Promoting World Affairs

Lessons learned from the past

In Democracy, Europe, NATO, Russia on September 14, 2009 at 8:02 am

A friend of mine passed along a link to The Iron Curtain Diaries, a project undertaken by journalists, photographers, and a cartoonist who travelled along the former “iron curtain,” interviewing people about their feelings of the past and their prospects for the future. I’m usually not a big fan of flash sites, but this one is well designed and very informative. Plus it’s very easy to access media content, such as interviews, video and text and it’s all streamlined. It’s definitely worth a look and a showcase in how the internet can create an interactive experience and give museums a run for their money.

But bouncing on that, it seems academia has been in an old “Eastern Europe” kick. It probably has something to do with the fact that the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall is right around the corner, but regardless it’s useful to point out a few articles to spark your interest, in case any of you has or wish to have some knowledge on the subject.

The first is an article straight out of Foreign Policy by Edward Lucas. Edward Lucas is one, if not the lead scholar of the region formerly known as the Soviet Union, which is illustrated by the fact that he’s a regular contributer to the Economist. He has a new book out called The New Cold War, which seems to be getting some good reviews and I did put it on my “to-read” list. The article outlines many of the problems that the Baltic states, (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) are facing in terms of large amount of government debt, corruption, and a tourist industry that is nearly collapsing. The article is very informative, and goes beyond politics and economics and brings to light some interesting cultural tidbits about the countries. First, these states were considered to be the “winners” of the post-Cold War who were able to quickly transform their economies from one driven by a strong, central government to a market economy. This was no easy task, and, as Lucas outlines, some of the Baltic countries were more successful than the others. Unfortunately they were hit very hard by the financial crisis, exposing their high government debt and had to quickly rely on a partial bailout from the European Union. The second point is that with their collapse and fear of them becoming failed states, it would be quite easy for Russia to regain a strong foothold in the region and bully them away from the West. Yes they are in NATO and the European Union, but, here my last point, it surprises me that more attention hasn’t being given to the state of affairs in the Baltic states, as they not only have a high strategic geopolitical importance, but could serve a precedent of a country, or countries, failing in the EU. If they do fall and are gobbled up by an aggressive Russia, what message could this send to other states who view the European Union as a given to ensure their national security? What about new states that are currently entering the mix, like Croatia (Slovenia has finally dropped its stance of blocking any chance of it entering) or the rest of the former Yugoslavia who view the road to the EU as a guarantee for prolonged peace? Second, the thesis of the article seems to be that these countries are disappearing. Not literally of course, but no-one seems to be paying any attention to them or taking into account the seriousness of the situation. Whether it’s NATO who, Lucas argues, never really took to providing the Baltic states a competent military presence in face of a Russian threat or tourists who seem to have abandoned the region (apparently it’s so bad, that employees in the service industry decided not to show up for work), it seems as if the region is in danger of disappearing.

To be sure, the old Eastern bloc has come a very long way since 1989. Many have transitioned to market led economies, are democracies, follow (more or less) the rule of law, and are success stories. However, it is a fickle thing as the financial crisis has demonstrated and it is easier to destroy than to create. The EU has its hands full to be sure. Hungary has proven to be very insolvent and is in deep financial trouble. The Czech Republic and Poland have their troubles, but from the material I’ve read and at least from what I’ve seen, it doesn’t seem to be as dire as what Lucas portrays in the Baltic region.

What impresses me the most and makes me very hopeful for the current state of the world, is that if one lesson I have learned from these accounts of success and stories form the Iron Curtain Diaries, it is that there exists a possibility to put aside differences and high points of tension that are historic and culturally deep. The Economist singles out the relations between the Ukraine and Poland being very close and productive, despite both of their turbulent histories and the autocracies they have committed against each other. They managed to create a dialogue, acknowledge what happened, and are moving forward together.

This proves that it’s worth being hopeful and something we should think about as the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall approaches. Despite war or societies being cut off by oppressive regimes, there is still hope. Not for it to end, but for the time afterwards, when all is said and done and the smoke has been cleared from the battlefield. It is possible to rebuild and heal any scars.

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