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The East: Ten Years After 1989--Euphoria Replaced By Disillusionment And Caution

Even in nations with venerable democratic traditions, public attitudes are notoriously fickle. In Eastern Europe, the euphoria that accompanied the revolutions of 1989 lasted longer in some countries than in others. But euphoria is by nature unsustainable. As part of RFE/RL's series marking the tenth anniversary of the events of 1989, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten looks at how emotions in the region range from disillusionment to cautious optimism.

Prague, 8 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The countries of Central and Eastern Europe have taken diverging trajectories over the past 10 years. Some states have broken up; others have been formed. For a few, this decade has meant the freedom to succeed in economic and social reforms, but for many, it has meant the freedom to choose populism, nationalism and financial failure.

Of course, failure and success are relative terms. The states in the region began the post-communist era under different starting conditions. Factors such as geography, industrial development, and experience with democracy were quite different in the Czech lands than they were in, say, Romania.

The governments of all states in Central and Eastern Europe now profess a common goal: to become integral parts of Europe through membership in the European Union (EU), and to be accepted as fully-fledged NATO partners. For Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, 1999 brought accession to the military alliance. But even for them, EU membership remains several years away. Profound economic transformation is taking longer than many had hoped ten years ago. In 1999 in Eastern Europe, there is no revelry. The mood among ordinary people is sober, if not downright somber.

Jirina Siklova, a leading Czech sociologist, has tracked changing attitudes over the past 10 years in her country and other post-communist states. In the case of the Czech Republic, where the post-communist euphoria lasted perhaps longest, Siklova makes this analogy:

"I would draw the following parallel with marriage: After 7 years, let's say, the first enchantment evaporates and reality sets in, and criticism also begins. And it's a similar process with revolutions."

One metaphor frequently heard during the past decade was that it is easier to make fish soup out of an aquarium than the other way around. While the trappings of relative prosperity are more noticeable in Prague than in Bucharest, people's attitudes are not so different. Siklova calls the mood a "casino mentality." Fortunes change quickly and some people amass riches from one day to the next, often through stealth rather than hard work. Making money has become the new mantra, and all methods are seen as legitimate. Cutting corners, cheating, bribing or stealing, as in communist times, are still widely perceived as normal.

Civil society has made a strong comeback in the past decade across Eastern Europe, through an ever-growing web of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). But rebuilding traditions of charity, honesty and social responsibility will take a lot longer. In this respect, in both Prague and Bucharest, it's still more fish soup than clear aquarium. Siklova says:

"You can take power away from people relatively easily, as well as their property. But when you return that property, teaching them creativity, entrepreneurship, generosity -- that can't be decreed and it can't be done in any expeditious way. That demands time. "

People across Eastern Europe tend to look to their Western neighbors, and the comparison always engenders dissatisfaction. In Bulgaria, people look to Greece. In Romania, they compare their country with Hungary. In Hungary, they look to Austria. A young entrepreneur, trying to make a success of his new real estate agency in the western Romanian city of Oradea, shakes his head in frustration and points westward. "Europe," he tells an RFE/RL reporter, "begins at the Hungarian border, seven kilometers from here."

Calin Meda, who started his own TV production company in Timisoara -- the birthplace of Romania's 1989 uprising -- says he is disappointed in the state of society 10 years after the revolution. Meda says key elements are still missing in Romanian society:

"Basic things, like the conscience of doing whatever you can to make things better. The vast majority of people still try to depend on others. They don't have this feeling of doing things and trying to push them through. And they don't have the ability and the conscience that they should do the best they can to help the others in the community."

Envy, disappointment, rising crime and continuing corruption have all spawned disillusionment. Former communist politicians have traded on those emotions to bring themselves back to power or closer to it in practically all post-communist states. In the Czech Republic, the unreformed Communist Party is now in second place in the polls. In Romania, former President Ion Iliescu and his neo-communist associates occupy first place in the polls, far ahead of the current ruling coalition of democrats.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is a professor, prolific commentator, and one of the best-known analysts of Romanian politics. He says newfound support for the former Communists in his country is a protest vote and does not run very deep. But the danger is that people may soon lose faith in democracy as an institution.

"The point is that Mr. Iliescu has not done anything to achieve his popularity, so we have to look into why he has it. Basically, it's disappointment, and a vote of disappointment may be expected. And then, if you have disappointment after disappointment, the danger is that forces which are not part of the parliamentary mainstream can take advantage of that."

British historian Timothy Garton Ash notes that East European states could not afford to attempt campaigns of de-communization along the lines of the de-Nazification conducted in Germany after World War II. Many officials who served the old regimes reappeared in the new ones. But Garton Ash recently told RFE/RL that in his opinion, the great mistake made by these post-communist societies has been their failure to fully analyze their recent past.

"What I think could have been done and wasn't sufficiently done in Central Europe -- and I regard this as the great Central European omission of the last 10 years -- was to have a major symbolic confrontation with the past, like the South African Truth Commission. Even if you can't prosecute the former communists and send them to prison, because that's the deal in a negotiated transition, you could have done that (truth commission). And you would not get what you do get all over Central Europe, which is people saying: 'Well, you know, the old Commies are still on top.' Which is a major source of discontent."

Siklova says Europe's "East" will remain distinct for some time to come, but that is normal. In the long run, she is optimistic about the continent's two halves once again reuniting. But she says that in the meantime, it would be a good idea to improve regional cooperation and communication. Although everyone in the East wants to join the EU, Siklova says they can still gain much by looking to their fellow post-Communist neighbors.

"I think it's extremely important for us -- post-Communist states -- to talk to each other about our experience. Because for the time being, we are always being interpreted a bit as if we were some sort of strange animals or fish in an aquarium. We are analyzed by people, political scientists and politicians from the West, and I don't think it's the best approach. There are many things these people from the West simply don't understand about us."

The changes in Central and Eastern Europe over the past 10 years have been momentous. And yet the road ahead remains far longer than originally predicted. The latest EU studies estimate that even with 5-6 percent annual growth rates, it will take another 30 years for the leading post-communist countries to match average EU living standards and purchasing power. There are no shortcuts, it seems.

Before the fall of communism, Garton Ash says, "People had a sort of minimal security, but many longed for freedom. Now they have freedom, and many long for security." He chuckles, pausing for thought. "What can you do? That's just human nature."