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Interview with Janusz Bugajski

Q: Thirteen years have passed since the fall of communisms in Eastern Europe. What is your assessment of where Eastern Europe stands right now?

A: The situation is certainly a lot better than it was 13 years ago. (Laughs.) It is a very mixed picture, obviously. You could almost draw a spectrum or a scale of success for the different countries in the region, starting at the top with some of the Central European countries. They have not only performed very well in terms of domestic reform, but they have also met most if not all the criteria for NATO membership and for accession to the EU. Somewhere in the middle, there are countries that have made some progress but still have some reform gaps; and sometimes these are black holes, before they make the necessary progress towards international institutions. And at the other end of the spectrum you have countries which still have a very long way to go. I am thinking mostly of the former Soviet republics that have slipped backwards not toward communism, but towards a new form of either authoritarianism or toward inefficient and weak states.

Q: Which are the countries in the middle?

A: In particular, these are states that emerged from the former Yugoslavia. They actually started far ahead if you look at the early 1990s compared to the Soviet bloc, but, other than Slovenia, as a result of the war, the sanctions, and the deliberately engineered ethnic conflicts they fell behind and now have a lot of catching up to do. Also somewhere in the middle are Bulgaria and Romania, which despite the low level at which they started, have made some remarkable progress in a very short period of time. Of course no reform process is ever complete and democratization still has ways to go. And there are potential setbacks on route, land mines that are waiting to explode.

Q: Given that the international aid community usually operates according to paradigms, would you agree that there is a paradigm of transition in Eastern Europe?

A: I have never operated according to paradigms, although some analysts have written about the so-called transition paradigm. I think most people like to operate according to fairly simple methods of classification. The idea that there is a starting point and an end point of democratization helps one to organize thought and work in a straightforward and sometimes simplistic way. The term transition is over-used as it is difficult to determine where this begins and ends. Everything is constantly in transition and is constantly changing. The question is what principles do we apply to progress and what principles for regress. Some of these countries have certainly made progress in terms of their democratization, others have stalled in this process.

Q: You have written several books on ethnic politics in Eastern Europe. Do you think that some of the conflicts in the Balkans could have been prevented in the 1990s?

A: If certain individuals and their actions were prevented, then much of the armed conflict would have been prevented. If Milosevic and Tudjman had been prevented from coming to power or staying in power and the Yugoslav army was prevented from sparking violence and killing civilians, and the media was prevented from stirring ethnic animosities, then I think a lot of the violence in the former Yugoslavia could have been avoided. But that would have needed determination, will power, and imagination by the international community, which it did not have. America was disengaged and the European Union proved useless.

Q: Looking back at the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, were they a result of the so-called Balkan ghosts, Balkan habits and Balkan hatreds between people in the region?

A: No, I think that’s probably the worst paradigm of the last decade – the hatred paradigm. It has been so abused, exaggerated and oversimplified, that it has no use whatsoever. Name me any country in Europe that has not fought some time or other with its neighbors and sometimes much more brutally than the people in the Balkans have. You look at the history of Germany; you look at the history of France and its neighbors.. A key factor is what used to be called the “subjective factor,” in other words, the will and capability to create conflict that bore prime responsibility for the violence. Individual leaders prey upon popular stereotypes and prejudices, which exist everywhere. As I kept saying during the 1990s, if you give me control of the mass media and weapons I can engineer an ethno-racial war in Washington D.C. in about 24 hours.

Q: How would you assess the legacy of communism in Eastern Europe?

A: There is nothing positive I would like to say about communism. Everything from psychology to institutions to economy to politics to international relations was distorted and perverted. As a result, societies are still trying to dig themselves out of a hole that the communists spent decades creating. And the biggest responsibility, I think, rests in Moscow which imposed this hideous system on countries that should by now, under normal conditions, have been on the same level as several West European countries.