Remembering 1989, Diversity in Post-Communist Europe

On a late September morning in Washington, top Czech and Russian officials voiced strikingly different assessments of world economic conditions. Neither the September 21st remarks of Czech President Vaclav Klaus nor of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov attracted media attention. Reflecting just how dramatically the world has changed since communism collapsed, it is unthinkable that either viewpoint would even have been contemplated prior to 1989.

At the fortress-like, marble-clad Russian embassy on Wisconsin Avenue, the gates were thrown open so that Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov could assure an audience of Washington insiders that Russia aspired to be a responsible participant in the global economy. The 42-year-old Shuvalov, a top Kremlin economic official and protégé of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, said Moscow expects the dollar to remain the world's principal currency for the foreseeable future. While hoping the ruble will gain market acceptance as a regional currency, Moscow, he said will continue to hold most of its reserves in dollars. On issues related to the G20 summit, Shuvalov emphasized the need for fiscal discipline and the need for emergency fiscal stimulus to be gradually unwound.

At the same moment, two miles down Massachusetts Avenue, Vaclav Klaus, the combative Czech President was telling the Cato Institute that 20 years after the collapse of communism, freedom is again under siege. But this time, he said, its adversary in Europe is the encroaching bureaucracy of the European Union, "to which power has steadily been shifting." Decrying debilitating regulation from Brussels, Klaus said the global financial crisis had weakened public support for the free market system to the point where, " I am not sure whether capitalism can survive such a massive attack." He told the libertarians at Cato, that they "must fight against the newly revived belief in the state" as an agent of economic reform. As finance minister in the early 1990s, Klaus had put in place Czechoslovakia's market-based reforms, while later as prime minister, he oversaw the "velvet divorce," in which Slovakia became independent.

So, here was a top aide of Vladimir Putin defending globalization and promoting its spread, while the grandfatherly Czech economist argued that "the market economy had disappeared," supplanted by a dangerous "social and ecological market economy." Viewed from a cold war perspective, the world had turned upside down.

Eminent Columbia University historian Joseph Rothschild, now deceased, entitled his 1993 book on East and Central Europe, "Return to Diversity," a truism foolishly ignored by those who lump together as merely post-communist the region's disparate peoples and nations.

Today, with some exceptions there is strong diversity of view within countries. Many Czechs dismiss Klaus's iconoclastic assertions. Similarly, the pro-globalization perspective of Shuvalov does not represent a majority view in Russia. The point is that with communism vanquished, people are free to express themselves. Fear is gone. Contrary to what Klaus argues, the market economy has become the norm and has progressively flourished during two decades of transition. Living standards are on the rise and with few exceptions people live far better than they did under communism.

Even the revolutions of 1989 were strikingly diverse. In Poland there was a real fight, going back at least to 1981 when the Solidarity trade union was founded and later repressed. In East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria communist regimes simply collapsed once the word went out from Moscow that they were on their own. In 1991 the Soviet Union itself imploded, yielding up, mostly without a fight, nearly a dozen new nations.

Today, nearly 20 years after the Berlin Wall came down, freedom and diversity are the realities in post-communist Europe. Should there be any doubt, consider the reply of Vaclav Klaus, when asked at Cato what he felt of the American decision to dismantle the early warning missile defense program promulgated by George Bush. To the annoyance of the fidgeting young Polish diplomats seated behind me, Klaus shrugged his shoulders and said that for him this wasn't a big deal. Klaus, like a majority of Czechs had never wanted the American radars, while in neighboring Poland, where there is more hostility toward Russia, the government and population were more kindly disposed to American missile defense.