Friday, May 21, 2010

Europe view no 184

An unfinished revolution
Public life in the ex-communist world is again run by a well-connected elite. But things may be starting to change

May 19th 2010 | From The Economist online

The Europe.view column will henceforth appear as a weekly posting at Eastern Approaches, The Economist's central and eastern Europe blog.

IN THE communist era, the countries of eastern and central Europe were run by tightly knit clans. Connections, particularly those of your parents, mattered more than ability. The same kind of people held the top jobs in the ruling party, in government, in media and in commerce and industry. One of the most potent fuels for the revolutions of 1989 was public discontent with this closed system and the unfairness and incompetence that went along with it.

It worked for a time. In the 1990s, social mobility, in both directions, was huge. Some of the former elite ended up washing dishes or selling insurance. People from the fringes of society (unemployed playwrights and electricians) rose to giddy heights. Capitalism opened huge possibilities for the flexible and ambitious. And if you didn’t like it, you could always leave: millions of people tasted the difference with work and study abroad.

They won that fight

But the new era proved brief. Instead of the old monopoly, a new cartel now holds sway. It is not so blatant. The communist parties' statutory grip on power is gone, as are the grim, grey men of the secret police. But from the Baltic to the Black sea, public life has again started looking like a game for insiders. The same people, with backgrounds in the same elite universities, with wealthy and well-connected parents, dominate politics, the media and top jobs in officialdom. Social mobility is slowing in many parts of the developed world, particularly Britain and America. But it is tantalising to see it fade in “new Europe”, which once seemed so open and dynamic.

The problem is most acute in politics. Generous subsidies for established parties rig the system against outsiders and newcomers. Electoral rules have the same effect—candidates for election face onerous registration requirements, for example. When voices are muffled, so are choices. Emigration, and in extreme cases even depopulation, is the unwelcome result.

But change does seem to be afoot. Running as an independent, Indrek Tarand, a popular former official, won a surprise victory in Estonia’s elections to the European parliament last year. In Hungary, the green-tinged anti-corruption movement Lehet Más a Politika (Politics can be different) won an unexpected 7.5% of the vote in the recent parliamentary elections. Less pleasingly, in the same election the far-right anti-establishment Jobbik party won nearly 17%, helped by protest votes as well as its traditional racist base.

The trend is visible elsewhere in central Europe. As the print edition reports this week, new parties and protest movements are making inroads into the clubby politics of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Some, such as the Slovak Sloboda a Solidarita (Freedom and Solidarity), make heavy use of the internet. In the Czech Republic, a movement called Change the Politicians uses smartly made video clips of cultural hotshots such as Aňa Geislerová, Aneta Langerová, Marta Kubišová and Jiří Stránský denouncing corruption and calling for change.

But complaining is easy, as is casting a protest vote. The newcomers will certainly put the old guard under greater scrutiny, dent cultures of impunity and give heart to others who want to change the system. But that is not enough. What the ex-communist countries need is a big new impetus, to complete the changes in officialdom and public services promised but not fully achieved after the collapse of communism. Accession to the European Union and NATO gave that process a boost, but it has proved only temporary. In some respects, the countries of the region are regressing. To restore momentum the new outsiders must show that they can win power and use it—and at the same time not fall into the mire that has engulfed their predecessors.


Doris said...

umm... not to be inexcusably rude but isn't this the case in Western Europe as well? Perhaps even more so, in US - you've got these huge interconnected political families starting with the Kennedys and ending with the Clintons...

Also, Tarand is a member of a very well known intellectual and political family (his father is Andres Tarand, former PM of Estonia, now member of the Social Democrats, and he has also served in the European Parliament before). His various cousins and aunts and uncles are rock-singers, poets, actors, scientists and so on. So perhaps not the best example of no-ties politics. He is a good example of running party-less and winning on personal charisma and both personal and family integrity.

Undergroundman said...

"Capitalism opened huge possibilities for the flexible and ambitious. And if you didn’t like it, you could always leave: millions of people tasted the difference with work and study abroad".

And the neoliberal variant causing mass poverty,( never reported in "The New Cold War "-as there is No Alternative), families suffering the heartbreak of being ripped apart and the very right wing atavistic nation Mr Lucas often writes about.

I apologise for using intemperate language with regards my total dissection of The New Cold War, it's propaganda mechanism, evasions of IMF and Western responsibility for the democidal effects of shock therpy.

After all, talented people across Central Europe could leave impoverished lands anbd labour costs and inflation driven down in the UK's neoliberal debt driven bubble economy by importing masses of labourers.

Yes, free travel was a boon. But to spin economic migration on the scale it has happened shows a contempt for ordinary people's lives in favour of that of the new global elite of the super rich.

The Sainbury's who exploit the "motivation" of poorer people and displace British workers from jobs and could stimulate even more cut throat competition and resentment.

Neoliberalism is dead. It crashed in 2008.

The effects of the policies you have supported are in tatters as is the idea Georgia and other US clients will get into NATO in some seamless extension of the sphere of liberty and "freedom", a threadbare and discredited Whiggish progressive narrative.

When, Mr Lucas are you going to address the reality of why people in Russia turned to Putin and how awful life was for Russians and ex-Soviet people under IMF shock therapists instead of gliding over it?

I am dissecting you book forensically and will call on Norman Davies to reconsider his reasons for writing a foreword to your abysmal propaganda dressed up as history. There is no New Cold War. Just an revival of the Old Great Game.

Best Regard,

Karl Naylor