Playing Catch Up in Eastern Europe
by John Feffer
Many people I've interviewed in East-Central Europe have talked about their initial expectations in 1989-90 that their countries would soon leap the development gap and join Europe proper.
Within a few years, they thought they'd be living in the equivalent of Austria or Italy. When several years went by, and then several more, and they were still not living in these Austria-like countries, quite a few people simply got on a train or a plane and left for the West. If Western Europe doesn't come to you, even after accession to the European Union, then you might just as well go directly to Western Europe yourself.
You can sense this persistent gap whenever you take the train from Vienna the short distance to Bratislava or the ferry from Finland to Poland. As you move east and south, people in general have less money, the infrastructure looks more run-down, there is more talk of corruption, and citizens have considerably less trust in their political institutions. Of course there are pockets of wealth in the East and pockets of poverty in the West. But these impressions of a continued disparity nearly 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall are borne out by the statistics. The GDP per capita of Austria and Finland is approximately ,000 compared to the Slovak figure of ,899 and the Polish figure of about ,000.
But gut impressions and GDP figures are just rough estimates. If you want a more precise evaluation of Europe's development gap, check out the Catch Up Index. A project of the Open Society Foundation in Bulgaria, the index looks at four different kinds of indicators: economy, democracy, governance, and quality of life. Each of these categories aggregates a basket of measurements that includes everything from GDP per capita (for economy) and Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index (for governance) to the Gini coefficient measuring inequality (for quality of life) and the Press Freedom Index from Reporters without Borders (for democracy).
The latest Catch Up Index, published this January, has no overall surprises. Scandinavia remains on top, and the Balkans are still on the bottom. But some of the details are important. The economic crisis, for instance, is bringing about a minor convergence between rising Eastern European countries (Poland, Czech Republic) and falling Western European countries (Ireland, Spain, Italy).
Marin Lessenski has been working on the Index out of Sofia. Bulgaria has not fared particularly well in the charts. It currently ranks 29th out of 35 countries. To add insult to injury, it fell a spot in the latest edition.
"What we saw in the previous edition was that Bulgaria changed places with Romania," Lessenski told me in an interview in Sofia back in September. "Previously Bulgaria was one notch above Romania. Romanians were very unhappy, I was told. The Romanian foreign minister was talking about this index. I told them, it's not a big thing. It's just a notch. It's not statistically significant. Now this year, Bulgarian is one notch below Romania."
We talked about the growing divide between the Balkans and the rest of Europe, the expectations that EU accession have produced, and what it means that Bulgarians like Turkish soap operas so much.
Has the concept of Europe in your opinion changed in the perceptions of average Bulgarians compared to the pre-accession, pre-membership period when Europe was a goal? Now Europe is a reality.
When people here say, "I'm going to Europe," it means that they don't think they're from Europe. This belief that Europe is somewhere different is in Maria Todorova's book, Imagining the Balkans. I'll give you an example. I was in Varna, near the seaside. They have a booming economy. And I was listening to the news there. They started with the local news, about the municipal council, the mayor, local business. Then they said, "Now the news from Sofia and Brussels." That was it. It was as if the national and international news was something happening outside their world.
The first thing that changed for us, even before the moment of entering the EU, was that moment of visa-tree travel. That's when personal contacts started. People became freer. The concept of Europe began to change. If you ask the average Bulgarian -- Joe the Bulgarian or me -- to answer the question if we are Europeans, the first answer would be "no." This is not about cultural identity. It has much more to do with incomes and material things. If you ask a Bulgarian, "What is Europe?" they'll say it's richer, it's cleaner, it's civilization. There is a divide in this society between those who are mobile, who travel to the EU, and who know languages, and those who are outside this process, who cannot afford to travel, who don't have the contacts or the languages. These people feel isolated.
I remember this moment just before entering the EU, in 2006, when there were a lot of people -- the middle class, people with small businesses, people who could pay their bills - who we assumed to be the motor of European integration. But these people were more afraid of accession because they were afraid of competition from the EU, from big companies. So there was this backlash at that moment. It has changed a bit over time. These people have come to see that Europe is not such a dangerous place.
Bulgaria is still one of the most enthusiastic countries in the EU, one of the countries that believes in the EU. But I think that even in Bulgaria there's a healthy dose of realism. Bulgarian politicians told the public that January 1, 2007 would be the end of history, that we would be entering something that would be constantly progressing and that it would be an irreversible process. Then, all of a sudden, the crisis started, and now people are not so sure where they are. Compared to the old system, they're still enthusiastic but...
It's often said that Bulgarians have the highest level of enthusiasm for Balkan identity as well.
Bulgarians don't have problems with Balkan identity in comparison to the other Balkan countries. There's no inferiority complex.
Does that have any implications in terms of Bulgaria's relationship to the EU? Does Bulgaria feel it has a certain commitment to other Balkan countries to help in their accession, to create a Balkan bloc in the EU?
To read the rest of the interview, click here.
- » Reuters: Bulgaria Struggling to Deal with Pension System's Strain on Economy
- » BBC: Only Qualified Musicians Allowed to Plovdiv's Main Street
- » Euronews: Why Is Bulgaria the EU's Most Unhappy Country?
- » Bulgaria and Romania Praised for Entrepreneurial Efforts in Wine Industry, The Guardian
- » BBC: Bulgaria PM Borisov Seeks to Halt Security Turmoil
- » ''Communism Didn’t Die in 1989: It Lives in People’s Minds,' Bulgarian Photographer for TIME Magazine
"obsession about the Americans"??? It's not about peoples, it's about leaders, DP, about USA leaders' "Democracy, sorry to object ;-)... And let me be short: corruption (in all its possible meanings) has far less in common with Totalitarianism tnan with Democracy, and-first of all-just with the modern USA' democracy. DIXI.
Sa-sha, your example of institutionalised corruption in the glorious communist past is simply a pathetic attempt to undermined the fact that corruption was not this small problem with apparatchiks getting few perks, but in the basis of the entire government structure created to accommodate one of the main ideological goals of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat--the class war. Society where you have officially accepted the goal of elimination of one segment of your population by any means, when you reward people not for their contributions to the nation, but for their loyalty to the Party needed laws, rules and regulations best described as institutionalised corruption—granting advantages and privileges to some and depriving the rest from their freedoms and choices-- without any moral justification, respect for human lives, tolerance...
sa-sha, am I supposed to thank you for your kind interpretation of my moniker? Nothing poetic about being a DP... And will, you, please stop bringing the USA regardless of the topic. You have a very unhealthy obsession about the Americans. Phew...Get over it!
"No argument there..." Really? I'm puzzled ;-)......... As for the "institutionalised corruption" (obviously those very "privileges" for "apparatchiks" in USSR, which were the desirable "addition" to their wages, very moderate wages, btw, since "nobody should rise above in the USSR"), this remarkable "institutionalised corruption" is equally applicable to the stuff of, say, White House with their wages which are~1,7 times higher of the average level in USA (those 1,7 times as the form of "privilege")....."Institutionalised corruption characteristic to totalitarian systemS", You say?.....I love your Deep Poetry, DP ;-)
Sa-Sha, you are right, corruption has always been around it is (unfortunately) part of our make up and no-one is immune from it on either a personal or social level. That is what makes transparency so important, a system with checks and balances has to be the standard pattern in a democratic society.
"/ Enter SPEED/ SPEED: Sir Proteus, save you! Saw you my master?
PROTEUS: But now he parted hence, to embark for Milan."---the négligeable factual error of the author (actually there is no river or sea between Verona and Milan) can't affect my love to the poetry of Shakespeare, sure ;-).......
"/Enter DP/ DP: "corruption did not come with democracy—it was in fact bred by communism..."---the négligeable error of the author (actually CORRUPTION is known for thouzands years, and there is no river or sea between Corruption and Totalitarianism/"communism"/Soviet regime in, say, USSR, the rivulet only ;-)... Totaliarianism DOESN'T need Corruption. Simply by definition) yes, the above négligeable error can't affect my love to the poetry of DP ;-)
although I agree in general with what you say, I would like to highlight that not only Eastern Germany is a success story especially as compared to Bulgaria. Look at Poland, Czech Republic, even the Baltic Republics, or to a smaller extent Slovakia and Hungary. Everywhere you have considerably less corruption and a better economic performance. This has a lot to do with the fact that corruption is deeply enrooted in the mindset of Bulgarians. Additionally the country (politics and business) is run 100% by old communists, their families and cronies. In all other countries (except Romania) of the East you have at least a comparatively big percentage of people that form a new elite that is not compromised and corrupted by decades of communism.
My comment did not mention time at all, it compared the unification of Germany with the rest of the old communist countries only in that the democratic west model with its more transparent system coupled with administrators and politicians who were rooted in democracy had made a better job than the other countries who had to "grow" that culture of democracy. The mention of vast sums of money is true but, to illustrate my point, what would have happened to chunks of that vast sum had they been used in other ex communist countries who are administered by ex communist officials or those trained by them?? My argument is only about the way OC and corruption has "filtered away" huge sums that should have gone to the people in the form of better infrastructure and services.
“It is spark of clarity that the Germans experience provides. An ex communist country (East Germany) joined forces (well actually it was absorbed) with the capitalist West Germany under the West German political model and the talk of OC or corruption does not enter the arena,”
Another useless comparison: East Germany and West Germany did not just join forces; it was a process of unification, a case that does not spark any clarity in understanding what happened in the rest of the former communist’s countries. It is not implementation of the “model” that made the difference, but the enormous amount of money spent by West Germany to bring up to scratch their unfortunate compatriots. The “model” takes time to grow roots. East Germans were just as clueless as the rest of their former commie friends and just as corrupt as they were (corruption did not come with democracy—it was in fact bred by communism—by the system of privileges) and without the unconditional and immediate help by West Germany would have been struggling with corruption now as hard as the rest of the former communist’s countries do .