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A Year After the Revolutions, People are Losing Hope


`I AM rather pessimistic - after a period of faith and hope,'' a longtime Bulgarian acquaintance wrote me from Sofia recently. Many East Europeans, in this second year of revolution, feel much the same.

After the communist regime was overthrown, the Bulgarians waited 14 months before adopting Polish-style ``shock'' strategy to transform the economy. It came after a year of political stalemate and escalating economic crisis.

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In December, the opposition Democratic Forces took over the economy in a new coalition government. In February, it introduced stunning price rises for everything but staple foods, bringing a near 50 percent drop in living standards and leaving two months to wait for partially compensatory pay raises.

It was - as for the Poles - a decision dictated by International Monetary Fund (IMF) criteria for aiding reform, which also allows them to qualify for Western credits to help in this transition period. Overnight - like the Poles - Bulgarians found once-empty shops virtually full, but at prices few could afford.

Czechoslovakia and Hungary, as radical in some ways as Poland, increased prices, though not so severely. But however far along the reform road, East Europeans generally feel the same pinch - and not only from prices. Almost all welcomed the changes of 1989 and 1990. But they also expected them to produce, if not miracles, at least some quick improvement. The attitude was understandable among people who for 40 years had guaranteed job security, however poor their pay. Moonlighting and the bla ck market became a way of life.

Now an unexpected setback has emerged - unemployment. In Poland, it is already a million plus. In Czechoslovakia, university graduates go straight onto welfare payments. Up to a million people will need government assistance this year. In Hungary, 3 out of 10 people already live on or below an officially defined ``social minimum.''

The new governments often show a naive approach to essential prerequisites of a new economic order, as if, for example, laws on privatizing the old state economy alone would suffice to change actual operation and performance.

The governments, like the work forces, appear far from appreciating that the test lies in a privatized enterprise's ability to produce goods of a quality that can compete on open markets. As yet there has been no adequate emphasis on changing social attitudes and getting back to the economic value system and old work ethic that existed, for example, among the traditionally diligent Czechs.

Privatization goes very slowly. In Poland - first in the field - 4 out of 5 enterprises are still state-owned. A Czech newspaper recently commented that the process will last as long as the period of communist rule. Major foreign interest remains conspicuously absent.

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Acute political problems aggravate the purely economic. Coalition parties are quarreling. Extremist nationalist and ethnic threats are rife.

These facts underline the need to make economic change more rapidly effective and for speedier support from the West, which so far has been strong on advice but not yet with cash.

Thanks to green lights from the IMF, however, aid from the European Community should begin to fall into place. It will take months to start up, however. Meantime, worsening standards for ordinary East Europeans must make the cry from Sofia at the head of this column the more eloquent and meaningful.

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