Central and Eastern Europe: Some post-communist dos and don'ts

Photo : Wok/Flickr
Photo : Wok/Flickr
2 December 2009 – Hospodářské Noviny (Prague)

Jobs, government, infrastructure: in the wake of 1989, the countries of the former communist block had to re-invent themselves. As Czech daily Hospodářské Noviny notes, the different strategies they chose resulted in some initiatives that were well-prepared and some that were wholly unsavoury.

In the course of the last two decades, it has been easy to identify political measures that have worked well in Western Europe. However, closer to home, in countries where governments had to contend with the aftermath of communism, it is much more difficult to tell the wood from the trees. Looking back on 20 years of post-communist rule, we can now see that they did succeed in cooking up a few successes, though other projects have remained semi-toxic failures. But before we embark on an inventory of the more notable projects in the ex-Soviet bloc, it is worth bearing in mind that the situation in the Czech Republic remains the exception rather than the rule, and non-reformed communists no longer form a parliamentary group or even a political party in most of the post-communist countries of the European Union. In countries like Hungary, Poland and Lithuania, they have been assimilated as social-democrats. In other states, like the former Baltic Republics and Slovenia, their influence is spread across a range of political creeds on the left and the right, and across a range of issues from defence to national sovereignty.

Dynamic Poland

The reforms implemented by Poland in the early 1990s, amounted to a period of shock therapy, with an unemployment affecting up to 20% of the population. Many people became dependent on a range of state pension systems (mainly small farmers and those who benefited from early retirement). Capitalism resulted in a much greater measure of austerity in Poland than it did in the Czech Republic, which prompted Poles to make much greater efforts to find work both at home and abroad. A year ago, it was estimated that two million Poles were currently working in other countries of the EU. The Poles were also distinguished by their enthusiasm for the European Union, with a population that was united in the belief that EU membership and access to European funding represented an unprecedented and historic opportunity to build a new society. This trend was clearly confirmed by the marginalization of nationalist and populist parties in the country's most recent general elections in 2007.

Slovakia's non-profit sector

In Slovakia in the 1990s, Vladimír Mečiar and his authoritarian regime contributed to the emergence of non-governmental or "third-sector" research institutes and foundations, whose experts later figured large in the teams appointed by the Dzurinda governments to conduct reforms in several sectors, most notably in the fields of health care and taxation. More generally, Slovak society was marked by a gradual shift towards new political perspectives and initiatives that were independent of the government in office. The work of a wide range of non-governmental organizations also played a major role in the landslide result of the May 2003 referendum on Slovakia's accession to the European Union [a 92.46% "yes" vote], and these bodies continue to provide a ideological counterweight to the current left-wing nationalist government led by Robert Fico.

Estonia's eGovernment

Estonia's digital democracy or "eGovernment" is a perfect illustration of what can be achieved through government collaboration with non-governmental organizations. The country has now established a comprehensive Internet voting system, which was implemented for local elections in 2005 and general elections in 2007. When travelling abroad, Estonian ministers vaunt the merits of paperless cabinet meetings, where discussions can proceed without the piles of documents that encumber their foreign counterparts. The "eGovernment" initiative has also resulted in greater participation in a democratic process. Proposed legislation is now submitted to public debate on the Internet, and government officials are obliged to take their fellow citizens' remarks into account.

Hungary's motorways

The Czech media often complains about the extraordinary cost of new motorways in the Czech Republic, which are allegedly the most expensive roads in the world. However, many of the citizens of Hungary—where new private motorways have remained unused by local drivers unable to pay the excessive toll charges—also lay claim to this dubious distinction. At the end of the day, the state was obliged to step in to take over the beleaguered concerns, and Hungary now has seven modern motorways that are open to the public at a reasonable price. Apparently, the price of an efficient motorway network is not confined to construction costs, but must also include kickbacks that surround calls for tender. In Hungary, the running joke among political journalists is that the system for "the sharing of funds" from these brown envelopes remains the only issue on which representatives of the left and right can agree. It is even said that the country's two main political parties, the former communists and Fidesz, have appointed special secret teams for the collection of motorway funds.

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