Postcard from the "New Europe"
The tower at the eastern end of Charles Bridge, 138 steps high by a narrow winding staircase, opens onto a tight walkway that affords a panoramic view of Prague: to the west, the Prague castle, dating to the 10th century; to the east, the spires of the old town square, going back as far as the 14th century. “Ah,” I sighed, “the new Europe.”
The nomenclature of the dust-up between Washington and its erstwhile allies in the “old Europe” of Paris and Berlin can strike an American in central Europe as funny. But the stakes are serious, and it was this that had brought me to Prague, one stop in a State Department-sponsored tour to discuss U.S. policy toward Iraq with journalists, students, and intellectuals in both halves of the former Czechoslovakia as well as in Romania and Albania. As it happened, I was in the region just when the tug-of-war reached a climax in French President Jacques Chirac’s tirade against the former Communist states whose leaders had signed statements of support for the U.S. position. They had “missed an opportunity to shut up,” Chirac said, warning that they might thereby have also jeopardized their entry into the European Union.
To states that have reveled in their liberation from an “alliance”—the Warsaw Pact—in which their job was always either to shut up or to say what they were told, this scolding did not go down well. In Prague, the main center-right news-paper, Lidove Noviny, responded by publishing a 1970’s photo it had dug out of an archive; the photo showed a young Chirac and Saddam Hussein in lab coats touring the French-built Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak that an Israeli air strike would demolish in 1981. In Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, a leading daily ran an editorial headed “Leonid Ilyich Chirac,” invoking the notorious Brezhnev doctrine put forward to justify the 1968 reoccupation of Czechoslovakia, under which the sovereignty of the Eastern European states was formally subsumed to the USSR. In Bucharest, Romania, one paper ran the headline “Le Petit Big Brother.” Another might have spoken for the whole region when it editorialized: “Did the Europeans and especially the French ever understand what Romania endured under Communism? Romania is desperate. . . . Romania sees in the United States at this time the strongest guarantee that it won’t have to return to the quagmire.”
Several of my interlocutors asked me eagerly about rumors that the current rift might lead to the withdrawal of American military bases from Germany and their relocation further east—i.e., to one of their own countries. What better guarantee of their safety from the “quagmire”? But the most seasoned leaders in the countries I visited were the Czechs, and some of the shrewdest Czechs with whom I spoke were less glib about the matter. A continuation of the Washington-Berlin split would be very uncomfortable for their country, they said. Although identifying closely with the U.S.—they have worked hand-in-glove with America on such distant issues as human rights in Cuba and China, and it was President Vaclav Havel’s signature on one of the statements of support for American policy that particularly incensed Chirac—the Czechs could not disregard opinion in Germany, their overshadowing neighbor and principal foreign investor. It is not that they identified so closely with the Germans; on the contrary, given their bitter experience, they liked having American troops stationed inside Germany, and wanted them to stay there.
They worried, too, lest their own younger generation, growing up free in an American-dominated world, might come to mirror Western Europe’s resentments of American power. I caught a glimpse of this possibility not among the Czechs but in an auditorium of Slovak undergraduates I addressed in Trnava, where some asked baiting questions to the approving giggles of many of their mates. “We used to be a Russian colony,” sauced one, “and now we are an American one.” As I began to point out the differences, he interrupted: “I didn’t say we don’t like it.” As this suggests, their tweaking lacked a hard edge, but neither did they express the respect and gratitude that one readily finds among those old enough to have clear memories of life under Communism.
In Romania, the process of becoming part of the West, and thus of taking for granted the benefits this confers, is less far advanced. Romania was more isolated than most states under Communism. Its dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu, had followed something of an independent path, pulling his country partially out of the Soviet orbit and thereby winning much credit in Washington, including the image of a relatively liberal Communist. But if there had ever been a moment’s truth behind this, it vanished in 1971 when Ceaucescu visited North Korea and was swept off his feet by the innovative system of Kim II Sung, in which the dictator himself had assumed the status of a god-king.
A Romanian editor told me that his magazine had prepared a special issue that year featuring reports on a remarkable new idea for Communist industry—marketing. But when Ceaucescu returned from Pyongyang, he ordered the issue killed. Instead, Romania moved to adopt “Juche,” Kim’s model of economic autarky, and Ceaucescu, turning his back on any trace of liberalism, became the region’s most repressive ruler. (It took years for this reality to register on the West. As late as 1978, President Jimmy Carter welcomed Ceaucescu to Washington, declaring: “Our goals are the same . . . to let the people of the world share in . . . personal freedom. . . . We believe in enhancing human rights.”)
Reveling in his divine stature, Ceaucescu made gigantism the hallmark of construction during his reign. The Hall of the People, seat of the Communist “legislature,” is said to be the second largest building in the world, exceeded only by the Pentagon—as if the size of its chambers would lend solemnity to the mock proceedings within. As a result of this mania, Bucharest, which calls itself the “Paris of the east,” seems ugly at first glance, though a second look reveals many beautiful buildings and it becomes clear that the boast was at one time not an idle one. One old building where the beauty lay in the interior was the Choral synagogue, which I visited for a Friday-evening service. The few score congregants, mostly of an older generation, greeted me warmly, happy to have a visitor from America.
Given Bucharest’s identification with Paris, Romania’s current pro-Americanism may seem surprising, all the more so in light of the fact that in 1997 Washington vetoed France’s proposal to include Romania in the first round of NATO enlargement. But Romanians remember that between the two world wars they looked to Paris for security, linking themselves with Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and France in the “little entente.” The French, however, with their Maginot strategy, proved to be more interested in what their allies could do for them than in what they could do for their allies.
America enjoys a very different image in Romanian eyes. As one Bucharest writer put it to me:
For 100 years, the entire planet has asked the American people, the youngest people in the world, for help. Like in a Western, the bandits (aggressive empires, fascists, Communists, etc.) have ended up dead or in jail, and the cowboy—the American people—has gone back to his business till the next outlaw’s attack.
The same man told me about an uncle of his who had managed to emigrate to America at the age of sixty. Until then, the uncle’s life had been stultified by repressive regimes and the lack of opportunity, but, in the nearly 30 years since his move, he has at last fulfilled his literary and entrepreneurial interests. “His life began at sixty,” said the nephew, adding, “I love the USA.”
One measure of the positive sentiment toward America was the negligible turnout for the local Bucharest segment of the worldwide demonstrations against war in Iraq on February 15, which I observed during my visit. I counted 25 protestors in all, twenty of whom turned out to be from various Arab groups. The remaining five young Romanians were carrying signs they told me they had downloaded via the Internet from U.S. peace groups. They were there for the most prosaic of idealistic reasons. “Violence is always wrong,” one girl explained to me.
She was very pretty, as are many Romanian women, combining the fine features of the Slavs with exotic Latin darkness and a seemingly natural svelteness. One stunning waitress who saw my party out at the door of her restaurant gave me a moment’s thrill when she said, “I will wait for you every day,” until I realized she was simply struggling to say “come again soon.” Education in English has yet to catch up to Romania’s alignment with the U.S.—although my lectures to foreign- and defense-policy specialists required no interpreters.
As elsewhere, the transition from Communism in Romania is good for the young, hard on the old. On an early morning walk I spied an old woman stopping near a litter basket, then near another. She was scavenging. I reached into my pocket for some bills, pausing for a moment to calculate their value at the exchange rate of 34,000 lei to the dollar. Before I could catch up with her, she had disappeared into a decrepit tenement doorway, suggesting that she was not a street person at all but a pensioner so poor that she had to begin her day by rifling through other people’s trash.
In addition to the pains of transition, there are anxieties about its incompleteness. Although Romania’s government was freely elected, press freedom is still shaky. A journalist told me she had been fined for libeling a public official even though the judge acknowledged that what she had written was true; nonetheless, as she had damaged the man’s reputation by revealing his misconduct, she had to pay. (I learned from another journalist that such cases are not uncommon.) Several Romanians expressed their dismay at the decision of the U.S. Congress to abolish Radio Free Europe’s broadcasts to Romania and a handful of other former Communist states. To American legislators, these countries are now in the democratic camp; but to the locals, Radio Free Europe is an important ally in a continuing struggle. Various intellectuals also alerted me to their worry that their government’s support of Washington on Iraq and the war against terrorism, with which they concur, may earn Bucharest a free pass on human-rights issues, much as Ceaucescu’s independent stance had done in the cold war.
Still further behind in its transition from the past is Albania, a country that, both geographically and ideologically, constituted the farthest reaches of European Communism—and perhaps for that reason was the most interesting stop on my tour. To make matters more interesting still, I was there on Eid al-Adha. It is a great day to be a visitor in Albania—but not to be a lamb. Eid al-Adha is the Muslim feast commemorating the readiness of Abraham to sacrifice his son as a demonstration of utter obedience to God. In contrast to the biblical account, however, the son in question is believed to have been Ishmael, the progenitor of Islam, rather than Isaac. In either version, the child is spared by God’s mercy, and an animal is slaughtered in his stead. Muslims reenact this substitute sacrifice each year, usually with a lamb.
I observed the ritual in the medieval Albanian capital of Kruje, nestled in the slopes of Mount Scanderbeg and named after the 15th-century Albanian national hero (a rebel against the Ottomans and renegade from Islam). Kruje has few streets, mostly stone-paved alleyways. As a guide led me through them, we could glimpse the sacrificial ritual in varying stages of completion in the front or back yards of many households. Each family performs the rite if it can afford the lamb, and surplus meat is given to those too poor for their own. In one yard that we wandered into, the freshly beheaded carcass had just been strung up by its front hoofs to be skinned. Through my guide, I asked if I might come close so as to get a good look at the procedure. The man doing the skinning welcomed me amiably but with some perplexity. Had I never tasted lamb?, he wanted to know. (The real question was whether I would again soon.)
With the fall of Communism, the Eid al-Adha festival has been resumed after a hiatus of nearly a quarter-century. The regime of the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha had outlawed religion more thoroughly than most other Communist states, officially proclaiming Albania atheist in 1967. Worship was rigorously suppressed, and an official dictionary of permitted names for babies was published to discourage the likes of Muhammad and Maria. But now the state officially recognizes five religions: Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Sunni Islam, and Bektashi Islam.
The last-named is a form of Sufism that incorporates elements of Christianity. Its clerics—called dervishes—practice celibacy, and its houses of worship are crammed with votive candles. These places are not mosques but tekkes, small cabins, their floors covered with mats, the walls containing large nooks for the candles and decked with pictures and photos of great holy men, “babas,” and occasionally of Mecca. The tekkes were all destroyed by the Communists, and Bektashis were forced to practice their faith underground. Now they have rebuilt them. Although non-members of the faith are in theory not allowed to enter, I was welcomed into the two tekkes where I stopped to peer in, the only proviso being the universal Muslim practice of first removing my shoes.
Bektashis practice a tolerant form of Islam. One of the surviving babas recently observed that the admixture of Christianity makes them a natural bridge between civilizations. And as my admission to the tekkes would indicate, the faith is practiced in a relaxed way in Albania. So are the other faiths, including even Sunni Islam. In the foothills of Mount Scanderbeg, Sunni minarets rise over vineyards. “Are those grapes used for wine?” I asked my guide, testing the level of Islamic observance. “No,” he replied nonchalantly, “grappa.”
The country’s religious liberality owes something, no doubt, to the forced sundering of tradition at the hands of the Communists, but it has other roots as well. For one thing, with a population divided 70/30 between Islamic and Christian sects, intermarriage seems to be fairly common; many of those with whom I spoke in the present-day capital, Tirana, told me they were the products of such matches. And in a crowded Internet café in Tirana, the buzz was pierced by the loud call of a cell phone playing the tune “Hava Nagila,” as clear as at any bar mitzvah. I doubt I would have heard the like in, say, Cairo.
Indeed, Albanians boasted to me that theirs was the only country in occupied Europe to save its Jews during the Holocaust. There were about 200 Jews in Albania at the beginning of the war, but the number multiplied a few times over with the accretion of refugees from Greece and Yugoslavia, making this the only place in the region that ended the conflict with a larger Jewish population than had been in place at the beginning.1 With the fall of Communism, the few that remained, their communal institutions long since destroyed by Hoxha, departed en masse for Israel.
Albanians have set themselves to digging out from under one of the most repressive Communist regimes, but the task is immense. As commerce revives, the easiest business to open apparently is a car wash. I counted 23 hand-painted signs, “Lavazh,” on the ride into town from the Tirana airport. Given the gaping potholes that pock-mark the roads every few yards, my own entrepreneurial instinct would have pointed to opening a suspension-repair shop, but that would demand capital. A lavazh requires only a little space and a hose. The water, I was told, is tapped for free.
The other reason car-washing appeals as a business is that everything is so dirty. Roads and sidewalks are only partly paved, so wheels and feet churn up constant clouds of dust and dirt to add to the exhaust pouring from outmoded vehicles and machines—together, creating a film of particles that lines one’s nostrils and throat at each breath. Mountains of awesome majesty loom over the city, so that the contrast between the beauty of God’s creation and the ugliness of man’s is more striking in Tirana than in any place else I have seen.
It is not self-evident why the structures built under Communism are everywhere such appalling eyesores—historically, many authoritarian regimes have produced fine architecture—but Eastern Europe is defaced by them as if by the droppings of flocks of colossal flying beasts. Although they cry out for demolition, none of the former Communist states can afford such sweeping urban renewal. But the mayor of Tirana, originally an artist, came up with an ingenious, cost-effective improvement, ordering the drab façades that line Tirana’s main drag to be painted in a rainbow of bright colors. It goes a long way toward relieving the visual blight.
Other signs of transformation abound. One of the street’s larger embassies, formerly housing Cuba’s envoys, now serves those of the Vatican. It leads to the main square, where a multi-story statue of Hoxha has been replaced by a ferris wheel, and the accompanying pavilion has been transformed into a go-cart arena. The gleeful squeals of the children and the indulgent smiles of their parents suggest that besides religion, commerce, and aesthetics, another forbidden thing the Albanians are rediscovering after Communism is fun. The current rage of Albanian television, where deadpan announcers once droned out party-approved news, is lip-synching; early one jet-lagged morning, on my hotel TV, I watched jolly audience volunteers pretending to sing into hand-held microphones and gesticulating theatrically while recorded pop songs played in the background.
Albania’s journey from Communism has the additional aspect of a reunion with the community of nations from which it was uniquely isolated. Fearing (with good reason) encroachment by his Yugoslav or Russian “comrades,” Hoxha had aligned Albania with Mao’s China. But when China swung toward market economics in the late 1970’s, the doctrinaire Hoxha recoiled, declaring that Albania would henceforth follow the path of autarky: socialism in one (mini) country. Today, Albanians insist that theirs is the most pro-American country in the world, and they point eagerly to Gallup polls to substantiate their claim. The attraction results in part from America’s role in delivering their brethren in Kosovo from the Serbs, but it also has something to do with America as the ultimate symbol of the great beyond. The main bar near my hotel sported the name “Manhattan Cowboy Pub,” the coiner no doubt oblivious to the incongruity of these disparate Anglo designations.
The outside world, however, is not only America and Europe. Significantly for Albania, it is also the world of Islam. Albania is needy, and some 30 Islamic charities from the Arab world have set up operations there, including the Saudi-based al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, some of the branches of which have been blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department for diverting charitable funds to terrorism. The Albanian representatives of al-Haramain have reportedly been identified by the CIA as Egyptian terrorists wanted in their homeland on criminal charges.
These charities have built 300 mosques and uncounted madrassas—schools for Islamic education. They also offer scholarships for study in Saudi Arabia. Almost any Albanian youth would rather study in the U.S. or Western Europe, but for many, a Saudi scholarship is the only way to study abroad or to get any opportunity for higher learning. Some of those who go this route return imbued with Saudi-style Islamic orthodoxy.2
This has disturbed Albania’s secularized intellectuals. Some of the most prominent of them have signed a petition calling on the government to withdraw the country from the Islamic Conference, which it joined in 1992 as part of its reengagement with the world and in the hope of winning Middle Eastern support for the Kosovo Albanians. A recent article by one intellectual warned that the importation of Islamic fanaticism imperiled the “precious flower” of religious “tolerance and cohabitation.” This led to his being denounced as a “pagan” in a sermon by the mufti of Elbassan, an attack that the writer rightly found ominous.
What this means, for Albania as for the other former Communist states of Europe, is that something funny has happened on the way to the end of history. Before September 11, it appeared that the main challenge lying before all these countries was the hard but benign one of making up for the time lost in the deep freeze of Communism, so that they might fully reintegrate with the West. But now the West itself is facing new dangers thrown up by radical Islam. These are directly visible in Albania, but their shadow hangs over the rest of the region as well, as American energies that might have been used to shepherd it on its passage are turned elsewhere, and as the Atlantic family divides between those who would confront the new enemies and those who would appease them.
Uneasy as the nations of the “new Europe” are with this division, there is little doubt about which position they will choose. It is not only that they want to keep close to America. They also know all too well what happens to lambs.
1 The several hundred Jews of nearby Kosovo had no such luck. They were rounded up and sent to their deaths.
2 For the impact of this extremist orthodoxy on another country heavily influenced by Saudi money, see “The Pakistani Time Bomb” by Alex Alexiev in the March COMMENTARY.