- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 9, 2004

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Ronald Reagan is being remembered fondly by leaders, former dissidents and ordinary people in Eastern Europe as a source of hope in an era of Soviet domination.

Mr. Reagan’s unequivocal opposition to communism, his support for Radio Free Europe broadcasts into Eastern Europe and his buildup of U.S. armed forces are widely credited here for helping to bring down communist regimes.

“He introduced a moral dimension that legitimized our cause,” said Konstanty Gebert, a former Polish dissident who now writes about international affairs for Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s leading newspaper.

Mr. Gebert and others recalled Mr. Reagan’s depiction of communism as economically dysfunctional and morally bankrupt.

“We were running around for decades saying that, and no one listened,” he said.

Mr. Reagan’s depiction of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” in 1983 helped embolden dissidents in Eastern Europe.

World War II left Europe divided, with the Soviet Union in control of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and East Germany.

Twice, the Soviets invaded with tanks and troops to crush fledging democratic reforms, first in Hungary in 1956 and again in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

As a result, fear of Soviet invasion largely held reformers in check until an American president publicly embraced their cause.

“History will remember Ronald Reagan as that American president who learned the language of politics used by the Soviets,” said Nicolae Manolescu, a former Romanian dissident who is now a political commentator and editor of the weekly magazine Romania Literara.

“He discovered … that the Soviet empire can be defeated only by a strong policy.”

Former Czech dissident Jan Urban credited Mr. Reagan for his masterly use of television. “He was perfect in using this medium,” said Mr. Urban, who now teaches “the Culture of Dissent” at New York University’s Prague campus.

In particular, he recalled the moment in 1987 when Mr. Reagan stood in front of the Berlin Wall and threw down the gauntlet for then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Just over two years later, the Berlin Wall fell and within months, communist regimes toppled throughout Eastern Europe.

When the world this month paused to remember the sacrifices of Allied troops 60 years ago, leaders such as former Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban reflected on Mr. Reagan’s influence in bringing democracy to those starved for it behind the Iron Curtain.

“Hungary and Europe do not forget Ronald Reagan’s help and his support for the former communist countries,” Mr. Orban said.

“He is the one who allowed the breakup of the Soviet Union. May God rest his soul,” said Bogdan Chireac, a foreign-affairs analyst for the Romanian newspaper Adevarul.

Mr. Reagan appointed a deputy secretary of state to shuttle in and out of the region, and encouraged others to do the same.

He poured millions of dollars into programming by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, using the airwaves to encourage fledgling pro-democracy movements such as Poland’s Solidarity.

“During his administration, U.S. citizens at all levels and of all walks of life — politicians, senators, journalists, academics — systematically and repeatedly were visiting Czechoslovakia and other communist countries, meeting the dissidents and the opposition,” former Czech dissident Jiri Dienstbier said.

“Their open support was very important for our safety and for our position in society,” he said.

As his presidency wound down, Mr. Reagan lashed out at communism in Eastern Europe as “an artificial economic and political system, long imposed on these people against their will.”

“Mr. Reagan, along with Pope John Paul II, was one of the architects who dismantled communism in Eastern Europe and stopped the expansion of the Soviet Union,” said Ivo Samson, an analyst with the Slovak Foreign Policy Association.

“The fact that today Bulgaria is a member of NATO could happen only after the efforts of this great American president. His name will forever remain in history,” said Petko Bocharov, a prominent Bulgarian journalist.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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