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The Czech Republic is a democratic country in Central Europe with a population of approximately 10.5 million people.
From 1918 until 1993, the territory now comprising the Czech Republic was part of Czechoslovakia, which from 1948 to 1989 was part of the communist bloc controlled by the Soviet Union. During this period, the communist government nationalized industry and imposed a highly repressive political system that included the use of secret police and the imprisonment of individuals who challenged the authority of the state.
In 1968, the First Secretary of the Communist Party, Alexander Dubcek, attempted to relax some of the more oppressive limitations on Czechoslovak citizens by allowing greater freedom of expression and association. This period, which was known as the “Prague Spring,” ended when Warsaw Pact armies led by the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and forced the country to abandon the reforms.
In 1977, a group of dissidents led by playwright Vaclav Havel published a document known as Charter 77, which called attention to abuses of human rights by the Czechoslovak government. The initiative called upon the government to respect its international commitments on human rights as elaborated in the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Charter 77 helped draw international attention to conditions within the country.
The rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in 1985 began a process of limited reform in the communist bloc. In 1989, Poland held partially free elections that saw the opposition come to power. Hungary’s communist government opened its borders and began a negotiated transition to democracy. And in November 1989, hundreds of thousands of Czechoslovak citizens took to the streets to peacefully protest communist rule in what became known as the “Velvet Revolution.” On November 28, 1989, the Communist Party was forced to announce that it would cede power and allow free elections. The new parliament elected former dissident Vaclav Havel as president on December 29, 1989. As president, Havel made his country a leader in defending and supporting human rights around the world. In 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, both of which later joined the European Union and NATO.
Since its transition to democracy, the Czech Republic has developed stable and democratic systems of governance and a free market economy. Political power has rotated among several strong and competitive political parties, and free and fair elections are held. In 2013, Miloš Zeman was elected president in the first direct presidential election in the country’s history.
In the most recent Freedom in the World report from Freedom House, the Czech Republic earned a rating of “free.” The country earned the highest possible scores in overall freedom, civil liberties, and political rights.
Slovakia is a landlocked country in Central Europe, with a population of 5.4 million. Ethnic Slovaks comprise 80 percent of the population, ethnic Hungarians about 8 percent, and other groups make up the balance.
Slovakia was part of Austria-Hungary until World War I. In 1917, it joined with what is now the Czech Republic to form Czechoslovakia. Czechs and Slovaks are distinct nations, but with many similarities and historical ties. During World War II, Czechoslovakia was dismembered by Nazi Germany and a German-allied puppet state was established in Slovakia. Following the war, Czechoslovakia was reunited. A brief period of democracy lasted until 1948, when a Soviet-backed communist government seized power. While communism robbed Czechoslovakia of democracy and freedom, it also brought economic development and industrialization.
In 1968, Alexander Dubcek became leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. During his brief time in power, Dubcek unleashed a series of reforms known as the Prague Spring. These steps toward greater freedom were crushed by the August 1968 Soviet invasion. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Czechoslovakia was governed by hardline, orthodox communists.
In 1989, the communists’ grip on power in Central Europe faltered and citizens began pushing for change. In Slovakia, the first major anti-communist protest was organized by Catholics, pushing for greater religious freedom. Artists, intellectuals, dissidents, students and others organized civic opposition groups. Slovakia’s Public Against Violence and the Czech Civic Forum organized a series of peaceful protests against the communist government in the Velvet Revolution of November 1989. With rising public support for the opposition and no support from their Soviet patrons, Czechoslovakia’s communists ceded power.
Czechoslovakia moved quickly toward democracy and the free market. But tensions developed between the Czechs and Slovaks over the pace of reforms and the structure of the government. After several years of squabbling, Czechoslovakia was peacefully dissolved into two countries on January 1, 1993.
Once independent, Slovakia struggled to consolidate its democracy. Vladimir Meciar won three free elections. But as prime minister, he abused state power to strike out at opposition parties, independent media, unions, and civil society. His actions caused Slovakia to be sidelined as a candidate for membership in the European Union and NATO. Before the 1998 elections, civil society and opposition parties united in a broad coalition promoting democratic reforms. A record voter turnout ousted Meciar from power and returned Slovakia to a democratic path.
Today, Slovakia is a consolidated democracy with a growing economy, firmly anchored in the European Union and NATO.
Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe, bordering Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It has an estimated population of nearly 45 million people, of which 78 percent are ethnic Ukrainians, 17 percent are ethnic Russians, with the rest belonging to other ethnic groups.
Ukrainian independence was reestablished in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 9th century, Kievan Rus was established as the first eastern Slavic state on what is now Ukrainian territory. For much of its history, Ukraine was subjugated to neighboring powers such as Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and Austria-Hungary. Briefly independent after World War I, Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922. After World War II, Soviet Ukraine’s territory was enlarged to include former Polish, Romanian and Czechoslovak territory in the west and the mostly ethnic-Russian Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea.
Ukraine’s rich soil made it the breadbasket of the USSR. Today, it is the world’s third largest exporter of grain. Industrialization took place during the Soviet era, along with collectivization of agriculture. During the 1930s, the collectivization of agriculture and displacement of farmers to the cities to work in heavy industry led to a catastrophic famine, known to Ukrainians as the Holodomor. As many as 10 million people perished. Under the rule of dictator Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union aimed to eliminate Ukraine’s national identity. Artists and intellectuals and those believed to be Ukrainian nationalists were eliminated by the security agencies. Nearly 700,000 people are believed to have perished during these purges.
During World War II, Ukraine was the scene of heavy fighting between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Five to eight million Ukrainians died during the war, including the majority of Ukraine’s Jewish population. After the war, the economy grew rapidly, with agriculture and heavy industry driving growth. Ukraine was second only to Russia in power and influence within the Soviet Union. In 1986, Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was the scene of the worst nuclear accident in history.
In 1990, as the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, Ukraine adopted a declaration of sovereignty, a prelude to the 1991 declaration of full independence. The first decade of independence saw Ukraine’s economy collapse, with massive unemployment and hyperinflation. The country’s road to democracy was troubled, with President Leonid Kuchma’s new constitution centralizing power in the presidency. Corruption, electoral fraud, and domination of the economy by Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs led to political stagnation. Freedom House and other watchdog groups noted a marked deterioration in civil liberties and human rights under President Kuchma, including restrictions on the media, government efforts to undermine the political opposition, political violence and even murder.
Ukrainian politics has been highly contentious and essentially divided into two large political blocs. The first group, led by Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, was seen as advocating closer ties with Russia. The second group, led by Viktor Yushchenko and the Our Ukraine coalition, was seen as favoring democratic reforms and preferring a closer relationship with the European Union (EU) and NATO.
In 2004, Presidential elections were held and Yanukovych was declared as the winner. Yushchenko challenged the results of this election, arguing that they were rigged. Yushchenko then peacefully came to power in what has become known as the Orange Revolution. In 2010, Yanukovych was elected as President. In late 2013, protests began in Kiev after Yanukovych’s policies began shifting away from the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia. Violent government suppression of protests ultimately led to the Parliament removing Yanukovych from power in February 2014 and holding new elections, which were won by pro-EU President Petro Poroshenko.
In March of 2014, Russian troops were deployed to Crimea where secession riots had broken out. The Crimean Parliament voted to secede from Ukraine in order to join the Russian Federation. This decision was confirmed by a referendum vote, the validity of which has been contested by the international community. In 2014 and 2015, pro-Russian militias took control of a swath of eastern Ukraine.
In its 2015 “Freedom in the World” report, Freedom House labeled Ukraine as “partly free”. It received an overall Freedom Rating of 3, with 1 being the most free and 7 being the least. Ukraine received a 3 in civil liberties and a 4 in political rights on the same scale. In its 2015 “Freedom of the Press” Report, Freedom House gave a partly free score of 58 to Ukraine, where 0 is the best possible score and 100 is the worst possible score.
Poland is a central European country bordered by the Baltic Sea, Belarus, Ukraine, Germany, Russia, Lithuania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Poland has a population of 38 million people; nearly 90 percent are Roman Catholic.
Poles struggled against foreign dominance from the 14th century and the modern Polish state is less than one hundred years old. Polish borders expanded and contracted through a series of partitions in the 18th century. After a brief period of independence and parliamentary democracy from 1918 to 1939, World War II brought occupation by Nazi Germany and the near annihilation of the Jewish population. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Poland’s Jewish population went from over 3 million in 1933 to 45,000 in 1950.
After the war, Poland became a Soviet satellite state and a communist system was imposed. Farms were collectivized, basic freedoms curtailed, and a culture of fear developed under a Stalinist regime. The 1960s brought greater prosperity and some liberalization. Labor protests in the early 1970s tested the communist government’s resolve and prompted modest reforms.
In 1978, Polish Archbishop and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian to hold the position since the 16th century. The pope’s triumphant return to Poland in 1979 saw massive outpourings of public support, shaking the foundations of the government and inspiring the opposition to press for peaceful change.
In 1980, shipbuilders in the seaport city of Gdansk united to confront the government. Their calls for greater political liberties and improved working conditions developed into the Solidarity movement. Solidarity’s leader, Lech Walesa, became the movement’s voice. Protests and unrest spread throughout the country and the communists replaced their leadership. General Wojciech Jaruzelski became prime minister and declared martial law on December 13, 1981. Solidarity was outlawed and Walesa and other Solidarity leaders were imprisoned.
While martial law was lifted in 1983, Poland continued to stagnate. Mikhail Gorbachev’s elevation to leadership of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985 brought new pressures for reform in Poland. A failing economy and continued repression incited workers to a new wave of strikes in 1988. A desperate regime agreed to legalize Solidarity and conduct semi-free elections. In the 1989 parliamentary elections, Solidarity won 99 of the 100 Senate seats and 160 of the 161 lower house seats they were allowed to contest. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Solidarity leader, became Poland’s first non-communist prime minister in over four decades. In 1990, Lech Walesa was elected president with 74 percent of the vote. While Solidarity splintered as Poland democratized, a coalition government of anti-communist parties won fully free parliamentary elections in 1991.
Poland transitioned to a market economy and applied for integration into western institutions. Economic dislocation returned the former communists, now social democrats, to power in 1993. Free elections and peaceful transitions in the following decades solidified Poland’s multi-party democratic system. Reforms eventually led to a more robust economy and Poland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.
In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2013, Poland earned the status “Free,” (as it has since 1990) receiving the best possible rankings in the categories Political Rights and Civil Liberties.
Lithuania is a central European country bordered by the Baltic Sea, Belarus, Latvia, Poland, and Russia. Approximately 83 percent of the population is ethnic Lithuanian; about 6 percent of the population is of Polish ancestry and 5 percent Russian. Nearly 80 percent are Roman Catholic.
The first Lithuanian state was established in the 13th century and by the end of the 14th century, Lithuania controlled much of Central Europe. Lithuania was joined with Poland for much of the 16th to 18th centuries, until the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary. Most of Lithuania became part of czarist Russia. In the 19th century, a movement to reassert national and cultural identity grew in influence.
Along with its Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Latvia, modern Lithuania achieved independence after the collapse of imperial Russia in the First World War. From 1918 to 1940, Lithuania was an established and recognized state. This period of independence ended when Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia fell victim to the designs of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Joseph Stalin’s Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler and Stalin divided much of Central and Eastern Europe. Lithuania was occupied and annexed by the Soviets in 1940. During World War II, Nazi Germany occupied Lithuania in 1941 and killed most of the Jewish population. USSR reconquered Lithuania in 1944. In 1945, Lithuania was proclaimed the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, but many Western governments never recognized the Baltic States’ incorporation into the USSR.
Under Soviet rule, Lithuania was subject to mass deportations and efforts to stifle its culture and language. Armed resistance to the USSR was largely extinguished in the early 1950s. After Stalin’s death in 1953, some modest liberalization occurred.
Like the rest of the Soviet Union, conditions in Lithuania stagnated during the 1970s and 1980s. The elevation of Mikhail Gorbachev to General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985 sparked new movements for reform. Gorbachev’s glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) policies were designed to revive the Communist system, but also unleashed efforts to bring down the Soviet Union. Much of Lithuania’s Communist Party resisted the sweeping changes being instituted by Gorbachev.
In 1988, anti-Soviet intellectual and cultural elites were joined by some pro-reform Communists in forming Sajudis (meaning “movement” in Lithuanian), in part to support Gorbachev’s efforts for reform, but also to restore Lithuanian independence. Vytautas Landsbergis, a professor of music, became chairman of Sajudis. It quickly became a mass movement, organizing a number of large demonstrations during 1988 and 1989. In February 1989, Sajudis declared the Soviet occupation illegal and formally proclaimed its goal of restoring independence. In August 1989, Lithuanian activists joined with their counterparts in Estonia and Latvia to form a human chain stretching across the three Baltic countries. An estimated 2 million people joined hands in this peaceful protest to mark the 50th anniversary of the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact that had consigned their countries to Soviet rule.
Candidates associated with Sajudis swept the February 1990 parliamentary elections, the first free elections held since the Soviet occupation began. On March 11, 1990, the new legislature elected Sajudis Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis as chairman of the parliament and proclaimed the reestablishment of independence. Gorbachev declared the declaration of independence illegal and began applying economic and military pressure against Lithuania. In September 1991, the Soviet Union formally recognized Lithuanian independence and the country joined the United Nations.
During the 1990s and 2000s, Lithuania underwent wrenching economic and social change, as the country privatized agriculture and industry and built a free market economy. It has held regular democratic elections since the restoration of independence, and parties have alternated in power. Lithuania, along with its Baltic neighbors, joined the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2004.
In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2013, Lithuania earned the status “Free,” (as it has since 1991) receiving the best possible rankings in the categories Political Rights and Civil Liberties. Since the restoration of its independence, Lithuania has become a leader in assisting democratic development in the countries of the former Soviet Union.