How has Europe changed since the Iron Curtain lifted?

Left to right: Robert Benjamin, Senior Associate and Regional Director for Central and Eastern Europe Programs, and Zuzana Papazoski, Resident Director for Czech Repulic, Slovakia, and Poland

In our second Demworks episode recorded in Berlin, NDI’s director for Central and Eastern Europe, Rob Benjamin talks to Zuzana Papazoski, who currently runs NDI’s programs in Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. Three decades after the Iron Curtain was lifted, they discuss the dramatic revolutions and democratic change that swept across Europe. How were they driven in great part by young people?
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Robert Benjamin: Hello, my name is Robert Benjamin and I direct Central and Eastern Europe programs at the National Democratic Institute.

NDI has worked in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe since 1990 starting right after the 1989 revolutions that overturned communism and ushered in an era of democratic development and renewal that continues today. For today's episode of Demworks, we are in the heart of Central Europe in Germany's capital, Berlin, just blocks from the Brandenburg Gate and the Bundestag, or Parliament. Berlin is the epicentre, of course, of those revolutions, where the wall fell on November 9th, 1989.

I'm joined by a member of the ‘89 generation, my friend and NDI colleague Zuzana Papazoski, who runs NDI programs in Central Europe. Susannah is from Slovakia, from Bratislava specifically, her childhood spanned the last years of communism and the first years of the democratic transition. By the time she came to NDI in 1999, Susannah was an experienced democracy activist and for the last two decades, has made her contribution to democracy: opening politics and political parties to women, youth, and minorities such as Roma; supporting Parliament's, the separate institutions overseeing government; and promoting civil society, where she got her start to promote and safeguard democratic rights and citizen participation in politics.

Zuzana, welcome to Demworks, or should I saw, willkommen!

Zuzana Papazoski: Thank you for having me.

RB: So, Zuzana, it's really cool to be here in the city of such tremendous historical significance and restored and reunified as a thriving cosmopolitan metropolis. We're celebrating, of course, the fall of the wall, the lifting of the Iron Curtain 30 years ago this week, and we're examining the ensuing era of democratic development and progress toward a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace. Of course that vision arguably was science fiction back in 1989 and the wall as we know it ran right through the center of the city by the Bundestag. by the Brandenburg Gate. It was kind of a physical gash through the city dividing literally and really in a seemingly permanent way, the Democratic West and the communist East. So, so let me start, actually, with a question, well pre-1989 question. What was life for you like for you and your family under communism,I mean, how does it affect your understanding of democracy?

ZP: Thank you. I mean I was a child in 1989, I was 11. But, I really remember it very clearly. Being raised in Bratislava, you're exposed to The Iron Curtain on daily basis. As you know, the river Danube, it's the border between Austria and back then Czechoslovakia. So, it wasn't daily reality whenever you travel to [inaudib;e] in that you saw the barbed wire and the dogs and the soldiers walking by. I was raised in the old town of Bratislava, my ancestors coming from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, spoke Hungarian, several languages, and I even remember my omama, my great grandmother telling me how she will take a tram from Bratislava to Austria so I, as a kid, I knew that basically there was something wrong.

I wouldn't say that we will discuss politics on daily basis at home, but again, proximity of Austria as a kid, we would watch Austrian cartoons, my father would watch the Austrian TV. He would listen to Radio Free Europe, I remember that as well, and as well given he spoken the languages and he had the opportunity to travel. For me it was clear that I was on the wrong side of the wall.

RB: At one point I think you said your family did try in point of fact to leave before 1989.

ZP: Yes, yes it was in 1985 if I remember it correctly. I don't remember much but my father was a medical doctor, he had the opportunity to study abroad and -

RB: Which was pretty unusual back then.

ZP: That was very unusual. I mean his field was plastic surgery. He was doing medic reconstructive surgery, operating cleft palate of especially babies, and as well doing some other operations. So this was something you couldn't really study, you know, back then in Eastern Bloc. So the only way how to kind of pick up those skills you, you had to go abroad but we always had to stay in Bratislava. So my mother or myself, we weren't allowed to go with him just to make sure he comes back to any great - and of course, he believed that he would wanna have me, had more opportunities than those ones which existed back then.

RB: Yeah, I'm a little older than you are, of course, and I remember visiting Berlin in 1984 when I was in college, and at the time, of course, many people would travel as tourists for a day to East Berlin and I did very much that. It was very weird crossing Checkpoint Charlie. It really did feel like a spy film crossing barbed wire, as you said, and moving into East Berlin and, you know, seeing the people were just living their lives. In one way it was very ordinary but then I went to the Brandenburg Gate on the East Side and I looked across and there was West Berlin and I knew that I could go there. I mean, I would return to West Berlin and I was standing next to people who literally could not go and what was really just a small patch of ground was a huge chasm. You really, really felt that, that division. And then, the fall of1989 comes and even though there were lots of signals before the fall of the wall, we had the solidarity movement in 1980, we had Charter 77 in 1977 in Czechoslovakia, your country, all the way back to the Prague Spring in 1968 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. People in Central and Eastern Europe fought… they always had that desire for freedom. But it really wasn't until 1989 that the dam broke and the Revolution started.

Where were you on those really fateful days in November?

ZP: I mean, I remember, I remember it well. I I was attending a primary school but it doesn't mean that I wasn’t engaged. I actually saw the, you know, students gathering in the streets pretty early on and I felt excitement. Frankly I still have goosebumps and being here in Berlin on this anniversary, it's really an extraordinary feeling. But, but the energy, you could cut the energy in the air. It was November, it was dark, but one thing I remember for sure that during the communism, things were very grey-ish, everything was slow, you know, people waiting in a line for basically everything from oranges - which were, you know, it was only a special occasion around Christmas.

RB: I kind of remember when I was visiting East Berlin and another case in Poland back in the 80s, I remember flowers. Flowers were like a big deal in a way because there was color and it was natural and people bought and gave flowers a lot it seemed.

ZP: I mean, yes, and for, as a child, you had basically a selection of if you wanted clothing or anything, it was either in red or blue. Um, so there wasn't really, kind of, any opportunity to be different in any way when we speak of color symbolically. But, I remember it, I remember, like, my mom she was teaching at the University, mathematics, and she would go out with students, my parents would take me out -

RB: To the protests.

ZP: To the protests. And it was very, very important, they took me with them, and I, it changed me, I guess, forever. You know, they were very much afraid and they were always telling me somehow their generation suffered very much because of 1968.

RB: Yeah.

ZP: So, till the very beginning, at least what was speaking from my parents, they were convinced that tanks will come.

RB: Just like the Soviets did.

ZP: This time knowing would happen in Berlin and there was this kind of hopes that maybe this will end. I think they still somehow remembered very well what happened in 1968. So whenever we went out, we were never close to the Tribune, we were always close to the side street, so if the tanks were coming, we would see them and we could run away. It was snowing, it was freezing, and there was no energy in the streets, and we, even as a kid, I was wearing this badge in support of the protests and it really, it was everywhere.

RB: People were ringing the key, weren’t they? What did, what did, what was the symbolism behind that?

ZP: The ringing the keys was like, that's the end of the story. That's, like, you know, as you had in the movies, you know. Ringing, as it was very symbolic that your time is up. It's time for you to go goodbye, and it's still, like now, when you recently saw the protest in the Czech Republic people, some people, they ringing with the keys because this is exactly what kind of a, you know, what, you know, makes you remember the protests in 1989.

RB: That's really interesting.

ZP: And then cutting of the barbed wire. That was, you know, the same thing. You had the wall in Berlin, for us it was the barbed wire that was never ending. So, the first time people had the opportunity to actually destroy the fence and there was a very large walk to Kittsee, the first Austrian village, that is just somehow like two kilometers from the old town. You know. It was shocking that somehow you could walk to the other side of the town, in a way. I felt like going to another planet or something even though it's right there.

RB: It felt like going to another planet or something even though it’s right there.

ZP: It definitely was.

RB: We kind of get to the 1990s and, yeah, things just start to happen rapidly. I mean, there is a fast start off the tracks to developing democratic political systems, a market economy throughout that decade, and then by 2004, kind of, the 15-year mark now Slovakia independent from the Czech Republic, of course, along with several other countries, Poland, Hungary, others. In 2004, they've joined the European Union, they've joined NATO. People have their freedom, and they've been lifted out of communist-era poverty. The job seemed done for many when it came to democracy and freedom, human rights. You know, there are new questions, I suppose, in Central Europe on democracy and the region's commitment to democracy. 

What's different now as we look back over 30 years? What's different now, as compared to the 1990s? 

ZP: First, Slovakia, it was a little bit of more complicated of a path because of the separation and the speed of Czechoslovakia.

RB: Yeah.

ZP: Frankly, I have it very much connected that, you know, the fall of the communism was followed by a split of Czechoslovakia. What kind of, again, it was an opportunity for many people to become more vocal and, and active, and this was a period that, that frankly I would write to former President however letters, you know, expressing my support. It was ‘92, ‘91, I still have letters. So, I was still at this primary - 

RB: You're in school, yeah.

ZP: So, the fall of the communism army changed me, I guess. Thanks to my parents as they were as well very much supportive of Czechoslovakia, we would regularly go out and protest and then we had this very unpleasant period in our, in our history of the government of Vladimir Mečiar that was my, like, you know, series starting point of my activism, and my engagement, and my fight for democracy, as you said it. So I believe that maybe, you know, this process it wasn't as smooth as in Czech Republic or Poland where there were no hiccups.

RB: There was kind of a period there in Slovakia where Mečiar, who was Prime Minister, was taking the country away from integrating into Western institutions. Kind of backpedaling it seemed on democracy itself, in terms of upholding zone and then there were the elections in 1998 where nearly ten years after the revolution itself, people kind of got back out and said this isn't what we signed up for. You were on the, kind of, front lines in that election.

ZP: Yeah, this is first when I even got engaged with NDI. I was still studying at the Faculty of Law. I was engaged with the Human Rights Club.

RB: So we're in 1998.

ZP: We’re in 1998 and I think it was a very important lesson for Slovakia as a society because we had to fight again to be part of the European Union, not to be excluded, as it was clear that, you know, without any questions, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were heading straight to NATO and the European Union and because of our government and our Prime Minister back then, it looked very much that that wouldn't be the case for Slovakia. So it was - I felt again threatened that we would be out again, the wrong side of, of the wall and, and for my generation that was actually a moment where many of us got engaged. I helped to establish a now domestic election monitoring NGO. We recruited over 2,000 volunteers who monitored the elections thanks to NDI’s support back then. And as well, like, even before people to hitchhike with my friends from university all around Slovakia trying to meet the first-time voters in high schools and motivate them to participate in the elections. So it was, it was clear. And I think that even the separation of Czechoslovakia contributed to it that I somehow understood even back then as a teenager that sometimes a very small group, if they are very vocal can achieve the course of development. Although maybe the majority is against but because they just don't do anything about it, the other side, although it might be a minor, minority comes as a winne from the situation and that was exactly the case as, you know, we never held a referendum on separation of Czechoslovakia and again, you know, we didn't feel [inaudible] about Jerry was representing the majority in Slovakia. Yet without very high turnout and engagement of, especially in the younger generation, well people don't be able to join the EU alongside our neighbors -

RB: And affirm democracy itself. I mean it seems that one of the really interesting lessons from that part, that time rather, was the fact that you had all this sort of galvanized engagement by people throughout the country to do something. And that something then turned out to be the ballot box where people could use these democratic tools of elections and elections, by the way, that were safeguarded, in fact, by monitors such as yourself, the organization you were running. And people felt empowered to express precisely their intent at the ballot box and that's what led to the change in government, and Slovakia quickly moved forward along with the rest of the region in, in both joining the European Union, becoming a member of NATO. Our Chairman as you know, Madeleine Albright, had been in the 1990s Secretary of State and really laid the groundwork, diplomatically, for those, for the NATO accession process to happen which is great. 

Anyway, I think it was a really amazing time and I want to ask you a little bit more about that in terms of the work that you've done since, because I think there are a lot of lessons learned from NDI’s work, particularly in Slovakia, but around Central Europe that we can draw from.

RB: We saw a Slovakian last year, really stunning display of people power. We had a very tragic murder of a investigative journalist looking at misconduct, corruption in government. He and his fiancee were murdered in their own home and thousands upon thousands of people took to the streets. The Prime Minister resigned and - 

ZP: The government fell.

RB: The whole government fell and we had a presidential election not soon thereafter, well about a year after in which, surprisingly, in a way, a candidate won, a woman won, the presidency in Slovakia on a platform that many people thought to be contrary to where the region was going. She was running on human rights, she was running on environmental protection, she was running on a very multicultural agenda that seemed to not be where the region has been going in recent years, in a more populist or nationalist way - and she won. And that is kind of cool because it shows that there is pluralism and there's a sense of different directions and it seems like young people took note. But in the research you've been doing, young people believe in democracy but they don't believe in politics. They want to be engaged but they don't like the institutions and so there really does seem to be the need to fill a gap and it's the way that we're working with them, I think, is really in that trying to find where, how to fill that gap.

ZP: We need to adjust institutions to 21st century.  It's clear we cannot, you know, they cannot operate, they were, you know, operating in the 19th or 20th century. But with President Čaputová it was all what you mentioned and on top of that she had this fantastic gift that she had the ability to reach out to the other camp, that she was not critical of those people who felt excluded and often time opted for these more populistic options. She didn't try to judge anyone. I think that one of the biggest issues we are as well facing, it’s polarization. We are seeing it in the United States, we're seeing it in Poland and I think it's very important to kind of try to listen to the other side and as well accept the fact that relief, for some people, the 1989 didn't really bring the changes they hoped for, or they maybe didn't dream of any changes. They were, they were happy back then and the same is now and no matter what are the economic indicators, there is still, there are parts of the society that are excluded. They don't feel part of the dialogue and, and I think that if we want to have functional democracies and strong democracy that has to change.

RB: Individual action, collective action and strong institutions. Finally to mention that we're here this week with a new network of young political and civic leaders, The European Youth Democracy Network and this is something that NDI is supporting along with our colleagues from the International Republican Institute. They're coming from many different countries, from Central Europe, of course, but also across party lines, and it's been remarkable to me to talk with these people who are all under 30, so precisely that generation with virtually no connection to the past as individuals. Man are they, they're really smart and they're sort of penetrating and trying to understand what's going on, and the really cool thing for me is that they reflect many of the things that we see in NDI programs in this region, you know, with young people. It's about training for the future, it's about the future Member of Parliament, or the future party leader, or the future whatever - but, young people want to take action now. It may not be in that sort of institutional sense but whether it's the, the protests in Slovakia, or being online and kind of figuring out what's going on, or just basic organizing around issues they care about, like, like the environment or education. 

This network and young people clearly want to say we're here and we want to take action now. I'm curious to know what based on your interaction with the network, what your impressions have been.

ZP: It's very encouraging, as you said, to seeing young people caring about their future. It's, you know, as you said, they are sharp and they're able to work together, and although, you know, some of them come from Serbia and the others from Kosovo -

RB: Yeah, exactly. And, I mean, they've got no hangups in a sense.

ZP: No and this is the way to go but to me it goes back to... I really hope that when they go home, they will change something. It's not about like studying, discussing, analyzing, writing reports. It's about doing this action... it's all about action in the end. And I think that this is partially why we are seeing what we are seeing that many of the political parties, simply, you know, they got lazy a little bit.

RB: They got lazy.

ZP: Yeah! It felt like there is really not a need that, you know, everything has been done. The indicators are good and they lost this human touch with their constituents, with different groups. They, they didn't make an effort to make people engaged and, you know, communicate with them enough.

RB: What’s, what's especially important to me there is I think the work that you're doing to, again, fill that gap, make those connections, using new tools - including digital technology - to reach people where they're at and try to say, “hey, it's not about you as an individual, young person, go to the institutions.” It's about the institution's like parties or even civic organizations coming to them where they're at. And I know in our work that we do with a lot of vulnerable groups, we've done a lot of work with Roma communities in Central Europe. That is so important for people who really have not participated in the benefits of the democratic transition, the market economy, to find a place in the political process. We're doing dialogue programs interface dialogue programs in Central Europe as well, and that's a whole new area of building, kind of, a fabric of dialogue social discourse, and a way into a political process to make it more open and more dynamic.

ZP: And inclusive as well. Democracy needs to be inclusive and especially with the Roma groups I think it was very important in Central Europe as Roma minorities are one of the most vulnerable groups, historically excluded probably the most and, you know, from governance. And thanks to our programming we managed to develop relationships with different, you know, communities. Help people who were running for an elected office, help them after being elected to an office, and one of our biggest success stories is actually a former Member of the Slovak Parliament, who later on was elected to the European Parliament and he's historically was the first Romani Member of the European Parliament elected from Slovakia.

RB: It's an amazing story where he has been. Which I think it kind of brings us to sort of the, kind of the end, the message here and that is that 30 years on from the fall of the wall where everything that people knew vanished and everything had to be created anew and opened up and sustained, it seems like there's a, you know, there's a lot of talk about democracy closing in this region, but if anything, it just feels like there's more, there’s more people doing more things organizing around more causes and trying to find their way through politics, through those institutions to be heard. That's I think what gives us a lot of enthusiasm in our work. 

I think you agree with me.

ZP: I absolutely agree and I'm the living example that, you know -

RB: You personify that.

ZP: You know, I totally personally find and I really believe in it. I'm grateful that I can be here and do the kind of work we are doing at NDI because that's, that's the kind of where I feel like I'm really contributing actively to make sure there will be democracy - as well for my kids and more generations.

RB: I am so happy that we could spend some time together and reminisce and talk about what's going on now. You were so terrific and I know that I speak for all of my NDI colleagues, including Secretary Albright, when I say that we're so happy to have you with us, Zuzana, for you to represent us. And I know with your colleagues in Central Europe, you do such a great job and so thank you.

ZP: It’s all team work. 

RB: It's a team team effort, so thanks again and thanks for listening.