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The Variant Paths of Post-Communist Russia, Poland, and Hungary
The past ten years have seen great changes in the formerly Communist countries of Eastern Europe. Bound together for years under the Soviet yoke, these nations have now embarked upon their own individual paths as sovereign states. Representative of these emerging one-time Eastern Bloc nations are Russia, Poland, and Hungary. All three once shared a common form of government and a single social system. In each of these cases, Communism overlay a pre-existing civilization and set of traditions. This relatively brief interlude of Marxism, Leninism, and Stalinism was thus, a veneer, a covering over, if you will, of far older patterns of behavior and ways of thinking. It was these underlying cultural and historical characteristics that, combined with the shared history of Soviet rule, produced the countries we know today. Three distinct nations were put together into the crucible of the Communist State, and each emerged re-cast in a different manner. Russia, Poland, and Hungary seek their own futures in the contemporary world.
The Communist state as it came to exist in the Soviet Bloc was first developed in Russia. In many ways, many of its principles were deeply ingrained in Russian History. The autocracy of the tsars was reflected in the authoritarian nature of the communist party and state apparatus. Just as the Tsar of All the Russia had once demanded absolute and unquestioning obedience from his many subject peoples, so too did the Russian Communist State demand unblinking loyalty from its citizens. And as no power was beyond the tsar, so was no aspect of political, social, or cultural control outside the scope of the ruling Communist party. The Communist Party as first led by Vladimir Illyich Lenin, and further developed by Joseph Stalin, controlled every aspect of its people's lives. And when, after the Second World War Soviet troops remained in formerly Nazi-occupied Poland and Hungary, the Soviet government exercised in these countries the same kind of complete and total control that it enjoyed at home. For Poland, this meant a return to Russian domination - much of Poland had once been ruled by the tsars - while for Hungary this was its first experience of Russian rule.
For all the countries of the Eastern Bloc, Communism meant the elimination of private property, and the taking over of the entire economy by the state. State-run enterprises typically produced considerably lower returns than their privately-owned counterparts, and in general, the economies of all these countries suffered. Centralized planning also affected other areas of society, including education, housing, medicine, justice, and so forth. Housing was often in short supply, and schools were strictly controlled by the State. Individuals expressing un-Communistic, or anti-Communistic points-of-view were either sent off to be "re-educated," or shipped off to prisons and prison camps. At these prison camps, or gulags, citizens were not only punished for their unacceptable thoughts, but also beaten down and starved; their labor used to make up the production deficits of the "ideal" Socialist State. When Communism finally collapsed, Russia, Poland, and Hungary each had to find its own way out of this repressive, and economically unproductive system.
However, the collapse of the Communist System did not mean instant democracy.
Although the last decades of the 20th century witnessed a fast march to democracy in Eastern and Central Europe, they also revealed powerful tendencies toward greater central authority in the countries of the former Soviet Union, including Russia. This dynamic is apparent in leaders who believe they are undertaking great tasks in rebuilding and modernizing their countries and who seek to mobilize cooperation and support, not criticism and dissent. Public demands for both order and a higher standard of living create an environment that allows for backsliding toward centralized authority and even authoritarianism. It is no accident that such ideas resonate with leaders whose formative political experiences occurred in communist party structures.
Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin have both had to deal with the enormous problems facing a society and a nation in flux. Faced with an economy in a shambles, the breakdown of traditional - that is communist - authority, and rampant crime, and corruption, they have often been forced to resort to many of the old regime's tactics simply in order to hold Russia together. The centralized planning of the Soviet Union did not give way to any sort of organized transfer of the means of production into private hands. Instead, those well-placed enough to take advantage of the situation simply took over the factories and businesses. They prospered and grew rich, while most Russians watched as the ruble spiraled downward and their standards of living nosedived.
Such concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, combined with Russia's enduring authoritarian traditions have led to large scale corruption and political influence peddling. Business are often taken over by illegal means; managed by a privileged minority for its own benefit. Crime syndicates have sprung up, initially as a means of filling the gaps in the chain of supply and demand, and then later, egged on by the lure of lucrative profits, they expanded their illegal enterprises effectively squeezing out many honest entrepreneurs.
Corruption is usually defined as "the misuse of public power for private gain," but privatization permanently deprives public servants of public property, so they can no longer charge money for the privilege of using it. Today, the bribery that plagues Russia is not related to privatization but is overwhelmingly connected with law enforcement, tax collection, and state intervention.
In general, the higher the level of privatization that an ex-communist country has attained, the higher economic growth it has achieved. Russia is atypical in having been more successful in privatization than in other market reforms, such as price liberalization. Therefore, people tend to blame Russia's privatization for the country's shortfalls, while it would be more logical to complain about the dearth of other reforms. The scourge of Russian enterprises is scores of state inspectorates that regularly extort money from businesspeople.
Poland's experience has been somewhat different. While long under Russian influence, both before 1918, and after World War II, the country has also had a long history of being at least marginally linked with the West. These linkages in fact go back to the Middle Ages. Poland is a Catholic Country, and as such it shared in the intellectual and cultural heritage of the West. Copernicus, Spinoza, Chopin, and Marie Curie are but some of the Polish names that are part of our joint Western Heritage. Nevertheless, the effects of Communism and authoritarian rule have been strong in Poland.
For a large number of Polish citizens, the transition to a democratic political system was desirable primarily as a catalyst for converting the economic system from a command model to a free market. Democracy delivers, these citizens firmly believed, the assumption being that only a capitalist system can promote economic development beyond the early stages of industrialization. This kind of determinism has been called into question by the mixed record of the Polish economic transformation. Indeed, the distinguished Canadian political scientist Charles Taylor has been a leading skeptic of such determinism: "What should have died along with communism is the belief that modern societies can be run on a single principle, whether that of planning under the general will or that of free-market allocations."
It is this overpowering belief in the importance of democratization that has pushed Poland strongly toward the European Union. "There is no alternative than the European integration of Poland," said Prime Minister Leszek Miller, a former communist turned Social Democrat, in a discussion with American journalists. 'Either we join the family of nations... Or find ourselves on the periphery of European civilization."
Much as Poland seeks to achieve its goals of democratization through its impending membership in the European Union, Hungary too has moved decidedly toward its sister nations in the West. Long integrally linked with the West through its centuries-old association with Austria, Hungary has many reasons to wish to re-establish those links. While Hungary's post-Soviet political and social environment has come down to a battle between Westernizing democrats and re-vamped Communists campaigning as Socialists, its electoral campaigns already show a decidedly Western stamp:
Candidates this year are being sold professionally much like automobiles and like politicians in Western Europe and the United States, he has said, a fact that leads him and other Hungarian political analysts to complain that serious discussion of important topics - such as political corruption or Hungary's possible EU membership - take a distant backseat to glamour and image."
Yet here too, economic concerns have been foremost. "The transition to capitalism has been tough, brutal and costly, with consumption dipping by as much as 20 per cent at one point during the past decade. It is only now beginning to approach the level where it had been at the implosion of communist power."
Thus, in Poland and Hungary there is a definite linkage between democracy and capitalism.…[continue]
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