Fatigue on the road to freedom

Twenty years after the demolition of the Berlin Wall, where has all the euphoria gone?
Bryan P. Bradley | Oct 15 2009 | comment  



The momentum of 1989’s singing revolutions and massive peaceful resistance to social injustice is at risk of being lost, even among the myriad of 20th anniversary celebrations across Central and Eastern Europe. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia recently recalled the Baltic Way, when two million people joined hands in a human chain linking the capitals of the Soviet-occupied Baltic states in a demonstration of their resolve to regain freedom. Today, by contrast, energetic young people who are unhappy with the status quo do not go the streets to help build a better future. More often, they just go to the West to enjoy a better life.

Where were you when the Iron Curtain, long assailed, at last began to cede? I was starting my Eastern European studies in Washington, DC, whose moral missiles had done much to weaken the walls of the Evil Empire. And we celebrated this dawn of a brand new day, the death pangs of a rotten old regime, the victory of liberty and human dignity over tyranny and oppression. These were watershed events, aptly celebrated at the time and rightly commemorated now – the start of a momentous journey toward a Europe "whole and free".

But besides marking 20 years since that historic step, what can we celebrate now? Has the region in fact come to grips with the meaning, forms and implications of the freedom that they so desired and that we so desired for them? Consider goals such as political pluralism and democratic self-determination without fear of foreign (ie, "Russian") intervention; respect for the dignity and rights of every human person, including freedom of conscience and expression; private property and the chance for nations and individuals to pursue a higher standard of living; status and voice in the international community of nations. Such things were foremost in our minds and theirs as we rejoiced two decades ago.

But the triumph was not total or definitive. For "freedom", the great goal and achievement of Europe in 1989, is not a simple yes-or-no tick box, but a scale of vision and strength in which individuals and nations must grow. The process that ran from the Solidarity movement to the demolition of the Berlin Wall to the collapse of the Soviet Union and beyond was just an opening of the prison gates for the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe. It was freedom to flee something bad, and freedom to seek something new, something good. But the flight and the search were just starting.

Losing steam

Reports this year by the Washington-based Freedom House categorize 13 ex-Communist nations in Central and Eastern Europe as now fundamentally "free" in terms of political rights and civil liberties, noting though that steady progress since 1989 has stalled in several countries. Further east, above all in Belarus and Russia, the watchdog sees "dire conditions of democratic freedoms and individual liberties," which in recent years have deteriorated sharply. In short, (1) there have been huge gains, but they are mostly limited to the countries closest to (and now inside) the European Union, and (2) passion for "freedom", as defined by the West, seems to be waning even in those countries.

Leaving the non-Baltic former Soviet Union aside, one could blame the shift on economics. Freedom House does, noting that "as countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary, and Latvia find themselves in the throes of a profound economic crisis, their democratic institutions may be particularly vulnerable to backsliding." The logic would seem to be that the main motivator for democratic reforms has not so much been Western "values" per se as the Western-style prosperity expected to follow. Thus as unemployment rises and governments slash social spending, the average citizen’s faith in democracy is ebbing.

There are of course lingering problems of corruption and media manipulation (or simple irresponsibility), for transparency, integrity and personal responsibility were hardly social virtues in Communist times, and it is hard to teach old dogs new tricks. But there are also the increasingly vocal groups of nationalist extremists, the resilience in some countries and some posts of formerly Communist leaders and parties, and, most worrying, the spread of public apathy and alienation from the political process. Voter turnout has diminished, as has the general level of civic engagement and interest in social issues.

The foreign ministers of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia even felt it necessary to reassure the world of their nations’ commitment to freedom and democracy as they recalled the Baltic Way. "Today, as a result of a global economic crisis, we are again facing unprecedented challenges that have shaken, but not broken, our confidence in the path we have chosen," they said in an August 23 joint statement published in international newspapers.

 

Internal freedom

It should be noted that Central and Eastern Europe’s journey of freedom did not start with external, political liberty, but with the prior widespread discovery and exercise of personal, internal freedom. Writer Czeslaw Milosz, who broke with Poland’s early Communist regime and fled to the West, eventually earning a Nobel Prize for Literature, masterfully describes, in his 1951 book The Captive Mind, the systematic destruction of personal freedom in the lands overrun by Stalin. For Milosz, tyranny of thought and conscience was the barbed-wire fence round the concentration camp of post-World War II Eastern Europe. There was a sense of inevitability and individual insignificance that made the pressure to conform so effective.

"Those who thought that they might succeed, while remaining within the Eastern bloc, in keeping clear of total orthodoxy and maintaining some degree of freedom of thought, have been defeated," Milosz wrote in a forward to the book’s 1981 edition. He himself had tried and failed. So had others, whose sad stories of schizophrenia, suicide or simple elimination he narrates. On a larger scale, the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 was crushed by Soviet troops, as was the Prague Spring of 1968. Despair and resignation were hard to avoid.

Finally, Solidarity in Poland throughout the 1980s, bolstered by the moral support of John Paul II, showed personal initiative to oppose the system was possible and powerful. This set the stage for the revolutionary wave that swept the Eastern Bloc in 1989, ending in the overthrow of Communist governments first in Poland and Hungary, then in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. In March 1990, Lithuania became the first of the 15 Soviet republics to declare independence, and by the fall of 1991, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist.

Had many, many people not found their personal freedom and used it, the new era of political freedom would never have been born nor the process of consolidating personal and social freedoms begun. Today the risk is that the region might return to a state of despair and resignation, leaving their once hard-won political freedom vulnerable to attack.

Conformity

"I have won my freedom; but let me not forget that I stand in daily risk of losing it once more. For in the West also one experiences the pressure to conform." So wrote Czeslaw Milosz in 1981. At the time he lived in California. He knew that freedom must be used or it will die, and that conformity with what one knows to be unjust, whether through apathy or lack of hope or pragmatism, weakens one’s ability to resist and makes one increasingly an accomplice. It tears a man apart inside and poisons the air of society.

Much of formerly Communist Europe has made great strides in freedom, growing and developing with the creation of democratic institutions, the adherence to positive human ideals within organizations like the European Union and the acceptance of responsibilities in the international community. But too often, it seems, these countries have done so for pragmatic, material motives, bribed as it were by financial aid or security guarantees to adopt the politically correct agenda of the moment. This has made many quite cynical about the ongoing project of freedom, particularly when their sometimes dissonant voices on issues of human values are silenced. (Consider the EU’s condemnation of a recent Lithuanian law against agitation of young people by homosexual activists.)

To revive the momentum and passion for freedom that was shown in 1989, Freedom House recommends that the US government, the EU and others of good will work to promote civic activism in Central and Eastern Europe, above all through financial support for non-governmental organizations. That money might help, but is probably not the key. What is needed most is a healthy dose of idealism, of honest public debate on hard-hitting issues. There are real social problems in the region, in Europe, in the world, which are different but of similar importance to those that were symbolized by the Berlin Wall. We need people who care, who refuse to conform and who want to change the world. In short, we need a new passion for authentic human values. For there yet remain many miles, and many exits, on the road to full freedom in Europe.

Bryan P. Bradley is an American-born writer, based in Vilnius, Lithuania, who has lived and traveled in Central and Eastern Europe for nearly 20 years. He has reported on the region’s economic, political and cultural issues for international news agencies and helped establish several community organizations.



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