Rethinking Europe

Thirty Years After the Wall Fell: Part 2 — Central Europe

How the market economy changed lives: East Europeans assess 30 years of freedom.

Takeaways


  • Poland has consistently been the fastest growing post-communist economy. Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia currently have labor shortages.
  • I shudder to think back to what the communists called the times of “normalization” when they decided everything. I can still feel the relief when the regime collapsed.
  • Everything changed after the Czechoslovak revolution in 1989. Despite not having the relevant education I was determined to learn as much as possible.

My engagement with Europeans who grew up on the east side of the Berlin Wall began in the 1990s. At the time, I was a correspondent based in Prague, which gave me the opportunity to travel throughout the region.

Later, in an effort to more directly connect with ordinary people in a dozen diverse post-communist lands, I traveled 2,500 miles by bicycle from Estonia to Albania. During that journey, I met dozens of wonderful people who generously extended hospitality to a lone cyclist.

I have stayed in touch with several of them and here are their personal stories of living through momentous change.



Part 2 — Central Europe

Poland has consistently been the fastest growing post-communist economy. Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia currently have labor shortages.

Contrary to expectations, Hungary in 2019 is the fastest growing economy in the east.

Helena Bartoskova, pensioner, Lipuvka, near Brno, Czech Republic

Tereza Bartoskova, translator, Brno, Czech Republic

Bartos

I met the Bartos family during a fierce rain storm in May 2004 while making my way through Czech Moravia. Soaked and desperate to find accommodation as darkness fell, I approached a young couple walking beneath a large umbrella.

Helena’s daughter Tereza and boyfriend took me to the Bartos home where I dried my clothes and enjoyed the palacinky pancakes English teacher Helena was preparing in the kitchen.

Helena is now a widow, retired with a grandchild. She travels often in western Europe and recently in Spain enrolled in a short-term language course.

Tereza, 41, is a single mother living in a Brno high rise working part time as an English translator.

“I shudder thinking back to what the communists called the times of “normalization” when they ruled and decided everything.

I can still feel the relief I felt when the regime collapsed. A new world opened. Yes, we have problems today, but the positive feature is that nobody restricts my freedom as to what I think and believe.

I study as I please and I can travel freely, which is something I value very much. I’m so grateful I’ve been living these 30 years in freedom. All in all, I feel really free.” Helena Bartoskova

“It was such a good thing that we joined the EU in 2004. What I particularly like is that we can travel, work and study in the “West”. I can compare working in England before the EU — not that it was a bad experience, but the only thing one could do was an au-pair or a care giver.

I am moderately optimistic about the future, although am worried about Muslim immigration and the ignorance of our politicians concerning political Islam.” Tereza Bartoskova

Jozef Hajko, author, Bratislava, Slovakia

Bartos

A writer on Slovak history, Jozef and I met in 1993 when he was a news agency reporter. He participated in a two-week journalism seminar I led in New York and Washington. Jozef went on to be a respected magazine editor in Bratislava and now is a full-time author.

“My life changed significantly after 1990. I had always liked literature and wanted to write preferably for a newspaper but it was impossible because my father was persecuted by the state for his faith and his children carried this stigma as well. So all doors were closed.

Everything changed after the Czechoslovak revolution in 1989. Despite not having the relevant education I was determined to learn as much as possible and started to study on my own. I was launched on a new career with a job at the Slovak News Agency.

Soon I was recruited by the then main economic and business newspaper Trend. I wrote about major changes in the economic and political systems in Slovakia and became editor-in-chief. I’ve written three books.”

Marta Kecskemeti, entrepreneur, Kiskoros, Hungary

Bartos

Marta and I met in 2004 when I stopped at the town tourist office where she worked. Even then her English was excellent from having spent a year as an exchange student in North Carolina.

Now 41 and married with three children, Marta and her husband are successful entrepreneurs running a landscaping business and a farm that grows organic asparagus for the German market.

“In 1989 my father was a car mechanic and also worked at the local recycling plant. My mom was a mathematics and physics teacher. Besides their jobs we had a one-hectare vineyard, which was a profitable second job.

The family was able to buy a car – a Lada- from the profit of one season’s crop. We three children also worked in the fields. We weren’t rich, life seemed easy, but there were restrictions as everybody knows.

My husband was my classmate at school. We run a florist shop and plant nursery. We also have 15 hectares of land. Our story is a lucky and happy one. Our generation is lucky to live through the changes in the system.

We feel it on our own skin. In the old days Hungary was just a copy of the bigger communist nations in eastern Europe. Hungary will never be a leader since we bear the loss of 2/3s of our territory from the 1920 Trianon treaty.”

Robertino Knjur, construction supervisor, Kecskemet, Hungary

Bartos

Robertino was a founder of Otpor, a Serbian student group that in 1999 led months of protests trying to bring down strongman Slobodan Milosevic. Otpor dissidents were on the cover of the New York Times magazine and Robertino was among their leaders who came to Washington where we met.

An ethnic Hungarian from Vojvodina, we met again when I cycled through Subotica, Serbia. By then Robertino was done with revolution and teaching high school mathematics. In 2018 he and his young family moved to southern Hungary where Robertino is an inspector for a construction company.

“When I was young I wanted to change the world. Now I’m much older and focused on my family. We have a small “tree house” on the Tisza River, not far away. My dream is to have a boat.

At age 18 I was in the Yugoslav army in Bosnia. Then I wanted to study nautical engineering in Croatia but that couldn’t happen after Yugoslavia broke up. The war changed everything.

When Milosevic was finally gone, our politics didn’t improve. Serbian politicians are hopelessly corrupt. I’ve dropped out of political protest. After teaching, I married my Hungarian wife and moved to Hungary.

I worked first as a car mechanic but now do construction engineering for companies producing animal feed. I’m busy and travel all over Hungary.”

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About Barry Wood

Barry D. Wood is a Washington writer and broadcaster. His new book is Exploring New Europe, a Bicycle Journey. His twitter handle is @econbarry

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