Monday, June 14, 2004

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, American conservatives celebrated the defeat of communism. Confident their victory was complete, they turned their guns on other issues such as Iraq, Bill Clinton and the rising threat of China.

The prevailing assumption among conservatives is that the break-up of the Soviet empire signaled the death knell of Marxist-Leninist ideology throughout Eastern Europe.

Their assumption is wrong. Communism may be dead, but the prevailing communist mindset continues to live on.

President Vladimir Putin’s re-election reveals an increasingly authoritarian Russia. The former KGB chief seeks to reconstitute a Great Russian Imperium composed of former Soviet republics. Belarus is ruled by Stalinist strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who imposed a one-party police state.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, Bulgaria and Serbia, neocommunist reactionaries have sought to derail their countries’ efforts to enter NATO and become full members of the West. In all these nations, the Red old guard continues to exercise a predominant influence over the media, the military and the political class.

The result is that the former communist bloc is slowly being divided into two camps: those who share the West’s moral values and those who do not. Nothing crystallized this emerging geopolitical fissure more clearly than the recent war in Iraq. For while much of New Europe — Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Baltic States — supported the U.S.-led military campaign, crucial states such as Russia, Belarus and Serbia actively opposed it.

In fact, the dirty little secret of the Iraq war is that former communist diehards in Moscow, Minsk, Kiev and Belgrade played a pivotal role throughout the past decade in supplying Saddam Hussein’s regime with military and intelligence assistance. During the 1990s, Russia provided Saddam with vital missile technology.

Even Serbia’s democratic ruling coalition was implicated last year in an arms-for-Iraq scandal. Jugoimport, a Belgrade state arms export agency, was involved in brokering radar systems and weapons to Baghdad from Bosnia, Ukraine and Russia. A report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) policy institute concluded close allies of Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia’s current prime minister, visited Baghdad in 2001 for a conference aimed at undermining U.S. policy in the Balkans and the Middle East. “The conference resolution unanimously condemned ‘American imperialism and hegemony,’ and everything the United States was doing in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq, and had done in Yugoslavia,” the ICG reported.

In East Europe, a fault line emerges, separating Eastern, Slavic civilization from the largely — although not exclusively — Catholic civilization of Central Europe. The centuries-old divide between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and czarist Russia slowly reappears.

This civilizational chasm, however, has now taken a modern guise, pitting democratic capitalism against authoritarian pan-Slavism. The Westernizers tend to be pro-American, reform-minded and eager to join institutions such as NATO and the European Union. The Slavophiles, on the other hand, champion an anti-American, anti-Western foreign policy and long for the return of communism.

Yet there is nothing inevitable about the unfolding division on the European Continent. The Bush administration should foster closer ties with reformists in the Balkans and Ukraine, and provide them assistance to dismantle the old communist structures and carry out real democratic reforms.

Moreover, the United States needs to provide greater support for pivotal democratic allies, such as the new conservative government in Croatia. A good first step is the administration’s commitment to support Croatia’s fast track entry into NATO.

Croatia, however, will never become a full member of the West so long as its dogmatic neocommunists continue occupying positions of power. An obvious example of this is the country’s ambassador to the United States, Ivan Grdesic.

The former Titoist apparatchik has been undermining Zagreb’s bid to join NATO. At an official Croatian Embassy reception in Washington in February, Mr. Grdesic, in a speech before numerous dignitaries and State Department officials, proclaimed Croatia’s desire to enter NATO an “impossible dream,” said a Croatian Embassy official who was there. “The entire embassy staff was shocked and deeply disturbed by the fact that the ambassador was openly disparaging our efforts to promote Croatia’s entry into the Western military alliance,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

In fact, Mr. Grdesic has made no secret of his contempt and hatred for his own country. At a recent banquet reception in Chicago sponsored by the Croatian American Association, Mr. Grdesic denounced Croatia as a “strategically irrelevant” country that “has nothing” to offer the United States.

His outrageous comments should come as no surprise. For decades, Mr. Grdesic and his leftist allies were nurtured by communist propaganda to despise NATO, the democratic West and Croatia’s legitimate national aspirations. The real scandal is not that the ambassador betrayed his country and violated his public office but that many in Zagreb’s media and diplomatic corps share his reactionary brand of neocommunism.

The sooner Washington’s conservatives realize East Europe remains rife with consequential individuals such as Mr. Grdesic, the sooner they can begin helping those nations overcome the crippling legacy of communism.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is communications director at the Ripon Society and editor of the Ripon Forum. The views expressed here are solely his own.

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