It’s both odd and beautiful how music can become the symbol of a historical moment. To me, the Romanian revolution of 1989 — along with the beginning of the post-Cold War destiny of Central Europe — is linked to Verdi’s “Nabucco”. In many ways, the same melody describes the challenges faced by the same region at the beginning of 2014.
The best-known part of Giuseppe Verdi’s most famous opera “Nabucco” is the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, specifically the part in which Temistocle Solera expresses through “Va pensiero” the nostalgia and love for the beautiful homelands the slaves had been exiled from. The same music serves as a Proustian madeleine to me, conjuring memories of the Romanian revolution in 1989. I first listened to the opera passage courtesy of Nana Mouskouri, “Je chante avec toi, liberté” (Song of Liberty), on a vinyl disc called “Libertate — pour les enfants de Roumanie” (Liberty — for the children of Romania). The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves resonated as a symbol of courage and free spirit.
At the time I listened to the vinyl disc I was a child myself and knew little French — enough though to understand that “liberté” was something very important. I also knew that “liberté” needed to be cherished because many people have died in the pursuit of it. I was too young to understand what was going on in my country at the time — and I wasn’t much impressed by that, considering that I had simpler things to preoccupy myself with — but Nana Mouskouri’s interpretation became one of my favorites. It may also have been related to the fact that I was studying violin at the time… but I have no doubt that the events going on around me and the cover of the vinyl disc (the Romanian flag with no coat-of-arms) also made a big impression.
Listening to the Romanian philharmonic orchestra’s interpretation of the same Verdi passage (Nabucco’s Chorus) during the evening of Dec. 20, a day before the commemoration of the 24th anniversary of the Romanian revolution, not only transported me back in time but also made me reflect on the present challenges we face in Romania and elsewhere in Central Europe. Many countries started their own journeys 24 years ago, towards what they didn’t know exactly, but they knew only the names defining it: capitalism, free market economy, democracy…
For Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic (back then, Czechoslovakia), Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, the common goal throughout the so-called transition period was achieving a better integration with the west, through joining NATO and the EU. The two organizations became symbols of a better life for the electorate. Economic and political reforms were accepted easily because the ends were well justified — for the generation that knew the communism of the 80s (particularly in a country like Romania) there was no goal too hard or too painful “compared to the worst”. However, both NATO and the EU evolved and they are no longer the idealized organizations of the 90s and early 2000s. Both have confronted structural and organizational problems.
For the EU, the economic crisis of 2008 transformed into an existential struggle. The 2014 EU Parliamentary elections will be significant because anti-establishment and euro-skeptic parties are increasingly popular and therefore likely to secure victory at the polls. These parties are often the most heavily critical of the European Union and the political elites that back it.
In the Central European countries, the economic crisis was perceived less dramatically than in the West for the simple reason that people here have been used to the hard life. Negative growth and high unemployment is not news for countries in the region, with very few exceptions economic duress is a normal part of life. The fact that “the better” doesn’t seem to appear on the doorstep of Central Europe — that the EU is not honoring its promise of bringing prosperity to these countries — is troublesome.
This is why, in Romania or Bulgaria, the protests against governments’ decisions are increasingly less related to decisions per se and more to the accumulated grief of a population that seems to have lost trust in its leadership. The power of social media networks is increasing, thanks to the actions of a generation that knows less about how life was during the 80s and more about what life should be like — especially young people who have been able to travel and even study in Western Europe, able to compare the quality of life in both extremes of the EU.
In Hungary, the government has become more and more skeptical regarding EU integration as its own financial sector has been particularly vulnerable to the economic crisis. Budapest has carried out controversial nationalizations in the pension sector and has heavily criticized foreign banks operating in the country: last week, the central bank governor said that while four banks may leave the country in the next 18 months, local banks will be strengthened to better serve the public.
Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have been, relatively speaking, less affected by the economic crisis. However, on a visit to Bratislava earlier this year, I was told about the worries that Eurozone membership brings to a still emergent economy like Slovakia — even despite a two-year increase in private credit and exports, restarting a growth trend following a 2009 drop. I was also made aware about the growing popularity of the right-wing, which is not something exceptional in Europe these days but still something worrisome.
Poland has been the only Central European country to experience continued economic growth despite the crisis, and it is only now that it faces an economic slowdown. Warsaw has also been the most active — and aggressive — in terms of pursuing a foreign policy aimed at keeping Moscow away from the region, while simultaneously strengthening ties with the US. During the last few months — and specifically following the events of the Vilnius summit — we have seen Poland become increasingly concerned with how best to balance Russia in the future.
Geopolitically, the biggest question in the region concerns Russia’s resurgence — specifically the way Moscow must be handled in an era when NATO and the EU are facing their own problems. From a socio-economic perspective, the Central European states are facing a generational change that not only has a high impact on demographics but also on the countries’ politics. Liberal democracy is still a relatively new introduction to regional politics, coming into force only 20 years ago. The predictability that characterized Communist regimes has not been around since 1989, and an increasingly revolutionary young population struggles with having the nostalgia of an “organized” life where job security was guaranteed and the will to have a better life (that may or may not include capitalism). Central European countries experiencing this trend may become interesting laboratories for future forms of politics. Or they may well continue struggling internally, containing all the antagonisms and — as they have done throughout history — submitting to the more powerful nations/countries/forces/empires in and around them, continually fighting for their freedom and existence.
Despite these differences and fractures, however, the Song of Liberty remains, above all else, the song of hope.