Civil society has returned to Poland. Russia, alas, remains in a league of its own.
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Of course there are still hazards ahead, both for the development of such institutions and for the personal independence which both inspire their creation, and which they in turn promote. Again, I can cite my own experience, and my children’s experience, at a Polish independent school in Warsaw, founded in 2005. Originally, the school’s aims were very ambitious. Its headmaster wanted to offer, in addition to the standard subjects available in state schools, extra courses, designed according to students’ interests and teachers’ abilities—classical subjects such as Latin, extra languages, arts—woven into the day. In addition, the school wanted to involve the children in the community around them through field trips and projects. $$The model works, but only up to a point. As it turns out, there are both legal and practical constraints, many left over from the Communist era, which the school must constantly fight. Teachers cannot teach precisely what they wish to teach, for example, as they are obliged by law to cover certain topics. The law even dictates how many hours a week should be spent on Polish language, math, etc., what the content of some of the courses should be, and the length of the breaks between classes.
The school also answers to the same heavy, educational bureaucracy that has been in place for decades. When a particular teacher recently took the decision, for example, to move a child from one grade to another, the change had to be verified with a local “pedagogical council,” which required a psychiatrist’s report, writing samples, and an extended meeting. The legal presumption was that individuals don’t know best, that teachers can’t make their own judgments about students, and that a bureaucratic institution representing the state must oversee all such decisions.
As it happens, the teacher in this case was willing to go through the procedure and argue his case. But surely there are others who, faced with the time and trouble needed to get an official approval, would have given up. Ultimately, this kind of interference weakens the school and the teachers who are trying to create something new. The suspicion of independent organizations that is so prominent in Russia may be less widespread in Poland, but it persists among those bureaucrats whose jobs and worldview continue to depend upon it.
TO SOME EXTENT, the ongoing threats to freedom that still exist in Central and Eastern Europe are no different from those in the West. Any nation, however old and hallowed its democratic tradition, is capable of producing unscrupulous politicians who manipulate the secret services, steal money, and falsify elections. These things happen sometimes in the United States, in France, or in Britain, so it is hardly surprising that they should happen in Poland, Hungary, or Ukraine.
In fact, the real test of a nation’s stability and dedication to freedom is not whether citizens’ rights and democratic procedures are sometimes violated, but whether anyone reacts when this happens, and whether anyone bears the political consequences. The deep dividing line in the post-Communist world is not, as some would have it, between Orthodox and Catholic or between Slavic and Magyar, but between countries whose citizens actually react to news of political misbehavior and those whose citizens do not. Evidence that a politician has been involved in a financial scandal can harm the electoral performance of his party in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Estonia. Evidence that the Russian president’s secret services poisoned a political opponent using radioactive material did not harm the reputation of the Russian president at all. The maintenance of civil society thus requires the free circulation of information, as well as the institutions that allow the public to put pressure on the government. Any trends that weaken the flow of information—whether increased controls on Internet use or extended state control over the media—or that damage democratic institutions will ultimately prove detrimental to the cause of liberty as well.
In the case of those Central European countries that have joined the European Union, there is another, special category of threat. EU membership has, it is true, brought benefits, some unexpected. For the first time in recent memory, Central Europeans are able to travel easily, cross borders freely, study and trade in Western Europe. Providentially, the first two EU countries to open their labor markets to Central Europeans were Britain and Ireland, thereby giving hundreds of thousands of people exposure to the two most open economies in Europe.
Nevertheless, the EU adds another layer of even more unaccountable bureaucracy to that which exists already in post-Communist Europe, and therefore another layer of rules and regulations designed to make life difficult both for independent institutions and for individuals. More worrying, though, are the threats that the EU’s legislative momentum and cultural imperialism could pose in the future. What the philosopher Roger Scruton calls the EU’s universalist, “secular ‘human rights’ agenda” is often diametrically opposed to the local and homegrown ideologies of civil society, particularly those inspired by a religious or patriotic philosophy. Rigorous enforcement of “non-discrimination” against homosexuals could, for example, come into conflict with the rules of Catholic organizations or the Boy Scouts, as it has done already in Britain, for example, destroying Catholic adoption agencies. As Scruton writes, “The ideology of nondiscrimination is inherently hostile to the spontaneous forms of membership: and it is sweeping the old forms of membership away, putting nothing in the place of them save a new kind of dependence on the universal state.”
Myself, I’m inclined to believe that resurgent civil society is, at the moment, strong enough to withstand this ideology: Among other things, the experience of being in the EU has itself given new members a certain geopolitical self-confidence, allowing them to maintain some distance from the European intellectual mainstream. They don’t feel the need to slavishly follow all Western trends, since their status as a “Western” country is now secure. And if the threat is still there—well, it’s the same threat faced by others. Economically, Central Europe remains weaker than its Western neighbors. But socially, culturally, even politically? I’m not so sure. In the 21st century, liberty will still be threatened in Europe. But for the first time in many years, the East may be better equipped to defend it.
Anne Applebaum is a columnist for the Washington Post. Her book Gulag: A History won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. She lives in Poland. This essay is the third in a ten-part series being published in successive issues of The American Spectator under the general title, “The Future of Individual Liberty: Elevating the Human Condition and Overcoming the Challenges to Free Societies.” The series is supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this series are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.
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