East Loves West

By Miller, Karen Lowry; Agovino, Theresa et al. | Newsweek International, September 25, 2000 | Go to article overview

East Loves West


Miller, Karen Lowry, Agovino, Theresa, Krosnar, Katka, Newsweek International


Growing up in the 1980s near the Gdansk shipyard, the birthplace of Poland's Solidarity movement, Marek Borzestowski dreamed of escaping communism and becoming a wandering philosopher. His hope was hardly fulfilled by road trips to Bulgaria, where his family would sell face cream and drills, though eventually they built a house with the $5,000 they made as peddlers. Release finally came when the Berlin wall fell in 1989, the year Borzestowski graduated from high school. For two months he hitchhiked through Western Europe, drinking Coke, eating bananas--and plotting ways to hold on to these simple luxuries. Within three years he had landed a spot studying management in Wales, where he sent his first e-mail, and then in Germany, where he learned to surf the Web. That was a big advantage for an ambitious young Pole. In 1995, with $1,000 in savings, he cofounded Wirtualna Polska, a fast-growing Internet portal that now has 260 employees, raised $20 million from big-name investors like Intel, and plans to go public next year. "Young people need to get out and see how different life can be," he says between board meetings at his freshly painted new headquarters in Gdansk. "And not just living standards--I mean values and attitudes to life that didn't exist here."

At 29, Borzestowski is typical of a new divide in Europe, where the most enthusiastic fans of "Western values" are often young elites in the East. Just one decade after the collapse of communism, and with membership in the European Union only a few years away, upwardly mobile young Poles, Czechs and Hungarians are thrilled to be welcomed as debutants by a global society. After living behind the barbed wire for so long, they are not as jaded about the shortfalls of democracy and capitalism as their Western peers. They are still pleased just to live in cities where demonstrations are no longer a crime, and many now cast a jaundiced eye on the antiglobalization protesters who are preparing to descend by the tens of thousands on the IMF/World Bank meeting in Prague next week (following story). For many, the Prague meeting is a coming-out bash not only for hard-charging national elites, but for all of Eastern Europe. "This is a big chance for us to sign up for the common responsibility for the state of the world and to voice our opinion," Czech President Vaclav Havel told NEWSWEEK.

The loudest voices will be those of young East Europeans. They are the region's first free generation in 50 years--though they are not yet free of the past. Their grandparents survived Stalinist purges, Russian tanks and violent crackdowns. Their parents resigned themselves to living with an assigned job for life, a rattletrap Skoda in the driveway and a holiday at a state-run spa. The under-30 crowd is too young to be poisoned by the previous system, but old enough to remember a child's impression of the bad old days--television blackouts, no ice cream in winter, stores that made you wait in line for five days to buy a refrigerator. For the offspring of communism, globalization means a passport, a laptop and the right to order all the Western books and music they want over the Internet. So what of the mostly Western activists who are heading to Prague to protest the shortcomings of capitalism and democracy? "They are naive," scoffs Michal Kaminski, at 28 Poland's youngest member of Parliament. "They are too comfortable and have nothing better to do."

Central Europe's up-and-comers are too busy rebuilding their battered economies to dwell for too long on the evils of global brands. They are launching companies that create jobs and embracing the foreign investors who bring new skills and missing know-how. And they are eager to join the European Union as a way of confirming that they are, at long last, accepted as citizens of the free world. "I'm offended when people say we are going to join Europe," says Anna Wosinska, 30, a tech specialist with the Boston Consulting Group in Warsaw who has studied in the United States, worked in Japan and paid for her first computer by picking strawberries one summer in Finland. …

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