The Aftermath of Soviet Hegemony

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A couple of years after the collapse of the Soviet empire, I asked Adam Michnik, one of Poland's leading dissidents who had founded a major new newspaper, how he thought the country was doing. "Terribly," he said, describing factional squabbles among the emerging political parties and his growing disdain for Lech Wałęsa, who had become Poland's president. He called him "Piłsudski without a horse," invoking the country's strongman of the 1920s and 1930s, a brief era of Polish inter-war independence ending with the Nazi invasion.

"But what about the defeat of the Communists?" I asked. "Oh that," he said, dismissing decades of subjugation to the Kremlin as so much historical detritus, of which Poland has accumulated a great deal.

Our exchange came to mind the other day when I read an interview in the Wall Street Journal with Michnik, still a leading intellectual voice in Poland. Asked to describe the country's situation today, he replied, "fantastyczne," the exact opposite in Polish of his assessment to me all those years ago.

(Photo: antaldaniel/Flickr)

It's been a while since I was in Poland, but Michnik's view strikes me as a good place to begin measuring what is happening there and elsewhere in the former Soviet empire in this season of the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the symbolic implosion of Moscow's hegemony in the region. The spectrum of development is broad; from the autocratic kleptocracies of Central Asia, the wars in the Caucasus, the political stalemates in Ukraine and Byelorussia, and the burst economic bubble of the Baltics to the differing but essentially positive trends in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Rumania, and Bulgaria, with Poland probably the best off for now. Germany, the land of the wall itself, seems to have integrated its halves well enough to be comfortable with the kitsch status of Ostalgie, a peculiar yearning for simple life styles in the Democratic Republic.

And then there is Russia, where Vladimir Putin has reconstituted the plutocracy not of the Communist era or the reign of the Czars, but with nasty elements of both periods; power concentrated in the Kremlin, wealth in the hands of politically acceptable oligarchs, and liberties confined to what the country's rulers say they are.

All in all, a strong case can be made that the generation since the fall of the Berlin Wall has produced more that is good for the people of the vast expanse than what is bad for them (the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia is its own tragic story). What is striking is how much the development of these societies reflects their histories. Central Asia and the Caucasus probably benefited from the relative discipline and economic policies of Soviet power. The rest of the region seems slowly to be catching up to where they might have been had the Soviets not turned them into, using the defining term of the Cold War era, "captive nations." After twenty years, the same period that separated World Wars I and II, the fundamental question is whether the character of Central and Eastern Europe that has evolved will now endure for as long as it is reasonable to predict.

The answer, I would argue, is yes. Poland, for example gradually is taking a significant place in Europe, the way Spain did after the relative isolation and backwardness of the Franco era. The smaller, but essentially stable democracies of the old Warsaw Pact have populations increasingly comparable to the educational and social norms of the rest of Europe. The greatest potential for trouble is in Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, the countries bordering Iran, Afghanistan, and China. These are states with significant Muslim influence that could veer toward extremism and without a scintilla of democratic tradition. In some respects, Central Asia resembles sub-Saharan Africa, lands with imposed national boundaries in an imperial era now being defined, awkwardly, as nations.

Two characteristics of the modern world have made an impact even on these relatively backward societies. The impact of technology is inescapable. Whether and how the Internet will mediate among disparate cultures remains to be tested fully, but in a world in which communications are pervasive, long-term isolation seems highly unlikely. The second factor is globalization. Over time, economic development across the region may begin to even out some of the enormous differences among the Eastern and Western countries. Kazakhstan, a major oil producer, is also the most advanced of these countries, having made, relatively, better use of its resources. Long term, the dominant powers in Central Asia could be China and India, as well as Iran and Russia.

The fall of the Berlin Wall ended a period of enforced stability during which the Soviet Union held sway. The dynamism of the past twenty years is a predictor, in the most optimistic of scenarios, of continued progress in a vast swath of the globe from the westernmost edge in Germany to the border with China's that was for so long marked by wars and despotism. But the reality of history's turbulent precedents suggests that civilization will always have its discontents, and upheavals of one kind or another are guaranteed.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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