Daily Archives: 2 March 2023

Eastern Europe, 1990s: Disappointment

From The Making of Eastern Europe: From Prehistory to Postcommunism, by Philip Longworth (Lume Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 9-10:

The rejoicing was widespread, and particularly intense among the young as well as those who had run foul of the pervasive officialdom and the secret police. Yet the euphoria did not last long. The sudden removal of controls and taboos encouraged entrepreneurs and foreign investors, but also crooks and asset-strippers. Attempts at systemic change and reorientation of trade resulted in economic dislocations and both industrial and consumer shortages. Production plummeted; so did real incomes. Inflation rose and hoarding made things worse. As rules and procedures associated with the old order were increasingly ignored, and as uncertainty about the law, the value of things and, not least, the validity of legal titles increased, so did a degree of chaos. At the same time crime rates soared.

Measures to control inflation and reduce subsidies and over-manning produced rising prices and unemployment, industrial discontent and rising pessimism. There had been hopeful talk of another Marshall Plan, but President Bush held out an empty wallet. The world, after all, was in the throes of one of those periodic economic turns which Communists used to refer to scornfully as ‘crises of capitalism’. Help did come but chiefly in the form of loans with harsh conditions attached. The millions who had innocently assumed that revolution would bring them instant betterment were disappointed.

There were unexpected political, as well as economic, consequences. To the ill-disguised dismay of many countries East and West, the two Germanies rushed to reunification. In Poland the ‘Solidarity’ movement soon split asunder; an unknown emigre attracted more votes than the conscientious Premier Mazowiecki in the presidential elections won by Lech Walesa; and Polish cities were disfigured by anti-semitic graffiti. In Romania, as in Bulgaria, reformed Communists were victorious in what were substantially free elections, yet the opposition ‘Democrats’ refused to accept the electorate’s decision. In Hungary parliament became the scene of endless bickering between a multitude of different parties; in Czechoslovakia bitter resentment soon surfaced between Czechs and Slovaks; and at the time of writing (March 1991) unbridled nationalism and strident populism were threatening the break-up of Yugoslavia and the collapse of the USSR itself.

As a new order emerges from the turmoil some features that had previously characterized the region have begun to disappear. But what were these countries like before the changes? What was the stable state before the state of flux?

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