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Iron Curtain Wednesday, 6 October, 1999, 11:22 GMT 12:22 UK
Hopes and shadows
By Misha Glenny

Jiri K and I sat drinking coffee in one of our favourite Prague cafes. It was May 1989. Cracks had already appeared in the facade of Stalinist power in many parts of Eastern Europe (including Czechoslovakia).

Communism - the end of an era
Jiri was adamant that change was not afoot. "Look at these petty bourgeois compatriots of mine," he said. "They like the safety of their Skoda cars, their skiing trips to the Tatra mountains. They don't care about freedom of expression or politics. Nobody will persuade them to change."

He looked rather depressed about it and I was concerned - he was one of the best informed people I knew. Later, I discovered why - he worked for the secret police. In a subtle way, he was trying to persuade me that the disturbances in Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe were not revolutionary but irritating hiccups.

By then, I didn't care that Jiri thought things would remain stagnant. By then I knew I was witnessing something monumental. When it came, it was spectacular and I still believe that this was the most wonderful period in my life.

Ten years ago

For ten years ago Eastern Europe broke out of its oppressive torpor to stage one of the most remarkable political dramas of the 20th century. For weeks, each peculiar denouement was followed by a new crisis and then a breathtaking resolution.

Warsaw
Even bleak Warsaw is blossoming
Barbed wire was shredded like paper; sealed trains ran across Europe's rails packed with refugees; grim institutions of state violence crumbled; popular heroes made their way from prison to the presidential palaces. For once, one may claim without exaggeration that these events were epoch-making. Nothing has been the same since.

A decade later as I wandered through Zwischeneuropa (In-Between Europe) for the first time in many years, it became obvious that this territory and the large patchwork of peoples separating Russia and Germany remains a stubbornly mysterious part of Europe that readily attracts attention when blood flows but is otherwise left to its meagre devices.

The heroics of 1989 have been largely forgotten. The revolutions themselves remain little researched and many questions cry out for a historian's sober answer.

The new Eastern Europe still bears profound scars from the decades under communism. Some cities have made tremendous progress.

The wonderful city of Habsburg baroque, Krakow in southern Poland, has flowered again, issuing a delightful scent of optimism. Even Warsaw looked cheerful. That's a tall order. Poland's grim capital was rebuilt by the communists (in their inimitably tasteless fashion) after being razed to the ground by the Nazis.

Mobile phones, conspicuous wealth, glossy magazines and inventive restaurants testify to the dynamism of Poland's economic revival. Hungary, too, is managing well despite being burdened by extensive debt problems and a chronically inefficient industrial legacy.

Freedom but not fairness

But there is a real danger, especially in western Europe, that our complacency will lead to the development of dangerous economic and social problems in Eastern Europe.

prostitute
EU restrictions are forcing women onto the street
All the former communist countries are home to vast criminal network. These are involved in creaming off the most lucrative parts of the infrastructure during the transition from socialism to capitalism. But they have also become the motors of one Europe's greatest scandal - the trafficking of women to work in the pornographic industry or in enforced prostitution in western Europe.

As sociologists are now pointing out, much of this horrific trade would collapse if European Union were to relax restrictions on East Europeans working in western Europe. Tens of thousands of East European women are going into the sex industry voluntarily because they have no access to the labour market otherwise.

Over the past decade, the East Europeans have been patiently lining up for a slice of the action in the EU.

The process has been moving at an agonisingly slow pace. But all the major contenders from Eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovenia) have made it clear that they are prepared to waive rights to regional cash handouts in exchange for early membership.

All they want is to be able to compete in open trade. In the past ten years, the EU has consistently blocked greater access for Polish and Czech steel, for textiles and pharmaceuticals, but above all for East European labour and agricultural produce.

Western Europe should take note that anti-western sentiment is on the rise everywhere in Eastern Europe (except for in Poland where the threat of Russia is always sufficient to override other concerns). The fastest growing opposition party in the Czech republic is, of all organisations, the Communist Party. Nationalism and authoritarianism still have great potential throughout the region.

If Europe is to be finally cleansed of its historical sins then these countries need and deserve not charity but a level playing field.


Misha Glenny is the presenter of Pushing Back the Curtain, a BBC landmark series. It is broadcast on Radio 4 from 30 September to 4 November.

Links to more Iron Curtain stories are at the foot of the page.


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