Comments of Chairman Lantos at hearing, “Central and Eastern Europe: Assessing the Democratic Transition”
As the last decade of the 20th Century dawned, the weight of Soviet domination slipped from the shoulders of weary Central and East Europeans. The people of the region celebrated their release from the shackles of repression. But their euphoria quickly fostered dramatically exaggerated expectations for economic improvement. They obviously couldn’t reach these unrealistic goals.
Over the past two decades, living conditions have become infinitely superior for tens of millions of people in these countries. But the majority still has standards of living significantly behind those of Western Europe. With this gap between expectation and reality, old political, ideological, and religious divisions have re-emerged.
What should have been an ebullient, golden era of growth and hope has become a time of discontent, divisiveness, and recriminations for many. There are now governments in Central and Eastern Europe which are battling against anti-democratic, corrupt and extremist tendencies. Anti-Semitism is on the rise. Over the past few years, there has been resistance to introducing necessary political and economic reforms in the Czech Republic, in Poland, in Slovakia and in Hungary. The governments in Romania and Bulgaria are still grappling with severe corruption. In short, the region has come a long way, but it has been a rough road – and there is still considerable distance to go.
NATO and the European Union have expanded to include 10 Central and Eastern European countries; these are historic, unprecedented, undreamed-of achievements. But to be fully realized, the benefits of those expansions must be accompanied by continuing domestic reform in these countries.
If I may digress for a moment from my official statement, I traveled with then-Secretary of State Albright and the foreign ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to independence, Missouri, when these countries became officially members of NATO. It was a moment of unprecedented, undreamed-of triumph. For a thousand years, these countries had been trying to become part of the West. And with the signing of the NATO documents at the Truman Library, the dream became a reality. But that moment of euphoria has been somewhat sullied by recent political and, to some extent, economic developments.
A leadership vacuum in Western Europe, coupled with our own country’s preoccupation with Iraq, left neither neighboring powers like Germany or France nor the United States willing or able to exert positive influence. Western European leaders such as Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder were more interested in using anti-Americanism and nationalism to consolidate their own political support at home and in European institutions than in joining us in building open, democratic, and tolerant societies in the Central and Eastern Europe.
Unsurprisingly, it was not long before Russia under Putin began to work to regain its influence in the region. The explosion of oil prices gave the Putin government the opportunity to assert itself – not by military might, but by strong-arm economic tactics. Putin holds Central and Eastern Europe hostage with the sustenance it desperately needs – energy. If we look at Ukraine, Georgia and Estonia, no one in the international community can doubt that Putin will take every opportunity to re-establish political and economic power in the region.
Russia is using anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism to wreak havoc. Putin’s shameful rhetoric on the U.S. administration’s proposed anti-missile defense system – including his recently-announced suspension of Russia’s obligations under the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe that protects these nations – does not help anyone. No one is more aware than the Kremlin that the proposed missile defense system has nothing to do with Russia, but his claims fit neatly into the spiteful rhetoric emanating from Moscow these days.
Russia is also hindering the development of peace in the Balkans by refusing to work with the international community on resolving the final status of Kosova. By threatening to veto a realistic and pragmatic resolution in the UN Security Council that would allow for the long-deserved independence of Kosova, Russia is being obstructionist and obstinate. Internal disagreements within the European Union are further preventing an important and urgently needed resolution to this war-torn corner of Europe.
Nearly two decades ago, we envisioned that by now, Central and Eastern Europe would have created enlightened governments and enlightened economic policies. Many of them have done so – but not consistently. And others are still struggling to elect progressive and serious and forward-looking leaders.
To move them in the right direction, we need to revitalize the transatlantic alliance. Western European leaders and U.S. diplomats, working together, should remind the people of Central and Eastern Europe that they have never had it so good, that there is no need to latch onto divisive and dangerous rhetoric. And we should work together to help create conditions in the region that lay the foundations for long-term hope.
Only with governments that are fully democratic and tolerant, working to establish markets that are fully open and uncorrupt, can we eventually recapture the buoyant spirit that swept Central and Eastern Europe two decades ago. And only through total European cooperation on basic economic and political principles of democracy – from Ireland to Estonia, from Finland to Bulgaria – can we ensure the whole continent enjoys a peaceful and prosperous 21st century.