Spotlight: Perils of Postcommunism in Eastern Europe

▪ 1995

      The pattern of postcommunist development may well have reached a kind of plateau in 1994. The high excitement associated with the collapse of communism and its aftermath, the construction of new political systems, was over. The systems were slowly crystallizing and acquiring features of their own, so it was no longer possible to put all the blame for systemic malfunctioning on the communists. However much they might be prisoners of their own past, the postcommunist actors were themselves responsible for their own errors.

      By 1994 the private sector was producing over half of gross domestic product and employing over half the labour force in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovenia, and Slovakia was not far behind. Privatization was much slower elsewhere, although it had not stalled completely anywhere. This expansion of the private sector was possibly the single most significant longer-term economic development in the region and was of considerable importance politically. The increase in the number of those with property meant that the nature, range, and intensity of property rights and the power to dispose of property grew correspondingly, and these people would gradually make an impact on the functioning of politics. Crucially, property owners were seen to have a greater stake in the enforcement of the law; there is a clear relationship between property ownership and democracy.

      Despite the rise in the number of property owners, however, democracy would not follow automatically because the relationship between the two is a correlation, not a causation. This was where the problems arose in the postcommunist world; the other conditions that encouraged the development of democracy were still weak. In particular, the culture of an impersonal public sphere—a sense that the state, institutions, and civil society were neutral and not operating according to private interests—still had a long way to go. Correspondingly, trust in public institutions was low. Not least, the state was not trusted to enforce the law impartially, and many people were thus suspicious or dissatisfied with their status and inclined to blame the state or mysterious, uncontrollable forces for their losses. Conspiracy theories flourished, and those in turn gave nondemocratic options an opportunity.

      Furthermore, the access to property on the part of some but not others was seen as unjust and was, therefore, rejected by many. The legacy of communism had produced a paradox; people wanted the prosperity of the market systems, but they were loath to abandon a certain commitment to the egalitarianism that they had learned under the former regime. The overall consequence was that suspicion of private enterprise increased, and the gulf between the haves and the have-nots deepened. Moreover, the nouveaux riches flaunted their newfound wealth and were disliked for doing so. The feelings of those who had not succeeded under the new system were those of envy and hope that the beneficiaries would be brought down to their level.

      Because sizable sections of the population were very suspicious of democracy, there were serious implications for the construction of democratic systems. They saw democracy and markets as the means of enrichment for others and as responsible for their own impoverishment. Their readiness to move with the times was limited by their own inexperience and ignorance and by the sheer intellectual and cultural difficulty of transforming the habits of a lifetime from a dependent to an entrepreneurial culture.

      These shortcomings of the social base helped to explain both the success of the successors to the communist parties in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and elsewhere and equally the appeal of right-wing nationalist and populist movements, as in Slovakia and Romania. In former Yugoslavia the pattern was further complicated by war or the threat of war. These parties owed their electoral successes to the implicit promise that the shift to democracy interpreted as prosperity could be achieved relatively painlessly. In reality, they faced the near incompatible tasks of modernizing the political and economic infrastructures of their states and simultaneously satisfying the expectations of societies that were unprepared for the costs of transition. Should these parties fail to effect some qualitative change, the outlook would be decidedly poor.

      Western governments were aware of the potential for instability in the region but were not in a position to do very much to help or, at any rate, perceived their options as limited. In particular, the two areas where the West could genuinely have given support—economics and international security—were both confused by contradictory Western interests and by unrealistic expectations on the part of the postcommunists. Observers were generally agreed that the postcommunist states would benefit substantially from an opening of Western markets to textiles, steel, and agricultural produce. Yet these were the very sectors that Western governments were most concerned to defend from competition. The members of the European Union (EU), with lobbies and vested interests of their own to contend with, had largely blocked Central and Eastern European imports, offering the postcommunist countries limited quotas.

      As far as security was concerned, the West was impeded in any attempt to support the Central and Eastern European countries by their perceived need to placate Russia, a process that, if anything, intensified during the year. Russia had for all practical purposes vetoed any thought that NATO might be extended eastward, insisting that NATO membership for any of the former Warsaw Pact states was an infringement of its own security, something that the West was disinclined to challenge. This left Central and Eastern Europe in the same security vacuum with which they had been struggling from the end of communism. The EU, on the other hand, had embarked on a cautious process that would at some future date see six of the Central and Eastern European states integrated as full members. The essence of this process was that the states with which "Euroagreements" had been signed—Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria—would ultimately be given membership. It was generally understood that Slovenia and the Baltic States—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—could likewise look forward to membership.

      The difficulty for the postcommunists was that there was no timetable attached to this process, and full EU membership was not likely to be attained until the end of the decade at the earliest. In this sense the invitation to the six Euroagreement states to attend the EU's summit in Essen, Germany, in December was an important symbolic step, but they were left lacking in concrete political achievement. It was generally understood that nothing would be done to define a timetable until after the conclusion of the EU intergovernmental summit in 1996. In all, the prospects of democracy and full integration into Western Europe for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe improved little during the year.

      George Schöpflin is lecturer in Eastern European political institutions at the London School of Economics and the author of Politics in Eastern Europe, 1945-1992 (1993).

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Universalium. 2010.

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