Beyond the Wall: From Germany to Bulgaria, What Happened to Hope?


Scroll to watch part one of the two-part investigation

Last November, celebrations to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall were overshadowed by a palpable sense of unease in parts of Europe.

To be sure, the events of those weeks through late 1989 and beyond were hugely significant – iconic moments in history that came to symbolise the end of the Cold War and the decades of nuclear-tipped standoff between West and East.

Many Europeans felt that things could never be the same again, that their continent had seen the back of communist totalitarianism and repression and that a new age of peace and prosperity and democracy beckoned.

But in the years since, some of those dreams have turned sour amid rising xenophobia and nationalism in nations that once lay behind the Iron Curtain. Heady enthusiasm has been replaced by growing uncertainty, the world has somehow become darker and more menacing than many ever believed it would be. Things, in other words, didn’t quite turn out as the optimists expected.

There are myriad reasons for this – and of course, many of them are linked to the wider global political and economic concerns that have emerged over the last 30 years – but at least some of what troubles the continent now can be traced back to the scars left by the Cold War and the way countries handled the transition away from the authoritarianism that suffocated parts of Eastern Europe for so long.

For this two-part special report, People & Power sent filmmakers Glenn Ellis and Viktoryia Kolchyna to find out more.


Beyond the Wall Part 1: The Rise of Germany’s Far Right


By Glenn Ellis

It was an interesting project – to be asked to find out what had happened to the euphoria that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago and the subsequent collapse of the communist regimes (pliant satellites of the former Soviet Union) that once ran like a spine through Central and Eastern Europe.

Because one thing was clear to us, three decades on, Europe is once again in a state of flux. Populism has taken root in several European capitals and the continent seems more polarised.

The collapse of communism between 1989 and 1990 has arguably failed to produce the panacea that many had anticipated from democracy.

Instead, it now seems to many people we spoke to that Soviet-era authoritarianism had kept a lid on the age-old demons of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and nationalism. And, far from boosting living standards as expected, the Western-style economic model people had once yearned for has instead created an underclass across much of Eastern Europe, leading some to even lament the passing of the dictators who had made their parents’ lives such a misery.

While no one can seriously question that great strides have been made in terms of the human rights which in the West most take for granted, the unified continent – in the eyes of many of its eastern peoples at least – is not the land of enlightenment and plenty that they had hoped for. We wanted to try and find out why.

‘The Poles knocked out the Soviet bear’s teeth’

At the start of 1989, half of the continent remained locked into a seemingly hopeless future. Communist autocrats of varied severity held say from the Baltics to the Black Sea. People were still being shot for attempting to cross the Berlin Wall. No one could have predicted the changes to come.

West Berliners crowd in front of the Ber

West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 as they watch East German border guards demolishing a section of the wall in order to open a new crossing point between East and West Berlin.  [AFP]

The first murmurings had come in Poland when Solidarity leader Lech Walesa somehow managed to steer his country towards democracy. I was lucky enough to meet Walesa at the Solidarity Museum in Gdansk.

Most of the important Cold War figures from this period, people like the Czech writer and activist Vaclav Havel and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, are no longer with us – making Walesa’s perspective all the more valuable.

“After the second world war, in half the world, they installed Soviet communism, without asking the people for their consent,” he told me. “We wanted to free ourselves from this system. And of course, the role of Poland was important. I always say that the Poles knocked out the Soviet bear’s teeth. And when he could not bite any more, other countries could free themselves, too.”

The breakthrough came on June 4, 1989, when, for the first time in half a century, partially free elections were held in Poland, paving the way for full democracy. Solidarity took 99 percent of the vote, an opening gambit in a chain of events that would leave Europe looking very different by the end of the year.

Five months later on November 9, the Berlin Wall fell and the world changed forever.

With the benefit of hindsight, it perhaps now seems inevitable. Back then, it didn’t, as Lech Walesa recalls:

“I was in Warsaw for a short period as I had a meeting with the German government. They came to Poland on an official visit. I remember asking, ‘Sirs, if the Berlin Wall falls down and then the Soviet Union … are you ready for this?’

“Chancellor Kohl was sitting nearby, but it was Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher who answered: ‘Dear sir, we want to have problems like this,’ he said, ‘But this will not happen during our lifetimes. Big trees will grow on our graves before this comes to pass.’

“However, they had to cut short their visit because the Berlin Wall fell that very night. But don’t get me wrong, in those days all the smart people, who counted the tanks, rockets and soldiers of the eastern bloc thought that only nuclear war could change that reality.”

The outbreak of democracy

Within days the German Democratic Republic collapsed and the outbreak of democracy soon spread to Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria.

But parts of the continent are once again in disarray. Nationalism is on the rise, and entrenched corruption has created a new class of powerful oligarchs who have plundered the wealth of the burgeoning democracies in east and central Europe – with the knock-on effect that entire regions have become depopulated as millions head west to escape poverty.

Take Bulgaria, where something like three million people have left. I flew to the capital Sofia to meet a former prime minister to discuss the problems facing his country. But this was no ordinary politician; as far as I know, King Simeon II is the only monarch to have become prime minister, having won a landslide election victory on his return from exile after the collapse of the communist regime.

King Simeon - People & Power Beyond the Wall (Glenn Ellis)

“We’ve got a major problem which is endemic, that over the past 20 or so years we are decreasing. There are a lot of villages which are empty,” says King Simeon II. [Al Jazeera]

The king gave me a brief tour of his modest palace, pointing out of a window to a spot where he told me the RAF had dropped a bomb in 1942.

“There was an enormous crater,” he said, “We called it the Churchill pond after it filled with rainwater.”

One of Bulgaria’s first victims of communism, King Simeon II ascended the throne aged six after the mysterious death of his father, Tsar Boris III, who was reportedly poisoned on Hitler’s orders for refusing to send Bulgarian Jews to Nazi death camps. As Germany began to lose ground to the Soviet Union in the latter stages of World War II, the Red Army occupied Bulgaria and killed Simeon’s uncle, the regent. The boy-king and his mother were exiled. It would be half a century before he could return to his native soil.

“It wasn’t the moment that I stepped out, shall we say set foot physically on it … It was when the plane touched down on the runway when I had a tremendous lot of emotions, and my wife realised it, because it was actually 50 years later that suddenly I was landing in Bulgaria.”

It was a land unrecognisable to the king, a command economy had transformed the country, and almost everything of value had been taken from the people and put in the hands of the state. Crushing poverty with few opportunities led to an exodus of almost 30 percent of the population, leaving the elderly behind.

“We’ve got a major problem which is endemic, that over the past 20 or so years we are decreasing. There are a lot of villages which are empty,” the king concluded. “This is a sad phenomenon.”

Indeed, today there are 1,500 deserted villages throughout Bulgaria, a trend that shows no sign of abating and which we found in many eastern parts of the continent.

Poland’s descent into populism

Bulgaria has however avoided at least some of the intolerance that is becoming apparent elsewhere, most notably in Hungary and Poland to the north. In the latter the Law and Justice party, PIS, currently holds sway.

As the European elections loomed last October, PIS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski – unquestionably the man who pulls the strings in Poland – attacked the very notion of LGBT rights: “We want to say it clearly. We are saying ‘no!’ Especially when it concerns children. Stay away from our children!”

Kaczynski’s words were an echo of an earlier PIS play on the fear of foreigners during the 2015 parliamentary election when, at the height of the refugee crisis, he warned of migrants endangering Poles with “all sorts of parasites and protozoa”, a comment which human rights activists say led to a sharp rise in racist hate crime. It may not be unconnected, they add, that following Kaczynski’s latest outburst the LGBT community has also suffered a surge in homophobic attacks.

Poland party convention

Poland’s Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski speaks during a party convention in Lublin on September 7, 2019. [Agencja Gazeta/Reuters]

But although this kind of inflammatory speech has played well with elements of the Polish electorate who keep returning PIS to power, the country’s descent into populism took many by surprise – it was seen as the outstanding success story of post-communist Eastern Europe, with a vibrant artistic scene and high levels of tolerance and cohesion.

However, according to Kaczynski critics like Lech Walesa, in the last few years, much of this cohesion has been eroded and the country has become dangerously polarised.

“Here democracy is discarded,” he says. “Due to this disregard, power is given to the hands of populists and demagogues. We are in trouble.'”

‘A new illiberal state in the heart of Europe’

Hungary, of course, is where Prime Minister Viktor Orban ordered the construction of a heavily guarded border fence topped with razor wire to keep out asylum seekers – an ironic twist in the country which first dismantled its iron curtain back in 1989.

Hungary now has Europe’s most hostile policy towards refugees. Those who make it through are even sometimes denied food. According to Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, “In August last year, we heard of the first cases where people were held in detention at the border transit zones. But the authorities had stopped giving the adults food.”

She told us this over coffee in Budapest and then described how Orban’s Fidesz government has presided over rising levels of anti-Semitism. One close friend of the prime minister, a cofounder of the Fidesz party, Zsolt Bayer, has reportedly advocated a “final solution” for Hungary’s Roma, she told me.

Like Lech Walesa, Pardavi is fearful for the future of her country, “This is a hybrid regime, a new illiberal state in the heart of Europe. It’s not a kind of political system that we have seen before. It’s a new phenomenon.”

‘Earthquake-like devastation in East German society’

It’s true that both Orban and Kaczynski’s vilification of minorities has been condemned by more liberal politicians from elsewhere in Europe, most notably in unified Germany, which is the country to which we devote most of the first episode of our two-part report.

But the truth is, in those eastern states, or Länder that once made up the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), similar levels of hate crime and xenophobia are being recorded. And just like Bulgaria, the region has also experienced a mass exodus of its citizens.

“Seventy-five percent of the people in the former GDR lost their jobs. Many East Germans felt that they were second-class Germans,” says Thomas Kruger, a former dissident, “Too little attention has been paid to the critical effects of the 30-year transformation period, and some of these have caused earthquake-like devastation in East German society through a neoliberal economic model.”

I met with Kruger in his Berlin office not far from where Checkpoint Charlie famously marked one of the few breaches in the Berlin Wall. In fact, he was the last mayor of East Berlin, in the brief window between the fall of the Wall and unification. He now heads Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education. Only 1.7 percent of leadership positions in politics, business, or academia are occupied by people of East German origin, he tells me.

In his view, the link between lack of prospects and xenophobia is all too obvious and helps explain the success of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the east of the country. The AfD leadership, which routinely uses far-right rhetoric to demonise ethnic minorities, received a major boost in the summer of 2015 when the refugee crisis began to affect Europe and Germany opened its doors to a million migrants from Syria and elsewhere.

Supporters of the Anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) attend a protest in Berlin, Germany May 27, 2018. [Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters]

Supporters of the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) attend a protest in Berlin in May 2018. [Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters]

Kruger believes the continued appeal of AFD – as evidenced in recent elections – is deeply alarming.

“A quarter of the votes cast went to the AfD. That means 75 percent still vote for democratic parties, of course, but 25 percent is a very critical sum, because it makes it clear that a not inconsiderable part of society is seriously dissatisfied and is beginning to organise itself – namely with racist positions. It is quite dangerous because such a situation can take on a life of its own.”

Pro-refugee politicians have been targeted, people like Walter Lubcke in Hessen, a leading regional member of the CDU (the party of current German Chancellor Angela Merkel), who was shot in the head by a neo-Nazi last June.

According to Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Mass, there are now at least 12,000 dangerous neo-Nazis in the country – against this backdrop, the AfD inevitably goes from strength to strength.

Romania’s fight against corruption

In Romania, there’s a similar story of problems with mass migration, but the most pressing issue there is a long-running fight against corruption, a dreadful blight on the country which can be traced right back to the revolution.

It replaced veteran communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, with Ion Iliescu, a former minister who had been groomed to succeed him. As Ceausescu was executed in December 1989, Iliescu effectively seized power claiming to be a democrat. He alleged that terrorists were threatening the country and unleashed the full force of the army – in the resulting chaos over 800 people lost their lives.

Iliescu would serve three terms as president of Romania during which time none of his former communist colleagues were brought to justice. His party, the Social Democrats, enjoyed a near-monopoly on power for years afterwards.

“He presented himself as the honest one and the one who did not enrich himself: He came in poor, he left poor, but underneath him, how about the rest of his cronies? Were they also poor? I don’t think so,” says Laura Stefan, chair of the Regional Anti-corruption Initiative, whom I caught up with in Bucharest.

“After the fall of communism, public property moved into private pockets in a time when there was no justice system.”

Nightly Protests Continue In Bucharest Despite Government Scrapping Corruption Decree

People demonstrate and protest in February 2017 in Bucharest, Romania after the government tried to introduce a decree that was widely condemned as reversing the country’s anti-corruption drive. [Matt Cardy/Getty Images]

Decades of graft brought the country to its knees. Romania’s poor are still among the poorest in the EU, with a third surviving on less than five euros ($5.55) a day. It got to the point that the EU in Brussels insisted on the establishment of the National Anticorruption Directorate in 2013 which was headed by then chief prosecutor Laura Kovesi.

Kovesi immediately began indicting corrupt politicians and recouping the billions stolen. In one famous case, more than 100 paintings, some by Picasso and Renoir, were found at the home of one government minister, while another minister used gold ingots to post his bail of half a million euros ($555,497).

Heads were rolling; the tide appeared to be turning.

Then, in the summer of 2018, Kovesi was fired by Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the ruling Social Democrats and de facto ruler of the country who was nevertheless barred from becoming prime minister because of twice himself being convicted of corruption. With Kovesi out of the way, Dragnea and other politicians began rewriting the corruption laws which if enacted would have allowed them to pardon themselves.

According to Laura Stefan, “The rule of law was rapidly deteriorating, it was happening before our eyes.” But the battle was far from over.

Street protests brought the country to a standstill and the lawmakers failed to push through the controversial legislation. And last May, Dragnea’s crimes finally caught up with him, the most powerful politician in the country was sent to prison for three years, after an appeals court upheld an earlier conviction. Even Iliescu, once seen as the hero of the revolution is now facing charges of crimes against humanity for staging a coup in order to seize power.

But on the 30th anniversary of the revolution, Romania’s poor were left wondering what had happened to their brighter future.

Against all this background then, it’s understandable why some eastern Europeans saw last November’s “fall of the Wall” anniversary celebrations through less than rose-tinted glasses.

Germany Celebrates 30th Anniversary Of Berlin Wall

Fireworks erupt over the Brandenburg Gate during celebrations on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. [Carsten Koall/Getty Images]

It’s important not to forget that life under the communist dictatorships that once held sway in the region was incomparably worse in many ways; anyone of the millions who suffered under the near-constant surveillance and repression of the GDR’s infamous Stasi or the brutality of Romania’s Securitate secret police would attest to that.

But the idealised, perhaps even utopian view of the West that many clung to throughout the dark days of Soviet-era communism hasn’t survived the unexpectedly difficult realities of their lives since. Their countries might be members of the EU and NATO, signatories to all sorts of conventions and protections guaranteeing political freedom and economic and social opportunities, but many expected more – and that hasn’t always been forthcoming.

Source: Al Jazeera


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