SINCE SEPTEMBER 11, senior American policymakers have been understandably focused on the war against terrorism--an effort that fixes their gaze on the Middle East and Central Asia, terror cells in western Europe and Southeast Asia, and the exigencies of homeland security. In their peripheral vision, they remain aware of other major zones of policy concern: Russia, China and Taiwan, the Balkans (still), and even the occasional bout of dyspepsia in places such as Argentina and Venezuela. Thank heaven, therefore, for those unproblematic spots that do not generate problems and the consequent need to spend energy and anxiety on them--places like central and eastern Europe.
Alas, we should not yet be so thankful. While we have been attending to other, more pressing matters over the past half dozen or so years, the post-communist success stories that most people expected to write themselves after 1989 have turned into tales with rather mixed plot lines. Intentions and expectations have fallen out of harmony with one another. Thus it is that the road to NATO's November 2002 summit in Prague is paved with good intentions--and outdated expectations.
The intention is to invite as many as seven countries from central and eastern Europe--Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from the Baltics; Slovakia and Slovenia from central Europe; and Romania and Bulgaria from the Black Sea region--to join the organization. Together with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, admitted in 1999, they make up a sort of "top ten" of the post-communist world. These ten have accomplished much more than their neighbors in the Balkans and the non-Baltic parts of the former Soviet Union and, not surprisingly, are among the leading candidates for early entry into the European Union.
That said, all is not well in Mitteleuropa--that broad and endlessly fascinating swath of land formerly part of the Habsburg Empire--and its environs. The expectations of the 1990s were excessive. Many who should have known better assumed that history and civilization would inevitably tie these countries to the West--that they would quickly achieve genuine democracy and become eager allies. It has not been that way. (1.) Rising nationalism has diluted the intensity of the region's commitment to the rule of law and to the spirit of tolerance. Since joining NATO, both the Czech Republic and Hungary have often ignored Western advice. Indeed, unless an appropriate method is found to discipline members for their misdeeds, the utility of NATO as an instrument of Western influence in central and eastern Europe will begin to diminish the very moment these new applicants become members.
For this reason, supporters of Washington's plan for NATO enlargement later this year, like this writer, should make their case based on a candid evaluation of recent trends in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and on an equally candid assessment of what the new candidates are like and may be expected from them. The principal concern is that while the so-called transition from the one-party dictatorships and planned economies of the communist past is well underway, it is still uncertain that change will lead to Western-style democracies and free markets. Widespread official corruption erodes the popular appeal of the capitalist enterprise as nostalgia for the meager benefits of the old welfare state persists. The appeal of national identity, culture and tradition, neglected, manipulated or suppressed under Soviet domination, competes vigorously now with the attraction of integration into NATO and the EU. In power, moderate conservatives, liberals and social democrats find themselves squeezed by demagog ues at both ends of the political spectrum--especially by the anti-U.S., anti-EU and anti-semitic far Right-with bitter charges and countercharges evoking old prejudices rooted in historical precedents, myths, stereotypes and scapegoats.
Such negative aspects of the post-communist experience prompt the peoples of central and eastern Europe to view their daily lives and future prospects in hues far darker than those of more sanguine Western press assessments. This is true not only in normally gloomy Hungary but also in normally more optimistic Poland; in poor Romania and in the relatively prosperous Czech Republic; in historically pro-Russian Bulgaria and in the intensely anti-Russian Baltic states. And this is why, with only one exception (in tiny Slovenia), publics in these countries have failed to re-elect any of their governments since 1989; instead, they have preferred to throw the bums out with the next election. Since the restoration of its independence in 1991, Latvia has changed its government at the rate of about once a year. In several countries, including the region's two most populous states, Poland and Romania, as well as in Hungary and the Czech …