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Revolutions for Whom?

As liberal elites both East and West commemorate the peaceful end of the Cold War and celebrate the successes of the last three decades, it is important to recognize how painful the post-communist transition was – and, for many, continues to be. That is why nostalgia for the economic security and social stability of the authoritarian past is growing.

PHILADELPHIA – “No one will be worse off than before, but it will be much better for many,” German Chancellor Helmut Kohl assured East Germans after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. His words helped fuel rapid political and economic changes throughout post-communist Europe. Thirty years later, it’s worth asking how well Kohl and other Western leaders kept this promise.

Travel to Prague, Kyiv, or Bucharest today and you will find glittering shopping malls filled with imported consumer goods: perfumes from France, fashion from Italy, and wristwatches from Switzerland. At the local Cineplex, urbane young citizens queue for the latest Marvel blockbuster movie. They stare at sleek iPhones, perhaps planning their next holiday to Paris, Goa, or Buenos Aires. The city center hums with cafés and bars catering to foreigners and local elites who buy gourmet groceries at massive hypermarkets. Compared to the scarcity and insularity of the communist past, Central and Eastern Europe today is brimming with new opportunities.

In these same cities, however, pensioners and the poor struggle to afford the most basic amenities. Older citizens choose between heat, medicine, and food. In rural areas, some families have returned to subsistence agriculture. Young people flee in droves, seeking better opportunities abroad. Economic suffering and political nihilism fuel social distrust as nostalgia for the security and stability of the authoritarian past grows. Populist leaders seize on public discontent to dismantle democratic institutions and steer the economy to the benefit of their friends, family members, and supporters.

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