25 years ago the Wall came down and the Soviet Empire started to melt like morning snow in an April sun. The world of communistic dictatorships collapsed for a simple reason – it could no longer compete. It became completely rotten from the inside, morally and economically. For forty years Europe and its people had lived divided into two worlds. One of free choice, free will and free competition – the other of very limited choices. One of strategic cooperation and integration by choice (European integration/NATO) – the other one of imposed, or supervised “integration” by COMECON and the Warsaw Pact. Any signs of reforms or just a wishful flirtation with the idea of reforms in this Soviet realm produced only blood, even more pain and less freedom. Any attempt to walk straight and think like a free man was quickly put down, in 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Czechoslovakia, and 1981 in Poland.

1989 brought us back freedom, dignity and the possibility of making choices. Our choice was simple: liberal democracy and a free trade economy. That choice was seen as being something as natural as breathing, and integration with NATO and the EU was an inseparable part of it. To people like myself, the end of the Cold War was the victory of common sense. We saw this as the victory of all freedom-seeking people, no matter what side of the Wall they had lived before 1989. This was not a defeat of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Treaty by the USA and NATO, but a simpler affair: collapse of communism as represented by the Soviet Empire. This is very important essence of changes of 1989. Unfortunately, as we see it today, this perception was not widely shared and understood in the same way throughout the whole Soviet dominated space.

For Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, and the Balts, membership of both NATO and the EU was seen as a very rational but also an emotional choice. As between individuals, the most durable relationships are those where love and reason come together, and for us this was the NATO/EU option. In terms of security, there were some who spoke of neutrality, but what would that entail exactly? Firstly, a very fragile international position, as no one dared to predict for how long the post imperialSoviet sentiments in Moscow would hibernate. Secondly, it would mean marginalization in European policy-making. We concluded that a place at the table in the room where strategic decisions are made is always better than hanging out in the lobby, hoping you do not one day appear on the menu. Finally, many of us also saw the “pick and choose” approach to alliances as morally doubtful. If you want to profit from a close economic or security cooperation, you should be also willing to share the risks involved.

In the early 1990s we did not know how deep the wounds caused by communism and the divisions created of the Cold War were. We expected fast integration into NATO and smooth transition towards the European Union. Instead, we witnessed plenty of hesitation to enlarge the EU, and frustrating stages (some may say hurdles) on the road to NATO membership such as North Atlantic Cooperation Council, Partnership for Peace, and even Membership Action Plan. However, today I admit that this was a prudent way to enlarge. It helped to build trust, and motivated the aspirants to perform better. I also think that an informal link between NATO and the EU qualification processes at that time was very useful. Still, in the years when I represented my country at some NATO and EU meetings, I was often struck by the difference of “corporate cultures” between the two organizations and the schizophrenic approach of some states, pursuing different, and sometimes contradictory, policies at the EU and NATO.

To apply for membership was our free choice and an expression of our free will. Both NATO and the EU are based on this principle. It was not a result of a geo-strategic competition between the US and Russia or the US wishing to recruit allies against Moscow. On the contrary: our accession process was more than a decade-long struggle requiring plenty of dedication and hard work, also involving an effort to convince the US about the merits of enlargement. I laugh when I hear now how NATO (as if it was some mysterious creature) “expanded” to push Russia away. As if the Central European countries were forced into NATO, as if NATO was just another kind of Warsaw Pact, as if history could not be driven by choices of free people, and as if all of the post-1989 dynamics were a puppet theatre performance. I do not know whether I should cry or laugh when I hear all those conspiracy theories today.

When negotiating our accession, I had never heard a word which would be hostile towards Russia. On the contrary, many meetings were dedicated to the issue on how to engage Russia in a closer strategic relationship, based on its willingness to engage. The hand was stretched, and at best ignored, at worst knowingly snubbed. I will never forget my trip to Moscow shortly before Slovakia joined NATO. At a high level meeting, the only reaction to my sincere explanation of our choices was: “Mr. State Secretary, let me assure you, when you join NATO we will put you on the list of our enemies”. And that was 2003. I had never heard that type of language at any NATO meeting before.

Since 1992 I have spent a lot of time at NATO and EU formal and informal strategic meetings. I have had access to top classified strategic documents. In none of those did I see even a hint of a policy to fence out, push away or dominate Russia. Maybe a problem for Moscow was that a close cooperation with NATO would require it to accept a few simple rules like: cooperation of equals, respect for smaller states as well as the big ones, and a basic degree of transparency.

Current events in the east of Ukraine are unacceptable and unprecedented in the post-World War Two history of Europe. An information war of an immense dimension creates a twisted reality where we find the wolf laying in the grandma’s bed with a bulging belly, saying that he has never seen any Little Red Riding Hood, or grandma. When pushed a bit harder, he would yell back “So what that I’ve eaten them? Grandma was old and Little Red Riding Hood was provoking me and got what she deserved”.

The bottom line 25 years from the fall of communism is this: Slovakia has reached the level of freedom and prosperity that it most likely has never seen before. That has been partly due to our membership of NATO and EU and our commitment to modernise and reform, linked with the accession process. Liberal democracy, as well as NATO and the EU themselves, are imperfect instruments which can get out of tune. Still, they are preferable to other options. Most importantly, since 1989 we have had the possibility to make free choices. And we ended up not bad at all.

The author is President of the Central European Strategy Council

This article originally appeared on the website of the European Leadership Network