‘We Have Advanced to the Same Kind of Mess as Everybody Else’

Source: The New York Times / nytimes.com / By Alison Smale /

Central and Eastern Europe’s transition to democracy has not been smooth. But there are grounds for hope.

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Vaclav Havel speaking at a pro-democracy rally in Wenceslas Square in Prague in 1989. Sovfoto/Universal images Group, via Getty Images

PRAGUE — Thirty autumns ago, across Central and Eastern Europe, everything fell in one great swoop. The foliage. The Berlin Wall. The fear that for decades had kept Communist police states in power.

That fall of 1989 was a wondrous time, and nowhere more so than in this beautiful ancient city on the Vltava River. Suddenly galvanized into action against the turgid, tired party elite that had ruled since a Soviet-led invasion crushed reform in 1968, Czechs and Slovaks rallied by the hundreds of thousands to demand change.

A banner hung on the path to Prague’s vast Castle complex captured the breathtaking speed of the regional revolt: Poland, 10 years; Hungary, 10 months; East Germany, 10 weeks; Czechoslovakia, 10 days.

It was not just speed that made Prague special. The uprising also had its own ringmaster in Vaclav Havel, politician, philosopher, playwright. The Velvet Revolution, as the period is known, was his best drama. It had one clear message that took him, a longtime dissident, to the presidency of his country: “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.”

In 1989, the Americans were the strongest partners in East Europeans’ fight for freedom. Thirty years on, President Trump has changed all that.

Mr. Trump’s assumption of the most powerful office in the world seemed likely to mean tougher times for Europeans. So it has proved. The recent imposition of hefty tariffs on European goods and Mr. Trump’s abandonment of the nuclear agreement with Iran threaten Europe’s stability. Then there is Mr. Trump’s conviction, shared to some degree on each side of the Atlantic, that Europe should pay more for collective defense in NATO.

Yet almost nobody would have believed that credible evidence would emerge that the president of the United States would not only meddle directly in Central and Eastern Europe, but also do so in an apparent quest to bolster his domestic campaign for re-election. That is where we are.

With a speed akin to the swiftness of 1989’s rebellions, America’s standing as a beacon of freedom has fallen.

In Central and Eastern Europe, the transition to democracy has not been smooth. Many countries struggle with corruption, while in Poland and Hungary there have been worrying efforts to pare back hard-won freedoms.

What would Vaclav Havel, a fan of the United States until his death in December 2011 and a proud Central European, have made of all this? I asked Michael Zantovsky, Mr. Havel’s biographer and longtime friend.

Mr. Zantovsky, who has served as ambassador to Washington, Tel Aviv and London, and now heads Mr. Havel’s presidential library in Prague, was positive. Looking at Central Europe today, Mr. Havel “would almost certainly have observed that 30 years have passed and we are not dealing here with Socialist basket cases that would need every kind of support.” Some countries “are certainly struggling with some kind of internal problems,” even “slipping back according to some criteria of freedom, and tolerance, and democracy,” he said, diplomatically avoiding names.

In a sense, though, that is testament to progress.

“Havel always would say that it is one of the tragedies of this society to expect salvation — or damnation — to come from the outside and save us,” Mr. Zantovsky said. “He would say that it’s our job to do that. And we can certainly do it.”

There are grounds for optimism. A recent survey of Austria and six former Communist countries — conducted for Globsec, a nongovernmental organization in Slovakia, to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of Communism in the region — reflected the often-confused mood of the area. But encouragingly, it found little pronounced hankering for authoritarian or nationalist rule. And it also indicated growing support for European Union membership and democratic institutions such as free media and civic society.

Mr. Zantovsky expressly sees young people in Central Europe as “a shining light of hope.” They are “flexing their muscles to do the job,” he said.

A four-hour train ride southeast of Prague lies the Slovak capital, Bratislava, where a 46-year-old lawyer, Zuzana Caputova, is a fresh face in the region’s politics. She won a surprise victory in presidential elections in March after campaigning on her ability to shut down a landfill and, significantly, on cleaning up Slovakia’s corrupt politics following the murder of a young investigative journalist, Jan Kuciak, and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova.

Their deaths galvanized Slovaks, in the spirit of 1989, to demand justice. Images of the couple still stare out from walls in the city center. In a hopeful sign, a genuine investigation of their shocking killing was completed; four men will go on trial.

Ms. Caputova was 16 when the Velvet Revolution swept Slovakia. “I remember feeling that the time of schizophrenia that the country was living in was ending,” she said. Mr. Havel proved to be “a very inspiring statesman — and not just during his time in office as president, but also by his life story that has shown a true consistency in values.”

Consistency is something of a watchword in Central and Eastern Europe, where dominant external powers have shaped events for centuries. Only those who preserve their cultural legacy in the face of outside pressure are considered true heroes.

Mr. Zantovsky said that in the 1970s he did not know enough to appreciate the cultural legacy of Central Europe. Young people back then lacked sufficient knowledge of Western Europe and North America, he said, to have a full picture, a measure for what the Czech writer Milan Kundera labeled “the tragedy of Central Europe.”

As for where things stand now, 30 years after Communism, Mr. Zantovsky chuckled. “We have advanced to the same kind of mess as everybody else,” he said. “It’s a strange measure of success. But it is a success of sorts.”