The fall of communism in 1989 was a great relief to citizens of the eastern bloc. But why are millions of them now angry at the ruling elites who have made them freer, wealthier and citizens of the EU?by Ivan Krastev / September 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
Above: the end of intimacy in the old eastern bloc
The revolutions of 1989, which saw communist governments toppled across eastern Europe, used to be considered among the continent’s most agreeable. The left praised them as an expression of people power and the victory of civil society against the state. The right celebrated them as a triumph of the free market and the free world. But the combination of the global economic crisis and the rise of political populism in eastern Europe is challenging long-held assumptions. The financial crisis has put neoliberal capitalism on trial and the claim that democracy is best at delivering growth has been shaken by the success of China.
The geopolitical gains from the end of the cold war now also look uncertain. Writing in the Observer in September 2008, the philosopher John Gray prophesied that “the upheaval we are experiencing is more than a financial crisis.” He argued that “the era of American global leadership, reaching back to the second world war, is over… a change as far-reaching in its implications as the fall of the Soviet Union.” And the EU’s declining global relevance is acknowledged even by Brussels. The revisionists’ hour has arrived.
The revolutions have always been celebrated for setting people free. But an alternative interpretation of the events of 20 years ago is gaining ground: that in 1989, the elites broke free. It is easy to dismiss this as a conspiracy theory. It is not, however, easy to ignore its political followers. In eastern Europe, populism—a political doctrine that pits the interests of “ordinary people” against the “elites”—is on the rise. Populists have held power in Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria. But why should people be angry at their ruling elite, when these rulers have made them freer, wealthier and citizens of the EU?
Václav Havel wrote about the ordinary eastern bloc citizen in a 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” Havel imagined a greengrocer who places a sign in the window of the shop where he works. The sign reads “Workers of the world, unite!” Yet the greengrocer doesn’t care about the proletariat and its unity. The slogan was a declaration of loyalty to those in power, and a plea to be left alone by them. Since 1989, of course, the greengrocer has been free to take down the sign. But how else did he fare during the past 20 years?