Journey to the Post-Communist East

Vienna, March 11—Driving into town from the airport, I pass a café called the Espresso Ilidza. On the radio, a reporter discusses the arrangements in Austrian schools for teaching in Croatian. Then comes the weather forecast: for Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and Northern Italy. I read the diminutive Neue Kronen Zeitung, clipped to its Zeitungshalter (newspaper stick) like a little flag. In a fighting interview, Frau Klestil, the jilted wife of Kurt Waldheim’s successor as president, tells us she is determined to remain Austria’s first lady. The operetta continues. I am back in Central Europe.

Later, at the editorial meeting of a more elevated journal, a German feminist exclaims: “Eastern men are such pashas.” Yes, a colleague agrees, they could do with some “re-education.” I glimpse a new Central Europe, where Polish men are to be “re-educated” by German feminists.

Then to the fellows’ meeting of the Institute for Human Sciences, a meeting place to rival even the Café Landtmann. Bronislaw Geremek, the Polish medievalist turned Solidarity adviser turned parliamentarian, lectures on The Collapse of Communism and European Security. He makes a politician’s speech, mustering every argument for Poland to be admitted to NATO. Eloquent, as always, but some in the audience are disconcerted. Somehow they had expected him to speak as an intellectual to intellectuals. But times and roles have changed, and Geremek, unlike many from the anti-Communist oppositions of the 1970s and 1980s, has made a clear choice: while he is a politician he will be a politician.

I’m sure he’s right. All we’ve seen in Central European politics since 1989 confirms an old truth. You may, in the course of your life, be both intellectual and politician. Try to be both at once and you’ll be neither.

Bratislava—Before the wars—second and cold—you went by tram from Vienna for an evening at the theater in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, or vice versa. Now you could do so again, if the authorities would only re-lay a few miles of track. Meanwhile, it is just over an hour by train, and you slide across the border as if the iron curtain had never been. Amid the seemingly endless, dusty allotments—small plots of land on which people grow vegetables—I spy garages flying the flags of Volkswagen and Audi, like crusader castles. Giggly Slovak schoolgirls scream pop songs out of the train windows, startling the people digging in their gardens below. But the nice girl sitting next to me demurely studies a German textbook on Betriebswirtschaft (management economics). She hopes to work in the hotel trade.

As I arrive, the government falls. The populist prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, has been ousted by a parliamentary vote, following outspoken criticism of him by the president, Michal Kovác.

On the evening television news, the chubby, avuncular president is shown sitting beside a carefully polished tile oven, with a large bunch of flowers in a vase on the table before him. At …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.