WHEN COMMUNISM crumbled it appeared that the people of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet lands were clamoring for democracy, multiparty elections, an open society, a state of law, and the end of the one-party monopoly over the economy, media and civic activities. The two words most frequently heard were "democracy" and "capitalism." It was assumed widely both in the East and the West that communism and socialism had indeed collapsed and that the transition to democracy and capitalism was under way.
But neither the political nor economic transition has gone as well as the populations expected, though results vary. The Czech Republic exhibits far greater democratic advances than, say, Romania, where the very same people who ruled prior to the revolution are still in power and show little evidence of having altered their style of governing.
In Lithuania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Hungary recent elections brought victory to the reconstituted (and re-named) communists, as the electorate showed massive dissatisfaction with the scant economic progress made by the anticommunist leaders. While it's unlikely this represents a return to communism, it is a cause for concern about democratization. What is yet to be determined is just how deep a mark communist rule has made upon the average person. The notion that all vestiges of communist mentality will vanish may be quite mistaken.
The greater concern is economic. And economics has enormous political consequences. As is well known, the economies of the socialist countries were stagnant and obsolete and the centrally planned enterprises were not able to produce the consumer goods capitalism did. But it did provide job security for nearly everyone, a minimal but universal social security and negligible inflation.
A visit to most former communist countries yields evidence of a greater variety of consumer goods, particularly from abroad; the sprucing up of some shabby cities to more glittering appearance (Prague, Budapest and St. Petersburg, to mention a few), and the presence of a youngish group of entrepreneurs aggressively courting international investors. But the economic well-being of the average person has gone from bad to worse. Particularly hard hit are the elderly and the workers in the former giant state enterprises that are unable to keep up with the changes. A few countries have vigorously pursued privatization (Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic); others (such as Slovakia, Ukraine and Bulgaria) are loath to declare the mammoth enterprises defunct because they are concerned that the entire job base will collapse.
In these uncertain economic conditions the most aggressive figures are the mafiosos. It is estimated that in Moscow alone about 300 gangs operate with a brutality not seen since Al Capone's heyday. Many former socialist economies - large ones like Russia's or tiny ones like Montenegro's - have fallen into the hands of brazen and totally merciless gangs. In the minds of the people, the way these gangs operate is capitalism. People have been nurtured, after all, on the notion that capitalism means the exploitation of the working people by ruthless capitalists, and this is what they now see every day. Large segments of the population have become destitute, unable to afford even minimal medical care or food, and some are driven to suicide. Meanwhile a tiny minority wallow in quickly gained wealth, which they display ostentatiously.
The enrichment of these gangs is not likely to help their own countries as might be the case should the newly rich put their capital into legitimate businesses. This is because most of them do not reinvest it domestically but stash it away abroad. Banks in Cyprus and Switzerland have become repositories of this ill-gained wealth. Russian entrepreneurs have become cherished customers in Finland because they buy Finnish real estate (in case they need a safe haven) and purchase the most expensive Mercedes cars for the highest asking price - and pay cash. …