30 years after: Expectations and outcomes

Peter Havlik,
Senior Research Associate,
The Vienna Institute of International Economic Studies (wiiw),
Vienna, Austria

In early 2020, we mark the 30th anniversary of elections in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that eventually resulted in their declarations of independence. Looking back, it is useful to recall a sequence of related events from that dramatic period. The Polish roundtable talks conducted during February-April 1989 that resulted in free elections on 4th June 1989 were perhaps one of the early triggers of the regime collapse and subsequent transition. In Hungary, similar talks had started in June 1989. The Pan-European Picknick at the Austro-Hungarian border on 19th August 1989 was used by hundreds of East Germans to flee to West Germany. In the Baltic States – at that time still parts of the Soviet Union – about half a million people had demonstrated against the communist rule by an impressive “Human Chain” on 23rd August 1989. The exodus of East Germans from the German Embassy in Prague in September 1989 represented perhaps the final nail in the coffin of the four decades’ long communist grip on Central and Eastern Europe. In this context, the events on 17th November in Prague that triggered the Velvet Revolution came not just a bit too late, but were perhaps even orchestrated in order to facilitate a smooth transition of power within the system. The fall of the Berlin Wall on 5th November 1989, quickly followed by ousting the long-term Bulgarian dictator T. Zhivkov on 10th November and the violent toppling of Romanian leader N. Causescu on 21st December closed the revolutionary year 1989. For the sake of completeness, one has to note that the communist regime in Yugoslavia ended in 1990 and the Soviet Union was formally dissolved in December 1991. The ultimate independence of the Baltic States had materialized only after the August 1991 aborted coup in Moscow.

Reflecting on the beginning of transition, I ventured to consult a compendium of papers which I edited in 1990. The resulting book, published in early 1991 with the Westview Press in the United States under the title Dismantling the Command Economy in Eastern Europe, included chapters on ‘Transition from Command to Market Economies’ that discussed the pros and cons of the ‘shock therapy versus gradualism’, on East-West economic relations, East-West energy prospects, on unemployment and social security, as well as seven country case studies, including ones on East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Needless to say, these entities no longer exist as states: there are now 24 new independent states in their place while East Germany merged with West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The nationalist outbreak in the region was probably one of the least expected transition outcomes, as was in particular, the subsequent extremely violent nature of the Yugoslav disintegration. Nor had I expected, however, the speed and the depth of the process of European integration, especially the fact that parts of the former Soviet Union would join the European Community in 2004, not to mention NATO membership in 1999 – although a ‘return to Europe’ was high on the agenda in all countries in Central, Eastern Europe and the Baltics.

The explicit recognition of these countries’ diversity implied not only the need for diverse transition strategies, but also the possibility of diverse outcomes, the latter implying that there was no guarantee for either a speedy and smooth transition or for its success. I was convinced that ‘a return to communist dictatorship of the old sort is rather unlikely in the countries of Eastern Europe – contrary to the disintegrating Soviet Union, where future developments in individual republics may go virtually in any direction’. Indeed, the spectrum of transition varieties which emerged in the region ranges from the more ‘successful’ transitions in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia and Poland to the more or less ‘failures’ such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Belarus, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. The latter group unfortunately confirms the expected variety of eventual transition outcomes.

The next bundle of expectations addressed in the book related to the challenges of how ‘to cope effectively with the difficult legacy of the past and with adverse consequences of transition’. There have been numerous dangers associated with ‘the newly emergent nationalism, combined with a vacuum of functioning institutions’. Indeed, the establishment of ‘institutions and market mechanisms that are often granted in the West, but which either do not exist or were discredited in the East’ and the high social costs associated with the transition ‘endangering the maintenance of a necessary social consensus in the new and fragile democracies’ turned out to be crucial. 30 years ago, I certainly did not imagine that politicians like Babis, Kaczyński, Orbán, Zeman, Lukashenko and Putin would be among the leaders winning democratic popular votes, that a unified Germany would be led by the daughter of an Evangelic pastor from the German Democratic Republic and a former KGB agent who operated in the same country in the 1980s would rule Russia, both being the strongest in their respective countries (still) most popular politicians.

Last but not least, perhaps ominously, the above quoted book also contained an early warning that ‘the social net in Eastern Europe might easily collapse and the West would be forced to erect new walls’. Unfortunately, these fears seem now to be partly materialising – be it in the chaotic European response to migration flows, Brexit or Ukraine’s and Western conflicts with Russia. The latter conflict in particular – de facto a return to a sort of Cold War after the short period of ‘climate improvements’ – came as totally unexpected, perhaps even more so than the power of destructive forces of nationalism, populism and xenophobia in the region. That the conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transdniestria would last until this day, and that new conflicts such as the one in eastern Ukraine could flare up with such intensity, I certainly did not expect either. In any case, the period 1989-1991 did not mean the ‘end of history’ wrongly predicted by Francis Fukuyama at that time. All that being said should not diminish the impressive economic, social, political and cultural achievements accomplished in the region, just to put them in a more balanced perspective.

Email: havlik@wiiw.ac.at

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