With every passing day the Eastern European countries are absorbed and integrated into Western-sponsored international institutions—the U.N., NATO, the European Union, the World Bank, etc. For Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, and Kiev, the West represents the light at the end of the tunnel, the gate to salvation. It is funny (tragic) to see: while the West, from the perspective of its consumer-citizens, is increasingly a degenerate piece of geography, for the recent escapees from communism it is the Land of Plenty, Eldorado combined with a Pays de Cocagne, the end of history, the plenitude of Culture. Fukuyama ought to travel there in order to replenish his waning optimism.

This desire to join “Europe” and the Atlantic community grows obsessive as the national and regional problems—misery, ethnic conflicts, the migration issue, the collapse of infrastructure—swell to unmanageable proportions. No amount of foreign aid, investment, peace talks, and membership cards can stem the flood of difficulties; not, mind you, because of Soviet occupation and devastation alone, but also because of the weight of history and the heritage of Turks, Habsburgs, Russians, and other colonizers. Upon the colonizers, one ought not to underestimate the subtle mainmise of the modern West, both economic and cultural, which has led to a lazy and cynical mentality, a justification of the “it is useless anyway” attitude. The number of times these countries have been betrayed by the West masked as Santa Clans is astronomical, and if this is not quite so in fact, it remains so in the citizen’s mind.

The nth Balkan war, the present one, is only the most recent betrayal, with its pseudo-arbitrations and embargoes. Other betrayals were Budapest in 1956, then Prague, then Danzig—and before them Yalta, Versailles, Wilson and Clemenceau, and so on, way back into the past. And quite recently, too: it is known that the collapse of the Berlin Wall was a trauma for Paris and London, an embarrassment for the entire West. Who wants legions of beggars to knock at the gates and offer narcotics, nuclear devices, and unwanted products?

In short, the lifting of the Iron Curtain has been the source of serial dramas, with actors immobilized before 1989, who now assume their roles. True, the cry to “Join the West!” (from Bill Clinton as much as Michael Jackson) seems to satisfy the eagerness to escape the past; yet this “integration” will solve nothing, while creating immense disappointments; either integration will not deliver according to expectations, or it will add new woes typical of Western societies to the already unsolvable local problems. Integration comes to resemble the lemmings’ suicide march.

Yet—the eternal paradox—there are also many signs of health in Eastern Europe, without Western do-goodism and interference. Some things work, and, amazingly, worked under the previous regime too, by the sheer power of tradition, subtle resistance, solidarity, and at times a sense of the human on the part of Marxist bureaucrats themselves. Schools and curricula, church institutions, national loyalty, the consciousness of being part of Europe, the lively sources of folk art, and, above all else, literature and its tradition—these were and remained the positive elements. If these nations have a future, it is because the liberal and progressive concepts have not eaten themselves into their fabric, but have been cordoned off to big cities and a small percentage of their population.

To say this, of course, provokes controversy, if not acerbic accusations. It is the foremost taboo subject. Nevertheless, it is important to assert that the generally Western ideology of liberal democracy, globalism, and rootless culture is what today poisons the work of reconstruction. After a century of Marxist and various Utopian dreams, and evil philosophies taught in schools, it is clear that Eastern Europe will either be saved by its traditions—yes, including ethnic self-affirmations—or will go under for centuries, under the burden of so-called Western values. The safely living and happily consuming West simply does not grasp the primacy of national identity as a source of survival and will to live. The ever-present hostile elements in the East cannot be canceled by treaties and summits.

Over a period of a hundred years or so (roughly from 1848 to 1949, from modernization to a modicum of prosperity) the nations of Eastern Europe were allowed to acquire muscle, to develop a middle class, to mix in a rather healthy way its historical tradition with the opening to the West. This positive evolution, with promoters and resisters balanced, rested on history and nationhood, on pride in achievement, whether artistic, religious, urbanistic, or military. In the last half-century, communism as well as the general drift of modernity have wiped out the middle class and outlawed national pride. Writers, thinkers, painters, and priests have either been totally silenced or constrained by this or that political correctness. It is a miracle that much of the earlier consciousness survived; in fact, one meets it at every step, tattered, worn, humiliated—but alive! In high school classes, at religious gatherings, in academies, at dinners with scintillating poets, patriots, publishers, professors—and in nostalgic “average citizens.”

The tragedy today, and for years to come, is that this virile heritage that refused to die and even to wither under communism is now encountering a dry and bureaucratic, materialistic and commercial, degenerate Western import, which impresses people not by truth or virtue, but by the outpouring of vulgar publicity and degrading merchandise. The neobourgeoisie now in evidence above layers and lavers of miserable and exhausted grey masses is thus not an organic successor of the old one, but a sociological stratum in expansion, with the cultural features of the proletariat in Dickens and Zola. The old values find themselves suddenly neutralized in waves of postcommunist anarchy. The great and central question is whether the old nations and their ordering principle of reality and imagination will survive or succumb to a cosmopolitan ideology.

In the main, Eastern Europe has followed, since 1848, the Russian pattern of indecision between populists and Westernizers, Bakunin and Herzen, Dostoyevsky and Turgenev, Stalin and Trotsky, Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov. The strange thing is that under Bolshevik rule a combination won out, with the worst from each. This is a natural development in the ex-satellite countries and in Russia itself. For the moment, the tug of war is between equally strong militants on both sides: between nationalism, also in its populist version, and the socialist-liberal left (contrary to my friends on the right, it is not a communist comeback, but hardly less dangerous for nationhood), with the left complaining that the right is “fascist.” But one cannot underestimate the force of inertia on either side: the liberals advocate cosmopolitan values which are alien except to the world of artists, students, journalists, and part of the ambitious political class; the nationals have deep roots but misjudge the genuine forces of a necessary modernization. In sum, the observer witnesses a replay of an old game. The left constitutes a small, city-based minority, but it knows how to spread its theories and slogans since it owns or browbeats the publishing houses, the newspapers, the intellectual magazines. It has a near-monopoly on attractive ideas, it defines the consensus on television. The right trusts people’s common sense and believes that “truth wins out.” It consequently neglects the media and engages instead in whispering campaigns. Since it typically loses (elections, popularity polls, academic posts), the right often finds consolation in vast conspiracy theories. “Have you read the book by X? He tells it all. They plan a final takeover of the regime, of television, of the banks . . . “

While the liberal left thus prepares the ground in small moves, the right retreats and sulks. Society itself, deprived of leadership, makes its choices pragmatically, according to its interests of the moment. One may find comfort in the thought that the infightings are known to all modern democracies, and one may even rejoice over the right-left conflicts in African “democracies” as well. But in Eastern Europe, democracy is and will remain an import article, and will turn into a vicious brawl. The stake is, of course, power, but since we speak of impecunious societies, the stake is naked financial gain—and Swiss bank accounts.

Eastern Europe is in many respects at a crossroads—where the roads may lead somewhere, anywhere, possibly to chaos. The shipwreck of the middle class—officers, civil servants, teachers, entrepreneurs, publishers, the steadily employed—resulted not merely in an all-too-frequent vacuum, but also in a nihilistic mood. These countries now simultaneously suffer the pangs of independence, of social restructuring, of economic upmanship, and of national consolidation. These, plus the burdened soul of the recent past, create a general distrust, limitless ambitions (also called the free market), and vast corruption at every level. Western influence and pressure arrive at the wrong time, since the problems. East and West, have little in common, yet the remedies applied under foreign pressure tend to be uniform from the Volga to the Danube. The remedies—democracy, free market, and human rights—arc literally meaningless words and phrases without a background and space for validation. They are, alas, just enough to prevent the rise of a patriotic and culturally efficient class of leaders. But even if such emerged it would be stamped “reactionary” and excluded by those who claim precisely pluralism as their virtue.

Just about the only Western slogan not used in the region—”political correctness” is already doing its devastating job—is “globalism,” since all preoccupations are strictly local. Its place is taken by “geopolitics,” which compels the leaders to adopt a degree of realism. And the nature of the realism is an orientation toward Germany, as the Bosnian tragedy demonstrates every day. The fear of Russia is very much alive, and Western Europe disappoints newspaper readers daily. At the December summit in Budapest, Clinton struck people with his lack of color and personality, as even Yeltsin marginalized him. Mitterrand was judged as being out of the game, with his self-administered funeral oration; and John Major was visibly ill at ease with his troubles at home. Some regional politicians looked to Italy for leadership—a tradition south of the Danube—but they had to acknowledge that Helmut Kohl alone made the impression of power. As I recently wrote, history in Eastern Europe appears to flow backward.

But at least history dictates the same policies to the entire region: all countries have, at the recent elections, returned a socialist government, disavowing liberals, Christians, agrarians, and partisans of the Western model. Emphatically, the returned parties are not communist, although they retain certain familiar features: a predilection for centralism, a rougher tone vis-a-vis the West (whose weakness they detect better than the liberals), a tougher trade and customs policy, and a more forceful insistence on reducing the debilitating foreign debt—contracted in the past by the communists!

None of this cancels the ills mentioned earlier, but it does signal a greater social discipline. Watching the situation in Hungary at the end of 1994 and comparing it with that of the year before, I found that a once-rebellious public now submitted almost meekly to the government’s decisions, for example against strikers. And they meekly submitted even when these decisions hurt, like the steep increase in the price of foodstuff and fuel. Let’s be cynical: Was it because the media, one after another, passed into government hands?