Eastern Europe

Since fall of Berlin Wall, heady optimism has given way to more realistic expectations

In this Aug. 10, 2009 file picture a tourist stands next to crosses commemorating people who died trying to cross the Berlin Wall in Berlin near the Reichstag. (AP Photo/Gero Breloer)
In this Aug. 10, 2009 file picture a tourist stands next to crosses commemorating people who died trying to cross the Berlin Wall in Berlin near the Reichstag. (AP Photo/Gero Breloer)

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Jeremi Suri wrote, it was a great time to be young. The unification of Berlin meant the end of the Cold War was finally in sight, fizzling any immediate threat of war and sending markets the world over into a dizzying upward spiral. With their fears allayed and their prosperity apparently assured, American idealists were galvanized to make the world a better place.

Many more walls have fallen in the quarter century since. Democracy has spread across Eastern Europe and parts of the Middle East, and the United States in particular has made tremendous progress toward racial and gender equality. But today, idealism isn’t in vogue, and no longer is it easy being young. The global economy did not grow as exponentially as it was expected to after the Cold War, and youth unemployment has become a flashpoint across the entire world. When the fall of the Soviet Union did not spell the end of ideological conflict, the developed world took a dangerous turn toward restricting civil liberties in the name of security. And with each market crash or terrorist attack or failed revolution, the idealists of the recent past became more and more jaded.

It’s easy to see why. Today’s world is far more deeply interconnected than that of the late 1980s. Access to information has become more universal, and new and diverse perspectives are constantly rising to the forefront of public discourse. Americans have seen how tearing down oppressive systems led to anarchy and sectarianism in the Balkans and in Egypt and in Syria. Simply put, a lot of young people today are too informed and their futures too uncertain for directionless idealism.

That being said, 1989 still has value to us today — and not just in the form of a Taylor Swift album. While we should remember that not every barrier falls as smoothly as the Berlin Wall, the ensuing collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe demonstrates that peaceful protests with clear agendas provide the most conducive path toward societal change.

Most notably, today marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the Velvet Revolution, in which Czechoslovakia disassembled its communist government and dissolved into two sovereign states. The protests were multiethnic, inspired by high school students in the Slovak capital of Bratislava and catalyzed by Czech literary icon Vaclav Havel. Their demands were explicit and their methods civil. After just six weeks, the Czechoslovak government had planned its first election in half a century, and the country split peacefully in 1993.

Tearing down walls creates open spaces, both physically and culturally. Only when those open spaces become safe forums for tolerance and pluralism, as they did during the Velvet Revolution or the recent Tunisian Revolution, can protest beget progress and revolt breed responsibility. When they don’t, extremists rise up to fill the vacuum, often causing more harm than the repressive systems ever could.

Given how definitive the end of the Cold War must have felt for the idealistic activists of Suri’s generation, it makes sense that they thought that all could turn out well after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the ensuing two-and-a-half decades reminded the world that change is rarely so simple. We haven’t become afraid of tearing down walls. We’ve just realized that some are better left standing.

Shenhar is a Plan II, government and economics sophomore from Westport, Connecticut.

 

A resident cycles past soldiers in unmarked uniforms standing guard outside the Ukrainian Military Prosecutor’s Office in Simferopol, Crimea, Thursday, March 20, 2014. The lower house of Russian parliament voted Thursday to make Crimea a part of Russia following Sunday’s Crimean referendum in which its residents overwhelmingly backed breaking off from Ukraine and joining Russia.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Political conflict in Eastern Europe has not only affected Russia’s relations with the West, but also UT summer study abroad programs in the region.

Russian Express, a language and culture program that has students spend four weeks in Kiev, Ukraine and four weeks in Moscow during the summer, was forced to move the location from Ukraine three weeks ago after political unrest erupted in the country, according to Elliot Nowacky, administrator and resident director for the program.

The 11 students participating in Russian Express selected Irkutsk, Russia, located in Siberia, as the new destination, Nowacky said.

Nowacky is also the administrator for the Moscow-Texas Connections Program, where students spend 10 weeks in Moscow at the Higher School of Economics. Nowacky said this program will continue as scheduled.

“We’ve gotten no indication from our partners at the Higher School of Economics that it’s going to be a problem getting the visas, which is required for [the students] to go to Russia in order to study,” Nowacky said.

The five-week Moscow Plus Program was canceled on March 6 by Thomas Garza, Slavic languages and literature associate professor, mainly because of a low number of participants, according to Betsy Brown, program and outreach coordinator for the Texas Language Center.

According to Brown, the summer program had more than six applications this year, but participants kept dropping out for personal reasons or to join another program where they could receive grant support, such as Moscow-Texas Connections. Brown said there eventually ended up being only a few participants who had confirmed enrollment by March 1.

“That doesn’t really make a study abroad program,” Brown said. “We thought we would be able to merge [Moscow Plus] with another program, but it just kept getting smaller and smaller.”

Garza said his decision to cancel the Moscow Plus Program was affected by the heated relations between the U.S. and Russia over Russia’s intervention in Crimea and Ukrainian politics.

“The added complication of the Crimea crisis and the effect that it might have on securing visas this spring certainly weighed on my decision, but it was the low [participation] that persuaded me to postpone this year’s program,” Garza said.  “I hope to run the program again in the future.”

Zachary Berru, international relations and global studies sophomore who planned to participate in Moscow Plus, said even if the program is held in the future, he is no longer sure if he wants to travel to Russia.

“This situation [between the U.S. and Russia] is escalating way too rapidly, and I’m fearful things will get only worse,” Berru said. “I personally don’t feel like it would be safe at this point.”

KIEV, Ukraine — Dozens of homeless people have died in an Eastern Europe cold snap, and some analysts blame a Soviet-era legacy of viewing the homeless as those who need to be punished instead of helped.

Temperatures have plunged to -17 F in some areas. At least 58 people have died overall in the past week, while hundreds have sought medical help for hypothermia and frostbite.

Ukraine has been among the hardest hit countries. As many as 30 people have died on its snow-covered streets, in hospitals and in their own homes in the past four days. Authorities said most of the victims were homeless, and that some victims had been drinking and unaware of the danger.

In one village in the Cherkasy region in central Ukraine, a 44-year-old alcoholic fell asleep on the porch of her house and froze to death, said Olena Didyuk, spokeswoman for the Emergency Situations Ministry.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House on Sunday.

Photo Credit: Pete Souza | The White House

WASHINGTON — After nearly a decade of anger and fear, America rejoiced Monday at the demise of Osama bin Laden, the terror mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. Navy SEALs who killed the world’s most-wanted terrorist seized a trove of al-Qaida documents to pore over, and President Barack Obama laid plans to visit New York’s Ground Zero.

Bin Laden, killed in a firefight in a raid at his hideout in Pakistan, was hunted down based on information first gleaned years ago from detainees at secret CIA prison sites in Eastern Europe, officials
disclosed.

His body was quickly taken away for burial at sea, but not before a DNA match was done to prove his identity. A U.S. official said there also were photos showing bin Laden with the fatal wound above his left eye, a gunshot that tore away part of his skull. The photos were not immediately released.

The CIA was already poring over confiscated hard drives, DVDs and other documents looking for inside information on al-Qaida, including clues that might lead to his presumed successor, Ayman al-Zawahri.

The SEALs dropped down ropes from helicopters at the compound, killed bin Laden aides and made their way to the main building where U.S. officials say the terror leader was slain in a gunfight. Within 40 minutes the Americans were gone.

“For my family and I, it’s good, it’s desirable, it’s right,” said Mike Low of Batesville, Ark., whose daughter Sara was a flight attendant aboard the hijacked plane that was flown into the World Trade Center North Tower. “It certainly brings an ending to a major quest for all of us.”

Bin Laden’s supporters confirmed his death in what U.S. officials said was an operation years in the making. Even so, officials were weighing the release of at least one photo taken of bin Laden’s body as part of what John Brennan, White House counter-terrorism adviser, called an effort to make sure “nobody has any basis to try and deny” the death.

U.S. officials said the information that ultimately led to bin Laden’s capture originally came from detainees held in secret CIA prison sites in Eastern Europe. There, agency interrogators were told of an alias used by a courier whom bin Laden particularly trusted.

It took four long years to learn the man’s real name, then years more before investigators got a big break in the case, these officials said.

U.S. counterterrorism officials considered bombing the place, an option that was discarded by the White House as too risky, particularly if it turned out bin Laden was not there.

Instead, Obama signed an order on Friday for a team of SEALs to chopper onto the compound under the cover of
darkness.

Brennan strongly suggested a live video feed was available — SEALs customarily have video cameras attached to their
helmets.

According to officials who declined to be identified by name, bin Laden was shot in the head during a firefight, and his body was identified to near 100 percent certainty through DNA testing.

The only information about what occurred inside the compound came from American
officials.

___

Chris Brummitt reported from Islamabad. AP writers David Espo, Ben Feller, Matt Apuzzo, Erica Werner, Pauline Jelinek, Robert Burns, Matthew Lee, Eileen Sullivan and Kimberly Dozier contributed to this story.