Thursday 21 November 2019

John Downing: 'Three decades after the promise of democracy swept central and eastern Europe, reality has bitten'

Prague skyline. Stock image: PA
Prague skyline. Stock image: PA
John Downing

John Downing

The well-dressed middle-aged man approached shyly as I stepped back from the counter in the main post office in Prague after booking an international call to Dublin.

"You are Irish?" he ventured rhetorically. He laughed loudly when I told him, in answer to further questions, that I came originally from Limerick.

"I lived in Limerick from 1965 until 1966. Tell me did they ever build that third bridge over the River Shannon?"

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I was able to tell him that the Limerick municipal authorities had finally done the mythical deed - but only a year previously and after decades of interminable rows and controversy.

That serendipitous encounter happened on Wednesday, November 23, 1989, early in a very tense week when the eyes of the world were on what we still called Czechoslovakia. The light-relief contrasted sharply with the sombre mood on the street.

The people of Prague whom we encountered did not share the global assumption that their communist dictatorship would be swept aside just as the Berlin Wall had literally been torn down only a fortnight earlier. Memories of Soviet tanks rolling into their city in August 1968 still burned.

But by the Saturday of that week, the Russian puppet Soviet government had resigned en masse, there would be free elections, and an end to censorship. A brave new world of free speech and democracy was ushered in by the appearance on television of one Alexander Dubcek, who had led that ill-fated "Prague spring" in 1968. Mr Dubcek had been banished to manage a far-away forest - but now he was back to denounce that Soviet invasion for the first time in 21 years.

So, one by one, the authoritarian regimes of the former East Bloc continued their fall. The people of Prague were bemused and very unsure about what was to come.

The receptionist in our little hotel in the centre of the city, who only very occasionally broke her icy reserve, reflected about what it might mean for her job. "You know this hotel is mainly patronised by East Germans and English people who come here to get drunk cheaply... at least the English are polite," she commented.

But by Christmas 1989, the East appeared to have been won back for liberal democracy. The morally bankrupt and often brutal totalitarian regimes had rightly fallen asunder after inflicting decades of needless suffering upon their own people.

Thus, the year 1989, was logged in history like one of those seminal years - like 1776, 1789 and 1917 - as a year of profound change. The miraculous thing was that this change came with almost no bloodshed, except in the case of Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania.

The pace of change continued for another decade. Those giants of post-World War II democracy, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterand, led the way to the crafting of change plans. By October 1990, Germany east and west was reunited and the phased admittance of all the former East Block states to the European Union began to build pace.

But the sheer EUphoria of late 1989, oh so tangible to this writer who was then living in Brussels, did tend to blind us too long to the sheer weight of the challenges ahead. To start with we should have noted with greater heed the events earlier that year in China when armed forces massacred crowds of students in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Even the brutal events surrounding the break-up of the old Yugoslavia were too often seen in isolation as preparations continued apace for some 12 other former communist states to join both the EU and Nato. We must acknowledge that Brussels and key EU member states, France, Germany and others, did heavily invest in the emerging democracies.

But the creaky and corrupt structures which were left over from the old regimes were not able to cushion the various shocks of a brutal move to a market economy. The networks of smuggling and the black economy which had thrived under communism, because of the authorities' need to turn a blind eye, now went into overdrive. Gangster capitalism and organised crime moved into the vacuum left by inadequate state structures.

It is also undeniable, however, that the benefits of a market economy have arrived in many of the old East Bloc states which are now wealthier. Countries such as Poland are experiencing solid economic growth and can hope that pattern will continue.

The familiar problem is that the distribution of this new wealth is uneven and to paraphrase the late Seán Lemass, the rising tide is not lifting all boats. "Benefits and burdens were unevenly, and even crassly, distributed," two distinguished academics write in the recently published book on the subject called, 'The Light That Failed: A Reckoning'.

Now we stand at the cusp of the 30th anniversary of all the heady things which happened in eastern and central Europe. Many books, such as the one cited above, scholarly articles and radio and television programmes are emerging to give us re-assessments. The assessments are not all a "look back in sorrow". But the lunge to the right and persistent corruption across many former East Bloc states since 1989 have been very disappointing.

Overall, one simple fact screams through: nobody - not even the US spooks in the CIA - were able to forewarn the communist collapse in 1989. And subsequently, few saw that assumptions of a successful transition to a fair market economy and functioning democracy were wrong.

The West more generally has many political and economic troubles of its own by now. The populism of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, for example, are not a cause for encouragement or an example to young democracies.

The banking and economic crash of 2008 has shaken ordinary citizens' faith - east and west - in a financial system to meet their needs. Portents of another economic slowdown, if not a full-blown crash, leave many people fretful for the future.

But a big part of the problems of the emerging eastern democracies were the weakness of the revolutionary leaders when they tried to morph into effective national leaders. The case of the Czech "poet president" Václav Havel stands out. He was soon eclipsed by his sometime assistant, Václav Klaus, who drove a very illiberal form of capitalism which an impoverished people found attractive.

Critics of both Poland and Hungary argue the current nationalist governments have in effect led their compatriots from authoritarianism to liberalism and back to authoritarianism. It is all very discouraging and both leaders have influence in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

But remember these leaders have democratic opponents borrowing from a tradition which battled more brutal opponents with great success.

Irish Independent

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