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1989 'Gave Us The Best Europe,' Says Historian Garton Ash

British historian Timothy Garton Ash describes himself as "a long-term optimist about Russia." (file photo)

It was the year the Berlin Wall fell, the death knell to decades of communist rule in Eastern and Central Europe.

And according to Timothy Garton Ash, 1989 was the "best year in European history."

In a wide-ranging interview with RFE/RL's Belarusian Service, the British historian concedes the economic liberalism that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet-led totalitarian system ushered in economic inequality. And Ash says that is partly to blame for today's wave of right-wing populism.

Overall, however, Garton Ash is a "long-term optimist," believing, among other things, that Russia will eventually find its rightful place in Europe and the world.

Back in 1989, the events that swept across Europe were a "peaceful revolution" that consigned a "nuclear-armed, post-totalitarian empire" to history's scrapheap, explains Garton Ash.

"A Europe with Poland free, most countries in Europe are now liberal democracies, most countries in Europe are members of the same political, security, and economic communities. For individuals that means that you can go from one end of the EU to the other without let or hindrance, settle down, work, live, love from one end of Europe to the other. That's an amazing achievement."

'Liberal Overreach'

There was a downside, too, the effects of which are still being felt today, says Garton Ash.

"The particular form of financial globalization of economic liberalism adopted -- probably necessary to reform the economies -- produced great inequality, and there's been a reaction against that. There was a certain hubris, liberal overreach from the West, both from the EU and the U.S., which has led us into some problems," Garton Ash begins.

But overall, the good outweighed the bad, according to Garton Ash.

"1989 was the best year in European history so far. A peaceful revolution which ended a nuclear-armed, post-totalitarian empire, and gave us the best Europe we've ever had."

Among the worrying trends on today's geopolitical landscape, however, are a "revanchist" Russia, and "Leninist" China, according to Garton Ash.

"We have a revanchist Russia as we've seen in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Clearly a response to the collapse of the Russian empire. And we have a China, which is still Leninist, but very rich and very powerful, and which is increasingly dictating the agenda of world politics."

Moreover, although some countries in Eastern Europe -- Garton Ash singles out Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus -- are still struggling and stumbling along the path to democracy, he's hopeful in the long-term.

"Not the whole of Europe is whole and free. I see very positive changes in Ukraine. And actually, very significant progress in Moldova, and indeed some change in Belarus. And I think there is a lot that can still be done in the current geopolitical context," Garton Ash explains.

'Ghosts Of The Past'

For countries transitioning from communism to democracy, Garton Ash says, the toughest challenge they faced was confronting their dark past.

"It is important to keep former communists and people who were in the apparatus of repression out of various senior positions, that's important. But the most important thing is to have a public reckoning with the difficult past as one had in South Africa with the Truth Commission. So that it's acknowledged the wrongs that have been done, the injustices of repression. We know the facts. Those facts are publicly acknowledged. And that enables us to draw a clear line between the past and the future, because otherwise a new democracy is constantly haunted by the ghosts of the past," Garton Ash explains.

Russia's current "revanchist" bent, Garton Ash says, is directly linked to the collapse of the Soviet empire. While a long-term optimist on Russia, Garton Ash suggests that Russia under President Vladimir Putin presents challenges to European leaders.

"I'm a long-term optimist about Russia. I believe Russia is a great country which has a certain place in the future of Europe. The problem is in the shorter term, so that we have to find a mix of short-term firmness -- because some of the things Putin's Russia has done simply cannot be accepted by the international community -- but make it absolutely clear that strategically, in the long term, we do believe that Russia is a great country which has an important place in Europe and indeed in the world," offers Garton Ash.

Russia along with Turkey, and even Hungary, are part of a more authoritarian "strong populist, nationalist trend," spreading across Europe. But other nationalist leaders like those in France, Holland, and England have "their own roots" from the specific conditions on the ground in those countries, argues Garton Ash.

"If you look at Marine Le Pen, or if you look at Nigel Farage in Britain, or if you look at Geert Wilders or the Alternative for Deutschland, these have their own roots in the experiences and histories of these Western countries."

While it struggled to cope with the transition to democracy, Eastern Europe looked to the West for advice and help. Now, Garton Ash says, Eastern Europe can provide lessons on how to deal with what Garton Ash says is creeping authoritarianism in the West.

"We may get some useful lessons about how to resist authoritarianism by looking at the experience of others in Eastern Europe. But that doesn't mean it's the same phenomenon with the same causes."

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    RFE/RL's Belarus Service

    RFE/RL's Belarus Service is one of the leading providers of news and analysis to Belarusian audiences in their own language. It is a bulwark against pervasive Russian propaganda and defies the government’s virtual monopoly on domestic broadcast media.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.