New Freedoms, Old Problems : Eastern Europe Has Struggled to Overcome the Heritage of Political Repression and Marxist Economics

Article excerpt

Freedom during communist times sounds like the Cold War joke about an American and a Russian arguing whose country was free. The American declares that he can stand in front of the White House and shout "Down with the American president." And the Russian replies: "I can do the same: I can stand in front of the Kremlin and also shout 'Down with the American president.' "

Ten years after the fall of communism, people can demand the resignation of their government everywhere in eastern Europe, even in Serbia. But freedom has proved to be a much more complicated issue, one that depends on the entire democratization process.

After the Berlin Wall fell, several regimes in eastern Europe transformed into nationalist authoritarian systems that retained control over political life, the media, and the justice system. The leaders of Serbia, Belarus, and Croatia view an independent judiciary and a free press as a threat to their power. They use every possible means to regulate, limit, or ignore individual freedoms. The range of instruments ensuring state control includes censorship, the persecution of journalists, and the politicization of the security forces.

In the majority of postcommunist countries, the democratization process seems irreversible and significant progress is being made in guaranteeing human rights. However, even in the most advanced emerging democracies, such as Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, discrimination against some ethnic minorities and religious groups is still prevalent.

Nationalism and ethnic conflicts have appeared to differing degrees in virtually all the former Soviet bloc states. The consequences varied from cultural or legal disputes to armed conflicts and horrifying ethnic cleansing. While ethnic tensions and discriminatory practices are gradually being resolved in countries exhibiting a serious commitment to democracy, in Serbia they resulted in yet another campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against the Kosovo Albanians. At the same time, discrimination against the Roma (Gypsy) population is a widespread phenomenon in almost every country where Romas have lived for centuries. Czech Human Rights Commissioner Petr Uhl recently emphasized that the Romany problem is Europe's problem.

Establishing the rule of law has proved to be the most arduous process throughout eastern Europe. The new constitutions were created in the first years after the fall of communism, but implementation of most human rights provisions was delayed. Although the separation of powers is formally accepted, state officials often continue to interfere in the judicial system. In many cases, governments either bypass the law or are unable to ensure its implementation.

Despite these lingering questions, most countries, with the exception of openly authoritarian regimes, have achieved significant progress in passing new legislation and creating conditions for democratization. This was a major challenge for the new politicians who were brought up under communism.

The communist legacy

The communist system was not only a centrally planned economy with "collective" property. It was a system that denied individuals the most essential freedoms and attempted to destroy human individuality. One- party rule did not allow people to live according to their own volition and openly express their opinions. Graves, concentration camps, and political prisoners were the hallmarks of communism throughout Eastern Europe.

State control often reached such levels of absurdity that George Orwell's book Nineteen Eighty-Four looked like a documentary. For example, in the 1960s and '70s, during the Western hippie movement, young people in the communist bloc could fall afoul of the law by listening to rock music. Girls were not allowed to wear miniskirts. In Albania even cosmetics were forbidden. Police officers were empowered to cut young men's hair or shave their beards. …