Opinion

The Berlin Wall’s Fall 30 Years On: From Russia to Yugoslavia, the Dream Has Unraveled

People touching remains of the Berlin Wall on the city's Bernauer Strasse, November 8, 2019.
Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

The fall of the Berlin Wall isn’t just the most photographed event in the dismantling of the communist regimes, it’s also the iconic image of the failure of the entire Soviet system. With the masses flocking to the Western capitalist abundance they had been deprived of, it’s hard to imagine a more powerful picture of how the future doesn’t lie in a regime that imprisons its people behind walls and condemns them to shortages and constant police surveillance. These nearly apocalyptic scenes led even serious scholars to talk about “the end of history” and maintain categorically that the path to democracy and a market economy was now inevitable.

Thirty years later, it’s clear that the picture isn’t that simple. Not only has history not met its end, in many cases, motifs that were thought a thing of the past have been making a comeback. Of course, history doesn’t repeat exactly – as Heraclitus, the father of dialectics, said, you can’t step twice into the same river. But the burden of history doesn’t vanish in the blink of an eye. This burden differs from one country to another, so what occurred in post-communist societies isn’t homogeneous and requires a detailed examination.

Let’s begin with Russia. The general belief in the West was that Russia would soon follow the Western model. President Vladimir Putin’s regime shows that this forecast was captive to a simplistic deterministic conception that ignored Russia’s historical past and current reality.

At first it did appear that Russia was marching confidently toward democracy and a free market economy, but the presidency of Boris Yeltsin also brought political and economic anarchy that threatened to tear the country apart. The authoritarian foundations of Russian society – centralization, hierarchy, obedience and submission to the ruling authorities – characterized not just czarist rule but communism itself and proved stronger than liberal ideology.

File photo: Journalists watch as Russian President Vladimir Putin gives his annual state of the nation address in Manezh in Moscow, March 2018.
Alexander Zemlianichenko,AP

This ideology didn’t have strong roots outside a thin layer of intelligentsia who were largely concentrated in the two historical capitals, Moscow and St. Petersburg. Russia didn’t have traditions of strong local government, a church free of the state’s authority, multiparty pluralism, autonomous academic institutions or voluntary organizations – all vital components of civil society in a democracy. Previously, Russian reforms came from above; Peter the Great is a symbol of the authoritarian reformer. And Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms didn’t stem from a grassroots protest movement like Solidarity in Poland, they derived from bureaucratic decisions at the top that didn’t always filter down to society.

The yearning for strong, authoritarian and stable rule, rather than a pluralist society seen as anarchic, explains the authentic, widespread support for Putin. Seventy years of communism also didn’t undermine the importance of the Orthodox Church in Russian society. There are protests, of course, and the occasional dissidents who oppose this neo-czarist government that’s also based on the desire to restore Russia’s superpower status. Yet to this day, no organized social forces appear to be capable of seriously challenging what Putin symbolizes to most Russians.

The second-largest Soviet successor state is Ukraine, and here the picture is reversed. While Russia has a tradition of authoritarian regimes, Ukraine in its current borders lacks not just a clear national identity but also a tradition of national government; the Cossack heritage points in a different direction. Thus Ukraine teeters between anarchy and corruption and has failed to consolidate a coherent political establishment to ensure its future as an independent political entity. The election of a comedian as president is another indication of how the country has lost its way and of the absence of legitimacy for its leaders and institutions.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its attempt to seize control of Russian-speaking territories in eastern Ukraine show that Russia is well able to exploit Ukraine’s basic weakness with the goal of returning it to Russia’s sphere of influence. Even if Ukraine survives as a state, it’s hard to see how it could establish a stable democracy.

There isn’t much to say about the former Soviet republics further east except that they quickly devolved into Third Word-like dictatorships. Georgia and Armenia have been able to maintain polities with a certain amount of openness and political pluralism, but this success hardly reflects regime stability. The entry of the three Baltic states into the European Union reinforced their democratic infrastructure, but Estonia and Latvia are still grappling with a large Russian minority, some of whose members are denied citizenship and equal rights – a recipe for instability that Moscow could exploit in the future.

A few bright spots

The picture is a bit more encouraging in the East European countries that were outside the Soviet Union. Western scholars (myself included) have noted that Czechoslovakia had a democratic government between the two world wars, while countries like Poland and Hungary, which failed to form stable democracies before World War II, had strong civil society foundations that would help with the transition to democracy. These included centuries of elected institutions nationally and locally, an autonomous church, a tradition of independent academic institutions, multiple political parties and significant cultural and religious pluralism.

These foundations of a “usable past” indeed led to a different type of development in these countries compared to Russia. They held multiparty elections, there were transfers of power between the different parties, the universities thrived and the economy adapted relatively quickly to Western capitalism. The shorter duration of communist rule in these countries was another factor making it easier for them to rebound to such an extent.

But the historical legacy that eased the transition to democracy for these countries had other aspects as well. Popular ideologies before World War II that seemed to have vanished returned to the political discourse. The rise of the Law and Justice party in Poland brought back the rhetoric that was a cornerstone of the National-Democratic Party (Endecja) before 1939. This combined ethnic Polish nationalism with an affinity for the Catholic Church, external hostility toward Russia and Germany and internal hostility toward Jews.

These are the foundations of Poland’s current ruling party, hence the opposition to abortion and immigration, as well as the attempt to rewrite Polish history during the Holocaust. It has also become clear that a good part of the Solidarity movement’s strength was drawn not just from opposition to communism but from historic hostility toward Russia. Today this nationalism is also directed at the West and the principles of liberal democracy, which are perceived as infringing on the Polish national identity. Authoritarian trends of stifling the independence of the judicial system and taking control of the media are an outgrowth of this ideology.

In the same way, Hungary’s Viktor Orban has turned the Fidesz movement that spearheaded the resistance to communism and the transition to democracy into a tool that combines personal authoritarianism with a nationalistic agenda. His party’s absolute parliamentary majority made it possible to make these changes in a quasi-democratic fashion and (as in Poland) seize control of the media, the courts and most of academia.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaking following a talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Budapest, October 30, 2019.
\ BERNADETT SZABO/ REUTERS

Orban also coined the term “illiberal democracy” to describe his type of regime, contrasting it with Western liberal democracy. That made it all the easier to restore Admiral Horthy – Hungary’s authoritarian ruler between the wars and an ally of Hitler – to the status of national hero. The immigration crisis only intensified these nationalistic tendencies in both countries and allowed racist themes to return to the political discourse.

In Czechoslovakia, with its strong democratic tradition, these elements weren’t dominant, but despite the nonviolence of the Velvet Divorce between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, ethnic-national identity appeared as a central issue.

Life without Tito

Let’s not get into Romania and Bulgaria – both are beset by corruption that’s utterly undermining their governance – but a few words about Yugoslavia. It wasn’t part of the doomed Soviet bloc but its independent communist regime fell apart at the same time. Under Tito, the leader of the only Partisan movement that liberated large swaths of land from the Nazis, Yugoslavia earned admiration for its moderate communist system and its curbing of the nationalistic tendencies of its different ethnic groups via a complex federal structure.

These achievements afforded Yugoslavia a much-admired international standing as part of a more-or-less neutral bloc in the Cold War. Many in the West, including the Mapam party in Israel, saw it as a model of multinational and non-oppressive socialism.

Yugoslavia’s gradual disintegration following Tito’s death reawakened the nationalist demons that since the 19th century had made the Balkans the scene of some of the most savage ethnic and religious conflicts in modern times. Instead of the single country of Yugoslavia, which reined in its nationalistic forces and gained international acclaim, there are now seven countries, one of which, Kosovo, has yet to win full international recognition, while Bosnia-Herzegovina is barely functioning. And except for little Slovenia, all still have tense relations with their neighbors and regimes that are far from stable.

Tito’s Yugoslavia was by no means perfect, but what replaced it has revived the negative connotation of “Balkanization.” And we probably haven’t heard the last word there either.

Finally, back to Germany. Contrary to what many expected, the fall of the Berlin Wall did not forge a separate democratic framework in East Germany but rather the unification of the two Germanys. Due to the traumatic memory of the past, everyone in West Germany was careful not to put too much emphasis on nationalist elements, while not ignoring them entirely. To be honest, it’s hard to deny that the unification wasn’t a genuine unification between two states but rather the annexation of East Germany into the Federal Republic.

This was certainly a victory for democracy, but it was also effectively an Anschluss; both East Germany’s political institutions and social institutions were eliminated. For instance, all academic appointments at universities were canceled, and the lecturers were replaced with counterparts from the West. While the oppressive practices of East German communism were done away with, so were some of its undeniable social achievements such as the social safety net, which also facilitated greater participation by women in the labor market.

The rise of the radical and racist right mainly in the former East Germany is the paradoxical consequence of these processes, which has led many in the East to view West Germany’s liberal success as something forced on them.

The demise of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe without violence (with the exceptions of Yugoslavia and Chechnya in the Caucasus) is a tremendous achievement that few in the West dared dream of. But the near-messianic vision according to which the elimination of communism would necessarily lead to stable liberal democracies has been proved quite wrong. In many cases, some countries of Eastern Europe are much more similar to their incarnations before 1939 than to what the reformers 30 years ago wished for.

Ultimately, for better or worse, historical legacies determine the development of human societies just as much as good intentions and noble goals do.