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Ten Years After: An Historian Discusses 1989

By Elena Nikleva

Timothy Garton Ash is a well-known British contemporary historian and a fervent advocate of rapid European Union expansion to Central and Eastern Europe. His latest book, "History Of The Present," focuses on events in post-communist Europe, particularly in the Balkans. Recently, Garton Ash moderated a high-level conference in Prague on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia. Elena Nikleva of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service spoke with him then about the new realities in Europe today.

Prague, 7 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Timothy Garton Ash was asked first about the idea of several new dividing lines in Europe which, in his view, have in fact replaced the old Berlin Wall.

"There are now many dividing lines instead of one, and I think in 10 years' time there will be still many dividing lines. But I think one of the most dangerous doctrines of the [1990s] has been what I call vulgar Huntingtonism -- the idea propagated by the [U.S.] political scientist Samuel Huntington that the great and enduring divide in Europe is precisely between the area that had Western Christianity and the area that had Orthodox Christianity or Islam.

"I have never supported that sort of cultural determinism and I think it is both analytically wrong and politically misguided. I think it is terribly important that the process of the enlargement of the European Union and of Western structures continues and remains open not just to countries like Bulgaria, but also to parts of the former Soviet Union."

Garton Ash was then asked whether he agreed that only politicians -- not ordinary people -- were celebrating the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Wasn't this another new dividing line --- between elites and the people?

"You are absolutely right that the celebrations of the 10th anniversary have been largely media events and political events rather than popular events. Both in Berlin and here in Prague, I think there is a painful contrast between then and now, but that's perhaps not surprising. And of course one of the new divisions which you get particularly in capitalism is the division between rich and poor. But I don't think, whatever the odd public opinion poll says, that a majority of East Germans or even a significant minority of East Germans would want the old system back. Nor would I think anyone else in post-communist Eastern and Central Europe [wants to go back to communist days]."

How long, Garton Ash was next asked, did he think it would take for the three Baltic republics and the Balkan countries to attain full EU membership? "I think that there is a good chance that in the next 10 years southeastern Europe and indeed the Baltic states could come into a larger EU. I think the process of [EU] enlargement will continue and I think that the great challenge of the next 10 years is probably not southeastern Europe actually -- because I think that this process has already begun, the process of enlargement -- but the former Soviet Union, and there I think you could see a big dividing line between the former Soviet Union and the West of Europe. I believe [that] because of the West's engagement in the Kosovo war most politicians in the West now recognize that we have to get serious about reintegration of the Balkans [into Europe]. Whether deeds will follow words, I'm not sure, but I believe I am going to be cautiously optimistic about that in the medium term."

If "Europe" doesn't end in Central Europe, Garton Ash was next asked, then in his view where does it end?

"Europe doesn't end, it [simply] fades away. It fades away across the Eurasian continent somewhere between Moscow and Vladivostok. And it fades away into Turkey. These are the two open frontiers of Europe, and only a fool would say Europe ends here and draw a sharp line on the map. Frankly, [in the past] for most West Europeans, Europe ended on the East German border; and even today for many West Europeans, Europe ends on the Polish frontier. That's actually a considerable achievement for those of us who have advocated enlargement -- that the definition of Europe even extends this far, and it even includes ... Central Europe. My point is that that has set a precedent. And indeed the new European [Union] Executive Commission under [President] Romano Prodi has recognized this fact and they [that is, Union officials] now envisage a EU of 30 to 35 states."

Finally, Garton Ash was asked about the paradox that, while there is much talk about the new millennium, there is not much talk about a new morality. Doesn't Europe need a new morality for the new millennium?

"Well, it would be very nice, wouldn't it? There is a sense that something is going wrong in the sort of model of consumer democracy that post-communist Europe is taking over from the West -- a bad copy of the West. I think in this part of the world -- and by this part of the world I mean Bulgaria as well as the Czech Republic [and elsewhere] -- you sense this malaise of consumer democracy. My contribution as a writer is to analyze the malaise, to expose it and certainly I think that better political leadership -- a leadership that puts the long term before the short term -- is one of the answers we need. But we also need more critical intellectuals who point out these problems and try to drag people away from the television screens."