WARSAW, Poland -- In my office in Washington, I have a picture, done in the old Polish style of painting on glass, that shows two wild animals -- a boar and a bear -- confronting each other in a notably hostile manner in exactly the center of what is now today's Poland. There are no borders on this map, and the implication is that, during many long periods in Northern European history, Poland as a country didn't really exist. Only darkness and confusion reigned, symbolic forces roved without boundaries and, usually, big-neighbor Russia dominated the area.
How much has changed in the "new Poland"! Today not only is Poland securely lodged in the European Union and in NATO, and an impassioned ally of the United States, but Russians now come to Poland looking for help from their erstwhile colony about their place in this world.
At the recent International Press Institute annual meeting here of leading editors and publishers from countries across the globe, some of Russia's top journalists and thinkers poured out their hearts about problems at home, now using once-dominated Warsaw and its international audience as their sounding board.
"Ten years ago in Russia, the tide was flowing away from communism to democracy," Alexander Pumpianski, editor of the influential Moscow publication Novaya Vremya (New Times), said at one point. "Now, people feel that democracy -- liberalism -- free speech -- are bad words. The style of the regime is conspiracy; that is what is behind Putin's 'St. Petersburg intelligence mafia.' It is very difficult today for us in the press to swim against the tide of history, and the tide of my country is going backward."
Sergei Kovalev, the foremost human rights campaigner in Russia, took much the same position. "In 1991, when our first reasonably free elections were held, we thought that democracy was a wonderful thing," he told the group. "There would be freedom, liberty, equality -- and justice, rules and sausages -- in great supply. Yet today in our case, the very word 'democracy' has become almost a swear word."
But perhaps it was left to Milan Kucan, the former president of Slovenia who brought his country out of the cursed Yugoslav union to highly successful independence, to succintly sum up what has happened. "When the Berlin Wall fell," he said, "the pieces crumbled to both sides, East and West alike. Nothing would ever be the same again."
In this never-the-same-again world, today's Poland has developed its own "Ostpolitik" or "East politics," not dissimilar to that of West Germany's in the 1980s. Polish leaders such as respected former foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek have repeatedly visited Moscow to be asked by Moscow TV how the "Polish experience" could be applied to Russia.
Ironically, Polish papers today are filled with examples of how their budding new businessmen are now looking to Russia as a new market. This is not unnatural, since European Union regulations can at times be almost as stultifying as those of Russian communism. What has happened, as Geremek puts it, is that "the difference in the transition process today in Eastern Europe and in Russia is that Russia is the example of a blocked or failed transition; in Eastern Europe, it was difficult, but there is a real transition. In Russia it is a failed process; in our countries, it is a realized one."
Much of this is owing to the simple fact that the Eastern European countries, after the cruel decades-long parenthesis of imposed communism, went back to a democracy that they had known earlier in their national lives, a democracy that the Russians never had in theirs.
But the situation is far from hopeless on the Russian side of the new equation. President Vladimir Putin, it is now clear, has embarked his "new Russia" on an experiment similar to those of countries that have developed very quickly, such as Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. It involves a politically authoritarian center that regulates ever greater economic freedom, rather that beginning with the now much-derided "democracy" that the Russians tried after 1991 -- and which failed.
In short, these worlds-within-worlds are beginning to settle in, to find their own forms and advance at their own cultural timing. Even some of the Putin regime's critics see hope in the long run. "Do we have grounds for optimism?" Sergei Kovalev asked at one point. "I think we do. Slowly, we are putting together the critical mass of those who will eventually comprise civic society. It cannot be stopped."
Meanwhile, those two wild animals on my wall keep staring each other down, sublimely unaware of all these momentous changes.
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