Lane: It’s Time to Jumpstart Eastern Europe’s Future

Eastern Europe as a whole, and not just Ukraine, needs our help to get back on track to a prosperous future — yet we lack a long-term plan to achieve that.

by Thomas Lane | 9/15/22 4:05am

Many of us have seen the photos and videos coming out of the Kharkiv region of Ukraine over the past few days: abandoned tanks on roads, left-behind munitions, burnt-out wrecks of equipment littering fields and streets. Ukrainian forces have pulled off an incredible feat that hopefully will bring a swift end to Putin’s senseless and pointless war. But the fact of the matter is that wars do not truly end when peace returns. Wars end when societies have been healed, and that will take years. Now is the time to start planning to help heal Eastern Europe.

The rebuilding of the physical landscape in Ukraine is the obvious part, so I won’t spend much time on it. Entire towns have been reduced to rubble. Homes and schools need to be rebuilt and infrastructure must be repaired. The World Bank has put the current price tag on that effort at about $350 billion. The United States and its partners can and should help with that, and given the rhetoric of our leaders, I expect that they will without much hesitation. 

What I believe deserves more attention is what I’ll term “social rebuilding.” As the world has observed after the end of the Cold War, many of the Eastern Bloc countries that quickly pivoted towards democracy have been backsliding into authoritarianism ever since. Hungary sits under the watchful eye of Viktor Orbán, whose right-wing government has steadily stripped away civil liberties, made ghastly statements about its opposition to “race mixing” and is currently mired in legal battles with the European Union over its conduct. Poland’s government shares similar views and issues; it too is feuding with the EU over its corruption and quashing of free and fair elections. Although neither government embraces Putin’s regime in Russia — Poland’s government stridently abhors it, in fact — they do share an uncomfortable amount of ideological similarities.

There’s a deeper problem in Eastern Europe: media homogeneity. How have despots in Eastern Europe managed to secure their positions? By taking over the media. Putin, for example, has a stranglehold on TV stations in Russia, which he also uses to indoctrinate ethnic Russians in neighboring countries, such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These minorities abroad are often led to believe that Russia seeks to protect them from harsh and discriminatory governments. For Russian speakers both inside and outside Russia, there’s often nowhere else to turn except Russian state media, and as a result they are hoodwinked into supporting a horrific regime. Even if Russia loses its war in Ukraine, these sentiments are a recipe for future instability. Too many Russians will continue to resent the West, resent democracy and want to seek revenge. This isn’t a Russia-specific issue: Orbán seeks a comparable hold on Hungarian media and encourages similar falsehoods.

The West needs to develop clear-headed alternatives to the media monopolies of Eastern European autocracies — not an opposing propaganda organ, but honest, trustworthy voices that cannot be silenced. Hungarians and Poles could use reminders that the EU is not withholding subsidy money because the decadent West is out to get them, make them weak and flood them with immigrants, but rather because their governments are encouraging corruption and violating the rights of their people. Russian speakers desperately need alternative, credible voices — in Russian — they can listen to that can remind them that the West does not want to destroy their country. We do not want to humiliate and enfeeble Russia. To us, a “strong” Russia isn’t necessarily a bad thing — so long as it is a good neighbor and upholds the dignity and rights of its people. Today’s Germany, historically a pariah for many good reasons, is by several measures now “strong” and playing a decisive role in European affairs — yet its government doesn’t feel the need to destabilize the continent and wantonly violate human rights. We need to bring this message straight to the hearts of those who fear us most. We shouldn’t have to fight one another.

The end of the war will have to include accountability. War crimes must be prosecuted; Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia should receive their sovereign territory back; and Russia will likely have to somehow pay for damage it has caused. But we must also emphasize that Russia can have a bright future, too. Russia can reach a new height of prosperity and achievement that it has never before seen if it can kick corruption, intolerance and revanchism to the curb. So too can those Eastern European countries slowly knocking down the democratization that occurred after the Iron Curtain fell, but only if they similarly can boot those three ills out. Ultimately, they must decide their own futures, but we in America and Western Europe must eagerly offer our help. We must stand steadfastly by Eastern Europe’s side as it braves big, uncomfortable changes that ultimately will leave all of us much better off.

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