After 30 years people in Eastern Europe seem more disappointed than happy with the “velvet revolutions”.
It is true that the purchasing power in these countries, after a 40% decline initially, has doubled today, in Poland even tripled, but for leftist people, this process of transformation went far beyond dictatorship and destroyed equality, morals and the state itself. For those with right-wing convictions, the process of transformation was nothing but a glance at the Communists, with the aim of turning political power into economic power.
General dissatisfaction has made many populists ascend to power, rejecting European values, defying liberal democracy, promoting methods close to the Mafia, and playing with religious fundamentalism. This in turn disappointed Western Europeans: Many are remorseful of EU enlargement, once called a glorious step.
There are various reasons for such a negative and illogical assessment of a process that was ultimately a historical success.
For some it was the rise of inequality, often brought about by economic growth, or the emergence of inequalities that were once more associated with hidden privileges and status. Others began to feel insecure after these countries’ fierce openness to international competition.
Some are angry because the fog of globalization is making national states disappear within it. Many observers have written that after the mobilization against immigration, the fear of emigration essentially disappears. Following the fall of the barbed-wire Communist fence, an active share of the population of Eastern Europe fled the country, up to 20% in places like Bulgaria and Latvia.
Political dictatorship, socio-economic anarchy
The general frustration may also be related to a misunderstanding about Communist rule. This was intended as a system of absolute control, “totalitarianism”. But in essence dictatorial methods were a compensation for total chaos beneath the ideological surface. Political dictatorship had to balance socio-economic anarchy. If you’ve forgotten how ineffective this system was, you should see the HBO television series “Chernobyl”. There you can see how, in the midst of the most horrific nuclear disaster in history, no one takes responsibility for acting. This is not related to the psychological traits of certain persons, but to the structural error of the system. After private property and the election of governing heads according to legitimate criteria were abolished, de facto society was ungovernable. Imagine a modern economy sending so-called “saboteurs” to prison because they had failed to meet their objectives. The system depended on student volunteer work in harvesting and had to sacrifice human lives in peace to repair a hydropower plant.
Sounds paradoxical, but in a sense communist societies were freer than western ones. The worker was free to steal something from the factory, the responsibility was free to raise his grandson. The workers were free to take revenge on their colleagues, secretly spying on the authorities. How can one survive in such a system? Just adjusting and the big chaos to face your little chaos. A favorite expression at the time was: I pretend to work, he pretends to pay me.
“These Communists in Brussels!”
Let’s look at the “velvet revolutions” from the background of the characteristics of the communist system: chaotic, voluntary, ungovernable. They were motivated by a passion for freedom, but ultimately proved to be a pathway to better control of their respective societies. A paradox, which Hegel calls “the ploy of reason.” Imagine, the workers who went on strike at the Gdansk shipyard would be told that your factory after the victory over communism would be privatized and 90% of you would lose your job. Indeed these workers as a whole have a better life than before, yet the revolutionary impulse would have been overshadowed by disappointment if they had known all the consequences of their revolution.
It is normally the authoritarian governments (whether they value them or not) that impose order and order on a society, be it in Singapore or in the case of a military junta in Chile. The Bulgarians probably remember a dissident text, and the first democratic president, Zhelyu Zhelev, where he argued that the role of the “military dictatorship”, which ensures a regulated and peaceful process of transformation, was played by the EU in Eastern Europe! I don’t know how seriously we should take this idea, but it does at least give us a sense of how ambivalent the attitude towards the European Union really promised freedom, but in the long run it introduced rules. “Those Communists in Brussels,” he often hears in Eastern Europe. Yes, liberation is initially seen as a quick and irreversible process, where dreams and passions are supported. But the normalization of societies after communist chaos could only be so, slow, boring, and troublesome.
Ivaylo Ditchev, professor of cultural anthropology at Sofia University, Bulgaria, and lectures at universities in Germany, France and the US.