Wake Up, Central Europe

History is back.

Several years ago, we Central Europeans started to undertake various programs in the post-Soviet and Western Balkan countries, teaching them democracy and market economics and, in a well-meaning manner, persuading them to follow the paths of transformation that had brought us, as we believed, nothing but material fulfillment, self-satisfaction and a sense of mission. Being so besotted with our post-1989 success, we thought that history had forgotten about us, that we had somehow escaped the guillotine that had been hanging over us for so many centuries.

We were wrong, though. Georgia should have opened our eyes. But in 2008, Central European countries were more divided than ever before. Heady from our recent accessions to the European Union, we were marking the last days of our welfare states with the music that we believed would never stop. At that very moment, we were not able to speak with one voice on Russian aggression in Georgia, and pretended that South Caucasus was somewhere on another planet—in a different universe, even—somewhere that had not been blessed by a post–Cold War awakening (and what a shame we thought that was). But, quite symbolically, neither was there any common position in the region on such issues as the U.S. missile-defense system. We thought we could play with the big boys all by ourselves.

So in the following years, we played with Russia as if it were a reasonable player. The first shock came in 2009, after the gas dispute with Ukraine, when our Russian partners brought their unpredictability and restlessness home to us directly. But still, this was only a small bump on the long road to good, pragmatic cooperation, we told ourselves. We thus continued inviting Russian state companies to our countries, foolishly believing in the popular sayings about capital having no nationality and economics being different from politics. We were shaking hands with Putin, who praised us for our smart bilateralism with Moscow.

On these foundations, we quite hastily built in ourselves the belief that we were finally being treated as partners, not as spheres of influence. Indeed, it gave us pleasure to see how gracefully we danced between East and West, being part of the big European family, doing business with Russia and educating the poor devils from post-Soviet countries. It was a level of self-satisfaction that we had never achieved before.

At the same time, our media kept telling us that all we had to do was have fun and enjoy our leisure, which, along with our new iPods and shopping centers, showed how gracious Western life could be in comparison with the puritanism of communism. We were led to believe that there was no time for “serious things.” When the world rocked, in Georgia, Libya, or Syria, we watched it like an exciting action movie, and, just to feel better, we sometimes gave our feverish support to the victims via Facebook or Twitter. This was, as we learned, the only thing we could do. Afterwards, we always shook off the crumbs of popcorn and returned to our replete lives. Geopolitics no longer mattered, we claimed. And nor did history. In that sense, Fukuyama was right; the post-1989 period was a time of end of history. We simply forgot about it.

But now is the time to wake up, Central Europe. For so many years, we watched calmly as Russia played a game of divide and rule in our region, which was only able to speak with one voice in a few cases. We were sure that, along with our accession to the Western structures, our place in the world, between Germany and Russia, had somehow changed. It has not. We may be wealthier, better educated and better connected than earlier generations, but we are just as exposed to the unpredictability of our eastern neighbor as they were a hundred years ago. Now, we are all members of NATO, a fact that should surely be some consolation, but if history teaches us anything, it is that such alliances should not be overrated, especially at a time of U.S. retrenchment, but should be treated rather as a supplement to national defense capabilities.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which, unlike Georgia, is not on another planet, but right next door, should remind us not only of where we are on the map, but also of how fragile the heritage of the past twenty-five years can turn out to be. In Warsaw, Budapest, Bratislava, Prague, Bucharest and Sofia, one must realize that there will be no hesitation to reconstruct nineteenth-century methods of doing politics in this region, if the right excuse appears. This excuse may be anything, maybe the protection of minorities or economic interests. Edward R. Murrow once said that our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, then history will take revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with us. Despite having different cultures or religions, we share similar memories, and that is why it is here, not in Washington or Berlin, that the new discourse about Europe and Russia should be born.

Dariusz Kałan is a research fellow and Central Europe analyst at PISM (the Polish Institute of International Affairs) in Warsaw.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Adam Csaba Szegvari. CC BY-SA 2.0.