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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 1, December 26, 2009 - Annual Number 2009

Eastern Europe: Impressions of a Journey

Saturday 26 December 2009, by Nikhil Chakravartty

On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall (that took place last month) we reproduce here N.C.’s impressions following his visit to Eastern Europe shortly after that momentous development. These appeared in two parts in the issues of Mainstream dated February 17, 1990 and February 24, 1990. Even after twenty years these impressions remain invaluable for anyone trying to analyse the events of 1989 that changed the face of Europe as well as the world at large.

Spending three weeks in Eastern Europe, covering five countries, has been a journey through an upheaval of many dimensions—breaking down old understandings of political stability and social development. Stereotypes are being smashed up, while new forms of human organisation are yet to take roots. Truly a landmark of transition in History.

Last month, a special assignment from the PTI took this reporter to Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland. As the straitjacket of the Communist regimes has broken down, these countries today form a fascinating mosaic, marked by the interplay of political forces in a democratic framework, new gropings towards economic liberalism and reassertion of national urges and aspirations. The process began in Poland just about ten years ago and has engulfed all the countries of the region, the latest to be touched being Albania. What is remarkable is that this new revolutionary upsurge has been unfolding without the minimum of violence. Barring Romania, it has been an extraordinarily non-violent revolution spreading in countries which had, not very long ago, been the scene of the bloodiest war in human history.

A common feature throughout has been the overthrow of the Communist monolith from power. The regimented monotony of an apex leadership monopolising all powers reigning over an authoritarian system enforcing total allegiance is now replaced by the resonance of democratic aspirations, in which the demand for a multi-party system, coupled with the rule of law, has become the order of the day.

It is worth noting that by the time the Second World War broke out in 1939, none of these countries, except Czechoslovakia, had a sizeable Communist Party. The German Communists had faced Nazi persecution, while those in Poland were nearly extinct thanks to both Stalin and Hitler; Hungary had a local Fascist dictatorship and repression pounded on those in Romania. The Bulgarian Communist leaders were mostly refugees in the USSR. Inevitably, the only Communist Party which could get a majority in Parliament through the ballot box immediately after the war was the one in Czechoslovakia under Klement Gottwald. But this was shortlived, as Gottwald’s autonomy was smashed up when Stalin forced him to give up the Marshal Plan and join the Cold War under Moscow’s leadership.

The liberation of these countries from Hitler’s yoke by the Red Army was promptly followed by the foisting of the Communist Party in each of them as the ruling authority, forcing the other parties into merger or elimination. This operation was over in less than five years and then followed full four decades of undiminished Communist rule. But not without occasional upheavals—Berlin 1953, Budapest 1956, Prague 1968—every time put down by the heavy hand of the Soviet armour.

This could not work when in 1980 Poland saw persistent working class defiance, but the Soviet troops could not come as the Communist boss, General Jaruzelski, vetoed it and himself clamped Martial Law which, however, could not break the back of the democratic resistance that finally triumphed last year with Eastern Europe’s first non-Communist Prime Minister taking office under the aegis of the Solidarity. Today, only in the last few days, the Polish Communists themselves have overwhelmingly opted for converting their party into one of social democracy.

This swing-over of the Communist Parties to one of Social Democrats began first in Hungary and the infection caught in Czechoslovakia last year. The East German Communist Party—officially called the Socialist Unity Party (SED)—is now half-way towards transformation as they have added to the name also the appellation of Social Democrats. By the time their next Party Congress comes, it is only to be expected that the process would be completed.

In Romania, such a metamorphosis was prevented by Ceausescu’s totally tyrannical regime, which forced the violent explosion that led to his extermination, and the Communists have since then become virtually outcasts as the dead dictator’s close associates.

In the rapid collapse of the conventional Communist Parties, some of the Marxist concepts have disappeared—dictatorship of the proletariat, the primacy of the party, and the so-called democratic centralism: in the new parties that the old Communists have been setting up, there are no Polit-Bureaus or Central Committees, but ad hoc commissions and committees. The old familiar faces, which at one time were thought to be irremovable, have gone—Honecker of East Germany, Bilak of Czechoslovakia, Kadar of Hungary or Zhivkov in Bulgaria, not to speak of the old Gierek of Poland or Ceausescu in Romania—most of them exposed as having turned thoroughly decadent and corrupt.

The new faces are not only young, but they come mostly from intellectual background. The new leader of the German Communists, Gregor Gysi, is a human rights lawyer, who incidentally had visited India for a lawyers’ meeting at Jaipur in 1988. At Budapest, in the half-empty party headquarters—now called the Hungarian Socialist Party—I met one of the Presidium members, Dr Csaba Vass, a young philosopher who spoke almost in whispers like a university professor. At Prague, the editor of the Communist daily Rude Pravo explained how the party membership has suddenly dropped by 50 per cent and he expected it to go down much more. The size of the paper has been halved for lack of resources.

One of the reasons for the sudden drop in membership has been the dispersal of what was called the nomenclatura. Under the dictatorship of the Communist Party, practically all top and middle level posts in all branches of public activity from manning hospitals, managing hotels to running universities had to be filled by party members, however worthy a non-party aspirant might have been. The result was that all such deserving persons quickly joined the party, no matter whether they had any commitment to Marxism. These are called the nomenclatura. Not surprisingly, when today the Communist regimes have collapsed, the nomenclatura gave up his or her party card, and thereby there is a sudden slump in party membership.

The exodus from the Communist ranks is, therefore, due to a number of causes. First, those fair-weather nomenclatura. Second, those who out of experience got disgusted with the authoritarian functioning of the party leadership. Third, those who out of conviction have strongly come to believe in the need for multi-party social democracy.

One of the items of immediate concern for the Marxist parties-now-turned-social democratic in these countries is how to hold on to the party property after being dislodged from power. This I noticed very clearly both in Prague and Warsaw. During the years of their monopoly of power, the ruling party acquired enormous amount of real estate in the form of buildings for party offices and other centres of activity all over their respective countries.

Obviously these were secured at concessional rates, sometimes almost at notional prices from the state exchequer. Now that they are no longer the ruling party and their membership has phenomenally shrunk, the demand has been raised for their return to the state. In Poland, there is a move to legislate that a political party could hold property roughly according to its strength and not more. In Czechoslovakia, I found the party authorities busy consulting legal opinion to retain as much of the existing property under the hold of the party.

A question has naturally come uppermost: Is Marxism dead? I put this question to Silviu Brucan, one of the leading lights of Romania’s National Salvation Front, once a Marxist and a very articulate and authoritative member of the present establishment at Bucharest. His answer was candid and weighty: “The truth is that now we no longer have a contemporary theory, that we do not know how is the world in which we live, and even less what is the direction followed by this world.” And so he thinks that freedom of thinking remains as “the most important condition” for forward-looking social movements. Brucan was categoric that “the whole historical scheme of the so-called succession of societies thought by Marx is obviously and definitely outdated”. He added: “We have to learn not only democracy but also a thinking without dogmas, without prejudices, without isms.”

As one of the young scholars put it succinctly in Budapest, Marxism is dead, but Marx is alive. That is, Marx as a social thinker in the age of the industrial revolution will certainly live, but not the system of power that those who came after him developed in his name. A new phase in human thinking indeed.

II

What type of political formations have emerged in the countries of Eastern Europe? It is interesting to note that in practically all these countries, the Communist monolith has not been displaced by clear-cut political parties. In each of these countries, a loose movement has dominated the opposition to the Communist raj. Not one of these can be called a party in the conventional sense of the term, and their leaders are averse at the moment to transform these into regular parties. There is the stamp of spontaneity about them and necessarily an element of tentativeness.

The earliest of these is the Solidarity in Poland, nearly ten years old. It spread to the stage of history as essentially a trade union movement to which there joined in fellow-travelling radical intellectuals. In the new climate of abjuring the old, the Communists too have turned their party (the Polish United Workers’ Party) into a social democratic party.

In East Germany, the role of the opposition to the regimented Communist establishment is taken up by the New Forum which has continued from its base at Leipzig. It is by and large a multi-class campaign organisation. As a significant interaction, the Communists also have regrouped their party into one of Democratic Socialism.

In Czechoslovakia, it is the bustling Civic Forum which is at the epicentre of political activity. Largely composed of intellectuals, it commands the confidence of a large spectrum of political segments of the nation.

In Hungary, the new stirrings started earlier as the Communists turned their party, the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, into a full-fledged Socialist Party. The opposition to this ruling party is to be identified in two main formations—the Hungarian Democratic Front, which is mainly a Centrist party, and the Alliance of Free Democrats, which frankly acknowledges to be Right-of-the-Centre. Of the two, the Democratic Front is stronger and considered to be the party with the largest following at present.

In Romania, the replacement to Ceausescu’s Communist dictatorship has come in the form of the National Salvation Front, many of whose leaders were at one time in the Communist Party but had to leave it because of Ceausescu’s authoritarianism.

A noteworthy feature of these formations which head the phenomenal upsurge in East Europe is that these are led by outstanding intellectuals. President Vaclav Havel in Prague is a playwright of international standing. Highly individualistic, his Civic Forum sometimes finds it difficult to keep pace with him. In the New Year Day message, he announced his desire to invite the Pope and the Dalai Lama to Czechoslovakia. One can understand the reason behind inviting the Pope since there is a sizeable Catholic population in the country, but why the Dalai Lama? One could get no convincing answer at the Civic Forum office: the presumption is that Havel might be looking upon the Dalai Lama as the symbol of resistance to another authoritarian regime.

In Hungary, both the leading Opposition elements, the Front and the Alliance, are led by outstanding intellectuals, coming directly from the campus to the political platform.

President Illiescu of Romania and his Prime Minister, Petre Roman, are held in very high esteem by the entire intellectual community. It is symbolic of the present President’s priorities that on the very second day after Ceausescu’s overthrow, when Bucharest was still rocked by gun duel between the regular Army and the hated Securitate, Illiescu persuaded a leading literary figure, a seventy-year-old lady, to ride a tank with him to the television centre from where she appealed to her countrymen to rally round the new Salvation Front Government.

Even in Poland, where Lech Walesa stands out as the father figure, the Solidarity has a whole band of outstanding intellectuals like Kuron and Michnik, who form the radical wing of the movement.

Another significant feature of the new political landscape in East Europe is that despite intense polarisation in political life between the supporters of the old regime and the new movements, there is a strong commitment to democratic functioning all round. Even in the midst of heated exchanges and occasional angry polemics, there is an undercurrent of give-and-take. In Poland, this is evident from the fact that a coalition of Solidarity and the PUWP is running the government. President Jaruzelski, though a Communist, is considered even by the Solidarity as friendly and they respect him as a patriot as he did not permit the Soviet troops to come into Poland at the height of the Solidarity upsurge. The grievance against him is that he had imposed Martial Law repression which undermined his popularity.

In all the other countries, the round table system has emerged as a regular means of dialogue among political rivals. In East Germany, the initiative was taken by the Church people; in other countries, even in Romania, the round table is the platform for exchanging views and taking common decisions. In view of the impending elections in all these countries (apart from Poland which had elections only a few months ago), inevitably a certain amount of electioneering heat is bound to be generated between the parties. But one does not expect any Red-baiting of the orthodox style because the Communists themselves in these countries have openly repudiated their past authoritarian regimes, and have taken action against their old leaders.

The more farsighted among the leaders of the new movements have already been advocating for closer understanding between the contending parties. In Czechoslovakia, for instance, there is strong speculation about a coalition between the truncated Communist Party, now transformed into a social democratic party, and the Civic Forum, since such a coalition is virtually in office now. In Hungary, the possibility of a three-party alliance between the Democratic Front, the Free Democrats’ Alliance and the Socialist Party to form the government after the poll is openly discussed; the idea being to keep out both the extreme Right and the extreme Left. In both East Germany and Romania, the interim governments of today represent different points of view. What is emerging, therefore, is a sort of broad national consensus to provide a stable mandate after the elections.

III

In the Communist-led regimes of Eastern Europe, the position of the national armed forces until recently has had to be seen in the context of the Cold War. The two armed camps in Europe represented by the NATO and the Warsaw Pact made them virtually subservient to superpower compulsions—in the latter case to Moscow. It was no longer a question of defending national sovereignty but being a part of an armed camp with deadly weapons—including nuclear arms—on their soil over which they had hardly any control.

Barring Romania, all these countries of Eastern Europe had large contigents of Soviet armed forces stationed within their frontiers over which they had no authority nor even supervisory jurisdiction. The largest concentration of the Soviet armed forces has inevitably been in East Germany, numbering 380 thousand. As against that there are 363 thousand NATO forces in West Germany—246 thousand US troops, 67 thousand British and 50 thousand French troops. On the other hand, the strength of East Germany’s National People’s Army is 173 thousand, while that of the Bundeswher in West Germany is 494 thousand.

The number of Soviet troops in other East European countries is much less. For instance, they number 80 thousand in Czechoslovakia and that too after their augmentation following the suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring.

It is worth recalling that in the early phase of the Solidarity upsurge in Poland, there were talks about the Soviet troops marching in repeating their performance in Czechoslovakia in 1968. This was firmly rebutted by the Polish President, General Jaruzelski, who thereby emerged as a staunch patriot in the eyes of the Polish public. It is significant that in the present upsurge for freedom, the new regimes of these countries have been asking for the withdrawal of Soviet troops and talks to that effect have already started in Prague and Budapest. Even the East German Communist leader, Gysi, came out with a plan for “Security 2000” by which he wanted all foreign troops in both Germanys to quit by year 2000 and the two countries to halve their own armed forces by the end of this year. He claims that this would be the beginning of demilitarisation in Central Europe. Although Gysi’s views are not immediately acceptable in West Germany, it can hardly be brushed aside once the reunification of the two German states is achieved. What is significant to note is that even a Communist leader is demanding the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from the soil of his country.

Much in the same vein has been the stand of the East European representatives at the 35-nation Vienna talks for the reduction of armed forces in Central Europe. At these talks, the senior military officers of Poland, East Germany and Czechoslovakia have been stressing their national concerns rather than the collective will of the Warsaw Pact. The Chief of the Czechoslovak General Staff, General Anton Slimak, openly observed: “We proceed from the fact that our national interests are fundamental.”

This new feature of East European glasnost brings out the significant fact that the armed forces’ leaderships of these countries have by and large supported the upsurge for reforms and are not upholding the conservative forces for the status quo. This has been brought out most conspicuously in Romania, where the regular armed forces were pitched against Ceausescu’s personal security guards called the Securitate. In fact, the chief of the Romanian armed forces died in the first round of the upsurge. While officially this was given out as a case of suicide, the story current in Bucharest was that he was shot dead by Ceausescu’s aide when he refused to fire on the crowd. Today, the Romanian armed forces provide the backbone for the National Salvation Front Government, in which the portfolio of national economy is held by a well-known General.

In contrast to the regular armed forces, the security agencies and their forces in these countries have been the target of attack by the popular upsurge, as these were marked out as the hated accomplices of the old totalitarian bosses. In fact, the demand for the dissolution of the old security agencies has been so overpowering that in most of these countries the old agencies are being disbanded or in the process of total overhaul. In East Germany, this became the subject of angry exchange between the government and Opposition leaders in the ongoing round table. In East Berlin, the massive building of the internal security agency had a deserted look. Out of 560 windows on one side of the building, I noticed lights on only 35 of them. Because of public clamour, the place was guarded by the police so that no papers could be removed as there was public fear that documents implicating the old guilty government leaders might be removed and destroyed. The total strength of the East German security forces was 85 thousand. The problem facing the present government is how to get jobs for this huge number, now being forced to unemployment.

In Czechoslovakia, the demand for the dissolution of the security service has been met half-way by the disbanding of the so-called Second Department which spied on Czechoslovak citizens including the dissidents of yesterday—one of whom, Vaclav Havel, is the President today. The official stand has been that the state authorities needed a security service, but laws must be enforced to prevent misuse of such a service, and also to break its links with the ruling party leadership which so long acted as its supreme boss.

There is thus a thorough probe into the functioning of the service and also of the record of the personnel who manned it. This has been happening in both Hungary and Poland. But Romania presented a different story. There the Ceausescu regime built up the dreaded Securitate as the personal army of the dictator. It acted as a rival to the armed forces and in some respects, it was better equipped and maintained than the regular army. The strength of the Securitate is estimated to have been about 25 thousand, spread all over the country. The hard core in it numbered about 2500. Of these, about 1500 formed what was known as Direction 5. Their sole objective was to protect Ceausescu and his family, together with the dictator’s close cohorts. The remaining 1000 formed the second group mainly for urban guerrilla operations. The recruitment for the hard core was from the orphanages, where castaway children were picked up with no emotional attachment to anybody, and from the very early age were rigorously trained for the specific Securitate operations, accountable to nobody but their superiors. Inevitably, it emerged as the most fanatic corps. In the last days of the regime when the mass upsurge overpowered it, then the Securitate fought back like in a modern warfare. After the capture and execution of the Ceausescus their resistance broke down, but the individual Securitate operators took to underground operations, and are reported to be waiting in the prowl to assassinate individual leaders of the government thereby to spread panic and confusion.

It was indeed the most vicious apparatus built in the annals of humankind.

IV

How has the turmoil of the last few months hit the economy of the countries of Eastern Europe? It is not easy to get a comprehensive picture of the state of the economy there at present, largely because the conditions are uncertain at the moment and it would be incorrect to generalise on the basis of the prevailing uncertainties.

East Germany, which was supposed to have been economically doing better than any of the others in the region, faced a setback last year because of the political instability. Its growth was only two per cent last year, which was the lowest for decades. In 1989, the number of the exodus from East Germany was over 340 thousand as compared to 40 thousand in 1988. With the opening of the borders, the East German industry suffered losses accounting to 80 million Deutsch marks a day in the month of December. For years, East Germany maintained a balance of payments surplus, but in 1989 the deficit on this count was 2.4 billion US dollars.

On the face of it, this amount to a setback. However, the other side of the picture needs to be seen to get a total view of the situation. Before the war, Czechoslovakia was counted among the industrially advanced countries of Europe. By the time of the Communist takeover in 1948, the country was definitely one of the developed countries in the socialist camp. But since then, its economy was inflicted by stagnation, and the command economy could manage by an artificial manipulation of the finance, and heavy uneconomic subsidies, while the deficit financing was sought to be hidden by suppressing correct statistics and mounting foreign debts.

An example of the ramshackle nature of economic activity is provided by the case of the Skoda factory in Prague which since the thirties commanded the reputation of being one of the leading arms factories in Europe. At the moment it is facing acute labour shortage. Why? Because, for a number of years, its labour force was largely supplied from among the prison inmates. Recently in the democratic upsurge, the new government released a large number of prisoners, with the result that the Skoda has been deprived of its source of labour force. Obviously, this was a primitive, if not barbarous, way of running a big industry which the totalitarianism could resort to and which no democratic system would permit.

The well-known Czech economist, Ota Sik, who belonged to Dubcek’s team and had to leave the country with the invasion of the Soviet troops in 1968, was recently asked how long it would take for Czechoslovakia to catch up with Austria. Sik’s reply was that in 1968 he had estimated that this would require six to seven years, but now more than two decades later, he would think it would take 12 to 14 years.

It is to get out of this stifling stagnation that all the countries of Eastern Europe have abandoned the system of command economy and turned to the market forces. Inevitably this has thrown most of the countries into the vortex of inflation. Poland last year experienced 740 per cent inflation (though this is moderate compared to Yugoslavia’s 2500 per cent). Hungary comes next with about 30 per cent. In this respect, Czechoslovakia and East Germany are better off.

The balance of payments position is, however, best in Romania, because Ceausescu had used the command economy to force the export of even the basic needs including foodstuff and energy. Incidentally, this may enable the present authorities in Romania to meet the immediate short-run economic needs of the people by cancelling such command exports and thereby providing for more goods in the home market. Paradoxical though it may seem, Romania might thus recover sooner from the prevailing economic difficulties as compared to the other countries of Eastern Europe. At the same time, it will be an uphill task to overhaul the basic structure of the Romanian economy because of the serious distortions brought about by Ceausescu’s bizarre approach to industrialisation by forcing peasants to the urban areas, a Pol Pot strategy in reserse.

What is happening in Eastern Europe is not just the scrapping of the command system in the economy and the reliance on the market forces, but more significant, the large-scale entry of powerful foreign capital for investment. On this score, these countries have not developed the mechanism of checks-and-balances as we have in India by such devices as the FERA.

West German capital is the most powerful to enter the countries of Eastern Europe. But even distant Japan has come in with the Suzukis building an automobile plant in Hungary. But big multinations from other countries are also coming in—such as the General Electric down to press baron Rupert Murdoch.

It is, however, not a forced invasion of outside capital. In fact, most of the countries of Eastern Europe have been “opening their wombs” to foreign capital, to quote the memorable words of Asok Mehta. For instance, East German Prime Minister Hans Modrow, during a visit to Hamburg early in January, appealed for West German aid to help “in starting a quick economic upswing”. At Hamburg, he assured that his government “would do all it could to provide the conditions for cooperation with West German firms on a broad basis”.

One of the disturbing feature of the change-over from the old economic order is the rising unemployment side by side with inflation. This feature of the present phase of economic transition is claimed by some economists to be temporary. They point to the fact that unemployment has been going down in the market economy of West Germany. Some of the sharper critics of the old order, however, point out with a touch of cynicism that in the command economy the idle worker stays inside the factory adding to the prevailing unproductively, while in the market economy the idle worker is kept outside the factory in the line of the jobless.

In Poland, the number of jobless has already come near to five lakhs, and alongwith the rising prices are creating conditions for working class unrest. Already there were strikes among the coalmine workers which were somehow pacified. It is understood Lech Walesa has made it clear to the present government, led by Ministers from his Solidarity, that he would give it time till the end of March to control inflation. But if this were not done then he himself would be forced to support the workers’ strike action from April.

However, in the other countries of Eastern Europe, the new leaders do not control trade unions as Walesa does in Poland. In fact, in most of the countries, the old centralised trade unions are fragmented by the recent upheavals. Under the circumstances, wild-cat strikes and large-scale civil disturbances out of economic difficulties can hardly be ruled out.

Here lies the dilemma in the countries of Eastern Europe. Obsolescence and stagnation have forced them to the path of moderisation and the market. At the same time the social consequences of this new path tend towards discontent, if not disturbances.

V

The mighty upsurge in Eastern Europe is not going to be confined within the frontiers of the respective countries. It is bound to have far-reaching impact on their mutual relations as also on the wider balance of forces in the world.

The indisputable fact is that Eastern Europe can no longer be regarded as the close sphere of influence of the Soviet Union. Moscow’s writ is no longer going to run in these countries. The Brezhnev Doctrine of limited sovereignty has become an item of ridicule and indictment. In fact, the foreign policy experts of some of these countries resent the clubbing of all these countries within the regional appellation of Eastern Europe. Some of them would like to revive the concept of Central Europe, while still others recall the idea of a Balkan Entente which came up for a brief period immediately after the war.

The momentum of development is so breath-taking in Eastern Europe today that it is taken for granted by most of the opinion-makers in these countries that the NATO and the Warsaw Pact are not going to last, and that they are bound to disappear before the integration of Europe planned for 1992. Side by side, Gorbachev’s pleading for the concept of the European Home has caught in all these countries among all sections of the public, Left, Right and Centre. In other words, there is serious thinking everywhere about the shape of things to come after the impending end of the Cold War.

A great debate is now on about the validity of the Yalta arrangements made exactly fortyfive years ago in February 1945. A widely known paper in Warsaw has been conducting an open international debate on the subject of Yalta and is carrying contributions from internationally known commentators from Arbatov in the Soviet Union to Andre Fontaine in France. In other words, serious re-examination is on about the relevance of the post-war system.

Once the barriers of the Cold War have been dismantled—symbolised by the breach in the Berlin Wall—the question that has been uppermost in the minds of all foreign policy experts from diplomats to academics in these countries is: what will be the new design on the map of Europe? What are the contours on the new map? Two things are getting clearer every week. First, that a unified Germany is very much on the agenda today. The stop-gap slogan of one-nation-two-states is being replaced by the call for German unification which could be heard quite unmistakably in the streets of Berlin.

This unification is being achieved as a process. West German Chancellor Kohl first put forward his 10-point plan for unification of the two Germanys. This led to an uproar in Western Europe with support from the USA. Kohl changed his tactics. He had a summit meeting with the East German Prime Minister, Modrow, at Dresden in December. The gist of the Dresden summit was to bring about closer economic and cultural ties between the two German states. In other words, the goal of political unification is now being sought to be reached via economic integration leading to political unification. One may recall that Bismarck in the nineteenth century first went for customs union (Zolverein) among German principalities before he could weld them into one mighty power, that is, Germany.

What does a unified Germany signify for the rest of Europe, particularly for the countries of Eastern Europe? The earlier calculation that the unification of two Germanys would take time, has been abandoned as the tempo of development in favour of unity has gone faster than the understanding of politicians. Gorbachev’s idea that the German unification hast to come within the framework of a European settlement is regarded by many as too general—as the possibility has cropped up of a united Germany virtually settling the terms of a European settlement.

In Prague, a long session with a Professor of International Relations in Charles University—a former diplomat with a stint in New Delhi—brought out the concern of the Czechoslovak public about the likely demand for Sudetenland to be merged into Germany. It is true that the great powers have been insisting on keeping the post-war frontiers inviolate, but this is rebutted by the argument that the very emergence of a unified Germany would mean the biggest breach into the post-war system, and once that was achieved, what power can prevent the united Germany from getting back its old territories, particularly from Poland and Czechoslovakia? This is particularly serious for Poland because not only would its western provinces be threatened but even the north-eastern area, which was once East Prussia.

When the point is made that a unified Germany could not possibly be building a huge war machine as Hitler had done, the response is that it is not the prospect of a militarised Germany, but a Germany emerging as a hi-tech superpower in a few years time dominating Europe. Naturally the prospect worries others too. The French President, Mitterand, I found, spent two days in Budapest. Not only Mitterand, but even Japanese Prime Minister Kaifu has just made a tour of Eastern Europe with a clear political slant—most unusual for any Japanese politician abroad. In Budapest, he hailed Hungary as “the flagship of reforms”, and Suzuki is going to set up an automobile plant there.

One could discern in Prague the memory of the thirties when Benes worked out the foreign policy strategy by which Czechoslovakia would have France at one end and the Soviet Union at the other to offset the imbalance set by German militarism under Hitler. Not by ideological pressures but by pragmatic political compulsions, some of the countries of Eastern Europe might therefore prefer to maintain close links with Moscow, particularly in the field of foreign affairs.

There is also the other trend which sees the Soviet Union coming closer to the integrated Europe in 1992 with unified Germany emerging as the giant dominating the continent.

In Hungary the new approach in foreign policy shows distinct signs of a shift towards neutrality and thereby coming closer to Austria. Shades of the Austo-Hungarian Empire? On the other hand, one would have to watch the developments in Southern Europe. Can a Balkan Entente be practical? With the breakdown of the ideological barriers it is but natural that the memory of the old project would be revived. Which in fact could have materialised immediately after the war, but for Stalin forcing Dimitrov to give it up. In this area, the future of Yugoslavia as a viable entity is also being questioned.

Within this cluster of small countries constituting Eastern Europe, many of the ethnic animosities are getting blurred, as I could see in the good relations that have come up between Romania and Hungary as the new regime in Bucharest have stood by the Hungarian minority in the country. However, it is too early to say that the minority groups would not disturb the tranquillity of the new governments of these countries. Once the Yalta arrangements are no longer maintained, there can be unrest in many of the ethnic pockets of Eastern Europe. They can no longer be shoved under the carpet as Stalin had taught them to do. Because the map of Europe drawn up at Yalta was largely based on considerations of balance between the three great powers of the day—the USA, the USSR and the UK. At this moment of unbridled excitement, it is not surprising that these questions are submerged under the upheaval of the democratic urge. Tomorrow will not be like yesterday.

VI

The dramatic developments in Eastern Europe have attracted worldwide attention. However, their significance for the world outside the region is yet to emerge in full measure. Moreover, these have a bearing on the history of contemporary times, far beyond the immediate political impact.

Although it will perhaps be too early to get a full view of Europe after these countries settled down to a reasonable degree of stability through elections slated to be held in most of them in the next three months, it can be expected that, by and large, these will be absorbed in the integrated Europe 1992. Not only are the Cold War barriers being dismantled but the Soviet hegemony over them is about to disappear. The Soviet troops stationed in these countries are due to withdraw. Even the prospect of Germany being free of foreign troops on its soil is to be taken seriously.

Secondly, in the new integrated Europe, with the unified Germany emerging as the dominant power—not by force of arms but the power of hi-tech development—investments, more than trade, will shape the course of politics; and in this game, Germany can hardly be beaten in Europe by either Japan or the USA. In fact, most of the countries of Eastern Europe will be the happy haunting ground for giant investors in the next couple of years.

Thirdly, this shift in their focus will definitely turn these countries Euro-centric, a development which has already begun. For instance, the coverage of news items from the Third World has definitely gone down in most of these countries. This can of course be explained, as many of the mediapersons did to this reporter, by the fact that with the dramatic political upheavals near at home, one can hardly blame that the world beyond should get low-priority coverage. There are, however, more substantive evidence to indicate the shift away from the Third World in the perception of these countries.

The link with Israel is being established very fast. One could see El Al, the Israeli airline, planes at Warsaw airport, with heavy bookings from Poland. The Hungarian Foreign Minister officially visited Tel Aviv recently. It is only a question of time when the diplomatic relations between Israel and these countries will be resumed in the very near future. When one asks their diplomats and political personalities about this new preference for Israel, the argument given is that the large Jewish populations in these countries have interest in Israel which so long was being kept up through non-official channels and it was becoming ridiculous to hold up official connections with Israel. As for the impact of such a step on the Arab world, it is said that these countries are not giving up their support for the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, but they strongly feel that boycott of Israel is no longer the right way of handling this vexed question.

More revealing is the new approach to South Africa. On this count, the Hungarians are ahead of others. Recently the South African Foreign Minister visited Budapest and normalisation of diplomatic relations is on the cards. A fairly long discussion at the Hungarian Foreign Office brought out the explanation that a good number of Hungarians are settled in South Africa—the figures vary from 25 to 70 thousand—some of whom had gone there long ago, while a big contingent went after the suppression of the 1956 uprising. There is the argument of better trade prospect as well. It is also pointed out by the Hungarian spokesmen that there has been no whittling down of the condemnation of the apartheid system on the part of their government. Rather, they felt that the establishment of normal diplomatic channels would be a more suitable means to put pressure on the South African Government to abandon apartheid. No doubt, the subsequent release of Mandela and the lifting of the ban on the African National Congress would be taken by them as the vindication of their line of establishing rapport with Pretoria. This attitude is, however, not confined to Hungary. In East Germany, the African National Congress had an active unit which used to produce and distribute literature on the anti-apartheid movement. That has scaled down its activities very considerably.

It is quite clear that these countries are opening up to the giant multinationals and are making a bid to get IMF credit. On both these counts, the old campaign of the socialist countries against them has been totally silenced. Obviously, it would be idle to expect them to support the Third World countries on the debt question and also on the entry of multinationals. Their perceptions on these issues have so strikingly changed now that it would be safe for the Third World countries to disabuse themselves on the prospect of getting the support of Eastern European governments. Incidentally, one has to be aware of the prospect that the rupee trade will disappear when the present contracts expire. On global issues like the controversy over the intellectual property rights, the countries of Eastern Europe will follow the Western lead.

Looking at the revolutionary developments in the countries of Eastern Europe, the question that comes to one’s mind is: will there be no effort at building socialism and are these countries going straight into the capitalist fold? This is a matter of speculation today. It is quite clear that the so-called socialist camp, as it was known until a few years ago, has now disappeared.

The process started with Hungary when the first steps were taken a few years ago to branch out to the world outside—the first among the socialist countries to approach the IMF and open a night club. Last year, the official party turned itself into a Socialist Party and multi-party democracy was introduced. Poland followed with the first non-Communist Prime Minister. The liberation of the media from total state control has been one of the effects of this break-up of the monolith socialism and now it is the media which is virtually setting the pace.

In economy, the resolute turn away from the command economy to the market is taken by many as the touchstone of the capitalist road. In the present phase, this sounds to be true. However, if one takes a long-range view, one can understand that the pendulum has at the moment swung from the totalitarian regime to one of democratic freedom. When a certain stability will come after the upheaval, there is little doubt that the gains of social security—in housing, education, health and jobs—will stay, as the vast number of those who have benefited on these counts will not permit these to be given up.

To venture a guess, some sort of a social democracy along the Scandinavian line—not the model as such—is likely to emerge in these countries now throwing away the shackles of regimented socialism.

The quest for freedom shall be pursued hand in hand with the urge for social well-being.

(Mainstream, February 17, 1990 and February 24, 1990)

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