Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Cold War Remnants

What to expect?

It’s hard to imagine what life was like during Communism. I was born in the summer of 1991 well after the Berlin Wall came down, the fences cut, and the USSR was no more. My post-Cold War ‘Americanized’ perception of what the Cold War was comprised of varying influences taken from rural Missouri educators who barely touched the subject. As far as I can remember, the Cold War was an arms race to see who could gain the ability to blow up the world faster. Under all of that Rocky Balboa and Drago would battle it out to see who would be on top. Of course the American exceptionalism portrayed in such films doesn't give us the whole story, it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that Eastern European countries are only a little over two decades into democracy.

The economic transition from the Russian-based trade market to the west alone has been a feat and most countries we will be visiting have only just begun shaking the economic turmoil created by the transition. The unemployment level of communist countries prior to the revolutions was almost at zero. However, this figure jumped remarkably to the late teens and early 20% of the workforce being jobless. This jump immediate. Uncompetitive factories and manufacturers did fine employing thousands of workers under communist rule, but the West was too far along for such production inequality. If the factories survived the market transition, they could only employ a few hundred – a mere fraction of communist right to work policy. Income inequality under communism was almost nonexistent; everyone was poor together.

Grocery line in Communist Romania

The citizens who overcame communism in the revolutions of 1989 wanted more. They knew that the West was more advanced both in human rights and economy, and Eastern Europeans wanted a slice of the capitalist cake. Some countries (like Poland) issued a “shock therapy” policy where they jumped their economic policy into capitalist markets without holding anything back. This caused a massive collapse in the state’s economy and social welfare services and put the countries into heavy foreign debt just to stay afloat. These countries now produce a higher GDP than those who transitioned to western economics gradually. The initial failure of the new regimes to benefit from western capitalism caused much disappointment among the people because they expected so much from ousting the communists. But life in Central and Eastern Europe took a while to pull itself together, a lot longer than expected. This caused some populations to vote the old leaders back into office through their new democratic power. The old communists were no longer communists, but reformed Socialists. Many of the political elites, especially the moderate and open-to-reform leaders, were kept in political power, at least until new parliamentary structures could be put into place.
The more "left-wing" the more socialism was incorporated into economic policy

Of the countries we will be visiting, communist “socialist” influences still hold some validity in political party agendas. These countries, all of whom are now in the EU and NATO are growing with a heightened acceleration. We must, however, remember that the days of Soviet bloc lifestyle is still a recent memory and the governments here are still recovering from the transition. Switching between such drastic political movements after the collapse of communist governments is an entirely new maneuver in the modern world. These countries have had success in the change – some more than others – and seem to be integrating nicely into Western society.
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