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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 April, 2004, 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK
History in the making as EU grows
By Angus Roxburgh
BBC News Online, Brussels

It is hard for those of us living in Western European countries with decades or centuries of stable democracy to appreciate just what an event 1 May will be for the nations of Eastern and Central Europe who will join the European Union.

Polish EU supporters celebrate vote to join
Millions of new EU members can still remember communism
The phrase "end of the Cold War" has been much over-used, on many occasions since the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of communism, but this time it will not be hyperbole.

The entry of eight former communist states into the EU really is, for them, the final step across the Rubicon they began to cross 15 or 16 years ago.

In the existing EU states the debate about Europe centres on "voting weights" and the wording of a constitution, the division of power between Brussels and the member states, or whether more decisions should be taken by majority voting rather than unanimously.

But in the new states these are trivial matters compared to the historic importance of simply being members.

Years of suffering

Three of those countries - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - were not just satellites of the Soviet Union but part of it, for half a century. Slovenia was part of communist Yugoslavia.

Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia (now entering the EU as two states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) were occupied by Soviet troops after World War II and remained under Kremlin control until the revolutions of 1989.

Josef Stalin
Stalin's satellites have moved to a different orbit
Attempts to break out from Soviet control had ended in bloodshed in all three of these countries.

A national uprising in Hungary, including an attempt to leave the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, ended with the deaths of thousands when Soviet troops invaded in 1956.

The flowering of "socialism with a human face" in Czechoslovakia in 1968 was also crushed by Soviet tanks.

And the free trade union movement, Solidarity, in Poland in 1980-81 was ended by martial law, in which Polish generals carried out the Kremlin's wishes.

Baltic battleground

The three Baltic nations suffered even greater indignities after they were absorbed into the USSR under a secret pact between Stalin and Hitler.

After the war they were flooded with Russian nationals as part of a deliberate Moscow policy of diluting their populations and inextricably linking their economies with the Russian one.

Latvians ended up comprising under half of the republic's population, and Estonians just 60% in their own country. Russian was the official language. All policies were dictated from Moscow.

In 1988 the three republics experienced a stunning national revival as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev loosened the reins and allowed so-called "popular fronts" to be founded.

These became mass movements that led the way to independence - though they had to wait for a failed pro-communist coup in Moscow in August 1991 before the Kremlin finally let them go.

It's against this background - of colonial rule, oppression, resentment, and liberation - that entry into the EU has to be seen.

The cultures of many new states were buried for generations
None of the new nations expects "Brussels" to be a new "Kremlin". They know no one is going to force them to stop speaking their own languages, or impose a foreign culture and way of life on them.

Their influence on Brussels decision-making may end up small, but at least their voice will be heard, not brutally silenced.

And the economic system they are joining is one they were cut off from when they were annexed by the Soviet Union, and longed to return to.

Above all, the eight new EU nations from central and eastern Europe "feel" themselves to be true Europeans - indeed, at the heart of European thinking and culture.

Prague, Bratislava and Budapest were mainstream European cities, part of "Mitteleuropa", with its traditions of coffee-houses and music and intellectual ferment.

Communist shroud

All of these nations feel slighted even to be referred to as "east" Europeans - with the hint, inherent in the term, of mediocrity, lack of culture and underdevelopment.

For too long they were seen as Soviet lackeys - and few ordinary people in the West were aware that the communist system imposed on them totally obscured a deeper and ancient "west" European legacy.

Since they achieved independence, knowledge of the English language has flourished, while teaching of Russian (previously obligatory) has all but ended. Eight proud nations have turned their heads 180 degrees and now look decisively westwards.

All eight have terrible economic and environmental legacies to overcome. They are still littered with inefficient factories, built for the communist era which had little regard for satisfying consumers or protecting the environment.

Positive Europeans

Some still find it hard to shake off Soviet-era notions of human rights, and there remain concerns about the treatment of minorities (Roma in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Russians in Estonia and Latvia).

But few people in these countries have any doubts at all about where their future lies.

And joining the EU, they hope, will not only help them improve their economies and environment, but allow them to re-take their rightful place in Europe.

Having once been ejected from that position, they are likely to prove much more enthusiastic "Europeans" than many of the people in the existing EU states, whose comfortable and increasingly prosperous lives over the past half-century have often made us forget how valuable peace and democracy are.

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