Features Lost in Transition?

Croatia is finally at the doorstep of the EU. Now the door is open and there is no need to knock and wait to get in. Croatia will be part of Eu and be able to participate and be active in social, economic and political projects of common interest.

Published on balticworlds.com on March 26, 2012

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Croatia is finally at the doorstep of the EU. Now the door is open and there is no need to knock and wait to get in. Oh, when I remember how we envied the Bulgarians and Romanians for being admitted before us a few years ago. That, in our view, was not justified, since Croats – as our former president Franjo Tudjman used to say – were “Europeans before Europe”. And now, within a year, Croatia will be a member.

That is, if the EU still exists.

So, are we to celebrate? Or perhaps not? It is not so clear nowadays. The EU is different from what it was ten years ago when Croatia started its accession process. Maybe this is one of the reasons why the turnout in the recent referendum was only 43. 51 %. The majority, 66.27%, were in favor of joining the Union but the joy was spoiled by low participation.

Arguments against membership ranged from the EU falling apart, losing sovereignty and national identity, opposition to the global economy to the servitude to foreign capital. Interestingly enough, the arguments of the political left and right converged on this particular issue of losses. Those in favor, especially politicians, spoke from the rather infantile position of the goodies they would get: we will get foreign investments, jobs, funds, sounding almost like children waiting for Santa Claus. Stability and peace in the region were also mentioned, but not as the most important item on the wish list. Needless to say, nobody spoke about what Croatia and its people could contribute to the new union.

Both those who propagated membership and those against it at the referendum were right. Yes, the country will lose part of its political sovereignty (but not necessarily national identity), and  yes, Croatia will be more exposed to the brutal model of capitalism, although our own gangsters were already pretty good at stripping the country of much of its riches through the privatization process. But the real dilemma behind the referendum was: Could Croatia survive, would it be viable on its own, outside the EU? Not being rich like Norway, that is. There are no arguments to believe that a small country of 4.5 million people, whose main “product “ is tourism, could survive on its own, as we spend more than we earn – Greece being a case in point. In the end, even the Catholic Church and a war criminal, Ante Gotovina, sentenced by the ICTY to 24 years in prison, supported the referendum! For them, membership in the EU is definite proof that we Croats (being Catholics!) are Europeans – while they, Serbs (being Orthodox), are not! Yet Serbs, too, will be in as soon as they find a way to solve the problem with Kosovo. Which is strange, because only some twenty years ago we in Yugoslavia fought wars in order to separate from each other. Now, it seems that we separated only in order to unite in a different, but similar union. This is what I call “the Balkan paradox”.

Today it would be hard to say if Croatia is envied by Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Kosovo – all states that emerged from the former Yugoslavia – or by Albania, Belarus, Ukraine, which are outside, too. It is no longer so certain that our neighbors should consider us lucky. What is waiting for us there? After all, many citizens of former communist countries, from Poland to the Baltic republics, from Romania to Slovakia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Hungary, all of which are already members – not to mention people from the former GDR! – are complaining that Westerners are treating them like “second class citizens” .

It is not hard to imagine how they feel. When I was in primary school in Yugoslavia in the late fifties, we often went on school excursions by train. At the time, trains were divided into three classes:  first class had compartments with seats upholstered in plush, red velvet, like in the theater; the second class was, of course, less comfortable with seats made of light brown plastic that would stick to your skin and smell of – well, plastic. And the third class wagon did not even have compartments, much less seats. It had rows of hard wooden benches. There, you really felt like a third class traveler. It was uncomfortable, dirty and smelly. No chance to cross over to second class just like that, there was a teacher and also a higher authority, a conductor who took care of following the rules and the conditions of transition. Your only consolation was that you were on the same train.

In the EU’s parallel, the first class wagon is divided between the luxury club that really decides and the rest of the Euro zone. Then there is second class, consisting of the former communist countries, though there are differences between Poland and Romania, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. They are all equal, but “some are more equal than others”, as George Orwell so succinctly formulated this kind of attitude in 1945, albeit in a metaphor about communist society in his novel Animal Farm. Then there is the rest, the last part of the composition, third class with its wooden benches. And even that is divided between  bad pupils and worse, those  who might get passing grades and make it to the next  step, jump into second class, and the rest. You can see it easily, better pupils sit close to the teacher and listen carefully. Then there are those who usually sit far behind, not paying attention to the instructions and hoping that they will get there at some point, if only for strategic reasons, like Ukraine and Belarus.                      

But is it justified to again bunch together these former communist countries from Eastern Europe, both outside the EU and in? Both the lucky and the less lucky? After all, the communist bloc collapsed over twenty years ago and these countries finally gained the right to emancipate themselves from the common political denominator and take advantage of their historical differences. They deserved to be seen as individual countries with similar but different histories and even similar but different types of communism:  goulash communism in Hungary, bunker-communism in Albania, liberal communism in Yugoslavia…etc.

 I think it is justified to look at what was common to them all, even if only for the purpose of better understanding their post-communist experience and their current feeling of inadequacy and inequality – from the Czech Republic to Serbia, from Poland to Albania. The fact that they all had similar experiences of communism, I believe, is reflected in some common features even today. Many people there still demonstrate similar habits, behaviors, world views, values, i.e. a certain mentality. That mentality is very hard to change.

Communism in the USSR and in the Soviet bloc countries collapsed quite accidentally, by mistake. We easily forget that the beginning, Mikhael Gorbachev’s attempt at glasnost and perestrojka, was meant to improve the political system and keep it alive, not abolish it. It was abolished for all kinds of other reasons, but this surely was not his intention. Gorbachev’s biggest contribution to the events of 1989 was that he did not react once political changes got out of control.

Unlike in Poland, where the revolutionary movement of Solidarity was alive for years and yet did not topple the communist government on its own, the collapse of the communist regimes happened more or less without the participation of the people.  It simply imploded. If anything, the passivity of the masses is a   great common denominator influencing the mentality. 

Next comes collectivism, as opposed to individualism, a way of seeing yourself as part of a mass, a class, a group, a nation, sometimes even a tribe. It is hard to start to act as an individual, because in spite of democracy, when one’s background is communism it is difficult to believe that an individual opinion, initiative or vote can make a difference for the better, rather than just get you into trouble. Besides, to act on your own as an individual means to take on individual responsibility and that takes a lot of time to learn. Especially if you are used to blaming the higher authority even for personal failures. That lack of responsibility turns out to be a serious handicap in the post-communist era.

Another important feature of the inherited mentality is egalitarianism. New political and economic changes were understood as a promise of enrichment, as a consumer paradise for all. But changes from a totalitarian political system to a democratic one, from a planned economy to capitalism, did not automatically translate into a better life for everybody. True, the transition was characterized by a new kind of poverty and insecurity, a growing gap between rich and poor, high unemployment, terrible corruption at all levels. In two decades, disappointment slowly sank in: not only were old dreams not fulfilled, but most of the new promises failed, too. This was perceived as injustice.

What followed was wide-spread distrust in political elites, democratic procedures and state institutions. Lost in transition? Maybe, especially because this raised another question: transition to what? To where? After the collapse of the financial market and the crisis of the euro it looks as if the locomotive puling the composition forward has slowed down – just to return to the metaphor of the EU as a train. It has also become apparent that not every new member of the EU wholeheartedly supports the project and that gap is widening. Czechs, Hungarians, the Baltic States, Bulgaria, and Romania – they all express it in various ways. Their dissatisfaction and distrust is visible from the government crisis in the Czech Republic to protests against austerity measures in Bucharest and Hungary’s mishandling of the media and the constitution, regardless of warnings from the EU.

To add to the complications, along with the East-West divide, there suddenly appeared to be another one, between Europe’s North and South. Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal are all, to our utter surprise, judged to be bad pupils! The traditionally tolerant North is now leading in right-wing populism as new nationalist parties like the True Finns, Sweden Democrats, and Party of Freedom in the Netherlands spring up. Some political leaders quickly identified the growing feeling of anxiety and insecurity as a “crisis of national identity”. As if, when politicians have nothing to offer, they offer national identity in exchange for a feeling of security. It is easy to use immigrants as scapegoats, especially Muslims. Even if such leaders don’t have much to offer, at least they provide something to blame, be it immigrants, globalization, hedonism, decadence, capitalism, corruption, democracy, old communists, new oligarchs, the West, or Gypsies. Insecurity breeds fear – and societies in fear have a tendency to close up.

The ultimate consequence of the actual crisis – some experts say – might well be a crisis in the very model of global capitalism.

Yet, only last June the Financial Times published the findings of a comparative study suggesting a different conclusion. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank conducted their study in 34 countries in Eastern and Western Europe. Although badly hit by the financial crisis and austerity measures, citizens of the former communist countries appeared to be more satisfied with their lives than citizens in the West of Europe.

It is easy to see why: for them life was still better than it had been before! Does anybody in Eastern Europe today under thirty,   remember that not so long ago toilet paper was a luxury in the former communist countries? I guess my generation is the last one to remember that, and when we are gone it will be entirely forgotten. People born after 1989 will say in bewilderment: there was no toilet paper before? But that is simply impossible! How could you live without it?

Now we have gotten used to it all – but we have also developed a taste for much, much more. This makes us unhappy, because the desire to have “much more” is likely to be suspended for a while in the lucky and less lucky countries, in the second and third class compositions alike. In this, it seems, we are all pretty equal. So, even if the “new” Europeans did for a few years resist the prevailing gloom and doom in the West, they are giving in to it now.  

Yes, before 2008 there was the hope of bridging the gap between East and West more quickly because there were more means and motivation. Now, when the entire train seems to be slowing down, there is less and less of a chance for those at the back. However, we should remember that it was not good to be outside the EU. Being inside offered great possibilities, but it turned out to be more difficult than expected. Democracy has its weaknesses; capitalism is in crisis. But what could be the alternative? Dropping out? Turning towards other neighbors eastwards? Maybe, before coming to any far-fetching decision, former communist countries should remind themselves more often of what it was like only twenty years ago. Never mind the soft toilet paper; it is peace and security that should always be on our minds.  And being in the EU, we still have a chance to contribute to it. Now, for a change, we could participate and be active in social, economic and political projects of common interest. Is it not worth going on?

Note: This article has previously been published in Danish in Dagstidningen Politiken.
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