An unfinished revolution
Public life in the ex-communist world is again run by a well-connected elite. But things may be starting to change
May 19th 2010 | From The Economist online
The Europe.view column will henceforth appear as a weekly posting at Eastern Approaches, The Economist’s central and eastern Europe blog.
In the communist era, the countries of eastern and central Europe were run by tightly knit clans. Connections, particularly those of your parents, mattered more than ability. The same kind of people held the top jobs in the ruling party, in government, in media and in commerce and industry. One of the most potent fuels for the revolutions of 1989 was public discontent with this closed system and the unfairness and incompetence that went along with it.
It worked for a time. In the 1990s, social mobility, in both directions, was huge. Some of the former elite ended up washing dishes or selling insurance. People from the fringes of society (unemployed playwrights and electricians) rose to giddy heights. Capitalism opened huge possibilities for the flexible and ambitious. And if you didn’t like it, you could always leave: millions of people tasted the difference with work and study abroad.
They won that fight
But the new era proved brief. Instead of the old monopoly, a new cartel now holds sway. It is not so blatant. The communist parties’ statutory grip on power is gone, as are the grim, grey men of the secret police. But from the Baltic to the Black sea, public life has again started looking like a game for insiders. The same people, with backgrounds in the same elite universities, with wealthy and well-connected parents, dominate politics, the media and top jobs in officialdom. Social mobility is slowing in many parts of the developed world, particularly Britain and America. But it is tantalising to see it fade in “new Europe”, which once seemed so open and dynamic.
The problem is most acute in politics. Generous subsidies for established parties rig the system against outsiders and newcomers. Electoral rules have the same effect—candidates for election face onerous registration requirements, for example. When voices are muffled, so are choices. Emigration, and in extreme cases even depopulation, is the unwelcome result.
But change does seem to be afoot. Running as an independent, Indrek Tarand, a popular former official, won a surprise victory in Estonia’s elections to the European parliament last year. In Hungary, the green-tinged anti-corruption movement Lehet Más a Politika (Politics can be different) won an unexpected 7.5% of the vote in the recent parliamentary elections. Less pleasingly, in the same election the far-right anti-establishment Jobbik party won nearly 17%, helped by protest votes as well as its traditional racist base.
The trend is visible elsewhere in central Europe. As the print edition reports this week, new parties and protest movements are making inroads into the clubby politics of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Some, such as the Slovak Sloboda a Solidarita (Freedom and Solidarity), make heavy use of the internet. In the Czech Republic, a movement called Change the Politicians uses smartly made video clips of cultural hotshots such as Aňa Geislerová, Aneta Langerová, Marta Kubišová and Jiří Stránský denouncing corruption and calling for change.
But complaining is easy, as is casting a protest vote. The newcomers will certainly put the old guard under greater scrutiny, dent cultures of impunity and give heart to others who want to change the system. But that is not enough. What the ex-communist countries need is a big new impetus, to complete the changes in officialdom and public services promised but not fully achieved after the collapse of communism. Accession to the European Union and NATO gave that process a boost, but it has proved only temporary. In some respects, the countries of the region are regressing. To restore momentum the new outsiders must show that they can win power and use it—and at the same time not fall into the mire that has engulfed their predecessors.