Central Europe's Agonies

Article excerpt


Central Europe is in turmoil. Some blame the fast pace of free market reforms and claim that capitalism cannot help but leave many people behind. In fact, Central Europeans are more prosperous than ever before and capitalism continues to enjoy public support.

An important, though overlooked, reason for the political instability in the region is the people's disenchantment with their corrupt ruling elites.

In the last few weeks, Hungary faced violent street protests as Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany admitted to lying to the public about the state of the economy prior to the elections. The Kaczynski twins who ran Poland since last October have lost their parliamentary majority and may be heading for early elections. The stability of the Slovak government came at a high price a coalition with Jan Slota's ultra-nationalists. And, four months after their elections, the Czechs have no government at all.

The European left is ecstatic. A year ago, Central Europe's robust growth seemed to threaten the moribund "social model" in Western Europe. Today, Central Europe is a laughing stock. None would dare to suggest that the French should emulate countries led by a coterie of xenophobes, racists and anti-Semites. Moreover, the left feels that it can place the rise of the unsavory characters like Mr. Slota at the door of global capitalism.

Writing in the New Statesman, for example, Roger Boyes opined, "The Hungarian unrest has echoes across eastern Europe. From Poland to Bulgaria, from Slovakia to deep in the Balkans, there is a surly resistance to globalization, to the crushing power of international markets. Increasingly, it is the far right that exploits this most deftly."

That may be wishful thinking. One of the biggest surveys of public opinion in Central Europe ever conducted did not find much "surly resistance" to capitalism. In 2003, the Gallup Organization asked over 12,000 people in the EU accession countries to agree or disagree with the following statements: "The state intervenes too much in our lives," "Free competition is the best guarantee for economic prosperity," and "Economic growth must be a priority, even if it affects the environment." All three statements were supported by the majority or, in the case of the last question, a plurality of the respondents in all four countries.

Similarly, a mere two months before his defeat in the Slovak elections, Mikulas Dzurinda's flat tax reform was supported by 58 percent of the citizens. His partial privatization of the pension system enjoyed support of 53 percent of the public, and his reduction of the welfare state was supported by 47 percent of the public, with 46 percent opposed. …