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Eastern Europe in 1990 is not to be confused with Africa in 1960. African decolonization was a relatively peaceful affair. It was sponsored and financed by the former colonial powers, and the new regimes, with one or two exceptions, accepted either some semblance of democracy or a benevolent one-man rule. Later on, most of the new nations changed their minds and reverted to traditional tribal ways, though even then they still paid lip-service to western models. In contrast, Eastern Europe, while it knows what democracy is about, has hardly ever practiced it, at least its American variety. Czechoslovakia is an exception, although that nation’s record with respect to its German and Hungarian minorities has not been a distinguished one.

A new chapter is now opening in Eastern Europe, but we should not be overly surprised if, as in Africa, the old ways soon reassert themselves. The things that people and governments say in the flush of sudden change may not correspond closely to the structures they elaborate with the passage of time. In the gray morning after the previous night’s celebration old mental habits easily reappear, especially if vague but heady promises of better days are not soon realized.

The prospects for the region are thus rather different from those suggested in Francis Fukuyama’s vision of an imagined western triumph over history. In a way, history may just be beginning in an Eastern Europe that has been excluded from it since the 1500s, when the Ottomans occupied a huge chunk of it. The Turks were followed by the Hapsburgs here, by the Muscovites there, and Eastern Europe was condemned to a political, cultural, and even linguistic somnolence for four centuries. And we know what happened when the hibernation seemed finally to be over: first Versailles, then Yalta.

The situation is, thus, quite unsettled, and the United States, a relative newcomer in the area, ought to be especially careful about stepping into a hornet’s nest (which is not to be confused with a vacuum). The nations of Eastern Europe may be novices in democracy, but they know something about history and geopolitics. George Bush would do well to avoid prescribing for Eastern Europe in the manner adopted by Zbgniew Brzezinski toward the Soviet Union. Brzezinski has written (in the Washington Post last November 12) that we expect the new Russia to be democratic, adopt the free-market system, and dissolve itself in a confederacy. Such hubristic drawing up of blueprints for others can only wind up in mutual frustration and disappointment.

After all, Russia is a great power, and a jealous one at that, whether tsarist, Stalinist, or pan-Slavist or whether the president is Gorbachev or, tomorrow perhaps, Solzhenitsyn. We are naive to be scandalized that Moscow still increases some branches of its weaponry, sends out spies, and practices disinformation. Tomorrow we will no doubt be similarly scandalized that Communist parties in Eastern Europe remain in the hastily set up parliaments and that they gather some old and many new votes as the economy does not improve overnight and the fragile social structures show signs of stress. For decades, the Communist vote in France and Italy was largely a protest vote; this could well become the case in Eastern Europe, where Marxist parties will no longer bear the burden of being associated with Soviet tanks.

Washington thus ought to remember that it cannot govern the planet, and that it is counter-productive to try to impose the same model of political economy on islands in the Pacific and on the Russian steppes. The sending of emergency aid accompanied by hectoring admonitions is not the equivalent of a sustained foreign policy. Those who see democracy breaking out all over Eastern Europe should look more closely at what might hide under the democratic label. There are strong possibilities, as in post-1960 Africa, that the new regimes will indeed opt for “democracy,” not because they actually believe in it or mean to practice it but because it has become a universal, thus increasingly meaningless, term with a greatly varied bag of contents. The form it takes in Latvia will be quite different from that in Bulgaria.

Geopolitics commands the elements of political choice. Placed between a reunited Germany and a convalescent, hence temporarily weak, Russia, Eastern Europe can look forward to years of adjustment in the region’s power equilibrium. In reality, the current situation favors Germany, the big winner in the present upheaval. A united Germany is likely to instill a new vigor to national feelings. Germany’s Prussian half, although numerically in the minority, may become a pole of attraction for the rest of the country. Was East Germany not hardened by Marxism and by suffering, is it not exposed to the East, is it not more historically conscious than the West German consumer society? Will the reunited nation (its capital, Berlin) not repudiate the French connection? Will relations not cool with Washington?

These reflections serve as reminders that Washington cannot take for granted either Fukuyama’s Hegelian rhapsody or its own blueprint of post-Soviet democracy in Eastern Europe. Nationalistic feelings aroused by recent developments already show signs of reigniting old controversies. Germans in Poland greeted Helmut Kohl as “our chancellor”; Hungarians claim parts of Transylvania; Rumania wants Bessarabia back; Yugoslavia may dissolve at any time; Bulgarians, remembering Ottoman suppression, attack their Turkish minority. For years Russian dominance froze inter-satellite hostilities. We may see them soon erupt.

Given all this, one must remain skeptical about Washington’s hope of Eastern Europe choosing democracy and joining the western orbit. Nationalism, now intensified by its long forcible denial, is not a promoter of the democratic system, whether in Argentina or Rumania. Fukuyama and other enthusiasts of democracy have broken out the champagne bottles a little too early. Democracy seems to require for its success a bourgeois social consciousness based, as in the United States, in sustained prosperity, political moderation, and a liberal tradition. These factors do not exist in Eastern Europe, where the Communist regimes have left behind massive social dislocation, a tenacious nomenklatura, and a proletarianized mass of ideologically rootless and politically skeptical individuals. The dominant political creed is: everyone for himself. True, this leaderless population was able to storm the new Bastilles, the Berlin Wall and Ceausescu’s luxury palace. But they did so not so much in the expectation of democracy as of a modicum of well-being and freedom of movement that almost any successor regime can satisfy.

Washington would be well advised not to put all its political hopes in one basket, thereby contributing to the blockage of Eastern European evolution. The tremendous significance of 1989 was precisely to open up a whole bundle of historical possibilities the outcome of which it would be folly prematurely to attempt to prescribe.

Thomas Molnar is a professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York. He is the author of Twin Powers: Politics and the Sacred.

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