Eastern Europe offers lessons to U.S.

George Santayana, the well known philosopher and essayist, was right. He coined the often-quoted phrase, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

The almost daily news reports originating from Eastern Europe inform the rest of the world that in countries such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, right-leaning government leaders are pushing through laws in their countries’ parliaments that will negate Western liberal values, such as freedom of the press, independent judiciary, the separation of powers and laws that would empower authoritarian governments.

The new laws will negate all those values which were nourished once in Williamsburg and made America the envy of the world.

No wonder that in the midst of coping with the deadly mayhem in the Middle East, the unending war in Afghanistan, North Korea’s nuclear threats and the turmoil in America’s domestic politics, the American public doesn’t pay much attention to events in Eastern Europe.

But those of us who once lived behind the Iron Curtain under communist oppression remember how most of the population was yearning for a democracy that guaranteed their freedoms.

Their dream was fulfilled after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Each Eastern European country did become a functioning democracy. Some prospered more than others, but all of them became qualified to join the European Union, adhering to Western values.

But things have changed. In 1989, the young Victor Orban, now Hungary’s prime minister, rejected the dictatorship of a single party. Now, in Europe, he is one of the closest friends of Russia’s authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin. Orban has rewritten the constitution, dismantled checks and balances, empowered oligarchs and curtailed the freedom of the press. He is modeling his regime on Russia, China and Turkey.

In Poland, in spite of warnings from the European Union and ignoring tens of thousands protesters, Poland’s Parliament gave final approval to a landmark measure that would restructure the Supreme Court, “putting it under effective control of the government party.”

According to a New York Times report from Warsaw, “The law was the latest in a series of acts from the Law and Justice party that critics say are aimed at curtailing the judiciary, the country’s last bastion of independence. ... Poland will take its largest step yet away from the West’s liberal values in a nation that was once a symbol of democracy’s triumph over communism.”

Communist Czechoslovakia became a Western-style democracy after the Velvet Revolution, which elevated Vaclav Havel to the presidency. In 2003, 78 percent of Czechs voted in favor of joining the European Union, accepting all the conditions that membership in the multi-national organization entailed.

The Czech political right, dominated by demagogues and populists, under Euro-sceptical president Vaclav Klaus, “who effectively used Czech fears of outsiders’ political meddling,” turned the country away from democratic methods of governing. Corruption is rampant, and the country still doesn’t have a law that would protect civil servants from political pressure and depoliticize the state bureaucracy. The “culture of democracy” fostered under President Havel is being undermined.

Developments in Eastern Europe may not pose a direct threat to the United States, but they are a warning, like the canary in the coal mine, to democracies everywhere, signaling you can’t take freedom for granted.

Hungary’s Orban called the U.S Constitution, the supreme law of the United States which guarantees the separation of powers and insures checks and balances, a “U.S. invention,” unsuited for Europe. But in times such as the current political divisions in our country, it is precisely those checks and balances that keep America on an even keel.

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.

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