Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 2
17 January 2000

Europe Endless?

Peter Szyszlo

Kraftwerk's futuristic ode to Europe sung the praises of a boundless continent replete with art, culture, and, ultimately, possibilities. Looking at the post-mortem of the transition which has swept across the former Soviet bloc over the past decade, one must ask whether this praxis is still attainable, and if so, what better test tube to extend as a model than in East and Central Europe? Despite criticisms over a universal consensus on East and West relations that failed to materialise after the end of the Cold War, few have accurately assessed or defined the parameters of Europe's contemporary divisions. The conflicting issues of East-West security and identity postures are widely seen to be among the most pressing problems facing the process of European integration.

The inherent threat to Europe is not over which of the former Soviet satellites will be invited to enter the European Union first, nor Russia's psychosomatic stance on NATO expansion, but a division between those countries which have attained democracy and those that are unable, and in some cases unwilling to do so.

Where's the line?

The collapse of the socialist bloc brought with it the end of ideological barriers which divided East and West. As we begin the 21st century, there is an almost universal consensus on the importance of a system of governance based around pluralist democracy and the need for an economic system which combines efficiency and growth with equity and human security. Ten years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, only a handful of former Communist states have passed the transition stage and are well on their way to full European integration.

The remainder - comprising the vast majority - are still reeling from their respective post-socialist experiences where transition has lacked consistency and the devastation of authoritarian rule has left society deeply scarred. The formers' tenacity in striving to rejoin Europe is matched only by their will to be recognized as rightful members of the European community.

These so-called newborn democracies are capricious children at that - the yearning to transplant Ameryka immediately has come with its share of scrapes and bruises. Essentially, most Balts, Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles want to "return to Europe" by way of prominent Euro-Atlantic institutions, assuming that their rapprochement will be better achieved by way of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and eventual accession to the European Union.

It is no secret that the Visegrad group's aspiration for EU membership has surpassed their desire for their newly found political-military alliance with NATO. However, for the time being entry to the later will act as a surrogate for the former. Ironically, European Union membership would facilitate a more effective long-term integration vehicle to the West, however Brussels has no immediate plans for admitting its poorer eastern cousins to this prestigious club just yet.

New CIS or old CCCP?

Despite the fact that the plastic American clown has replaced the monuments to Vladimir Illich in Central Europe, one need not go very far eastward to see the opposite hold true. While Central Europe has been busily mimicking the West in one form or another, the former Soviet borderlands have moulded themselves into an erratic hybrid of cowboy capitalism, robber baron kleptocracy and born-again Bolshevism.

Attempts to reform these countries has revealed their inability or unwillingness to evolve in a European direction. Little wonder! They are progressing along their own unique Eurasian path. Can these countries truly be considered part of contemporary Europe? What will be their new role, if any? Only time will tell.

Looking at the root of the issue, one may conclude that the republics of the Soviet Union (apart from the Baltics) were given their freedom and independence from the Kremlin by default when the USSR finally collapsed. Their newfound sovereignty was essentially a redistribution of power to an ill-equipped nomenklatura, which remains unprepared for democratic rule. With more unchallenged power accumulated in fewer hands, and leadership preference given to strongmen instead of strong institutions, the likelihood of civil society and a middle class developing any time soon remains bleak. Accordingly, re-educating homo sovieticus with democratic values and implementing the standards of a modern state has proved far more difficult than originally perceived.

The bitter reality remains that the map of East and Central Europe has been redrawn in terms of the haves and have-nots. In quantitative terms, the 1999 United Nations Development Report for Central and Eastern Europe and the CIS ranked the countries of the former USSR at income inequality and poverty levels comparable to those in Latin America. The over-arching danger is that the east is rapidly devolving towards something akin to an alliance of post-Soviet banana republics. Nowhere is this praxis more glaring than in the very capital of the Commonwealth, where the average Belarusian wage dipped to US $15 per month, the black market and hyper-inflation run unchallenged, and humanitarian aid still remains on the menu. Compounding the dilemma further is a self-perpetuated discrepancy of definitions where political Office carries with it immunity from prosecution, where there is a lack of government transparency, the decision-making process preserves oligarchic rule, and the word bizness still takes on a negative, if not criminal connotation. Likewise, the stereotypical image of a gold-toothed, fedora-topped aparatchik is never far off.

More disturbing are Professor Zbigniew Brzezinski's findings that 65% (US $78 billion) of the USD 120 billion in Western funds and loans extended to Russia were siphoned-off into private offshore accounts. In all likelihood, capital flight will continue unabated at the feverish pace of US $2 billion per month in the Russian Federation alone. Discontent with plummeting living standards, a lack of viable alternatives and with little relief in sight, many have grudgingly dubbed the infectious idleness of the CIS - SNG in its Cyrillic acronym, as Soyuz Nizhshykh i Golodnykh (Union of the Poor and Hungry). Originally established as a temporary vehicle for the velvet divorce of the USSR, it has become a permanent institution for Moscow's indirect consolidation of power over the former Soviet landmass. Coupled with ill-defined, often contradictory strategies, and a lack-lustre economic base, the CIS serves as a de facto obstacle to any real alternatives which may come into direct conflict with the Kremlin's enduring interests.

Correspondingly, the high human costs of transition and its subsequent mismanagement have some signatory states rethinking the parameters of their post-Soviet autonomy. Orphaned by the collapse of the USSR, the Belarusian leadership's Stockholm Syndrome approach to nationhood is largely derived from a lack of feasible options for long-term, self-sustained sovereignty and economic well being, and is tantamount to its capitulation in the form of a "union treaty" with Russia. Integration with Moscow acts primarily as a substitute for economic reform. Similarly, Moscow's inconsistent policies towards Kiev have some elites in the Kremlin believing that Ukrainian independence is something of a temporary phenomenon. And so it goes on. It seems only fitting to conclude that for the time being, Europe's eastward advancement has been stopped in its tracks on the shores of the River Bug.

Post-Perestroika paralysis

Nearly a decade after the collapse of the USSR, the former Soviet borderlands remain in flux, struggling to rebuild economies, define political systems and national identities. As Warsaw, Prague and Budapest gear up for the European Union fast track, more restrictive EU-compliant laws will inevitably follow in each countries' respective Ostpolitik, thus tightening, if not constricting their eastern flanks. The diametrical opposites of Poland's neo-liberalist and Belarus's so-called "neo-Communist" doctrines is but an example of something that will be accentuated in the coming decade as the CIS lapses further behind its occidental neighbours. Moreover, the clash of incompatibilities will be unavoidable once the Visegrad trio makes its way into the ranks of the European Union and the Baltic States move closer toward the Northern European geopolitical sub-region.

Looking eastward, the nomenklatura continues to propagate a Sovietesque status quo - a yoke that the Visegrad and Baltic States have strived relentlessly to liberate themselves from during the past decade, but that remains commonplace in the CIS. With Moscow having yet to accept the Baltics as fully sovereign and independent states, it will no doubt have a dilemma in approaching the new political and socio-economic power Central Europe has begun to project towards its easterly neighbours. As such, the Visegrad trio, and Poland in particular, have already asserted their place in Europe. Under the crushing weight of mismanagement and institutional sclerosis, the western CIS is trapped in a vicious cycle of perpetual malaise. Given the gravity of this issue, economic stagnation and domestic political despondency has already made Ukraine and especially Belarus retreat into a Eurasian background for their inability to "keep up" with their occidental neighbours. Consequently, the barriers of division are likely to continue - but in different form.

Accordingly, it will become increasingly difficult to find consensus between such dissimilar societies as mittel Europa where a return to the past is unthinkable, and conversely in the western borderlands of the CIS where the past is not only contemplated, but in some cases - reincarnated. Europe's new frontiers have already been delineated by those states' ability to establish functioning democracies, civil society and a market economy. In which case, the attempt to redefine Belarus and Ukraine as "central European" will become increasingly difficult - if not impossible. In retrospect, it was not long ago that Russian pop diva, Alla Pugachova once sang: "Kuritsa nie ptitsa, Polsha nie zagranitsa" (a chicken is not a bird, Poland is not abroad). Looking back at the pivotal events of the past decade - she was gravely mistaken.

Peter Szyszlo , 12 January 2000



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