Amerika

Lessons of the East (Tomislav Sunic)

Transitions has shed new light on the political landscape of post-communist Eastern Europe. But I hope you will devote more space to the role of national and collective memories in the region, such as national myths–including World War II body counts–and self-fulfilling fantasies of purportedly ever-affluent Western Europe. You should also bear in mind the reinvention of former communist apparatchiks, many of whom have turned into self-proclaimed marketeers and respectable liberals. We should not forget that many in Eastern Europe suffered greatly under communism. The worst of the communist horror–the camps at Kolyma and Bleiburg, for example–required the “democratic” collaboration of millions of ordinary citizens. After all, was communism not a kind of democracy brought to its ultimate totalitarian conclusion?

Communist totalitarianism resulted not only in the destruction of millions of people. It also created deep mental distortions, still evident in many people’s views of the region’s future role in Europe. Conflicting perceptions and the climate of mutual fear–which were once a basic tenet of totalitarianism–are still alive, and they often prevent new political classes from coming to terms with the challenge of Western democracy. The value system that Westerners take for granted, such as a real meritocracy, is unknown in post-communist Eastern Europe. Petty corruption, nepotism, mendacity, and clannish wheeling and dealing are still viewed by many in the East as virtues rather than vices.

Younger generations in Eastern Europe face a total absence of genuine role models. But which models can they really copy? Imported soap operas are of little help. Many students from Eastern Europe imagine that joining the European Union is just another quick fix on the way to a fantasy world where somebody else will always pick up the tab. This virtual-reality democracy may have grave consequences for the future of Eastern Europe.

And how are Westerners going to convince young and naive Eastern Europeans that the West is no longer the best? With 20 million in the West unemployed, the Western model for Eastern Europeans may turn out to be more problematic than we originally thought. Consider also that after ridding itself of communism, Eastern Europe is now facing an alarming rise in drug abuse, crime, and mafia-style daily politicking–a bizarre mixture of the worst of communism and the worst of capitalism. Such an uncertain environment creates a breeding ground for muscled politicians and yet another totalitarian temptation–not necessarily under the swastika or the red star. New demagogues no longer dress in brown shirts or battle fatigues, but come clad in Gucci suits.

What Eastern Europe badly needs is reeducation. Young Westerners, diplomats, and students should learn about Eastern Europe’s diverse cultures and languages and not just pontificate in self-serving moralistic terms about the theology of the free market or how to make a quick buck. Above all, honest and well-educated Westerners should teach younger Eastern Europeans that true democracy is not a recipe for nonstop fun but a hard lesson in tolerance and civic responsibility. Otherwise, we may be looking at new brands of titans on the Eastern European horizon.

Tomislav Sunic, Minister Counselor, Croatian Embassy, Brussels, Belgium, November, 1998

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