Timothy Garton Ash: 4 June 1989 ... A Fork in the Road

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist.]

Someone should institute an annual 4 June review of the Chinese, European and American models. Why 4 June? Because on that day in 1989, the European and Chinese paths out of communism definitively diverged. I will never forget standing in a newspaper office in Warsaw, amid the exhilaration of Poland's first semi-free election since the imposition of ­communist rule, and feeling my stomach turn as I watched the pictures of dead or wounded protesters being ­carried out of Tiananmen Square.

Twenty years on, we have two sharply contrasting, imperial-scale models, Chinese and European. Both are unprecedented, complex and evolving; both are products of what happened in 1989. Their strengths and weaknesses are in many ways contrasting. The American system, meanwhile, though in fundamentals much less changed by that year, has gone through a cycle from hubristic overreach (the neocons' "unipolar moment") to traumatic retrenchment (General Motors, RIP), which itself had a lot to do with the United States' sense of world-historical triumph at the end of the cold war.

It's interesting to observe this moment from Riga in Latvia, an ­eastern corner of the European Union which 20 years ago was still part of the Soviet Union. As a newly sovereign, ­independent state, Latvia seized its chance to join the pluralistic, voluntary empire that is the EU, as well as the American-led security alliance that is Nato. Latvia is a democracy, albeit of a messy post-communist kind. Its streets are plastered with posters for the local and European elections. People can choose their representatives.

Yet Latvia is going through especially hard times in this worldwide crisis. A local credit-fuelled boom has been ­followed by a most ­spectacular bust. The prime minister, Valdis ­Dombrovskis, tells me that six months ago the forecast for year-on-year decline in GDP was 5%; now it's 18%. Imagine your economy shrinking by nearly a fifth in one year. Public expenditure is being slashed, with civil servants seeing their salaries cut by up to 50%. I ask the phlegmatic PM whether, at some point, this contra-Keynesian shrinking of public expenditure will not feed into a vicious downward spiral for the whole economy. Maybe, he replies, with ­something close to a sigh; maybe it's already happening. But what can poor Latvia do, when it is so dependent on international loans, and hence on ­conditions negotiated with the IMF and the European commission?

Here is the post-1989 ­European model: democratic states and free ­market ­economies, joined together in the framework of the EU, with a ­proclaimed commitment to ­intra-European ­solidarity, being stress tested in real time. There have been mass demonstrations, and even riots. There is pain and anger. Yet extremists remain at the margin, and I don't hear of a great groundswell of support for an alternative model of authoritarian capitalism à la Russia or China. This may change if things get even worse, but it still feels better to be Latvia in the EU than it was to be Latvia in the Soviet Union, or than it is to be, say, Tibet in China...

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