Globetrotter - Eastern Europe since the fall of the wall
Published 3:59 pm, Monday, January 3, 2011
At the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall it is exciting to realize how the former "Iron Curtain" countries have progressed since that historic event. This has not entirely surprised me since in a trip to Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1991 I could see the beginnings of their road to success. The Berlin Wall had recently fallen and the local League of Women Voters sponsored a trip to these former Soviet satellite countries. The purpose was to meet with some of the Hungarian, Polish and Czech government officials, especially women, who were leading the effort to democratize and revive economically the former Russian dominated countries.
We started in Budapest which is a beautiful and historic city with vivid contrasts of ancient and modern. Several of the bridges were named after Hapsburg empresses and Buda -- the older part of the city-- is the site of Castle Hill where many of the Emperors were crowned and lived. Even so soon after the fall of the Wall, however, some modern western influences had crept in. For example, there was a sign over the metro advertising a Burger King.
As Hungary rebuilt its factories and its economy picked up we learned that pollution was a serious concern. In our role as political emissaries, in recognition of the importance of the environment, and to encourage the Hungarian effort in this regard; we planted a white birch tree in the City Park next to a statue of George Washington. Indeed when I returned to Budapest some ten years later the tree had grown as Hungary had prospered.
Members of the Hungarian Environmental Department met with us to discuss Hungarian environmental problems and what they were attempting to do about them. They expressed their concern about the pollution of the Danube River, the drying up of its waters and the dying of its fish. Hungary was working with Austria, Czechoslovakia and other neighbors on a project to improve the situation. The dilemma the countries faced just after they had thrown off the Russian yoke was which was more important economic growth or environmental measures which would be costly and do away with industrial jobs?
We wanted to experience Eastern Europe as well as meet with officials, and our drive through the Tatra Mountains from Hungary to into Poland -- not to mention the historic city of Krakow -- was beautiful. The farmlands were lush with vegetables ready to harvest and on sale at stands along the highway, and the mountains were just getting their first coating of early snow. Bear and Lynx prowled the area and there were new hotels being built to accommodate the ski areas under development.
When we reached Warsaw the emphasis turned from environmental concerns to politics as we met with two women very much involved with the developing Polish democracy. Professor Zofia Kurstowska M.D. was a Member of Parliament and Mrs. Hanne Trzeclkowska a translator and wife of a senator. Our discussion centered on the state of the fledgling Polish democracy, its economy and the role of women. One of our group was fluent in Polish which added a warm note to the meeting.
These themes continued when we reached the castle dominated city of Prague, Czechoslovakia. Our guide, Gabi, said she felt that Czechoslovakia had made the fastest progress of the three countries, economically, since the fall of the Berlin Wall. We met with members of the Czech Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Czechoslovakia at that time was still one country and the Federal Government set the overall guidelines while the Czechs and the Slovaks implemented those guidelines in their areas. Slovakia, which had been the country's center for military industries, was experiencing high unemployment as it changed to a peacetime market economy. Childcare was a particular problem since 45 percent of the women were in the work force. The panel we met with felt that people had been too dependent on the state and needed to change their way of thinking.
At a meeting with members of the European Study Center headquartered in Prague we learned how the three ex-satellite countries were working together to solve their problems. The Center had three branches: one to work on developing their democracies including relationships between political parties and the role of government; a second for economic restructuring to shift to a market economy; and three -- security -- to change from a military to an anti-crime and anti-violence model.
I returned from that 1991 trip impressed with the way the three countries were adapting to their new independence. After their experience under a police state, however, many people were anti-police. They reveled in their new freedom but unemployment was a source of discontent and, unfortunately, with less police control crime was up. With the unfettered growth of industries so was pollution. Despite these problems it was exciting to see how the countries were working together to solve their common problems.
I revisited Hungary, and the now two separate countries - the Czech Republic and Slovakia - some ten years later. They are active members of the European Union and seem to be well on their way to reaching the goals they set for themselves. While I did not return to Poland, I read recently in the New York Times that Poland's economy is now one of the strongest in the European Union. I feel that these nations have made significant progress both politically and economically since the fall of the Berlin Wall.