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Eastern Europe 25 years on: catching up or catching cold?

Catch-up 2014 smaller cropped

Image: www.thecatchupindex.eu

25 years on from the fall of communism, the Wall Street Journal recently told its readers, Central and Eastern Europe is still playing catch-up. The reasons are mainly economic and infrastructural. Too little growth by the standards of the Asian tigers. Too few high speed rail links. Not enough motorways. Viktor Orbán bossing it over Hungary in an ever more worrying project of illiberal transformation. A bad subsidy habit fed by an indulgent EU. A Middle Income Development Trap waiting to be sprung. And –when did this ever happen before? –  progress that “ has fallen short of what many of its citizens had hoped”.

 But we shouldn’t be too harsh. The WSJ is not particularly well known for the quality of its CEE  reporting. And this occasion it’s absolutely right: Central and Eastern Europe is playing catch-up. The politics of catch-up, rather than geography or culture or post-communism, are probably what define the region best. If it wasn’t catching up, it wouldn’t be Central and Eastern Europe.  Historians of East Central Europe such as Andrew C. Janos or  Ivan Berend have long been preoccupied by the region’s longue durée efforts to push its levels of socioeconomic– and political – development into line Europe’s core West European states –  although they have sometimes bluntly simply spoken of “backwardness”.

 The post-1989 project of European integration and enlargement, although more usually referred to in terms of ‘convergence’ or ‘Return to Europe’ is also all about one catch-up – and a very ambitious form of catch-up: overcoming deeply rooted east-west divide, which as Janos and others have noted, predates the Cold War division of Europe.  Enlargement and integration – and liberal reform in CEE generally –been sold politically on the basis that the poor, historically peripheral societies of CEE will (and after a painful process of adjustment) reap the full benefits of prosperity, social welfare, democracy and freedom enjoyed by core West European societies that had the good luck to stay out of of the Soviet zone of influence after WWII.

 If, in the long term, integration fails to deliver, there may be significant consequences both for the EU and for the fate of democracy and liberal institutions in Central and East European countries themselves.  As recent developments in Hungary show, liberal and democratic reforms are not irreversible or consolidated as once thought or hoped. If the European project fails to deliver catch-up – or the Western model CEE was busy catching up on with proves exhausted and unattractive – it will exacerbate both centrifugal pressures in the EU and erosion of democracy in some or all of CEE. There is the uncomfortable possibility that in his nationalistic rejection of liberalism, Viktor Orbán may be a leader rather than a laggard as far as the future direction of the region is concerned –  the Central European vanguard of the revolt against a broken Western model that Pankaj Mishra sees rippling out  from Asia. Read More…

>Old PUPS, new tricks

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Any Francophones out there interested in minor political parties may be interested to know of a short piece on pensioners’ parties in the newsmagazine Alternatives internationales,  which, roughtly speaking, seems to a cross channel version of the New Internationalist. I did want to offer something centring on Slovenia’s Democratic Party of Pensioners (DeSUS)- currently undergoing various ructions and splits in the centre-left Slovene coalition government – but they felt that Serbia’s Party of United Pensioners (PUPS) was a bit sexier, so as Research Impact is the now  new rock ‘n’ roll  for academic hese days, I pnaturally obliged and pulled together what I know about PUPS. Should you cher ami not be a Alternatives internationales subscriber and want an electronic offprint, do drop me a line,

>Greys push Serbian coalition for pension hike

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Serbia’s pro-European government has (more) problems because of an obstreperous junior coalition partner. However, it’s not the communists-turned-socialists-turned-nationalists-turned-something-else of the Socialist Party who are the problem, but, reports B92, their allies and sidekicks in the Party of United (or if you prefer Associated) Pensioners (PUPS). And, for once the issue, isn’t nationalism but bread and butter who-gets-what politics that anyone can understand: PUPSs is straightforwardly demanding a big and costly pension hike. Similarly hard bargains have been driven by pensioners’ parties in the newly formed quad-coalition in Slovenia and the now defunct Kadima led administration in Israel.
Update: And, just to update, Earth Times reports that a deal has been signed

“In the end, the smallest partner in the ruling alliance, the pensioners party PUPS, wrangled a concession to keep a 10-per cent increase of pensions that it promised its voters ahead of May polls.

To compensate, [Serbian PM Mirko] Cvetkovic was forced to agree to a freeze in public sector salaries starting immediately and lasting until at least October 2009 – which may lead to protests and strikes.”

A neat illusion of generational politics and the usefulness of a small kingmaker pensioners’ party? Perhaps, although Balkan Insight notes that the deal does involve then freezing pensions in 2009

In Croatia similar pressures linked to an IMF bailout reportedly threatens the Sanader government’s coalition with the (much weaker) Croatian Pensioners’ Party (HSU), although I dare say he may manage a little more easily without the HSU’s one deputy.

>CEE: Storms forecast followed by intermittent showers of clichés

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Edward Lucas offers a rather witty lexicon of Western journalistic clichés and buzzwords on Central and Eastern Europe in The Economist. They bolt together worryingly easily. My five minute effort to string them together in the shortest possible sentence(s) produces this (clichés in italic):
“Amid the dreary communist-era towerblocks and flashy new cars, anti-Western extremists seems set to replace liberal-minded reformers, whose heavy-handed attempts to stay in power and out-dated populism have lacked the steely go-ahead determination seen in the rest of the word. The result? A population whose yearning to embrace Euro-Atlantic institutions has given way to quiescent acceptance of bureaucratic cronyism and thoughts of migration”.
I couldn’t get in ‘jovial’, which apparently means drunk in quality journalese, but depressingly, this could easily be a description of Serbia you are likely to read in the next weeks – but that doesn’t seem a laughing matter. Eric Gordy’s EastEthnia blog drops its humorous edge and sets out some scenarios here and doesn’t use a single one.