Eastern Europe: The Call for Change Grows Stronger

BALKANS & EASTERN EUROPE, 22 Jul 2013

Sufyan bin Uzayr – Brave New World

At the moment, the entire world has its eyes fixed on Egypt. And rightfully so — after all, big things are happening there! However, I shall take a look at another region of the world that is not so far from the Middle East. In fact, if anything, it serves as a transitional buffer between the Western world and the Middle East.

Eastern Europe

To begin with, for the better half of the previous century and even for the first decade of this century, eastern half of Europe and its surrounding areas did not have witness the stability that was and is being enjoyed by its western counterpart. There were, and still are, a number of reasons behind this: corrupt governments, regional strife, internal and external conflict, ethnic issues, economic stagnation, and so on. In fact, before the Middle East took the title from it, Eastern Europe was serving as the playground for warfare.

However, let us stay away from history for sometime. In the past few years, Eastern Europe seems to be witnessing a call for change. Take any country: Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Russia, and probably Greece, if you want. With each passing day, more and more people have taken to the streets, protesting against their respective governments and craving for a change. Mind you, this region is not alien to protests and revolutions: these folks have had a history with protests, be it the Later Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire or the Soviet Union. Yet, the current line of protests that we are witnessing today is different from anything in the past — this time, there are hardly any popular figures involved. Instead, the focus in more on the demands of the citizens, the collective masses. Of course, the ratio and chances of success — that is a different story! More often than not, governments have found some way or the other to hold their ground, be it by making minor changes to their economic policy as a means of appeasement to the masses or by outright ignorance of citizens’ demands.

Let us start with Russia, shall we?

The most recent wave of protests against the Russian government started back in December 2011. The parliamentary elections resulted in an absolute majority for Vladimir Putin’s party. However, several videos appeared in international media and on the internet, showing ballot stuffing at polling-booths and other unfair practices. While elections in Russia had rarely gone clean in the past, and any evidence of ballot stuffing was taken more as a thing expected, this particular case saw numerous protesters take to streets, seeking fresh elections and even opposing Putin’s 2012 Presidential re-election bid. What began at Moscow’s Pushkin Square soon spread to several other parts of that big country, and the entire Christmas Eve of 2011 was marked not by celebrations but primarily by protests. Even though the protests intensified around March 2012 and opposition against Putin gained momentum, he did manage to secure his re-election to the Presidential seat.

The protests against Putin are still on, even though the momentum has fallen considerably. Russian case is a peculiar one: Putin has both his share of critics as well as supporters, and taking sides is not the easiest task. In the early part of 2013, certain policies of Russian government have attracted a good deal of criticism, such as the increase in penalty amount for violation of protest permits as well as strict monitoring of popular protest leaders. Bluntly speaking, while these measures may have invited criticism, they have also proven, ironically, successful in curbing the spirit of revolution and revolt across many parts of Russia. Big countries require bigger steps, it seems.

Moving on, the recent protests across Turkey have a slightly different manifesto, though it seems the government will end up going the Russian way, if it intends to curb the protests as soon as possible. The Turkish government has already shown that it is not shy of using police and force to stop the protesters, if needed. It seems highly unlikely that Prime Minister Erdogan will resign in the light of the protests, and if he continues with his tenure, following the Putin model is the easiest choice for him, sadly.

As of now, the protests in Turkey are entirely anti-government. Yet, the picture is not entirely one-sided either. Erdogan has his share of supporters as well, and just like Putin, he too does not hesitate in using their support as a medium to shun the opposition. Fact is, that if there are millions in Turkey who are raising slogans against Erdogan, there are millions who are siding with Erdogan as well. Furthermore, just like Russia, Turkey too currently does not have many worthy candidates who can be pitched as viable alternatives to the current leader. Just like Putin, Erdogan too is aware of this fact, and thus, if needed, Erdogan can adopt Putin-like measures to curb the protesters and maintain his authority.

Coming to two more countries from Eastern Europe: Romania and Bulgaria. First things first: unlike the Russian and Turkish cases, protests in Romania and Bulgaria have indeed resulted in certain changes (so yes, at least the governments here are willing to acknowledge the protests). The case of Romania is a curious one: back in January, folks started protesting against the resignation of Raed Arafat, the Health Minister. Arafat had resigned amidst a big turn of events, which also included, among other things, public criticism of the health ministry’s new plans by none other than the President Basescu. Yes, public criticism, aired on national TV. Arafat, on the other hand, is a public figure with much credibility (he is also the man behind the country’s best mobile emergency service).

The protesters managed to get their voices heard in Romania, because Arafat was quickly called back to office. However, since then, several protests and demonstrations and swept the country, demanding the resignation of President Basescu and also criticizing the government. Following the protests, the Prime Minister Emil Boc had to resign, and Victor Ponta took over as the new PM. While the government has conceded to some of the political demands of the protesters, the issue of environment and practices such as fracking have yet not been addressed, even though they are on the manifesto of the protesters. In fact, by and large, the new government has only continued the policies of the older one.

Now, Bulgaria. The situation is slightly similar to Romania — amidst big-time anti-austerity protests, the government had to resign in February 2013. The protesters claimed that the Prime Minister, Boiko Borisov, did not meet his electoral promises of eradication of corruption and improving the economy. A new interim government has been appointed under the leadership of Plamen Oresharski. Here, have a quote:

“Bulgaria is in a deep institutional crisis, continuing economic depression and worsening disintegration of society. Maybe we won’t be able to become rich and prosperous in our term, but our minimum task is to give Bulgarians bigger hope.”

By the way, these February 2013 protests were the largest that Bulgaria has ever seen, following the demise of Communist regime in the country.

The protests are still on, with the most common demands being putting an end to local oligarchs, reforming the electoral process and curbing corruption in the country.

While Turkish protests have received the limelight, the cases of Romania and Bulgaria have remained lesser known to the world. All these protests, all throughout the region of Eastern Europe, are expressing the people’s desire to have a governance that is free from vices and a state that is not stagnant. Such changes, however, cannot be brought about simply by changing the leadership and/or the government. Deeper and more concentrated efforts are needed if a serious change is to be implemented, and sooner or later, the protesters shall have to realize and recognize this fact!

________________________

Sufyan bin Uzayr is a writer based in India and the Editor of Brave New World. He is associated with numerous websites and print publications and has also authored a book: Sufism: A Brief History“. You can visit his website or find him on Facebook.

Go to Original – bravenewworld.in

 

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4 Responses to “Eastern Europe: The Call for Change Grows Stronger”

  1. satoshi says:

    Companies in (former) communism/socialism countries were rarely exposed themselves in the situation of business competitions. Their businesses were planned by the State. The workers at these companies were supposed to work according to what the State had planned for their companies. In fact, the workers have done so for decades since the commencement of the communism/socialism in their countries.

    The improvement of the business system and of the quality of the products was essentially of the work of the State. In principle, the common workers were not allowed to engage with relevant tasks of the State. The State or its relevant high level organs were decision-makers for these issues. It was rare that the business administration and the quality of the products were improved constantly. The fact is, therefore, that the same type of business administration continued. The same quality of the products continued. Decades passed. Meanwhile, their business management system and the quality of their products (including the production systems) became far behind of those of Western countries. However, such issues were not considered as serious problems because there were little competitions in business between communism/socialism countries and Western countries.

    Then, the Cold War era ended. Those countries are now called “former” communism/socialism countries regardless of the fact that the substantial part of their economic/financial, business, and social systems and other relevant factors remain the same as before. Those elements include their business style, administration, production, both managers’ and workers’ business attitude and more .

    What does the end of the Cold War era in terms of business? It means the commencement of the business competition between those former communism/socialism countries and Western countries. Western products have begun to flow into these former communism/socialism countries. Products made by communism/socialism companies and those made by Western companies are now being sold at shops in these former communism/socialism countries. The consumers in former communism/socialism countries can clearly understand that the quality of Western products is much better than that of former communism/socialism country products. Besides, the price of Western products and that of former communism/socialism products are not very much different because the price of the latters has been significantly rising since the end of the Cold War era.

    Now, former communism/socialism companies are exposed in the situation of business competitions with Western companies. While the former were protected from the harsh business competitions by the State, the latter have been survivors of these competitions. Those former companies that had been wrapped in cotton wool and those formidable business survivors are on the same arena today. In less than a couple of decades or so, the latter became the winners.

    The winners have taken all. Workers of former socialism/communism companies are now experiencing the harshness and bitterness of the result of the capitalism business competition.

    Those workers at former communism/socialism argue that they have done over the decades until now what their government has instructed them to do. They ask, “What was wrong with that? We were told to do what the government instructed us. And we have done so. However, we are now suffering because of that. Why is that? Why does the government give a hard time to us, those obedient workers who have followed loyally to the government instructions over the decades? ”

    Meanwhile, the government has no plan to manage the crisis or their plan, if any, does not work. Those government officials were born and were brought up in the communism/socialism economic situation. They know nothing about any other systems. They have no experience of any other systems. They know no alternatives. Then, what effective plan to manage the current crisis can these officials prepare? The crisis deepens.

    When the crisis deepens, extreme, radical and/or dictatorial political figures tend to emerge and the people tend to support them. Hungary and Greece are examples for that. Germany between the two World Wars was also one of the examples for that. At that time, Hitler and his Nazi emerged. Germans then supported Hitler. After Tito’s death, Yugoslavia faced an extraordinary economic crisis. Then, Milošević, Kradžić, Tuđjman and other dictatorial figures emerged. Their peoples supported these figures. Although the peoples no longer miss these figures who emerged in the late 1980s, the peoples still miss the so-called great dictator “dear” Tito. His calendars, photographs, videos and other relevant items are being sold even today. Local TV media feature his programs from time to time and local print mass media feature his articles very often.

    Not the market economy system coupled with the Western style democracy but the dictatorial system with the stable and “reasonable” (“not necessarily decent” though) standard of living. That is what most of those peoples in the former communism/socialism want. It is no wonder, therefore, why these peoples support dictatorial politicians who promise the stable and reasonable living, while they reject Western style democratic politicians who promote the Western style market economy system and who have emerged after the Cold War era.

    Watch former communism/socialism countries of these days. Note that many of these countries are new members of the EU.

    (Note that, in that context above, neither am I praising the business competition nor am I condemning it.)

  2. Stephan E. Nikolov says:

    Both article and the extended comment has something in common – they are written by authors that follow developments in E. Europe from far away, on the basis of occasional publications from the larger audience media. Thus it is not surprise that they lack depth of analysis – on the contrary, they oversimplify situation in E. Europe, represent it as quite uniform, and point on some recent developments without certain more general background. Most of E. Europe have been, indeed, for various, relative long periods of time under foreign domination, which mostly distorted natural processes of formation of native intellectual, political, economic elites, and even more important – civic culture, and non-obedient approach to the rulers. And there is huge difference which of the “Empires” any of the countries has lived under – Austro-Hungarian, Russian or Ottoman. And even as ‘socialist/communist’ bloc, while they seemed quite uniform from Paris, London or New York, there has been notable differences between them – from the Western-leaning ‘liberal’ Yugoslavia (Tito, actually, intoduced as early as in 1952 an even more decisive ‘perestroyka’ that that of Gorbachev more than 30 years later), Hungarian ‘gulash communism’, Poland with never nationalized agricultural sector and influential conservative Catholic church, Czechoslovakia, which tried to experiment ‘a human face socialism’ and was severelly punished, remaining de facto under Soviet occupation and with puppet government until 1989, Ceausescu’s Romania, so beloved to the Western leaders, but harsh and miserable toward own population, and overally neglected as ‘closest Moscow’s ally’ Bulgaria. (Here I amd even skipping the extreme case of the small and thus convenient to be converted in a labor camp Hoxha’s Albania). As for economy, yes, rigidly centralised Soviet model of planned economy was imposed that practically lacked reason, effectivity and long run prospect, where consumer products – food, dress, household appliances etc. – were of bad quality and chronically inable to satisfy demand. But it is not entirely true that economic managers were mediocre nomenklatura appointees that worked in an artificial environment of absent competition. There has been even in Bulgaria joint ventures with Western companies, esp. from (W.) Germany and Japan, where younger managers worked as their Western counterparts. Moreover, as a next step various business were obtained in Western countries run under the control of the secret services’ economic branch. This operation may had short term tasks as copver-ups for espionage and secret operations, but also certain long term ones as part of the transforming the already obsolete state soialism into state/mafia capitalism. Coupling Bulgaria and Romania and representing socio-political processes in the both countries as quite identical was also part of the oversimplification, as well as calling Plamen Oresharski chief of an interim government when his cabinet is regular one. Probably small detail, but evident for the entitre approach similar to that of the WB, IMF, EC smart experts that are coming to Bucharest or Bratislava with universal prescriptions that promise us great future if take the steps 1, 2, 3… to n.

  3. satoshi says:

    Dear Stephan,

    When I was writing the comment on the article above, I was at a local restaurant in SE Europe. On the next table, two local businessmen and an Austrian business man were also talking about their potential business deal. As such, I was writing the comment relatively near (or, at least, not far away) from your place, Sofia.

    I have involved with development, technical or other relevant assistance projects over the years in the so-called former communism/socialism countries. When I started working for those countries, Soviet Union still existed although it was in the final phase. Some of our former colleagues, partners and/or friends were Bulgarians. Those were the days. What were you doing then, Stephan?

    The information that you provided in your comment is genuine, and I knew that and I bless all that, though what I wrote in my comment is also genuine based on my experience, working with those who are/were from the top – federal or republic level, canton or whatever the local/regional level – of their countries to those who were/are from the near bottom of their societies.

    You are one of the (academic and much broader sense of) elites of your country – whether you really think so or not is another issue. (It is essentially or ultimately a matter of your self-estimation.) Even though how the information in your comment is authentic, it is a statement from one of the elites of his country. It expresses one or some aspects of that country (or of the relevant areas/countries which he knows well). However, a country has many and various kinds of aspects. Almost any potential investors from outside do not follow the statement of the elite officials of that country without critical examinations, because the information from the elite class people is not necessarily the only information source for necessary decision-making on investment or other pertinent activities.

    You are living in Sofia, spending most of your time in everyday life. However, how much or how often do you visit remote areas of your country, for instance? From time to time, I take elite people from the capital city of their country to the far remote areas of their country. Then, they themselves get surprised by seeing the scenes in front of their eyes. They utter words such as, “Is this my country? Is this the reality? I cannot believe what I am seeing now. I did not know that although I was born in this country.” Local residents also tell us that people of the neighboring hamlets, villages or towns rarely visit them; not to mention, people from the capital city.

    Official statements and documents are full of success stories. That is good. That is, as mentioned above, one of or some of the aspects of that country. No doubt about it. Nevertheless, those aspects are only some of many facets of that country. One cannot judge the country with many facets only because of a few facets of that country.

    Accordingly, we visit not only remote small town/village areas from the capital city but also the second biggest or third biggest city of that country. It is very often that the situation of the capital city and that of the second biggest or of third biggest city is significantly different so that we can learn those aspects which the capital city does not show us.

    The information from the official statements, official statistics or the official guidebook is one thing, prepared by the elite people of that country. And, therefore, it is very often, not necessarily always though, that even their personal statements on the same subject, if any, are close to those official statements. As mentioned above, there is nothing wrong with that. However, economic, business or any other relevant decisions are to be made after thorough critical examinations of various pieces of information from various sources. We do not simply sit and chat at a fancy hotel in the capital city. We go out and visit various areas – geographically, economically/financially, socially, culturally and more – of various facets of that country and talk with various kinds of people(s). On top of that, we carefully watch the situations and scenes as well as people(s) and their clothes, the way they are dressing, their behaviors, facial expressions, life styles and economic/living standards, cultural or social patters, and other relevant factors/elements, not only communications through words alone. Needless to say, we visit local shops, restaurants, cafes, pubs, hotels, bookshops, markets, various companies and their relevant organizations, post offices, banks, factories, farms, local communities, ethnic minority groups, schools, universities, research institutes, clinics, hospitals, churches, libraries, museums, bus terminal stations, train stations, the police authorities, the civil authorities, other public facilities, common people’s houses/apartments and more, as far as our visit to them is legitimately allowed. Whenever necessary, we stay in the area for a few days, a few weeks or more.

    We watch, check or buy some daily commodities that local people use. One of the examples: It is very rare to see transparent plastic bags in E/SE countries. Many of those plastic bags that are used at local shops to wrap products that the customers buy are white. It seems that these bags are supposed to be transparent but actually they are white. It seems that it is difficult or impossible for the manufacturer to produce transparent plastic bags. If so, why is that? Production of transparent bags requires relatively high technology. Original plastic material must be highly purified during its processing or the end products become white, not transparent. Nonetheless, however, this technology was already available in Western countries in the 1950s/1960s. The fact that transparent plastic bags in that country are rare implies the technological level of the plastic industry of the country, for instance. Another example: The quality of paper. It is often, not necessarily always, books published locally are unusually thick even though most of these books contain only 200 or 300 pages. Why is that? It is because the paper used for these books is thick. Thick paper could be a problem especially in publishing dictionaries or other books that contain many pages. The technological level of the paper industry of that country can be judged whether they can produce thinner, cleaner and stronger paper. Then, issues on the metal industry, the electric industry, the food processing industry and so on and so forth. Such examples are just a tip of the iceberg. Needless to say, we check and examine not only plastic bags/products and paper but also various daily (industrial) products on the market.

    By doing so, we can watch a variety of aspects of the area(s) and we can talk a variety of people(s). In general, most people, including those living in the capital city, rarely visit a various parts of their country. Many of their everyday lives are conducted within a few kilometers in diameter. Their knowledge of their country is mostly that given by their local mass media. If we ask them, “But, do you really visit the place and see that?”, they shake their heads. But we can tell them that we actually visited the place, that we saw it with our own eyes, that we also met and talked with the relevant local people in that place, and that our knowledge about it does not necessarily depend on the information given by the local mass media, which most people blindly believe.

    If we visit the above mentioned common places together with you elite people, the local people treat us politely and respectfully and never deceive us because they are afraid of you. However, if we visit those places by ourselves foreigners, it is very often that their attitude to us is surprisingly different. They have no reason to be afraid of us. Their attitude to us and the way they treat us reveal another aspect of their country and the people’s situation. Or local beggars, for instance, never chase around you elite people but they chase around us, foreigners. Whether you may be aware or you may not, not necessarily the so -called “real” beggars but also ordinary local people beg us from time to time. That is how we can learn another aspect of the local people and situations/conditions which they live with. All those experiences – even though some of the experiences are not very pleasant – are precious for us because they provide us with such information that no official information, no guidebook or no elite people of that country can provide us.

    Needless to say, we buy and read local newspapers, magazines and other local media materials sold in the public. We watch local TV news and other programs and listen to radio programs as well. Then, we think and analyze why that situation is like that, or why they said this and that, or why local TV news informed this or that, for instance, and compare all that with the official statement(s) and other kinds of official or quasi-official information.

    We also check the legal system, the tax system and pertinent issues, the economic and/or financial structure, the political situations and ideas, religious and cultural situations and more.

    Some years ago, a local school teacher visited where we were staying. The purpose of her visit to us was to teach us things about her country. “You, foreigners, know nothing about this country. I will give you a lecture here.” She was a kind person. On behalf of my colleagues, I talked with her. How about this issue? How about this problem? How about this history? How about this economic situation? On and on. She became pale, because I knew all those things much better than her. In ten minutes, she became silent and left our office. I have the similar experiences many times at a local café, for instance. Local people came to my table and started giving me their “lecture”. I responded to them. How about this issue? How about this area? How about this street in that city? What are in the area? What happened to that area? How about this historical background? The head of that company is Mr. XYZ whose characteristic features are such and such. On and on. Then, these local people who attempted to challenge me became pale in a few minutes, because, by that time, it became clear to them that I knew better than them about what they were talking about. They stopped challenging me. They became silent. The purpose I have written as above is not to demonstrate how much I know, but I would like you to understand how seriously foreign business (in the broadest sense) people study/research those countries/areas that they are to associate with. But if you feel offended or if you have gotten any negative feeling because of the things mentioned above in this paragraph (and/or in this comment overall), I sincerely apologize to you, Stephan. I have no intention to provide you with any negative feeling.

    All that mentioned above is how serious business people do/research prior to their decision-making. Nevertheless, those things are only a few examples among many others. If you are to spend a substantial amount of your own or your company money (or your tax payers’ money) for a business (commercial or public purposes) into a foreign country, probably you will surely do the same or more than that.

    Now, imagine that you are an investor, contemplating to invest a considerable amount of money into a former communism/socialism country, what would you do prior to your decision-making, Stephan? If you visit that country to which you are contemplating to invest, what aspects of that country would you like to see? What kind of information would you like to collect? Would you simply follow the information that the elite people of that country provide you, Stephan? What would you do then?

    I hope that we will meet one day, Stephan. I will visit your Institute,then. All the best and bless you.

    With peace, appreciation and best regards,

    Satoshi.

  4. Stephan E. Nikolov says:

    Dear Satoshi,

    Thank you for paying such attention to my comment. Unfortunalely, I did not find there any argument to what I have written in essence – it rather is devoted to my modest personality, and writtem with certain hubris and irony. Moreover – and it andmost probably due to my insufficient command of English – you’ve in a way missed my point and trend.

    What were I’ve doing THEN? Yes, still most of my life was under communism. Moreover, I was grown in a relatively well-off family – my mother was journalist, and my father – senior military, forced to retire 38 years old, and later folowing career as a journalist. I was spared most of the controversies of that regime, incl. troubles of my larger family and relatives, which backround was from former Yugoslavia, once damned as deviating from the righteous socialism. Nevertheless, I had some troubles too with my teenage vehemence toward Cuban revolution and Che Guevara, and when I applied to University, I was not permitted to enroll in my first choice (international relations in Moscow) – no matter that I had the best results among 200 applicants – then sent to Army, in one of the so called “black garrisons” not far from the Turkish border. After complerting conscription, I was “permitted” to study Philosophy in the then Leningrad to be expelled three years later for “anti-Soviet defamation”, again with no relevance with my almost excellent performance. After another two years, accompanied by political harassment (again, I was spared worse developments – a friend of mine in Albania had to spend 17 years in prison for even less serious violation – and also birth of my first child, instead of going as a teacher in a remote village, I was invited to make a postgraduate study at the Institute of Sociology. I never dreamed for an academic career, but it happened so… and it was far not smooth one…

    I should object your attachment of me to the academic and any other type of elite in my country – because I’ve never have had any close access to power circles, and my income has never been much higher than the average for Bulgaria – both under socialism and now with the exception of occasiona;l assignments with foreign or international bodies, when my daily rate wasd matching my monthly salary at the Institute), and currently is even less than the income of public transportation driver or a street cleaner in Sofia. Most probably, analyses that have been assigned to me, have been used in certain level for decision making purposes, but I can only guess that, and for six month I’ve been advisor to the senior foreign policy advisor to the first democratically elected President of Bulgaria (nonpaid).
    And one more point to my non-elite status – at least for the last 15 years me and BG meadia have mutual boycott.
    Nevertheless, and despite my Inmstitute can’t cover any kind of saurveys and business trips, I believe, I dispose of reliable information about the situation and developments in Bulgaria and the region – from many informal sources and network, which I have built during the years of my work. And while I should want to travel even more within the country to get information from the spot, I am not sitting all the time sitting in an office, and looking at the ceiling. For example, during last two months I had visits to SE Bulgaria (with predominantly Turkisah population), rural area of the Central part of Northern Bulgaria, and SW Bulgaria.
    So, answering to your direct question, I would not advise any foreign investor currently to invest to my country. Moreover, I should not advise anybody to come for a vacation here – indeed, there are many natural and historical places to be seen, but for conventional tourism, if one have to chose among, say, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece or Turkey, I shoeld advise him/her to skip Bulgaria. Frankly – if I had that opportunity, I should myself chose to live at another place, not in Bulgaria; I missed probably some opportunities in this direction, now it is too late at 61.

    Not at all – you are not adding to my negative feelings, impressions and approach, they are simply infinite…

    I’ll be very glad, indeed, to meet with you and to talk more for avoiding further musunderstanding.