September 3, 2015
A few days ago I wrote about my personal experience with two European borders; the one between Hungary and Austria and the more familiar one between Italy and France, both of which are currently the scene of desperate attempts by African and Middle Eastern refugees to settle in Europe.
What I failed to say in that post was that on September 11, 1989, the Hungarian government, still under Soviet oversight, opened its border with Austria, allowing hundreds of thousands of Hungarians and other Eastern Europeans to cross the famous Iron Curtain into the West. In May, after Mikhail Gorbachev let it be known that he would not oppose such action, the Hungarian government began removing the fence along its border with Austria. This followed Gorbachev’s trip to East Germany, where the long-standing Honecker was beginning to lose control, giving him what I termed when I saw it on a news report, ‘a socialist kiss of death’. The Soviet Union would no longer support the leader of the most dictatorial Communist regime.
The opening of the Hungarian border in September, 1989, is recognized by Germany as a major political decision, that led-up to the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th.
To understand why Hungary’s initiative marked the end of Soviet control over Eastern Europe, border you have to know that citizens of the East bloc countries could legally travel through that bloc with their ID’s. And every summer, thousands of them would go on vacation to the ‘Hungarian sea’, Lake Balaton. Over the course of that summer, news having travelled by word of mouth, of the opening of the Iron Curtain, thousands packed their vacation bags and crossed the border into Austria, and from there to other countries in the West.
Fast-forward to 2015, the leaders of the European Union failed to respond in a timely manner to the influx of African and Middle Eastern refugees, although they could see it growing from month to month for the last year or two, assuming that somehow, the Schengen Agreement that allowed Europeans to travel freely form one country to another without a passport would suffice. Now they have realized that what has been a bonus for the European population, is a headache for European governments, as literally thousands of refugees cross the Mediterranean every day, either from North Africa or Turkey, landing in Europe after paying smugglers who often fail to ensure their safe arrival.
Geography has dictated that it is the countries of southern Europe - still the poorest after fifteen years of a common currency, the Euro - who receive most of the arrivals. First it was Italy, now, increasingly, it is the Greek islands, some of which are only a few miles from the Turkish coast. These tourist destinations have few means to cope with thousands of refugees. From Greece, recently, refugees have been moving on foot north through Macedonia, which is not a member of the European Union, and from there to Serbia, also not an EU member, and on to Hungary, which is.
EU rules state that refugees must allow themselves to be processed in the first European country in which they land, before they can proceed to other countries, where they may wish to settle. Hungary’s behavior, which has shocked the other European governments, is that since none of the refugees want to settle there - try learning to speak Hungarian! - most wanting to go to Germany or Great Britain, it is being unduly burdened by their arrival. A few weeks ago, the populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban decided to build a barb-wire fence along his border with Serbia. That having stopped no one, he next prevented refugees who had bought train tickets to Germany from boarding trains in Budapest. For several days they have been camping inside and outside the East Station, and today, according to RT, some were allowed to board a train which they thought would take them to Vienna. Suddenly, however, they were off-loaded at a refugee camp, where women and children lay on the tracks screaming ‘No camp!’ (At least there were no SS officers with dogs!)
While this was going on, European Prime Ministers met to discuss the refugee problem. Prime Minister Orban claimed that since most refugees want to go to Germany, it is a German problem. Last year at this time, the German government officially thanked the Hungarian government for opening its border with the west twenty-five years ago. Today the German Martin Schulz, who is President of the European Parliament did not even try to disguise his disgust at Hungary’s behavior. Although no explanation has been given, the Hungarian policy appears intended to dissuade refugees from using Hungary as a crossing point between relatively prosperous non European and their European Union neighbors.
A Slovak minister this morning clarified the stance of the small, relatively homogeneous countries of Eastern Europe: their populations are ‘afraid’ of these dark-skinned people……No wonder: they have no history of either colonialism or military adventures abroad, and notwithstanding their decades’ long history with Soviet oversight, Russians are white Christians, too, after all, and now they are expected to mingle with people of a different color and religion.
In the twenty-five years since the end of the Iron Curtain, apparently, the East Europeans have been living in yet another bubble, this one of their own making.