The East’s showdown

How has central-eastern Europe changed in 25 years? The evaluations of Toni Nicolov, who said: "Changes require time"

Twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, in all the countries of Eastern Europe official celebrations were coupled by ample discussions about the events of 1989 and especially about the changes in the transition from the Soviet model to democracy and free market. “1989 it was the time of hopes”, “people dreamed of freedom and a better life”, said Toni Nicolov, professor of philosophy at the University “St. Clement of Ohrid” in Sofia (Bulgaria), chief editor of the portal “Culture”, interviewed by Iva Mihailova for SIR Europe. Major changes “required much time and work”, while the transition period has not only brought positive aspects: for this today “there are those who regret Communism”. Professor, after the fall of the Wall and of the Iron Curtain what were the hopes of the citizens of Central and Eastern Europe? “Everybody wanted a change. It was later understood that nation-States thought it would be different. At the same time, there was the intention to reform Communism with a top-down approach while the population exerted pressure at grassroots level. People dreamt of freedom, more rights, the possibility of travelling and of a better life, higher wages, the end of privileges, which until then were reserved to the elite groups. 1989 was the time of hope: everyone thought there would be a radical change in two, three, five years at the most. It was later understood that things would have taken a different course”. Over the past 25 years what were the changes that took place in the political, economic spheres and in the public opinion? “According to the famous Polish dissident Adam Michnik ‘at the beginning we wandered in the fog but no one knew the way’. Some changes – such as freedom of expression, the press, democratic parties – came fast. But creating democratic institutions and the rule of law took time. In some countries organized crime started to take shape, along with the redistribution of property concentrated in the hands of the State and here the protagonists once again were those of the Communist regime. Changes in Hungary, in the former Czechoslovakia and Poland took place faster because in those Countries private initiative had not been totally destroyed. In Bulgaria and Romania the reform process proceeded at a much slower pace”. When did expectations fail to correspond to reality? “People wanted everything to be different; but this could not happen with a magic wand. They were used to the structures and the way of life under Communism. A large stratification in post-communist societies also emerged in those areas where a certain degree of egalitarianism previously prevailed. One of the great dreams of 1989 was Europe, to become European citizens. Today, according to the polls, many people feel nostalgia for communism linked to stable jobs, full refrigerators, welfare state. The problem is that the image of that era does not correspond to reality. Now, when historians open the archives, it turns out that the picture presented to the people by the party leaders was false. What was the role of Christian Churches in overcoming the Iron Curtain and how did changes impact them? “In Poland, for example, freedom came through the Church, especially thanks to John Paul II. Even in East Germany the popular uprisings were backed by Protestant pastors. In the Orthodox world things evolved differently since owing to their ecclesial essence the Orthodox Church would have found it hard to participate in an organized manner. After the changes, the Christian communities came out of the catacombs and regained the place in society they deserved as centers of spirituality, education and charitable action. In the Catholic Church in Poland, in the Czech Republic, in Hungary, this happened very quickly. Even in Russia Moscow’s Patriarchate restored its authority. In the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria, however, a schism took place that was overcome only in 2002, while in Ukraine various Orthodox Churches were erected”. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Wall most of Europe is inside the EU. Will this ensure long-lasting peace in the Old Continent? “We have no other guarantees. We have the example of the historic reconciliation between France and Germany. Reunification has been a tremendous opportunity for eastern Europeans. They, however, hoped that the changes would take place faster, and expected a greater intervention by Europe. But this would have meant a violation of national sovereignty and it is not within the principles of a united Europe. External models cannot be imported: it takes time and work”.

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