Prague, July 2019. I’m sitting with Ivan Havel in a cozy alcove of the Austro-Hungarian–themed Monarchie restaurant when Monika Pajerová arrives. A student leader in the Velvet Revolution and still bubbling with energy thirty years later, blond, bespectacled Monika takes a smartphone out of her handbag and scans the barcode on my bottle of mineral water. The phone buzzes and displays a green-ink caricature of Andrej Babiš, the agribusiness oligarch and former secret police informer who is now the Czech prime minister. Beneath his frowning face are the words “Bez Andreje” (loosely translatable as “does not contain Andrej”), indicating that this bottled water is not a product of any of his companies. “It’s all right,” says Monika, “you can drink it!”
A week earlier there had been a huge demonstration calling for Babiš’s resignation at the Letná park, the scene of the Velvet Revolution’s largest rally in November 1989. Some of the slogans (“Truth will prevail over lies,” “Resign!”), the high-flown civic sentiments, and quite a few of the people in the crowd were the same as thirty years earlier. But this one featured a rapper and a YouTube star, and it was led by a new generation of students in their twenties. Whereas then we shivered under freezing snow, now they baked in blazing sunshine.
Sporting a jaunty straw hat against the sun, one of the protest organizers, bearded theology student Benjamin Roll, declared:
We’re not making a revolution. We embrace the legacy and values of 1989 and want to further them by actively striving for a better future. But the situation is different. Now we are warning against change. We are warning against the course of change in our country under Babiš and [president Miloš] Zeman. We are warning against the taming of justice and the media, and the usurpation of power by a few oligarchs. We are warning against democracy being stealthily stolen away from us.
In front of him there was something of which in 1989 Václav Havel could only dream: a sea of citizens enthusiastically waving the yellow-and-blue flag of the European Union, to which the Czech Republic now belongs.
Stirring stuff. But why was mass protest still, or again, felt to be necessary? Why, thirty years to the day after the semi-free Polish election on June 4, 1989, which started the chain reaction of liberation from communism, was I standing in a crowd of middle-aged demonstrators who were chanting “Lech Wałęsa! Lech Wałęsa!,” while the now portly and white-haired hero of Solidarność stood on a stage in the old town quarter of Gdańsk? Why did the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, feel impelled to follow old Lech onto that stage (“Bravo, Donald!”) and urge the crowd to draw on the experience of anticommunist resistance when peacefully resisting Poland’s legitimately elected government? Whereas at a crucial moment in the transition in 1989 the dissident writer Adam Michnik had proposed to the then still ruling communists the famous formula “Your president, our prime minister!,” Tusk now cried, “Your public television, our Internet!” Tusk’s “your” referred to the nationalist populists currently ruling the country, whom he thus implicitly compared to the pre-1989 communist party.
And why, as the anniversary of the June 16, 1989, ceremonial reburial of the leader of the 1956 Hungarian revolution, Imre Nagy, approached, was my old dissident friend János Kis sitting with me in a bar in Budapest and calmly describing the current political system in Hungary as an autocracy? The autocrat in question, Viktor Orbán, was first introduced to me thirty years ago by János himself, who commended him as a shining light of a new, young, liberal generation. Orbán subsequently studied on a scholarship funded by George Soros at Oxford University and in 1989 was an electrifying speaker at that ceremonial reburial of Nagy. Yet now he and his political party, Fidesz, are systematically dismantling liberal democracy inside a member state of the European Union.
On the tenth anniversary of 1989, at the brink of the millennium, we could celebrate both the original triumph of the velvet revolutions and great subsequent progress. By the twentieth anniversary, in 2009, the countries of Central Europe had become members of both NATO and the EU, while political scientists described Hungary as a “consolidated democracy.” On this thirtieth anniversary, by contrast, the question that forces itself onto dismayed lips is “What went wrong?”
The question is justified, and I will endeavor to answer it, but it must be preceded by a look at what went right. People now often assume that after 1989 there was a period of undiluted liberal optimism, in which everyone felt sure that Central Europe would advance steadily toward liberal democracy, market economies, and membership in the most important institutions of Western liberal internationalism. Not so. In those early years we were filled with doubts and fears. On the penultimate page of my eyewitness account of the velvet revolutions, The Magic Lantern,* based on essays published in The New York Review and finished in January 1990, I suggested that Central Europe might well become again “a dependent intermediate zone of weak states, national prejudice, inequality, poverty and Schlamassel” (roughly translatable as “snafu”). Václav Havel’s press secretary and biographer Michael Žantovský recalls that when Havel entered Prague Castle in December 1989, with crowds celebrating wildly outside, the newly elected president warned his closest associates, “We are coming in as heroes, but in the end, when they realize what a mess we’re in and how little we can do about it, they will railroad us, tarred and feathered, out of town.”
Nor were the countries of Western Europe and North America waiting with open arms to receive their long-lost poor relations into the cozy Western clubs of NATO and the EU. Far from it. Not even West Germany. A joke at the time had it that when the East Germans started chanting “Wir sind ein Volk!” (We are one people!), the West Germans replied, “Wir auch!” (So are we!)
Measured against the daunting scale of the region’s post-totalitarian challenges, the successes of the first two decades after 1989 are even more impressive than the gathering crisis of the last decade. Moreover, the roots of today’s problems are often to be found in the soil of yesterday’s triumphs. For example, one fundamental success was quite simply that many more people became individually more free. As their countries moved closer to and eventually joined the EU, these individuals gained the freedom to work, study, and settle down in other European countries. Millions of young Central Europeans seized that chance. For me personally, it’s a source of deep satisfaction to see so many young, talented Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, and Slovaks coming to study with me and my colleagues at Oxford, and going on to make valuable, productive, rewarding lives. But they seldom make those lives back in their own countries. I’m more likely to meet them again in London, Paris, Vienna, or Berlin.
Thus the individual gain of freedom creates the collective problem of emigration. The scale of emigration from post-communist Europe is staggering. Between 1989 and 2017, some 27 percent of the population of Latvia emigrated; for Bulgaria, the figure was nearly 21 percent. More than three million people left Romania in just a decade after the country joined the EU in 2007. Remarkably, in 2018 the Romanian finance minister suggested that there should be a five-year limit on his fellow Romanians’ right to work in other EU countries. (He was quickly slapped down.) In this respect, the former German Democratic Republic resembles the rest of post-communist Europe. The population hemorrhage that the Berlin Wall was built to stem in 1961 resumed apace after the wall came down. Some 1.9 million (out of 16.6 million in 1989) have left, and today the population of this territory is down to the level of 1905.
Emigration is the region’s real problem, but immigration is its imagined one. The refugee crisis that peaked in 2015–2016, bringing millions of migrants from the wider Middle East and Africa to Southern and Western Europe, was a defining moment in Central European politics. Populist politicians have skillfully exploited the fears of societies that were cut off behind the Iron Curtain for forty years, with relatively little recent experience of multicultural life—although Central Europe’s pre-1945 past was both ethnically and religiously multicultural. Poland’s populist leader Jarosław Kaczyński declared that migrants brought dangerous “parasites and protozoa.” The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), originally inspired by West German professors opposed to the euro, has morphed into an anti-migrant party scoring especially well in the former East Germany, with a xenophobic, völkisch rhetoric that we thought buried for good because of its association with Nazism.
Orbán has stoked popular support with a grotesque propaganda campaign that accuses Soros and Brussels of plotting to swamp Christian Hungary with dark-skinned, Muslim immigrants. During a so-called national consultation on immigration, an official advertising campaign—Fidesz now routinely uses the state administration for party purposes—showed a big STOP sign over a close-up from the same photograph of massed refugees that was used in Nigel Farage’s notorious “Breaking Point” poster before Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum. In the run-up to the 2018 election, a free tabloid newspaper called Lokál, founded by one of Orbán’s closest advisers, repeatedly published photos of attractive white women next to nasty-looking, dark-skinned men who had reportedly assaulted them. “Europe’s war—is that what we want?” asked the catch-line. One Lokál front page depicted Soros embracing opposition leaders who were holding giant wirecutters, of the kind famously used in 1989 by the Hungarian and Austrian foreign ministers to cut the barbed wire fence between their two countries. Instead, Orbán now built high barbed wire fences on the country’s border with Serbia. According to one estimate, some 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) of new fence and border fortifications have been erected in Central and Southeastern Europe, mainly in response to the refugee crisis.
Babiš pushes a slightly milder version of the same rhetoric in the Czech lands, and he is not alone. “We have more anti-immigrant parties than we have immigrants,” the student leader Benjamin Roll joked when we met shortly after the Letná demonstration. A Czech friend of mine told me how the locals in the village where he has a cottage, near the Austrian border, were actually asking for the barbed wire fence made redundant in 1989 to be restored. Bring back the Iron Curtain!
All this because the EU, which was giving them so much, had asked the Central European countries to take in just a few thousand of the migrants who were stretching the resources of countries like Italy and a desperately impoverished Greece to the limit. But no. Do not ask what you can do for Europe, ask only what Europe can do for you.
“We know you can turn an aquarium into fish soup, but can you turn fish soup back into an aquarium?” This joke, which I first heard in late 1989, referred to all the destruction wrought by communism. One of the most important features of the aquarium liquidized under communist rule was private property, and the individual freedoms, legal system, and independent civil society that go with it. The essence of communism was, after all, defined by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto as the abolition of private property. In the so-called people’s democracies of postwar Central Europe, that abolition was never totally achieved, especially in Poland and Hungary, but in 1989 the vast majority of business and residential property was either directly owned by the party-state or held in some form of collective or cooperative ownership.
The origins of many of the pathologies that Central Europe exhibits thirty years on can be traced back to the ways in which different countries tried to (re)create the private property, and capital, indispensable to a market economy. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to identify the mistakes made in the largest privatization in recent European history, and there were many. But those who embarked on these uncharted waters are also entitled to ask: What would you have done? How would you have turned the fish soup back into an aquarium?
Restitution—giving property back to its former owners—was slow, complicated, and could not address what had been built over forty years of communist rule. Another answer was to bring in foreign capitalists, above all from the Western Europe these countries wanted to emulate and join. Thirty years later, the result can be described in one word: Mitteleuropa. Mitteleuropa, that is, understood in the sense of a region deeply integrated with and dependent upon Germany. Most state-owned property was, however, privatized into domestic hands, in a process as murky as it was swift. Given the painful lack of a strong framework of law, equitably administered by an independent judiciary, the result was that people who had positions—or at least good connections—in the communist party-state seized enormous assets by hook and by crook.
The exact procedures chosen varied significantly from country to country. At its worst, privatization created a new class of hugely influential post-communist “oligarchs,” or robber barons. One of these oligarchs is now the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš. Adding insult to injury, he had been an informer for the secret police while working for the communist party-state’s foreign trade operation. I can make this claim without significant risk of being sued because the Slovak Constitutional Court, no less, rejected Babiš’s argument that his name should be removed from an official Slovak list of secret police informers. The murkiness of his background is entirely typical of those who have done well out of the transition. It feeds a deep sense of injustice among those who have had to struggle.
“If only we had your problems,” the veteran Polish dissident Jacek Kuroń once tartly rebuked me, some time in the mid-1980s, when I was complaining about the effects of Thatcherism on the poorer half of British society. Well, his wish has come true. Thirty years after 1989, Central Europe is now roiled by the same kind of nationalist populism that is shaking many other European countries, as well as the United States under Donald Trump—and that is a backhanded tribute to the success of the transition. As in Western Europe and the US, there is the familiar populist rhetoric counterposing a pure, sovereign people to a corrupt, liberal elite; the same preference for a simplistic, emotionally appealing, nationalist narrative over mere facts; the same use and abuse of social media (Fidesz has a particularly effective Facebook presence); the same sweeping denunciations of liberalism and all its works; the same cultural profile of populist support in the half of society that feels itself left behind, one way or another, by the churnings of globalization, Europeanization, liberalization, and digitalization.
Yet simultaneously there is a return in Western Europe to deep-seated prejudices about “the East” of Europe, prejudices that can be traced back to the Enlightenment. Listening to French and Belgian politicians, one hears strong echoes of this old intra-European Orientalism, present already in the work of Voltaire, in which countries like Poland and Hungary—exotic, authoritarian, and vaguely barbaric—have never truly belonged to the post-Enlightenment Europe of the West. So now they are just reverting to their old, true “Eastern” form. This simplistic East–West dichotomy is intellectually indefensible. The student-led demonstration in Prague this summer began with an actor declaiming an essay on democracy by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the founding president of Czechoslovakia’s pre-war democracy. So when Czechs look back before the war, they find a high-minded democratic leader, whereas if the Germans looked back to the same period they would find Adolf Hitler, and the Italians, Benito Mussolini. Barbaric East, civilized West?
What is true, however, is that along with problems afflicting most capitalist democracies in the early twenty-first century, these post-communist countries have some features in common, as well as influences from their very diverse pre-1945 histories. They have, in short, populism with post-communist characteristics. Thus, on top of the reaction against globalization and economic liberalization found everywhere, there is the unique impact of the transformation of an entire political and economic system. In 1989–1990 Kuroń himself was among the most eloquent defenders of a sharp, “shock therapy” transition to a market economy. In television phone-in programs known as Kuroń’s Chats, he patiently explained to laid-off workers and worried wives why this was necessary. He wanted to be a man of the left in a modern capitalist country, he said, but first they had to build that capitalism. Within a few years, he bitterly regretted his role as the social democratic salesman of the tough free market reforms introduced by the economist and deputy prime minister, Leszek Balcerowicz. When Kuroń ran for the presidency in 1995, he rejected the idea that the fundamental divide in Polish society was between former communists and former supporters of Solidarity. No, he said,
the real social divide in Poland today is the divide between those who have managed to adapt to the new reality, and are coping, and those who don’t understand it and feel themselves pushed away, rejected by the market economy and democracy. I continue to insist that it is possible to offer something to the rejected ones.
Twenty years before the electoral triumph of the populist Law and Justice party in 2015, this went to the heart of the matter. When I revisited the Gdańsk shipyard in 1999, I found some former shipyard workers who were now flourishing entrepreneurs, but many more who were unemployed, embittered, and angry. “We workers started it,” was the burden of their complaint, “but now we are paying the heaviest price.” This sense of historical injustice was exacerbated by the fact that it was often members of the former communist ruling class, the nomenklatura, who had done so well out of the wild, unfair beginnings of capitalism in the 1990s. Look at Jerzy Urban, the former spokesman for General Wojciech Jaruzelski—Poland’s last communist leader—now reportedly throwing extravagant parties in his villa.
The risk of generating a sense of historical injustice was inherent in the very nature of a velvet revolution, which necessarily involved a morally distasteful compromise with the former powerholders. The social anthropologist Ernest Gellner called this “the price of velvet.” That is why I argued at the time that the new democracies of Central Europe should institute a public confrontation with their dark past, perhaps in the form of a truth commission. A truth commission, I wrote in an afterword to a second edition of The Magic Lantern, published in 1999, “symbolically draws a line under the past, without calling for forgetting or even, necessarily, forgiving. It is probably the closest a non-revolutionary revolution can come to revolutionary catharsis.” I still believe that to be an important lesson for any future velvet revolution in other parts of the world.
Yet one must doubt whether even the most effective truth commission could have assuaged the burning sense of injustice caused by so many collaborators of the old regime becoming economic winners under the new. All current European populisms feed off anger at the way in which liberalism was reduced after 1989 to one rather extreme version of a purely economic liberalism, without the “equal respect and concern” for all citizens that the philosopher Ronald Dworkin identified as essential to a modern liberalism. But the impact of this was particularly acute in post-communist Europe, with its raw advent of capitalism, sense of historic injustice, and societies unused to high levels of visible inequality.
When I sat down with a diverse group of Polish students in the Owl café in central Warsaw this summer, the one thing on which they all seemed to agree was that “liberalism” was now a dirty word. And liberalism for them was clearly identified with the social consequences of free market economics, abhorred equally by Marcin, the right-wing student sitting to my left, and Filip, the left-wing student sitting to my right. In the hard years of the Solidarity movement’s struggle against communism, before its triumph in 1989, I stood countless times in Polish crowds chanting, “There’s no liberty without Solidarity.” But in the early 2000s, angry demonstrators protested in front of government offices in Warsaw chanting, “There’s no solidarity in liberty”—this time meaning solidarity with a small s.
Even more than the inequality of income and wealth (which, with the exception of the oligarchs, is still not as extreme in Central Europe as it is in America and Britain), what upsets people most is the inequality of attention and respect. A large part of society feels not just economically and socially disadvantaged but above all ignored and disrespected by metropolitan liberal elites. Divisions along the faultlines of class, education, and geography are characteristic of contemporary populism everywhere: think of the rust belt in the US or the postindustrial towns in the north of Brexit England. But they always have their specific local features.
Nursing a cup of tea in a restaurant in the eastern Polish city of Białystok, a young city councillor from the ruling Law and Justice party complained to me at length about the condescension of the “Warsaw salon.” The notion of the “Warsaw salon” is an old one; it is the setting of a famous scene in Adam Mickiewicz’s nineteenth-century theatrical masterpiece Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve). There the aristocrats sit, peppering their speeches with foreign phrases and tittering about the common people. In Poland, this aristocratic tradition was passed down to the intelligentsia, and some of those condescending attitudes definitely persist. I have heard them expressed toward peasants, workers, and even the new middle class. An in-depth study of one small town found that a significant part of Law and Justice’s support there comes not from the economically left behind but from that new middle class, who think they now deserve better. While in Poland the colloquial shorthand is “salon,” in the more egalitarian Czech lands it’s Pražská kavárna, meaning Prague café society. In Hungary, there is the divide between Budapest, the outsize capital, and what the writer Gyula Illyés called the “people of the puszta,” that is, the rural and small-town inhabitants of the great Hungarian plain.
East Germany is the ultimate example of the inadequacy of the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid” when we try to explain the wave of antiliberal populism where thirty years ago there was liberal revolution. Germany is not just one of the richest countries in Europe; it has also made huge financial transfers to its eastern part, visible at every turn in the remade streets, restored buildings, and modernized infrastructure. What is more, four out of every five AfD voters assess their own personal economic situation as “good” or “very good.” Yet in recent regional elections, the AfD garnered slightly more than a quarter of the vote in the East German state of Saxony, and only slightly less in Brandenburg. As Marx might have put it, this is about consciousness more than being. Many who vote AfD feel ignored or looked down upon. According to one recent poll, 75 percent of those asked in Saxony assess the economic situation there as good or very good, but a staggering 66 percent say that East Germans are treated as second-class citizens. Accompanying the economic largesse from west to east in Germany has been an eastward migration of West Germans who sometimes incline to lord it over the easterners, for all the world like an imperial British district commissioner in 1920s India. In 2015 Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the small East German town of Heidenau, where seven hundred refugees had been housed in a closed-down factory. One angry demonstrator exclaimed, “Die schaut uns nicht mal mit dem Arsch an!” (She doesn’t look at us even with her ass!) Although Merkel herself originally came from the East, that remark perfectly captures the feelings of populist voters there—and in many other places too.
Like their counterparts in Poland or the Czech Republic, some East Germans, shaped by four decades spent in a closed and still relatively homogenous society behind the Iron Curtain, are nervously suspicious of the foreigner, the immigrant, and above all the Muslim immigrant—even, perhaps especially, where they personally encounter almost none of them. East Germany has proportionally the fewest immigrants and the most AfD voters. One participant in a demonstration organized by the far-right, xenophobic movement Pegida (the German initials stand for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident) told a reporter, “In Saxony today there are hardly any immigrants, but there is a danger of the Islamization of Germany in fifty or a hundred years.” An urgent matter, clearly.
Sitting in his office in the Archbishop’s Palace next to Prague Castle, Václav Malý, the priest whose bell-like voice was a clarion of the Velvet Revolution and who is now a bishop, leads me toward a deeper reflection. In Central Europe, they have developed not just a market economy but a market society, he feels, one in which the individualistic spirit of competition reigns supreme. And then look at the television advertisements. They show you a happy, healthy, handsome, prosperous couple, with two beautiful children playing in front of a nice house and car. If you don’t have all that, you have evidently failed.
The populists, being skillful political entrepreneurs, have exploited all these shortfalls and complexes. The hallmark policy with which the Law and Justice party won an absolute parliamentary majority in Poland’s 2015 election was promising 500 zloties (about $127) a month for every second and subsequent child in a family. In fact, this had been contemplated under an earlier liberal government and rejected, on grounds partly of affordability but mainly of ideology: you shouldn’t just go scattering cash among the people. Yet as a conservative student at Warsaw University rightly pointed out to me, this cash handout not only makes a significant economic difference to struggling families but is also “an expression of concern.” And he added: “It gives them some dignity.” Law and Justice ideologists actually talk about “the redistribution of dignity.”
Especially in Poland and Hungary, the ruling parties also play off the sense of historic injustice, arguing that what happened in 1989 was not a true revolution. The real anticommunist revolution, they claim, only began when they themselves came to power. They denounce the liberal, metropolitan elites, who, among their many sins, allegedly stitched up a “handshake transition” with the communists behind closed doors. Central European populists combine somewhat left-wing economic and social policies with a right-wing, even reactionary, nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric. So disaffected voters are invited to escape the atomization of a superficial, Western-style consumer society, back into the bosom of the most traditional sources of community and identity: the family, the church, and the nation. (And both nationalism and the churches had of course been important forces in the liberation movements of 1989.)
As one conservative Hungarian intellectual explained to me, whereas decadent, feminized, LGBT+-supporting Western European societies address the problem of an aging and shrinking population by importing Muslim migrants, robust, virile, traditional societies like Hungary and Poland will solve that problem the old-fashioned Christian way, by having more children. And women will be put back in their proper place. In a riposte to an article I wrote about the erosion of democracy in Hungary, the Fidesz government’s pugnacious spokesman Zoltán Kovács boasted that “since 2010, the number of marriages has gone up, number of divorces down, number of abortions down by nearly a third, birth rate up and rising.” The Polish Bishops’ Conference has called non-heterosexual partnerships “completely alien to European civilization.” In short, the populists claimed to represent a better, more traditional Christian Europe. Reversing Donald Rumsfeld’s often-quoted dichotomy between “old” (i.e., Western) and “new” (i.e., Eastern) Europe, new Europe now stands up for old Europe, while the old is the new. With characteristic chutzpah, Orbán has declared that in 1989 “we thought Europe was our future; today, we are Europe’s future.”
For fifteen years after 1989, these countries had an unusually clear strategic goal: to return to Europe, meaning specifically the European Union, and to the West, specifically NATO. These goals were contested in their domestic politics, to be sure, but the Euro-Atlantic orientation prevailed. To achieve this, they had to change everything—at least on paper—to comply with European and Western norms: the economy, the legal system, the treatment of minorities, media regulation, civilian control of the armed forces, food labeling, you name it.
It was wonderful, if demanding, to travel hopefully toward “Europe”; the problems started when they arrived. Inevitably, the reality did not live up to the dream. Joachim Gauck, the former East German pastor who went on to be president of united Germany, ironically observed, “We dreamed of paradise and woke up in North-Rhine Westphalia.” (One can think of worse places to wake up.)
While the EU exercised enormous transformative power during the accession process, it turned out that once you were a member of the Union you could get away with almost anything. The dismantling of liberal democracy in Hungary by Fidesz really started in 2010, when Hungary was already a member of the EU and NATO, and it has been executed using European funds to consolidate one-party domination—for example, by giving EU-funded contracts to cronies and friendly media-owning oligarchs. European taxpayers’ money is spent to subvert European values.
Across the region, popular support for staying in the EU remains high, and the damage Britain is visibly doing to itself through the demented project of Brexit only reinforces that support. But many populist voters feel that the individual benefits of “Europe” are unevenly distributed in favor of the metropolitan, liberal winners from the transition.
What about the West? In a survey conducted earlier this year, people in the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary were asked, “Would you like your country to be a part of the West, a part of the East, or somewhere in-between?” Around half of respondents—slightly more in the Czech Republic, slightly less elsewhere—said “somewhere in-between.” Those saying that their homeland should be “part of the West” ranged from a high of 45 percent in Hungary to a low of 23 percent in Slovakia. There are doubtless many reasons for these answers. Central Europe never was simply the “kidnapped West,” to recall the title of a celebrated essay by Milan Kundera. Geographically, culturally, and historically, these countries have always had strong ties to the East, and an old self-image as a bridge between East and West. The very notion of “the West” as a geopolitical entity has faded, also in North America and Western Europe, with the disappearance of the Soviet Union as a unifying common enemy. If “the West” means abortion, gay marriage, and LGBT+ rights, socially conservative Central Europeans will be against it.
Yet among the main reasons for the dwindling attraction of the West must surely be that the post-1989 West, through the excesses of the financial sector in a globalized capitalism, plunged itself into the most serious financial crisis since 1929—one that in turn precipitated a long-predicted crisis of the ill-designed and overextended eurozone, and segued into a decade of economic and political malaise. China, by contrast, seems to be doing rather well. Today’s China is as much a product of 1989 as are the fragile democracies of Central Europe. To avoid Gorbachev’s fate, Xi Jinping and his fellow party leaders have systematically learned lessons from the collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc. Along the way, as much by improvisation as by design, they have created an unprecedented hybrid system that might be described as Leninist capitalism.
Since 2008, Western democratic capitalism has looked significantly less attractive, and Eastern authoritarian capitalism slightly more so. There is now an alternative modernity. Orbán, always alert to shifting sources of wealth and power, told a Hungarian audience in 2014 that the financial crisis had shown that “liberal democratic states cannot remain globally competitive,” and pointed to Singapore, China, Russia, and Turkey as examples of “systems which are not Western, not liberal, maybe not even democracies yet they are successful.” “I don’t think,” he concluded, “that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations.” Which, as a verdict on the EU, is sadly accurate.
One should not exaggerate: few Central Europeans seriously want their societies to be more like China or Russia. Their idea of a “normal” country is still much closer to Germany or Canada. But China and Russia are sources of substantial investment, which those authoritarian giants disperse with a commensurate gain in their political influence in countries such as Hungary and Serbia. As once imperial Germany planned a “Berlin to Baghdad” railway, so imperial China now projects an Athens to Budapest line, to enable goods imported to the Chinese-owned container port in Piraeus to be transported straight into the heart of Europe. Beijing has a formalized “17+1” group of Central and Southeastern European countries, including Greece. The Czech president Miloš Zeman, who is closely linked to an oligarch with major business interests in China, says he wants his country to be an “unsinkable aircraft-carrier of Chinese investment expansion” in Europe. At the very least, it is convenient for politicians like Orbán to show Brussels and Washington that they have somewhere else to turn. “If the EU is unable to provide enough capital,” he told a meeting of European leaders in Berlin, “we will just collect it in China.”
The West’s mistake after 1989 was not that we celebrated what happened in Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest as a triumph of liberal, European, and Western values. It was all of that. Our mistake was to imagine that this was now the norm, the new normal, the way history was going. Thus, for example, neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz seem genuinely to have believed that if you just toppled the one-party dictatorship in Iraq, democracy could rapidly be built on its ruins, as it had been on the ruins of the Berlin Wall. And two generations of journalists—those who were there when the wall came down, and those who wished they had been—misread the Arab Spring as another 1989. Thirty years on, we can see that, far from being the new normal, what happened in Europe in 1989 was a great historical exception, unique, one of a kind.
So is it time for another revolution in Central Europe? “No” was the answer given by the young theology student Benjamin Roll at that demonstration in Prague, and “no” is the right answer. If we take the political scientist George Lawson’s useful definition of revolution as “the rapid, mass, forceful, systemic transformation of a society’s principal institutions and organizations,” then Central Europe had its revolution in 1989 and does not need another one.
What the moment does demand, however, is a great reform. This is true of the entire Western democratic world, which urgently requires a profound renewal of liberal institutions and practices, but particularly true of post-communist Central Europe, which has a specific set of problems resulting from the unique nature of its transition. With some hyperbole, one might even say that it is time for a second liberation of Central Europe. “We need a new birth of freedom,” Wawrzyniec Smoczyński, a Polish journalist turned activist, told me this spring. And the good news is that there are people working toward this goal, including many from the generation that I call the post-’89ers—European millennials, born in the years before and after 1989, and only now coming into their own.
In Slovakia, where I originally got to know the philosopher and dissident Milan Šimečka, his son, Martin Milan Šimečka, is a leading writer and editor, and his grandson, Michal Šimečka, is now a member of the European Parliament for a new party, Progressive Slovakia. Slovakia was the laggard of post-communist transition under the authoritarian Vladimír Mečiar in the 1990s. With popular protest catalyzed last year by the dreadful murder of Ján Kuciak, a young investigative journalist who had been exposing high-level corruption, and of his fiancée, Slovakia is now in the vanguard of this second liberation. Sitting opposite me in a Bratislava hotel bar, young Michal explains how he and his friends helped to get a liberal, pro-European, female president, Zuzana Čaputová, elected in a socially conservative, Catholic country still suffering many of the pathologies of post-communism.
Yes, it can be done. These new reformers face powerful forces of inertia, corruption, and reaction, both among the elites and in the wider societies, as well as an international situation much less favorable than it was in 1989. Only in Hungary, however, has the erosion of democracy gone so far that it is difficult to envisage even the best-organized opposition party winning a national election anytime soon. Everywhere else in the region there are still regular, free, and relatively fair elections. As in America, as in Britain, as in every other imperfect democracy—and which is not imperfect?—the challenge throughout Central Europe is to find the party, the program, and the leaders to win that next election. They have our problems now.
This essay will appear, in a somewhat different form, as the final chapter in a new edition of The Magic Lantern, to be published by Vintage this fall. ↩