Twenty years on, a large swath of the world remains locked behind the Iron Curtain. In many places, the Berlin Wall never went away. From the Caucasus to the 'stans of Central Asia, wherever Moscow's corrupting and brutish influence hasn't faded, nothing much has changed. For still others, those Eastern Europeans who perforce learned to love their decades of captivity and felt lost without it, the Wall's memory has become a kind inner shrine to prelapsarian longings. It's amazing how indiscriminately the mind will idealize the past--against all evidence. No doubt cargo cults regret the day they discovered that airplanes were not messengers of the gods.
Some five years ago I embarked on a book about Eastern Europe. For upward of a year I trekked from Tbilisi to Sofia to Kiev and elsewhere reading, chatting, researching. Ultimately the publisher, ReganBooks, went kaput. The project dissolved. In the meantime, I lived a happy journalist's life. I spent many an hour in sinewy discourse with expansive thinkers, as indeed plenty of the region's politicians were: Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Prime Minister and former monarch Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha of Bulgaria, President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine, the Czech Republic's Vaclav Havel and numerous others. The book set out to revive interest in Eastern Europe after the euphoria of freedom had ebbed, in particular after the threat of Islamism had eclipsed the region's importance for the U.S.. Bad things happen in too many places when the U.S. looks away. What was happening in the old East?
For one thing, many of the communist apparatchiks, 15 years later, were still running the show under new party names. In Romania, the Popular Front party kept a command economy in place and the old politicians at the helm. In Bulgaria, despite Simeon's return, the Socialist Party kept returning to power in various coalitions. In Ukraine, the pro-western Yushchenko of Orange Revolution fame soon lost all popular purchase after endless economic bullying by Russia and its political allies. Across the region, in power or out, the old guard kept a hand in the game. They could appeal at will to a residual drang nach osten nostalgia among the public and for the stupefying stasis that went with it. The reader will perhaps remember Alexander Herzen's riposte to Rousseau's famous line that "man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains." The riposte was, "fish are meant to fly but everywhere they are under water." It seems too obvious to mention now, but we in the West are wrong to think that people will always opt for freedom over stability, however miserable, especially when it becomes a choice for chaos.
We have only ourselves to blame. We promised all who joined our banner a utopian integration into the Western continuum of affluence, to go along with free speech and free elections. We did nothing to back it up. After the Soviet Union collapsed, our congressmen went on a Triumph of Democracy tour, declared a victory and went home. New market economies in the 1990s, inexperienced and defenseless against oligarchic mafias, dissolved into ruin from Russia to Eastern Europe to Latin America to the 'stans. What on earth were we thinking? Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton, who together headed up the posture of laissez-faire indifference, should be remembered as foremost among those whose policies destroyed the reputation of America in the world. After that, it was all too easy for our enemies to argue that their propaganda had always warned about the inhumanity at the core of democratic capitalism.
All this is to put the fall of the Berlin Wall in perspective, especially for those inclined to self-congratulatory panegyrics. Just as we walked away from Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew, so did we from the Iron Curtain countries. We're paying the price now. Osama bin Laden's ideas found ready adherents in Islamic countries at a time when the West had left a vacuum in the world. Russian imperial resurgence began then too.
There's a splendidly readable book just published about the immediate causes of the Wall's collapse, and the intoxicating sense in the air of a dawning gleam from the future, as trapped hordes voted with their feet to break their captivity: Michael Meyer's The Year That Changed The World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Meyer was Newsweek's bureau chief for the region in 1989. He ran around from Austria to Hungary to Germany witnessing events in real time. In those days, American correspondents had tremendous access and the funds to back it up. Meyer's book digs out the unsung heroes of the day: the young Premier of Hungary Miklos Nemeth, who invited East Germans to walk out to the West through his country; the chief guard at the Berlin Wall who ordered his men not to shoot; and above all, Mikhail Gorbachev who simply refused to back any moves at brutal suppression by old guard leaders. It's a terrific mosaic of a story beautifully told by a master journalist--worth reading to see what hope pervaded the world then, to compare with how things look now. Meyer himself should know a good deal about that. He is currently Ban Ki Moon's head of communications at the United Nations.
As I traveled among the former Iron Curtain countries, I could see what intricate maintenance the machinery of liberal democracy needed to survive. In Bulgaria, no reforms passed by parliament made any difference when the judiciary remained solidly manned by old apparatchiks. Any attempts at prosecuting corruption, probing mafia hits and enhancing transparency were all met with an end stop at the senior judges, who took bribes for their decisions. I asked Simeon why he didn't sack any of them. "It would all come down in a heap," he said, "they're all in each others' pockets. You'd have no functioning judiciary in a short time." This was why, in Georgia, President Saakashvili simply swept away an entire generation of apparatchiks from state institutions--from traffic police to academics. It couldn't be done piecemeal. And yet radical change meant instant disaffection among the newly dispossessed. Many highly qualified older Georgians simply moved their families to Russia. Others could be subverted with Russian money. It was also why George Soros became the single most altruistic figure in forging the future of the region. His foundations helped pay the wages of ministers and judges, keeping corruption at bay while new structures took root. His foundations also kept pro-western intellectuals fed and housed as the regional economies collapsed along with the demand for books and ideas.
After 20 years, what should we learn from the post-Berlin Wall experience? Here's what I learned in the region: Many intellectuals felt that both socialism and capitalism had failed them. They awaited a new ideological prophet with solutions equal to the region's problems, who could light the way into the next era. In the past they'd had Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Havel and Pink Floyd. That wave had broken and the results looked bleak. Above all, I understood that liberties only survive amid well-structured state institutions. If we had not the stamina--or funds--to foster and defend them over time, we had no business liberating anyone. Considering our geostrategic A.D.D., we simply will not stay the course in many places. We should therefore relearn how to strike a balance between containment and liberation, and which to apply where, before we lose all our patience and others lose faith in us.
Melik Kaylan, a writer based in New York, writes a weekly column for Forbes. His story "Georgia In The Time of Misha" is featured in The Best American Travel Writing 2008.
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