Hot debates about immigration, economic crises or international issues often posit that Eastern Europe is a coherent whole, despite the diversity of countries it denotes. True, their common soviet past and its aftermath easily come to mind when we think about this particular half of Europe. Yet “Eastern Europe” as a political term (and no mere geography) is no longer relevant, argues journalist Anne Applebaum at the London School of Economics (LSE).
How the crisis shattered our politico-geographical prejudices
Let us remind The Economist’s front page in February 2009. A cartoon in which French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon were sitting at a dinner table, appalled by the ‘bill’ of the crisis; one could read on top of it ‘For the rescue of Eastern Europe’. In his report, the famous British newspaper went as far as imagining a collapse of the euro-zone provoked by its Eastern half, dragging countries like Greece and Ireland in the economic turmoil and forcing the Western members to step in.
But, as pointed out by Applebaum, no such generous rescue from West to East occurred during the last past 4 years - there was no need for it. Moreover, some Easterners like Slovakia actually actively participated in the EU rescue plans.
Source: The Economist.com
No doubt, then, that we should question the clichés that strew our conception of the European political geography - West vs East, North vs South – for they don’t make sense anymore. Some examples given by Applebaum are edifying. Where took place the deepest recession since the beginning of the crisis? In Ireland – so far considered part of the dynamic North. Whereas the United Kingdom is struggling to rein in its public deficits and recover economic growth, Poland just went through the crisis unscathed. Eastern European countries pay relatively low interest rates on their bonds, i.e. today’s financial markets trust them (take Slovakia – 2.1% - or Poland – 3% - and set these figures against the Portuguese and the Italian ones (nearly 6% and 5% respectively). Meanwhile, exports are significantly expanding from West to East in Europe. So ‘instead of dragging down Europe, the Eastern half of the continent is now a major contributor to growth and wealth’, Applebaum concludes.
The common inheritance of the Soviet rule, but different paths taken since 1989
On the other hand, the journalist refuses to claim outright that Eastern Europe does well or bad. Her point is that ‘Eastern Europe’ is no longer a single entity. When this term is used, its meaning tends to be not only geographical but also political, evoking all the countries that shared the experience of soviet domination from 1945 to 1989. Of course, it nonetheless never assumed that ‘Eastern Europe’ was an ethnically homogeneous whole (languages are but a sign of an impressive diversity: Greek, Slavic, Finno-ougrian, Baltic, Roman, Germanic varieties are all represented).
But this common past has indeed bequeathed them shared common features during a long time – mainly, a legacy of bad economic decisions (based on central planning). And yet Eastern European countries have taken quite different paths since 1989. Applebaum recalls the three main options they faced after the break-up of the Soviet Union: radical reforms leading to liberal capitalism (e.g. Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Baltic states); rent-seeking economies run by state bureaucrats (e.g. Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Kazakhstan); re-establishment of state authoritarianism but with a switch in the discourse from Marxism to nationalism (e.g. Turkmenistan, Belarus).
Few could predict the future failures or successes of those engaged on these paths – who could tell in 1990 that Estonia was to become an economic tiger, or a Poland shaken by the ‘shock therapy’ prove a country more stable than Hungary?
Looking back, one can wonder why some countries were able to carry some radical reforms and other not. For Applebaum, it mattered in that regard whether the soviet domination had lasted 50 or 70 years – it sets an interesting line between say, Baltic countries/West Ukraine and Russia/East Ukraine. But one most important factor accounting for failure or success in the transition to liberal capitalism was the presence or absence of an alternative lead. That is, a large group of people used to collaborate, sharing alternative sets of values and somewhat prepared to exercise power in government by 1989.
Poland is an enlightening example: memories of a pre-communist past were vivid enough to keep in touch with a different social reality; there was a national tradition of resistance (not only against the Nazis, but also previous empires); a thriving black market was sustained during the soviet era by a number of unofficial small-scale capitalists; relatively open borders allowed some to get a sense of life in the West; last, the Catholic Church provided alternative values to the regime in power as well as a physical space for protesters to meet and gather.
Moreover, it highly mattered that this potential alternative lead had a clear sense of direction. Applebaum, as a reporter covering the collapse of communism on the ground in the 1980s-1990s, recalls that this condition was fulfilled in Central Europe at the time – no desire for experimentation, only a yearning for the ‘normality’ that represented Western European democracies and economies (e.g. privatization). The question was rather about moving fast or slow in that direction. Even before 1989, unformal meetings between economists took place in Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary to debate about the possible plans to privatize and decentralize the economy. The first Polish finance minister after the fall of the Berlin wall was one of them; Václav Klaus, the latest Czech President, was another.
Other parameters came into play, namely the crisis context (much more acute for Poland than for Hungary, entailing more radical reforms in the former and a continuing habit of borrowing and bad public deficit management in the latter) and the effect of natural resources on democracy (there may be a handful of oligarchs in Poland or Hungary linked to the gas business, but not a whole class of them dedicated to corrupt the state to enrich themselves as in Russia for instance).
Eastern European countries in the new pecking order – world-class models?
Now, where are we? After the crisis, it may well be that Western Europeans have more to learn from their Eastern neighbours than the other way round.
Take the ways Latvia and Greece tackled economic perils. In the context of the 2008 crash, the Latvian government proceeded to important cuts in public spending, fired a third of its civil servants and decreased the wages of the remaining ones; GDP declined by 24% (!) in two years. Meanwhile, few protests came from the population, as economic viability is considered a cornerstone of national sovereignty, highlights Applebaum; the Prime minister responsible for the austerity plan was even re-elected! At present, the Latvian economic growth is over 5% and public deficits have been much reduced.
Now look at Greece, which experienced a relatively lower GDP decline (18% since the beginning of the crisis) and proceeded to smaller public cutbacks, which affected more pensioners than bureaucrats by contrast with Riga’s strategy. Austerity was met with fierce strikes and protests, and gave rise to a new neo-nazi party (Golden Dawn). While Latvian politicians managed to convince their citizens, all Greek political parties failed to do so and now anti-Germanic rhetoric is at a record level.
And yet, why the Latvian model is not hailed all over Europe? Because, Applebaum explains, it is still part of this ‘Eastern Europe’ mired with old connotations of backwardness.
At the same time, many in North Africa take as a role model… Poland. Why would the experience of an Eastern European country be of interest for say, Tunisia or Egypt? The culture is not the same; no alternative lead as in Central Europe was formed in North African countries before the Arab spring; and the majority clearly does not take Western countries as the norm.
Histories are thus different; but today’s challenges for countries across the Meditteranean are strikingly similar to those faced by Poles more than 20 years ago. Polish journalists to create new radio systems and newspapers from scratch, privatize the media, creating the legislative framework applied to freedom of expression. Lybians get then interested in what Poland has accomplished (to get some successful methods), as well as in what Russia did (to avoid mistakes).
It is also worth reminding that neither Western powers nor the World Bank are the most loved nations in North Africa – no one there wants to be told what to do by their dictators’ friends or former colonists. As shrewdly observed by Applebaum, instead of getting a theoretical lecture about the rule of law you may ask Slovaks to tell how hard it is for judges to rethink their relationship to politicians in a transition; and a Czech or a Serb knows probably more about revolution and its fallout than their Western neighbours, since they both have lived it. Polish experts can tell you what kind of privatizations hurt or improve the poor’s living conditions. In short, Eastern Europeans’ experience is relevant ‘not as theory, but as practice’.
However, these states are not hailed in Europe and the world as the models they should be – in terms of peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracies, and of economic reforms and resilience. The old term ‘Eastern Europe’ (treating a number of different national trajectories like a single entity) is all too connoted with old representations of backwardness, Applebaum insists - let us get rid of it.
This article is based on the conference given by Anne Applebaum at the London School of Economics on March 12th 2013.
Anne Applebaum is a journalist specialized in Central and Eastern Europe and Pulitzer Prize winner. She has taken up the post of Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at the London School of Economics (LSE) for 2012-13.
Her journalistic work has a particular focus on economic and political transition. Her career began in 1989 at The Economist, where she covered the collapse of communism as the Warsaw correspondent. In 1993, she became the Foreign Editor, and then the Deputy Editor, of the Spectator magazine in London, and has also held the position of Political Editor of the Evening Standard. She has written columns for numerous British newspapers throughout her career, including The Guardian, Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, before joining the Washington Post in 2001.
Her recent and best known book, Gulag: A history, won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction and Britain’s Duff-Cooper Prize. Gulag: A history has appeared in over two dozen translations, including all major European languages
Source picture: Women for Democracy 13, by PolandMFA, on flickr
It represents Anne Applebaum and the former Prime Minister of Ukraine Yulia Tymoshenko.