How illiberalism has taken hold of central Europe

Tony Barber analyses changing values in Poland, Hungary and the Balkans

The World Today Updated 10 November 2020 Published 8 June 2018 7 minute READ

Tony Barber

Europe Editor, Financial Times

The evening of August 23, 1989, was memorably pleasant in Warsaw. As a foreign correspondent for Reuters who specialized in communist countries, I was with a friend in an apartment in the Polish capital. We were preparing for the change of power due to occur the next day in the Sejm, or national legislature.

Could anything stop the installation of the first government to be led by non-communists in east-central Europe since the aftermath of the Second World War?

Would a diehard faction of the Polish Communist Party try to disrupt the agreement, reached with the independent Solidarity trade union, to turn Poland into a democracy by appointing Tadeusz Mazowiecki, an opposition intellectual, as prime minister?

We concluded that it was all but impossible. Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist Soviet leader, appeared content to let events in Warsaw take their course. Poland’s demoralized communists had made clear that they would not stand in Mazowiecki’s way.

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