Buyer's Remorse? Twenty Years after the Post-Soviet Transition

Article excerpt

The recent 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's collapse provided an opportunity for many to revisit the heady days of 1989--the era of Walesa, Havel, and jubilant crowds literally and figuratively smashing longstanding barriers between East and West. With communism in tatters, Eastern Europeans eagerly embraced democracy and capitalism. Two decades later, post-communist publics still support democratic institutions and free markets, but their initial enthusiasm has waned and public frustrations with democracy and the free market are evident in most countries.

Struggling with an economic crisis and disheartened by the current state of politics in their countries, many Eastern Europeans are in a grim mood. There is a widespread consensus that political and business elites, not ordinary citizens, reaped most of the benefits from the transition. And while there is conceptual support for multiparty governance, many people have yet to fully accept democratic values, or accept them but are frustrated with the way democracy works. At the same time, the global recession has made acceptance of the free market economy particularly difficult.

The most heartening development in the region is that life satisfaction has improved substantially in all former communist nations over the past two decades. Younger people have registered the greatest gains in well-being, and perhaps as a consequence express the strongest commitment to democracy and the free market in former communist countries.

These are some of the major findings from a fall 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project that included nine former Eastern bloc nations. The survey repeated a number of questions from one of the first cross-national polls conducted in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain, a 1991 study by the Times Mirror Center (a forerunner of today's Pew Research Center). Then, as now, the region served as an important laboratory for studying public opinion toward democracy and free market economics.

Life Satisfaction Up

First, the good news: people in post-communist societies say they are living better lives than they were in 1991. For example, when asked to rate their lives on a 0-10 scale, where zero represents the worst possible life and 10 the best possible life, 49 percent in the Czech Republic now rate their lives at least a seven, whereas in 1991 only 23 percent of Czechs (those living on the Czech side of what was then still Czechoslovakia) gave their lives a rating of seven or higher.

There has been even more change in Poland, where 44 percent say their lives merit a 7-10 on the scale, compared with only 12 percent in 1991. Big gains have also occurred in East Germany, Slovakia, Lithuania, Russia, and Ukraine (at the time of the 1991 poll, East Germany had been incorporated as part of a reunified Germany, while Russia, Ukraine, and Lithuania were still republics within a rapidly decaying Soviet Union). Hungarians and Bulgarians offer somewhat more glum assessments--only 15 percent in each country assign their lives a high rating, but even these numbers represent an improvement.

Today, younger Eastern Europeans tend to see their lives more positively than older people. Consistently, those under age 50 are more likely to rate their lives a seven or higher. The well-educated also give their lives higher marks. These gaps were largely absent in the 1991 survey--still struggling with the aftermath of communist rule, few people placed themselves at a high spot on the scale, regardless of age or education status.

Democracy and Capitalism: Curbed Enthusiasm?

When asked whether they approve of the shifts to democracy and capitalism that occurred two decades ago, Eastern Europeans generally say they do. However, the share of the public who approve has shrunk since 1991 in most of the nations surveyed, and there are vast differences among nations. …