Archive | October, 2009

Tags: , , , ,

Teaching One History, Living Another

Posted on 16 October 2009 by admin

By Boyko Vassilev, Lucie Kavanova, Anita Komuves, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian, and Pavol Szalai

As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with history teachers is the second in the series that resulted. Continue reading …

Comments Off

Tags: , , , , ,

No More Low-Hanging Fruit

Posted on 14 October 2009 by admin

By Pavol Demes

This year found the Euro-Atlantic community not only busy with pressing economic and political issues but also commemorating several important milestones – the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II, the 60th anniversary of NATO’s founding, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This last opened space for unprecedented changes in the former Soviet bloc.

Two decades on, we have entered a complicated period of economic crisis, security fears, and raised expectations connected with changes in the White House and European institutions. There is a natural impulse to look back, analyze the state of affairs, and think about new strategies. Continue reading …

Comments Off

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Zhelyu Zhelev

Posted on 13 October 2009 by admin

Bulgarian dissident, philosopher, and president, 1935-

“Sofia, Prague, Berlin. Sofia, Prague, Berlin.”

So went the revolutionary refrain of Bulgarian students as they formed a human ring around the country’s parliament building on 14 December 1989, rallying to quicken the pace of reform. The man who launched the chant was Zhelyu Zhelev, the dissident philosopher who would become the country’s first democratically elected president.

Zhelevweb2Twenty years on, the “lord of the ring” (as Zhelev was dubbed in a U.S. diplomatic communique about the December 1989 demonstrations) is spearheading another effort to change Bulgarian politics, aiming to restore the powers stripped from the presidency when he held it.

Zhelev was the central figure around whom Bulgaria’s nascent democratic opposition revolved. In 1982, despite having been expelled from both the Communist Party and the University of Sofia, he had managed to publish Fascism, a scholarly work written 20 years earlier that compared the socialist regime to the Nazi state. It was confiscated from Bulgarian bookstores and libraries, but samizdat copies traversed the Soviet Union and reached China.

In the foreword to a Gorbachev-era edition of his book, Zhelev speculated that multi-party democracy would come to the communist world only after a period of military dictatorship, but time and his own actions belied the prediction. After a period of environmental activism in the Danube town of Ruse, he joined the dissident Club in Support of Glasnost and Perestroika, which led to his revolutionary role chairing the coordination council of the Union of Democratic Forces, the chief opposition movement.

In August 1990, Zhelev, by then a member of parliament, was elected president by his fellow legislators. Bulgaria’s first direct presidential election in 1992 confirmed his mandate. He served until 1997, although his authority was considerably weakened by the ex-communists of the Socialist government in the early 1990s, and his influence further lessened when the Socialists returned to power in 1994.

After leaving office Zhelev resumed the role of public and political intellectual, most notably as founder and president of the Balkan Political Club, a VIP-heavy body of academics, diplomats, and current and former leaders pursuing “Europeanization of the Balkans” as the road to peace and development. At home he is an elder statesman, in which role he has recently taken on the cause of constitutional reform to strengthen the Bulgarian executive.

“A presidential republic is much more appropriate for countries in transition from communism to democracy and the market economy,” Zhelev told the Sofia News Agency in a September 2009 interview. “It is a lot more suitable for solving the tasks they face.”

Daniela Ivanova

Comments Off

Tags: , , , , , ,

The Russian Patient

Posted on 12 October 2009 by admin

By Andrei Piontkovsky

I remember that in the early stages of perestroika, many of us in the Soviet Union dreamed that there might come about some movement in Eastern Europe like Solidarity had been briefly in Poland or like the Prague Spring in 1968. We felt that if such developments occurred it would greatly influence our own chances. This, we thought, would push the USSR very strongly toward a democratic solution and that might precipitate things. Continue reading  …

Comments Off

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

An End to ‘Doubleness’

Posted on 09 October 2009 by admin

By Boyko Vassilev, Lucie Kavanova, Anita Komuves, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian, and Pavol Szalai

As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with artists is the first in the series that resulted.

Part 1: What does an artist, accustomed to using metaphor and subterfuge under communism, do when the lid comes off? Continue reading …

Comments Off

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Jerzy Urban

Posted on 09 October 2009 by admin

Brash journalist-turned-regime mouthpiece-turned-brash journalist, 1933-

urbanA few years after the fall of the communist regime, many Poles were enraged by a photograph of Jerzy Urban relaxing poolside at his villa in a posh Warsaw suburb. How could this hated Communist, the face of martial law, be living in such opulence?

Urban himself would say many times that in the new era he might very well have ended up hated, marginalized, and poor. That he was now hated, marginalized, and rich didn’t bother him.

Urban earned an infamous place in Poland’s collective memory when he took the job of government spokesman in August 1981, only months before Wojciech Jaruzelski – whom Urban professes to admire greatly – imposed martial law to quash Solidarity. Serving until April 1989, he became the despised face of power, laying bare the authorities’ cynicism in regularly televised press conferences.(Commenting on the Reagan administration’s economic sanctions on Poland, Urban said the people would suffer but “the government will somehow manage to feed itself.”)

Few at the time had any inkling why Urban, a renowned journalist and longtime critic of the regime (his writing was banned for a time in the 1960s) would take such a job. Later, in the 1990s, Urban would say he was irked by Solidarity’s populism, clericalism, and nationalistic bent, an attitude he has held to this day regarding the post-Solidarity political parties left, right, and center.

On the brink of personal and professional failure come 1989, Urban rescued himself with Urban’s Alphabet, a collection of short, cheeky, sometimes malicious sketches of politicians, artists, and journalists. The book became a bestseller and helped fund the creation of a weekly magazine, Nie, fullof profanity, porn, and scathing attacks on the new political elites. Its circulation soon climbed to 600,000 – a clear demonstration that other threads were running through post-communist Poland than the Catholic Church, the new politics, and economic liberalism.

Ninety-four percent of adult Poles knew who Urban was. Enough people were interested in what that scumbag was up to to buy out the entire print run,” Urban recalled in Nie in 2004.

Still published and edited by Urban and now selling about 75,000 copies an issue, Nie in recent years has become more serious, at least compared to its early days. Urban even became something of a journalistic cause celebre when he was criminally charged in 2002 for publishing a mocking attack on Pope John Paul II. (In January 2005 he was convicted and fined 20,000 zlotys, about $6,400 at the time). The bald, elfin media mogul is a frequent talk-show guest, and his pungent remarks on Polish politicians continue to entertain or enrage millions of his fellow citizens.

Wojciech Kosc


Comments Off

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Democracies Without Democrats

Posted on 07 October 2009 by admin

Why the reality of post-Communist Europe has not measured up to the expectations of 1989.

By Jiri Pehe

“Now we have a democracy,” Tomas G. Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, said of his new country upon its founding 90 years ago. “What we also need are democrats.”

These words could be applied as aptly to the post-communist countries of contemporary East-Central Europe. The problem of “democracies without democrats” is as real today as it was when Masaryk’s new state rose from the ashes of World War I. Continue reading …

Comments Off

Tags: , , , ,

Bulgaria’s revolutionary rock heroes

Posted on 05 October 2009 by admin

Shturcite (The Crickets) has been Bulgaria’s most popular rock band since the late 1960s. Their 1990 song “Az sym prosto Chovek” (“I’m Only Human”) became an anthem of the country’s democratic movement, and songwriter/frontman Kiril Marichkov served in the Bulgarian parliament.

Comments Off

Tags: , ,

Vladimir Meciar

Posted on 05 October 2009 by admin

Velvet divorcee who dominated post-revolution Slovak politics, 1942-

Vladimir Meciar holds a singular place among the post-communist figures of Central and Eastern Europe. The colorful ex-boxer was the most powerful, popular Slovak politician through the first decade of transition – despite presiding over an economic free fall, inciting ethnic tensions and so alienating Western allies that the country’s NATO and the European Union entry was threatened. He remains an influential figure, thanks to his unswerving base of older rural voters unhappy with the changes since 1989, and for the last three years he has been a junior partner in the country’s ruling coalition.

Ambitious and boasting strong anti-regime credentials – part of Prague Spring reform leader Alexander Dubcek’s circle of supporters, he was purged from the Czechoslovak Communist Party after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion – Meciar rode the Velvet Revolution to prominence as an active member of the Slovak opposition movement Public Against Violence (VPN). At Dubcek’s recommendation, he was appointed to a cabinet post, then won election as premier in June 1990. Within a year his increasingly authoritarian behavior led VPN to oust him, but he formed a new party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), and returned to power in 1992 as bitter disputes flared over the future of the Czechoslovak federation. Meciar’s demands of the Czech side, coupled with the intransigence of his Czech counterpart, Vaclav Klaus, sealed the Velvet Divorce of January 1993.

During his two spells as prime minister of independent Slovakia, Meciar periodically played the nationalist card, culminating in his brazen 1997 proposal for a mutual repatriation of ethnically Hungarian Slovaks and ethnically Slovak Hungarians. Meanwhile his international standing plummeted amid allegations that his government orchestrated a kidnapping, stifled the media, and sabotaged a referendum on NATO membership. Meciar was deeply disliked by the EU, which put the brakes on Slovakia’s accession talks, but his uplifting campaign ads helped keep him popular at home.

His reign ended in 1998 when, despite winning a plurality in national elections, Meciar’s HZDS was unable to form a coalition. The next eight years saw him relegated to the opposition bench (and twice defeated as a presidential candidate) as Slovakia boomed economically and joined the EU and NATO. But the pugnacious Meciar might yet have the last word. In 2006 HZDS was invited into new PM Robert Fico’s government, and, with the next election looming, populist winds are again blowing through Slovakia.

Daniela Ivanova


Comments (1)

Tags: , , , , , ,

Wojciech Jaruzelski

Posted on 05 October 2009 by admin

Poland’s last Communist leader, 1923-

A central question remains about General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the leader of Poland throughout much of the 1980s: was he a traitor or a patriot? When he imposed martial law in 1981, was he acting to forestall a Soviet invasion or to strangle the new independent trade union Solidarity?

When martial law was declared, Solidarity went underground. But by decade’s end, amid Gorbachev’s liberalization in the Soviet Union and renewed social unrest in Poland, it re-emerged to wrest democratic changes from the Communist leadership, culminating in the partly free elections of June 1989 – a seminal event that eased the way toward peaceful political change in other Central European socialist states.

Thousands of Poles were arrested without charge during the 18 months of martial law, and perhaps 100 were killed. Since September 2008 Jaruzelski has been on trial for that decision; he has also been in court on and off over the years on charges stemming from the massacre of 44 workers in Gdynia in 1970, an assault that, as then-minister of defense, he may or may not have tried to stop.

Although a 1996 parliamentary inquiry declared that the imposition of martial law had met the legal conditions of “higher necessity” valid in 1981, he was accused a decade later by the Institute of National Remembrance of directing a criminal organization – the military council that imposed and ran the martial law – leading to the current trial. Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza characterized the claim as an odd legal device under which “the generals are being treated like gangsters.” The judicial actions have dragged on, in large part due to Jaruzelski’s poor health.

Jaruzelski’s best-known feature, his dark glasses, harken back to the snow blindness he developed during World War II, when his family was deported to the Soviet Union. He joined the Polish army under Soviet command and reached the rank of general while still in his 30s. In 2005 Vladimir Putin presented Jaruzelski with a medal commemorating the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany; the following year the Polish government gave him the Siberian Exiles Cross, than publicly withdrew the award.

Since his retirement in 1991, Jaruzelski has said communism failed and apologized for Poland’s role in the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. But he has staunchly defended the decision for which he is most remembered. “I constantly state that martial law saved Poland from looming catastrophe,” he said on the witness stand a year ago. “Martial law was evil, but it was a far lesser evil than what would have happened without it.”

Daniela Ivanova

Comments (2)