Thursday, March 05, 2009

europe view


Insult and penury

Mar 5th 2009

Responding to western neglect and ignorance

THE economic crisis is still unfolding across the ex-communist world. Amid the genuine worries about jobs and savings are some other concerns—less substantial, but more toxic.

The biggest is resentment of the outside world’s neglect and ignorance.

How can western commentators lump Slovenia together with Tajikistan as “ex-communist countries”? Why do people confuse Poland’s sound public finances with Ukraine’s catastrophic ones? Why do the frugal Czechs with their solid banking system get lumped together with spendthrift Hungarians? Why does nobody give the countries any moral or political credit for what they have achieved? If any west European country faced the kind of jarring adjustment now being experienced in, say, Latvia, it would expect political upheavals.

Even those political protests that have bubbled up have been hugely exaggerated. It is quite reasonable—even responsible, one could argue—for the public in Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and other countries to feel a bit cross with the politicians who led them into this mess. Isn’t that what political freedom is about?

On top of outsiders’ neglect and hypocrisy comes abandonment. Having painfully climbed into western clubs after five decades of communist captivity, the most advanced ex-communist countries now feel patronised and excluded. If feckless Greece, stagnant Portugal and overheated Ireland look like going bust, the rich countries of the euro zone will bail them out. But the rules for ex-communist countries wanting to join the single currency are arbitrary, and harshly imposed. Lithuania missed eurozone entry by seven-hundredths of a percentage point. Now Poland and Hungary want accelerated entry into at least the waiting room for the euro, and are snubbed.

It is much the same in NATO. Signals that the new American administration may be thinking of a bargain with the Russians over missile defence (you stop or slow down the Iranians, we stop or slow down our new bases in the Czech Republic and Poland) cause even more twitchiness. So new member states feel that they are in the second class compartment in matters of economic and military security.

Such feelings are understandable, but they are a poor basis for action. It was a similar story 20 years ago, when incredulous Sovietologists had to accept that something called “Ukraine” might become a real country and that the “Soviet Baltic Republics” were actually occupied territories on the verge of regaining their freedom. The West had to wake up rather uncomfortably to the news that tens of millions of people who had once been behind the Iron Curtain were now on their doorstep, eager to compete and integrate. It took several years to get the maps right, let alone to work out how to deal with the countries they depicted.

Gaining membership in the EU and NATO, the great achievement of the past decade, took years of hard slog for the countries concerned. The aim then—at least for the most ambitious applicants—was not just to meet west European standards, but to beat them. That happened quickly in some bits of the business world, but the same transformation often lagged in public administration, education, health and transport.

None of that mattered much in boom times. But it meant the ex-communist countries entered the current stormy weather in less than top condition. All too often, their public finances were soggy, bureaucracies unreformed and politicians complacent. The best way to change perceptions is to make them utterly inaccurate, not blame people who hold them for their ignorance, however galling it is.



Karol Karpiński said...

At least one bright side of the crisis: guys in the 'West' are getting the difference between Slovakia and Slovenia. Of course, ignorance is still noticeable, but one can see articles like yours (or a recent editorial in FT, I also see the Dutch and Belgian press getting it quite right) more and more often.

If the recession means the end of the concept of 'Eastern Europe' as a means to keep the continent divided along the curtain, I will survive somehow all that economic crunch.

"The best way to change perceptions is to make them utterly inaccurate". Nicely put. We're really working on that, step by step.

Unknown said...

'If any west European country faced the kind of jarring adjustment now being experienced in, say, Latvia, it would expect political upheavals'
I used to live in Latvia until 1995, and understand your point. The people in ex-communist countries are used to hardships and are more resilient. At least until the nineties many families still had gardens on the outskirts of Riga, to rely on fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as to hold on to a hobby that was hard to let go. For many of them these gardens will come in handy these days.

Giustino said...

Isn't Iceland going through a 'jarring adjustment,' 'facing upheavals,' and getting bailed out by world financial institutions, in addition to other northern European countries? Is Iceland the world's only western European "Eastern European" country?