But he says that what has happened since 1989 is that the idea of "Central Europe" has more or less collapsed. In its stead, attempts have been made to point to a new division between Orthodox and Roman Catholic Europe. But, Garton Ash says, this distinction too is a dubious one.

Garton Ash also notes that Slovakia, albeit nominally a Roman Catholic nation, will not be among the former Communist states of Central Europe joining NATO in 1999, and that its prospects for joining the European Union are quite remote. He says that the three nations which have been invited to join NATO -- the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland -- are only a part of what is usually considered to be Roman Catholic Central Europe.

Garton Ash says Slovakia has shown many predictions about the post-Communist world to be dramatically wrong.

"Slovakia could have been in NATO in 1999; Slovakia blew it," he said.

Slovakia failed because of politics, said Garton Ash, adding that the quality of post-Communist politics in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, as opposed to post-Communist politics elsewhere, have made the crucial differences, That is so even though the three countries' starting points were somewhat better than those of others in the region.

Garton Ash believes that many Western politicians are convinced that NATO can admit Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and then stop its expansion for a long time. But he says he is convinced this view is not realistic.

"There is a logic that leads from one expansion to the next," he said. The first waves of NATO and EU expansion to the East are only the beginning of a very long process.

Garton Ash was asked whether one of the organizers of Forum 2000, Czech President Vaclav Havel -- his personal friend -- should consider retiring from politics when his current term expires early next year. Garton Ash responded that while change is always a healthy thing, Havel had a clear choice whether to remain in politics five years ago, when Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. At that time, he said, Havel decided to lead the new Czech Republic rather than go back to being what Garton Ash called "a great political and moral intellectual authority."

But, Garton Ash said, once Havel made the choice to be president of the Czech Republic, with much diminished powers, then it is consistent and right that he should run again. He points out that if re-elected, Havel will be able to oversee the completion of his country's return to Europe -- that is, the Czech Republic's entry into NATO and the EU.

Havel announced two months ago he would be willing to run again. But on Monday in a Czech TV interview, he hinted he might not run after all.

Garton Ash said Europe is currently in what he characterized as a "period of disorder and reformation." He added that such periods have traditionally been succeeded by periods of order. But, he remarked, it remains to be seen whether the coming period of order will be a liberal order or a hegemonic order.

Garton Ash says all post-Communist countries have certain features in common. These include privatization by the nomenklatura (former privileged class of Communist officials), a kind of predatory capitalism, and a scale of corruption rarely encountered in Western Europe. But, Garton Ash notes, there are also growing differences among the former communist countries.

Garton Ash says that, at the same time, several Western models of capitalism are currently under question -- most notably, the West German model of a market economy. The West in general, he adds, faces the huge challenge of structural, large-scale unemployment, whose outcome is unpredictable.

"If we do not know what kind of capitalism is emerging out of the crisis in the West, I do not quite know how we can predict what will come in the East."