Breaking barriers | Monocle

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History turns on moments. On 19 August 1989, Árpád Bella was the duty border guard at Sopronpuszta on the Hungarian-Austrian border. Glasnost was flowering in Moscow under Mikhail Gorbachev and the Iron Curtain was already crumbling.

Bella’s orders that aday were to open the frontier at 15.00 to allow official delegations to cross back and forth. But the thousands of East Germans camped nearby had other ideas. They surged forward and ran into Austria. Bella told his colleagues to stand aside. “In everyone’s life there are moments when they have to take a fateful decision. I kept a straight face but I was churning inside. And I did the right thing,” he later recalled.

It was the beginning of the end of Communism, the Cold War and the Soviet Union itself. Twenty-five years later it seems incredible that half a continent was once sealed off by minefields and death strips, its population living miserable lives in one-party states that denied them basic freedoms.

The transformation of the former Soviet bloc countries into democracies is one of the greatest success stories of modern history. Tumultuous changes in regime usually result in upheaval and bloodshed. Apart from Romania, the revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe were largely peaceful. Even the dissolution of the former Czechoslovakia into two sovereign states was accomplished without violence.

Free of Soviet domination, Centraland Eastern Europe quickly flowered. Foreign investment has poured in, revitalising once moribund economies. Poland is a powerhouse, shaping European policy. Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava and Budapest are booming, attracting investors and tourists.

The EU has provided a framework of stability and billions of euros to rebuild crumbling infrastructure. Across the Schengen zone, from Portugal’s Atlantic coast to the Romanian frontier, borders no longer exist. A whole generation has grown up taking for granted the fact that a budget airline will speed them wherever they wish to go, cheaply and with no need for visas. Yet history still casts a long shadow. Yugoslavia dissolved into its constituent republics, triggering multiple wars and a terrible cost in bloodshed and human suffering. Croatia and Slovenia have joined the EU but Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina remain hobbled by corruption and weak governments. Enlargement fatigue in Brussels means they are unlikely to join the EU any time soon.

In all the former Communist countries democracy remains a work in progress, demanding more than a simple universal franchise. It requires independent, accountable institutions, a free media and judiciary, enforceable property rights and the rule of law. Most of all it depends on a population that feels it has a real stake in society and its political processes. These are still lacking and not only in the Balkans. Politics and business are often entwined in a nexus of mutual advantage, while cronies are granted lucrative tenders. The old Communist era mind-set of short-termism, personal profit and winner-takes-all still flourishes.

In Hungary, prime minister Viktor Orbán has centralised political and economic power to a worrying degree. Corruption is rampant in Romania and Bulgaria. In Slovakia the judiciary is widely mistrusted. In the Czech Republic trust in EU institutions has slumped to an all-time low of 34 per cent.

Russia, too, continues to cast a long shadow. The de facto war in Ukraine between the government and Russian-backed separatists has unnerved ruling powers across the region, especially in the Baltics. Few imagined, back in those heady days of 1989, that once again there could be a war on European soil. So while the region celebrates the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Iron Curtain, it keeps a wary eye on the east.

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