Printer Friendly

Eastern Europe after the fall: a firsthand view.

Where the Berlin Wall used to be, there now is a wall of traders and souvenir stalls dealing in instant nostalgia. Chunks of the wall go for international prices, but Lenin pins are sold by the kilo, and even the matryoshkas (nested hollow dolls)-including the new varieties containing a Brezhnev inside a Gorbachev inside a Yeltsin-sell pretty cheap. While they wait for jobs (about one-third of East Germans are unemployed) and for telephones, transport, and building codes to be upgraded, East Berliners amuse themselves with a rash of new jokes. It is said, for example, that taxi drivers often doubled as stasi (secret police) in the bad old days. Even now, they banter, you don't have to tell a taxi driver in East Berlin where you are going; he already knows.

Elsewhere, however, in the former U.S.S.R., even in areas like Belarus and the Baltics that had been among the most modern and prosperous, the new order is not nearly as new as we had imagined. The first indication of this came with trying to get a visa to visit Belarus. Intourist and the ex-Soviet, now Russian, Embassy, which still handles visas for what used to be the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, shuttled us back and forth across London for a couple of days before they succeeded in convincing us that processing the applications really would take 14 days (working days, that is, meaning about four hours a day, four days a week). Once convinced of their determination to work-or not work - at that pace, we gave up the effort in London to resume it later in Germany.

In Bonn, the operation proved more expeditious, but also more expensive. After we spent almost two days standing in lines and chasing after the appropriate forms and currencies, they managed to produce the actual visa in a couple of hours. Notwithstanding our official invitations to visit as guests of an academic institution, the visas cost us $100 each.

Visas finally in hand, we boarded the Berlin-to-Moscow express, a Russian train that would take us overnight to Minsk. The express was not simply slow; it was a voyage backwards in time. Yet, it made up in local color what it lacked in speed and comfort. The only refreshment to be had was Russian tea, prepared in a small ceramic pot and dispensed by the all-purpose attendant. The "babushkas" (attendants) appeared to be homesteading in their sleeping cars and to assume a proprietary attitude toward them, particularly the restrooms, which they generally kept locked.

Sleep would have been a waste, given the entertainment that filled the wee hours. Shortly after the train crossed from Poland into Belarus, one or two of the cars at a time had to be jacked up to be refitted with wheels that operated on the narrower Russian gauge. The jacks that lifted the cars some six feet off of the rails were hydraulic, but most of the subsequent adjustments, which took more than two hours, were made by male and female grease monkeys who crawled into the pits under the rail cars with crowbars and screwdrivers and hammers from their lunchbox-sized toolboxes.

With its broad avenues and leafy parks, Minsk wears a placid face. At the farmers' co-op market, one can see tired shoppers waiting in long lines to buy eggs at subsidized prices, while the free-marketeers standing nearby offer the same eggs without the wait, but at prices few can afford. We were told that there was a seasonal shortage of sugar, but saw no evidence of panic buying or other manifestations of the trauma of transition reported from Russia.

Among former Soviet republics, Belarus has more than its share of productive agriculture and potentially profitable industry. Thus, it also has more than its share of visiting businessmen, hustlers, and would-be investors, Western and Eastern, though few of them are American. (Most of the Americans we saw in Minsk were evangelicals who had packed the municipal stadium for a revival meeting.) The chairman of the political science department at the University of Minsk, who does risk analysis on the side, quipped that U.S. businessmen come, find that the phones don't work, and leave. Chinese businessmen, on the other hand, come, find that the phones don't work, and stay to design a new telephone system to solve the problem. The Chinese, in fact, are installing centralized switchboards for ministries, hotels, and other establishments.

Another thing Belarus has more than its share of is military divisions. The Soviet front-line forces previously deployed in Poland and East Germany pulled back to where the second line of defense had been established - in Belarus - and there they remain. With some 250,000 military personnel, a ratio of one soldier for every 43 civilians, according to leaders of the Belarus Peace Committee, Belarus has the largest military concentration of any republic in the new Confederation of Independent States (CIS). For better or worse-and civilian analysts and policymakers are ambivalent as to which is the case-this massive array of force remains without a mission. There are no "strategic objectives" either for Belarus alone or for the CIS, although CIS troops are intervening in Georgia, Moldova, and elsewhere. (In the case of Moldova, there seems to be agreement at least on the importance of maintaining access to its cognac.)

What is unmistakably clear to civilian leaders is that maintenance of such a military establishment will be very expensive and that subjecting it to deep budget cuts could be dangerous. Russian leaders indicated recognition of the problem when they came through with a major grant to support the troops in Belarus.

Baltic nationalism

Belarus gained independence almost by default, and the Old Guard remains largely in control. With links to and, in some areas, dependence upon Russia still strong, the new patriotism in Belarus lacks the fervor that is apparent in the Baltics. Even among scholars who hail from elsewhere, there are opportunities as well as challenges that come with independence. University professors, for instance, while braced for a cutback in funding (the system previously was supported by the Soviet central government), find new fulfillment in being consulted regularly on proposed legislation, and some are tempted to become candidates for elective office. However, the plan to make Byelorussian (a Slavic dialect related to Russian) the official language is disconcerting to the approximately 80% who have come of age speaking Russian and are not fluent in Byelorussian. Nor did the issuance of a Byelorussian currency inspire much enthusiasm. Most shun it in favor of real money, by which they mean rubles.

Patriotism, or nationalism, in the Baltics is something else entirely, rooted in historic precedent, marked by ethnic differences, and reinforced by several years of sustained resistance. The Baltic states historically have looked west, across the sea, rather than east toward Asia, for trade and cultural relations. The languages of Latvia and Lithuania, although Indo-european, have no counterparts in Europe; they are traceable directly to Sanskrit. Estonian, of the Fino-Ugrian family, finds close kinship only with Finnish and very distantly with Hungarian.

Above all, Baltic nationalism has been honed by resistance and is manifest in anger. Resentment, not simply of the former Soviet government, but of Russians generally, is remarkably widespread; it reminded me of the European attitude toward Germans in the 1950s.

The transition has brought pockets of lawlessness to virtually all of Eastern Europe's new states. A common feature seems to be the newly emboldened Mafia. In each of the capitals we visited, we were told to avoid the largest and most modern hotels because they had become the sites of Mafia activity. We were informed, for example, that two people had been shot to death the previous week at the restaurant in the luxurious new Hotel Belarus in Minsk. "In the parking lot?," we asked. No," our hosts replied, "in the restaurant." It should be noted, perhaps, that the most sinister by far of the presumed Mafia types we encountered-at the major Intourist hotel in Vilnius-turned out to be American Harley-Davidson Club bikers participating, along with some rock groups, in a "freedom ride" across former communist states.

The more general and more remarkable problem was not of intentional lawlessness, but of confusion about which authorities or institutions should enjoy legitimacy. The customs official who boarded our train at the Polish border demanded to know how much money we were carrying and in what currencies, but when we asked why he needed to know, that he looked perplexed, shrugged, and walked off in frustration. A Belarussian border guard officiously demanded our visas, but en route to Lithuania there was no check even for train tickets, much less for visas.

From Lithuania, we entered Latvia by car. There was no mention of a visa. My passport was stamped only as a special favor, and, as a further gesture of welcome, a guard gave me a bullet from his gun. Crossing into Estonia, though, turned out to be a different matter entirely. My husband was dragged off the train in the middle of the night and forced to buy a visa.

In Vilnius, the foreign affairs adviser to the Prime Minister, a Lithuanian-American who just had completed a Masters degree at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, confirmed that - with a melange of old and new, sometimes contradictory, legislation in place and with officials and institutions representing both old and new regimes - it was very difficult even for those in government to sort out who and what were legitimate. The uneven gains and losses of the transition also contributed to instability. In fact, the nationalist neoliberal government that the adviser served had lost its majority the previous day to a communist-led coalition - a response, in part, to the hardships faced by peasants whose collective or cooperative farms were being dissolved so that land might be returned to the private owners from whom it was confiscated almost a half-century ago.

Like several other Lithuanians with whom we spoke, the foreign adviser registered her distrust of the intelligence and security agencies. Some reorganization had taken place, but the personnel scarcely was changed. About five different agencies assumed responsibilities with respect to parliamentary and government offices, and newly elected leaders, she indicated, take it for granted that their phones are tapped.

If the phone taps worked, they may have been just about the only thing about the telephone system that did. As elsewhere in the former Soviet sphere, pay phones use a kopec coin (worth about one-tenth of a U.S. cent). However, since the ruble has been Subject to hyperinflation and the kopec has become worthless for all other purposes, the coin no longer is in circulation. Nevertheless, hotel clerks and other helpful persons direct you to the pay phone; only when you return to ask for a kopec do they tell you there aren't any.

From the hotel room there is no difficulty in getting an outside line - that's the only kind there is. There is no central switchboard, so it takes an outside line just to get the desk. International calls are something else again. On one occasion in Minsk, our host had laid out the itinerary for the day. When I mentioned that I needed to make an international call, he said, "Oh, you want to do that instead." "What do mean, instead?," I asked. He responded that the call might take all day, as international calls had to be routed through Moscow and booked up to five hours ahead; there was always a queue.

For political and economic models as well as financial support, Lithuanian nationalists are looking to Scandinavia, and particularly to Norway. Even so, the loss of the Russian market-due primarily to Russia's economic crisis, rather than political factors-has been a terrible setback. The shops we saw in Vilnius and Calnas were stocked well enough, but among the new privately owned ones there was little specialization and prices were arbitrary. (Soviet champagne, for instance, might cost the equivalent of $2 or $20, depending on whether the price was cited in local or hard currency.) Many of them seemed to be peddling whatever Uncle Rimas had in the attic.

For public institutions of higher education, the squeeze of the transition was particularly tight. An academic administrator at the University of Calnas told us that he would not be able to support a family on his salary (about $40 a month). After a day at the university, he puts in several hours of work on a family farm, where he and his wife share a house with her parents, her brother and sister-in-law, and their three children.

Minsk, in times past a mostly wooden city in the path of too many conquerors, reveals little of its rich history, but each of the Baltic capitals has in its heart an old city, dating to the Middle Ages. Old Vilnius exhibits, in particular, the golden age of the Polish-lithuanian kingdom, while Riga and Tallinn retain their Hanseatic character. Each of these cities manifests the architectural exuberance and quirkiness of the turn-of-the-century Art Nouveaux period.

Perhaps it was the sunshine, but Riga seemed particularly resplendent. Beyond the winding, cobbled streets of the old city, the newer city sports self-important boulevards and lush, manicured green parks, generously sprinkled with statuary. We saw more of Riga than we had intended because we spent much of our walk-around time lost; all street names honoring heroes of the socialist revolution had been changed, but the alterations on maps were not reflected yet on street signs.

Service is lacking

The city had a look of prosperity, but when it came to service, or the lack of it, the old ways usually prevailed. As we had found elsewhere in the New East, dining out was a challenge. Local contacts assured us that the bouncers who guarded the doors of every restaurant merely wanted big tips, but the fervor with which they blocked entrances made it appear they already had been tipped by the service staff inside to keep pesky patrons out.

We finally managed to sneak past a bouncer and, to our surprise, were able tb get the maitre d' to seat us. The waiter for our area was indignant with the maitre d' and with us for violating his open spaces, but finally brought us drinks when a German who seated himself at our table waved hard currency at him. All pleas for menus, however, were in vain, so, after surveying the scene to see what others were eating, my husband finally accosted the waiter, almost threateningly, and demanded "one steak, one fish!" The last straw came when the entrees arrived and we asked for salads as well; the waiter simply scoffed and stalked away to the table where he had spent most of the evening smoking and drinking with friends.

Standards of service in Tallinn were not necessarily higher, but if perestroika had yet to make its breakthrough, glasnost was riding, high. A guidebook for the city noted that guards at restaurant entrances would demand tips and that items listed on menus were not necessarily available. It also advised against approaching public toilets or friendly girls and against strolling at night with valuables.

All that notwithstanding, Tallinn turned out to be may favorite of the Baltic capitals. If they can bounce the bouncers, it should be ripe for a boom in tourism. At least within the maze that is the old city, Tallinn has the ambiance of a small town (a small town that is, of the Middle Ages). We kept running into the same people, particularly a group of Canadian exchange students and a couple American businessmen.

The businessmen, who had established joint enterprises in architecture and construction in several of the former Soviet republics, informed us that they had located their headquarters in Estonia because, under finish "hegemony," it had made far greater progress than the others toward the realization of a free market. The fact that they had been offered for their offices the very comfortable premises of what was previously the headquarters of the Communist Party seemed to indicate a remarkable openness on the part of Estonian authorities to foreign investors - an interest in taping their telephones.

The businessmen maintained that the crunch will come for all of the Baltic states when they run out of oil reserves since they lack the foreign exchange to buy more. Another problem for those new states was highlighted by a young German who traveled with us on the hydrofoil from Tallinn to Helsinki. He confided that he was using the easy access between Finland and Estonia to bring, precious metals out of Russia. The red tape was exhausting, he conceded, but the enormous profit margins make it worthwhile.

Given their almost unquestioning embrace brace of the global "free market," the new or newly sovereign states of Eastern Europe rope seem Extraordinarily vulnerable to carpetbaggers. The even greater threat to statehood is that embodied in the ruin that was relatively open and prosperous Yugoslavia. Like that sundered nation, each of the new states has ethnic minorities within it.

Ethnic tensions

For Estonia, as for Latvia, the most serious short-term problem is one of national identity and citizenship. The plight of the Russian soldiers still billeted in the country - more as exiles than occupiers, deserted by their homeland - who had come under attack from Estonian civilians is only the tip of an iceberg that threatens to sink the battered ship of state.

Approximately one-third of Estonia's inhabitants are ethnically Russian. Those who came as bureaucrats well may be able to defend their interests. but most came as factory workers. They constitute an underclass, held in contempt, and now in danger of losing the protection of citizenship. A "grandfather clause" has been devised to exclude residents who arrived after 1939. More recent arrivals were required to pass a literacy test in Estonian to vote in September, 1992, for delegates to the constitutional assembly.

Latvians likewise seem determined to expel, exclude from citizenship, or at least limit political participation by the 40% of the population of Russian descent. Even in Riga, where Russian ethnics account for perhaps 80%, there were anti-Russian demonstrations and placards telling Russians to go home.

In response to the concerns of ethnic Russians throughout the Baltics, Russian Pres. Boris Yelstin announced a decision to lengthen the timetable for withdrawal of troops. The strengths of anti-Russian feeling evident in each of the Baltic states and the consequent fears and frustrations of ethnic Russians do not bode well for a peaceful transition to fully representative government.

Still, ethnic friction in the Baltics, troublesome as it is, is less dramatic than what has transpired elsewhere in the ex-Soviet sphere. Whereas the Third World nationalism of the 1960s was about nation-building - from the fragments of sometimes warring tribes and language and religious groups-the Second World nationalism of the 1990s has been about state-wrecking. Moreover, the new nationalism is exclusive. New states are being carved out as if by a cookie cutter, and ethnic minorities that don't fit are discarded like excess dough.

The most popular souvenir of the former Soviet Union - the matryoshka, the hollow wooden doll that opens to reveal ever smaller dolls within-now seems prophetic. The stripping away of the republics that constituted the Soviet Union may have been only the first step in the dissolution of the Russian empire. In the Russian Republic itself, non-Russian minorities, like the Tartars and the Chechen-Ingush, who constitute almost 20% of the population and occupy nearly half the territory, are demanding states of their own. Meanwhile, ethnically distinct-regions of Georgia and Moldova are seeking to secede. Fierce battles continue to rage between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Czechs and Slovaks have opted to go their own way, and there remains no end in sight to the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. if the new republics fail to settle on a formula for peaceful coexistence, no strategy for economic revitalization will have any prospect for success. Moreover, economic uncertainty deepens the chasms among ethnic groups.

In the aftermath of World War 11, the challenges both of containing Germany and countering hostility toward ethnic Germans were dealt with through graduated steps toward European integration. One might have thought that the relatively prosperous European Community would be the inspiration for a new world order at the turn of the 21st century. instead, the model appears to be that of highland Papua New Guinea, where every valley has its own semi-autonomous wontok (one talk, or language group). Even born-again Germany is suffering from post-partum depression. Unemployed and unserviced East Germans are venting their frustrations on refugees, and West Germans seem to be looking around for somebody to give East Germany back to.

Even if violence could be averted, atomization into mini-states would promise no relief from insecurity. The humiliation of dependence upon and subjugation to an all too familiar dominant power is being replaced by the bafflement of being at the mercy of a poorly perceived, but equally constraining, creditor cartel. A number of the new nations expecting to flee the Second World for the First will sink into the Third World instead.

If this brave new world order is to promise more than the old, it will not be enough to shun the East European-style "workers' state," pitting the people as workers against the same people as consumers; they also must shun the U.s.-style conspiracy of Americans as individuals against America as a society. it also must be recognized that the currently unfettered comparative advantage of the global money-movers leaves the rest of East and West with a comparative disadvantage-the inability to produce what they would consume, consume what they produce, or to have a voice in the economic decisions that seal their fate. if the unrich and unpowerful everywhere are to be as one in their vulnerability to money-movers "market forces," they can ill afford to remain estranged by such trivial differences as language. For the other new nations or would-be nations of the East, one only can hope that the hard lessons of Yugoslavia have been learned.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Society for the Advancement of Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Black, Jan Knippers
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Mar 1, 1994
Previous Article:Can Russia survive democracy?
Next Article:Visions of Crystal in Northern Europe.

Related Articles
Regional spotlight: Eastern Europe; playing field is crowded in this developing region for hygiene products.
Eastern Tides.
Listen up ...
The Romani movement; minority politics and ethnic mobilization in contemporary Central Europe.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters