Choosing a Past to Guide the Future

May 23, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PRAGUE — Prague. -- The Czech government wants its country to be seen as more advanced than the other former communist countries of Central Europe in order to tighten the Czech Republic's relations with Western Europe. Yet this ambition is contradicted by the present government's unwillingness to join the West on Western terms.

The Czech prime minister, Vaclav Klaus, said last week that while his government wants integration with Western Europe, it does not want European union. He said that not only his country but the other former Communist states need ''to find their own identity and not to lose it straight away on their road to Europe.'' He said that ''we should not accept the misleading and false idea that something called Europe must be great, strong, united, prefabricated and controlled from above'' in order to compete in today's international society.

He objected in particular to the social welfare measures associated with the European Union today, identifying these as a milder form of the ''aggressive socialism'' from which the Czechs and other Central and East Europeans escaped when Soviet communism collapsed in 1989. His idea of ''Europe'' thus is not that of the German and French governments, chiefly responsible for the Maastricht Treaty's program for progressive European unification.

Mr. Klaus is representative of one important current of thought among the new leaders who have taken over from the former dissidents and intellectual rebels who created most of the post-1989 governments in ex-communist Europe. As the most prominent figure from those romantic post-revolutionary days, Czech President Vaclav Havel now says the Czech Republic is no longer ''post-communist'' but a normal democracy.

As such, it experiences the return to power of normal politicians. Here as elsewhere in the region -- notably in Hungary and Poland -- an increasing number of these were also functionaries of the former communist governments. They do not automatically see the future of their countries as ''a return to Europe,'' as the former dissidents did.

This poses a problem that no one has yet said very much about. Where should -- where does -- ''Europe'' stop? Mr. Klaus is saying that the Czechs belong to Western European civilization but that they also possess a special national destiny. He objects to ''a too simplistic repudiation of nationalism.''

The present leaders of Russia insist that Russia is Europe too, and that if it is treated otherwise the consequences could be very bad for the democratic movement in Russia, and quite possibly for Russia's neighbors. The Clinton administration agrees, wanting to solve the Russian problem and the East European problem at the same time.

If not only the Czechs but Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine are Europe, surely Russia is Europe. Its literature and music are integral to the modern European consciousness. On the other hand, it is evident that at some point Europe stops, and something else has begun. It is not perhaps important to say where exactly that point is, but it is important for the countries to the west of Russia to understand that there is a difference between what they are and what the Russians are. Mr. Klaus is saying that there is also a difference between what Czechs are and what Western Europe is. Perhaps the West Europeans should pay attention to that.

No doubt a difference exists, although that is not what people in East-Central and Eastern Europe were saying before 1989. President Havel has consistently spoken as if his country were entirely a part of the moral community of Western Europe and of the Western democracies. It is, of course, possible to be part of that community and yet not wish to adopt the same political and economic choices as the members of the existing European Union. That is what Prime Minister Klaus is saying. But one wonders if the implications of this argument are fully understood.

Mr. Klaus and the others who believe as he does see the future of their countries in terms of the past. Nationalism, of course, nearly always provides a romanticization or reinvention of history. People take the past they prefer, and usually embellish it. The ''Greater Serbia'' being created in the former Yugoslavia is an act of imagination, a deadly one.

There always are several pasts. The past experienced by Central and Eastern Europe in this century is not something any sane person would wish to re-live. But it is a great deal more relevant to Europe's situation today than Central Europe's real or imagined medieval history. This recent past must be left behind and the future understood as an opportunity for change. Since 1989 the peoples of the region have been offered the possibility of serious change. It is not apparent that all of them, or possibly any of them, will take it.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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