For years, the Berlin Wall stood as a symbol of the division between Eastern and Western Europe. So when East and West Berliners tore it down one night in November of 1989, it seemed as though this division would break down, too. Communist regimes throughout the region were replaced by democratically elected governments, and in 1991 even the mighty Soviet Union broke apart.
Yet, 20 years later, the division in Europe that seemed as if it could be broken down as easily as the wall persists. Although it has moved hundreds of miles eastward, the geographic line between members and non-members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is as divisive as it was when the organization was first formed in 1949. Beyond where NATO’s membership ends in Eastern Europe, a resurgent Russia now tries to assert its influence, with little interference from Western powers.
Cities on both sides of this line are full of modern skyscrapers and designer retailers from the West, but the statues that grace their parks and squares make it clear which side of the line one is on. In Budapest, Lenin can only be found in the kitschy Statue Park outside the city, but he still stands in the center of Simferopol, the capital of the Autonomous Region of Crimea in Ukraine, and his name graces buildings and even the metro system in Moscow.
A country’s treatment of old communist heroes does not, of course, indicate its political stance. Communism was not a foreign imposition in Moscow, unlike in Poland, where the Red Army’s presence there after the Second World War played a large role in installing a communist government. It’s not unreasonable that Russians should look back on their past with mixed feelings, at least. However, the divergent views in East and West about the communist past point to a more significant difference in each region’s dealings with present-day Russia.
Russia can do little more than fuss about actions like the planned missile-defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland that was recently scrapped by the Obama administration. But it has a much more powerful hand in non-NATO member countries, where the alliance is less willing to intervene directly. It has been suggested that last year’s war between Russia and Georgia, which resulted in Russia’s recognition of the independence of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, was a retaliation against U.S. support of Ukraine and Georgia’s NATO membership bids. And Russian President Dmitri Medvedev apparently has no qualms about stating his displeasure about Ukraine’s overtures toward Western Europe.
Even disregarding Russian policies, the political divide between West and East has barely decreased since 1989. Ukraine is the only non-NATO country to be rated “free” in Freedom House’s most recent analysis of the former Soviet Socialist Republics, and even democratic Ukraine is the focus of Russian attempts to influence its presidential election in January. Although Western brand names are making inroads in many of these countries, opening stores and making goods available that would have been unheard of in communist days, democratic elections and free speech are often still lacking.
There is no doubt that 1989 was a miraculous year. The countries of Eastern Europe that the Soviet Union had held under tight political control, under threat of military invasion, broke free of this yoke, and many went on to join NATO and the European Union. But as we celebrate the anniversary of the fall of communism in Central Europe, we should remember that not every country behind the Iron Curtain followed the path of those that have successfully entered the fold of Western Europe. Joyous Berliners broke down their wall 20 years ago today—but with Russia’s political influence and their own non-democratic governments to contend with, the countries east of NATO’s influence are still not completely free.
Ellen C. Bryson ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Cabot House.