Socialist memories and a never-ending transiton: fuel for populism and conflict

Hardly anyone reflected on the official beginning of the Eurasian Economic Union’s work on January 1st, having Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia as their members and expecting Kyrgyzstan to join in May 2015. Considering these countries as too distant, in fact, the economic potential of this union and the impact of its development bank are expected to be fairly low, nevertheless the political influence Russia and Vladimir Putin shall not be underestimated. Still, the EU must learn that the relations between its member states/partners and Russia actually do matter.

Putin’s rhetoric tools and his propaganda convince enough citizens to support his ideas – or at least doubt the vision of the European Union. While Marine Le Pen, Hungary’s far-right Jobbik movement, UKIP’s Nigel Farage or former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder are among the political actors that have at least expressed support or understanding in any way for Russia’s president, both far-right and far-left groups in European countries as well spread anti-democratic and anti-European visions. One of Putin’s greatest talents is to push the right emotional buttons – he reminds the former associates of the COMECON about the help “Mother Russia” provided and frames his criticism of the European Union as if he was the one always playing fair.

Nostalgia and disappointment in the East

Until today, in many former socialist countries, there are big gaps between the classic left ideologies and the new democratic, sometimes even nationalist, movements. While the parties and politicians who completely reject a left system remind the citizens of the new freedom, economic possibilities and the stuck power structures of the old socialist apparatchiks, the ugly side of liberalization is still present: FDI flows mainly to the capitals and bigger cities, leaving rural areas to bleed out and leading to the rise of inequality and poverty in all countries in the beginning of the transition period in the 1990s.

Maria_TrifonTaking Bulgaria as one example of the post-socialist order, I met Maria (81) and Trifon (92) in a small southern Bulgarian village. They have been married for more than 60 years and live a humble life with their cat. He survived World War II and the bombings in the country’s capital – Sofia, she used to work as a chemical engineer in the country’s first artificially created city of Dimitrovgrad and still knows how to tailor dresses by herself. Together they have seen how socialism replaced monarchy in Bulgaria as a political and economic system and tell colourful stories about these times, before they even witnessed the beginning of the democratic era. These memories of this period including coupons in the first years, fake chocolate and economic 5-year-plans seem distant and abstract although the phase ended only 25 years ago. Describing how all streets were slowly paved and the construction of buildings impressed people due to their unorthodox size and architecture, they note “we weren’t rich, but that wasn’t important, nobody was rich anyway and we had everything we needed – employment, food, shelter, healthcare and free education”.

We weren’t rich, but that wasn’t important, nobody was rich anyway and we had everything we needed

A romantic and idealized image of socialism lingers in the heads of many Bulgarians, especially the elderly, who only receive a pension between 55 and 420 Euro – hardly enough to pay the high electricity bills and afford groceries. Until today, most people know these stories about the period when agriculture and manufacturing provided enough jobs for everyone, regardless of the force exercised on the citizens to fulfil their duties. Even if young people haven’t witnessed the intermediate transition period after the system’s collapse in 1990, the significance of this time hasn’t been forgotten. “Everything two, three generations created in this country was grabbed in a landslide when democracy came: the uncontrolled privatization made it possible for people who were in power to take whatever they liked and still, due to corruption there is no punishment”, Maria says.

Like most former socialist countries, Bulgaria struggles with tremendous emigration and brain drain linked to high unemployment and the decline of wages. Trifon, whose grandchildren study in Austria remarks how important the liberties and freedoms of speech and mobility gained during the transition period were for the young generation, but his face saddens – “we don’t have any specialists left, no proper doctors, nobody to lead this country out of this endless misery”. The membership in the European Union did not meet the expectations for an external rescue and even led to disappointment. Feeling as if they were treated like unwanted stepchildren by the EU, the couple concludes “we have become cheap labour for European companies and simply part of an extended market for their exports, since we don’t produce anything by ourselves anymore – cutting both the construction of the second atomic power plant and the South Stream pipeline from Russia has been decided by the West, although we needed them to lower the energy prices”.

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