• on Novembre 6, 2019

Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Certainties and hanging questions

Initiatives to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall have started or are about to start in every European country: the symbolic date is 9 November. This day in fact represented a step in the broader and more general process of implosion of the Soviet system and of the Warsaw Pact, which kept the “satellite countries” of Central and Eastern Europe linked to the USSR. The matter at stake was the end of the communist regimes that had shaped the eastern part of the old continent since the Second World War and until that moment in time. Moreover, that process brought to an end the Cold War – namely, a prolonged “subterranean conflict” between the Soviet bloc and the Atlantic alliance based on nuclear deterrence.

November 9 1989 didn’t happen by chance.

Although those years seem a distant era today, we cannot overlook the significance of the many decisive stages of “rapprochement” that ensued: the creation of Solidarnosc (the trade union founded in Poland in September 1980 following the strikes in the shipyards of Gdansk, initially led by Lech Wałęsa and supported by the Church) in General Jaruzelski’s Poland; Gorbachev’s “Perestroika”, namely the set of reforms introduced by the Soviet Union’s leadership in the mid-eighties, aimed at restructuring the country’s economy and its political and social system. Nor can we ignore the reformist interventions of the Nemeth government in Hungary. The dissemination of the democratic ideas of many intellectuals at the time – such as Vaclav Havel, Czech politician, playwright and poet, dissident and politically persecuted – was equally significant. Or the courage of students and workers who, with demonstrative actions in many cities of Eastern Europe, paved the way for a rebellion, albeit a peaceful one.
Thus the celebrations marking the fall of the Wall could now contribute not just to remembering that historical landmark event, but also to an assessment of the situation with regard to the political, social and cultural transformations that occurred in Central and Eastern European countries, and to examine the state of their relations with Western Europe and the EU as a whole.  Today, from Poland to Hungary, from Slovakia to the Baltic States to Bulgaria and the Balkans, economic growth is certainly impressive compared to the conditions of production systems in the early post-Communist period: employment rates are high, although average wage levels remain relatively low. Living standards ( quantifiable, for example, on the basis of increased life expectancy or education or access to the Internet) are almost reaching those of Germany, France or Italy, which, at the same time, continue to attract large numbers of migrants from Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Moldova… Nor can we ignore the acceleration of the secularisation process underway in these societies, while political power is poorly esteemed by citizens (according to countless surveys and on the basis of some, not all, electoral results). Nationalism is rooted in almost all Eastern European countries; corruption is a widespread problem (as attested by the protests in the streets); democracy is often at risk ( measures against the freedom of the press, laws that restrict the activity of the judiciary…), to the point of suggesting that these democracies have remained fragile. Most importantly, the doors are being closed to refugees from both the Mediterranean corridor and the Balkan route, ignoring the migratory flow from these countries towards destinations in Western Europe.

So what is the subjective evaluation of the past thirty years?

November 9, 2019 could, as previously stated, provide an opportunity for a collective reflection on the events that followed the fall of the Iron Curtain, thereby prompting some serious questions. Have Warsaw, Budapest or Sofia really come to terms with their historical past, also in order to establish the responsibility and legacy of the regimes (that same process that marked the post-war period of ex-Nazi Germany and ex-Fascist Italy, with open contrasts and complicit silences)? Has it been understood – as we learned with the fall of the Berlin Wall – that if freedom is restrained and peoples repressed, at some point, sooner or later, they will rebel? How are the regained freedoms and democracy, combined with material development, interpreted and implemented today? And could that Wall that divided the Berliners, which collapsed together with the rubble of ideologies and dictatorships, be erected again today, perhaps to ward off migrants who in turn seek freedom, democracy, work and prosperity? The place of East European nations in today’s and tomorrow’s Europe also depends on the answers to these and other questions. It also calls into question the nations of the west and north of the continent, often afflicted by the same “evils” and in turn faced with a serious examination of conscience with history.