West should teach and the East should listen. That thinking took deep
root in the early 1990s, as the ex-captive nations hurried to
build—or in some cases rebuild—the political and economic
institutions needed for democracy and prosperity.
Even in those days, this patronizing approach was a mistake. The way Western advisers tried to transplant their ideas into the former communist world was often useless or outright harmful. Remember voucher privatization?
Moreover, though the Western economic and political model was certainly better than the Soviet empire’s state planning and authoritarianism, it was hardly perfect. If the West had been less busy preaching, it could have learned a lot from the people who had just emerged from behind the Iron Curtain. Statesmen such as Václav Havel, from the former Czechoslovakia, and Lennart Meri, from Estonia, showed a strategic vision, a rhetorical flair and a philosophical depth which Western leaders mostly lacked.
The old West’s superiority complex now looks wholly out of date. Problems abound, but they are widely spread: low growth in Italy, political paralysis in Britain and constitutional tensions in the United States sit alongside headstrong populism in Poland and Hungary, and entrenched corruption in Ukraine.
Bright spots abound too: Sweden’s economy is doing startlingly well; Spain’s is recovering fast. But the European Central Bank also reported last week that “the Baltic states are among the few euro-area countries, along with Slovakia, in which real GDP per capita in purchasing-power-standard terms has shown substantial convergence toward the EU average.” These living standards are now around 60 percent of the real level of the “old” 15 EU member states, up from just 25 percent of that benchmark in 1995.
Estonia’s EU presidency for the remainder of 2017 is a salient reminder of “new” Europe’s progress. The fact that an ex-communist country with one million inhabitants is managing the EU’s agenda is taken for granted. Despite a lackluster government, Estonia is smoothly pushing ahead with its agenda, particularly on creating a digital single market. E-residency—a digital ID card for foreigners—is attracting interest from outsiders wanting to do business in the EU, not least Britons spooked by Brexit. The NATO-affiliated cyber-defense center in Tallinn has just finished its annual “Locked Shields” exercise, now the most important war game of its kind in Europe.
Other frontline states also have plenty to teach. Ukraine, against all odds and at great cost, has fought Russia to a standstill on the battlefield, gaining vital experience about the way Russia wages regular and irregular warfare. Ukraine’s mythbusters have the sharpest antennae when it comes to dealing with Russian propaganda. The multinational team of journalists at Coda Story—run mostly from Georgia—breaks stories that the old Western media seems to miss. A gripping recent film looks at the way in which Russian intelligence uses blackmail to recruit gay men. Another one, from Coda’s partner organization Eurasianet, looks at the re-emergence in Russia and other countries of coercive psychiatry, one of the greatest horrors of the Soviet system.
We could also learn a lot from the brave Russians who wage a lonely war for truth, freedom and other values that the rest of Europe takes for granted. I was particularly struck by the efforts of civil-society groups marking the 80th anniversary of Stalin’s Great Terror, which started on 30 July. This terrible outbreak of persecution is now all but ignored by Russian officialdom. Readers who use social media can help, using the hashtag #помнимбольшойтеррор (“we remember the great terror”). Our friends may not win soon, but we can still show that they are not forgotten.