Your country also experienced a recession, says American scholar Mitchell A. Orenstein of post-communist transformation

In your book, you point to the failures of post-communist economic transitions, but wasn’t the Czech transformation a success from today’s perspective? Don’t the results count in the end?

Indeed, such an experience prevails among the inhabitants of the Visegrad countries. Concretely, the Czech Republic came out of the 1990s rather well, and if we only talk about your country or Poland, the persuasiveness of our arguments will suffer a lot. But our book is not only about the Czech Republic, it is also about Tajikistan and other post-Soviet countries.

Yes, in some countries the transition went well or relatively well, but that does not mean that elsewhere it did not end in disaster and the biggest recession that these countries have known in their modern history.

But what about the time of communist dictatorships? Can we not consider it as a long-term recession, ultimately deeper than the post-communist one?

This was indeed the case somewhere, but let’s not forget that, especially in the first phase, many communist regimes were very successful from an economic point of view. This is the case, for example, of the Soviet Union and Slovakia. The Czech Republic can be too, but not so much, because your country was successful before World War II and did not suffer so much economically during it.

But now you are only talking about the first phase of communist regimes.

Yes, and especially in the Visegrad countries, there has been a certain stagnation in living standards since the mid-1960s that lasted long enough that people wanted to get rid of communism. But what happened next? Economic growth has not materialized. In the Czech Republic it was only two or three years in that sense, and it was difficult, not devastating, it’s true, but I remember traveling to Russia at the time and seeing people on the street selling their own household equipment or their shoes so that they have food.

Kristen Ghodsee, Mitchell A. Orenstein: Shock Review. Social consequences of the 1989 revolutions

Photo: Archive of Kateřina Smejkalová

For the post-communist world as a whole, the number of people who have successfully passed is basically the same as the number of people who have experienced economic collapse. I’m not saying that the post-communist transition ended in disaster. At the same time, I don’t want to say the opposite. I do not want a debate based on Whether or. In fact, both are true.

I understand that it’s hard to compare the fact that, on the one hand, you have a lot of people who are happy and defending the huge successes of the 1990s, and on the other hand, people who experienced the greatest economic collapse of their life at the time. But that was how it was. After all, in 1999, 45% of the inhabitants of the post-communist region lived below the poverty line, which means that they had less than five and a half dollars a day.

There has long been a dispute in the Czech Republic over Václav Klaus and his so-called legacy. How do you assess Klaus’ politics in the 1990s?

I don’t think we should slap him. What was happening at the time was far beyond him, and it was happening in different countries and under different political leaders. In the book, we wanted to focus more on what happened…

… Of course, I understand and agree that it is much more important, but I would still like to ask your opinion on the story of Klaus, because in the Czech Republic, transformation is measured by who approaches his heritage .

In the Czech Republic, I think the impression prevails that things went well under Václav Klaus. However, over time, we can clearly see that incrementalism would yield better results. Rapid privatization gave way to massive corruption. It is probably not necessary to talk about all the robberies that took place in your country in the 1990s, it is enough to mention Viktor Kožený. The heroes of Czech privatization often hide abroad today.

Margaret Thatcherova and Vaclav Klaus, 1991

Photo: ČTK/AP

Naturally, this deeply marked Czech society and still affects it: many Czechs today doubt the purity of the wealth of the rich. Which is one of the sources of the rise of populism in Eastern Europe.

Aren’t the reasons deeper? The same thing is happening in Western countries: arrival of Trump in the USA, the Italian Northern League, Le Pen in France…

Here, it is important to ask to what extent post-communist transitions actually differ from the more general trends of liberalization or new liberal policies that have been implemented in the world since the 1990s. In this sense, post-communist countries -communists are only an extreme example of general development. So yes, we are witnessing a shift towards populism everywhere, because everywhere in the world we are witnessing the implementation of the same policies which lead to the aggravation of inequalities, to the least protection of employment, to the fall in public investment and, on the other hand, to the growth of private profit and soon.

Although I am not a radical critic of the new liberal policies, there is something wrong, but we must not forget that they legitimately make many people feel that they no longer belong in the economic process, that they have been forgotten.

So yes, populism is rampant everywhere, but the truth is that, and I stress that its rise is most pronounced in Eastern Europe, because that is where the new liberal policies have worked the strongest and were the most visible. This is why Hungary and Poland are today the leaders of European populism.

Speaking of not being a radical critic of new liberal politics, can I ask you what starting points you started working on in your book? You write there that one of you two co-authors initially considered the post-communist transition a success, while the other thought the opposite. Which of the two were you?

This first. The reason was that in my previous research I focused on the Visegrad countries. Therefore, I looked at the whole thing from their point of view and saw mainly successes. But my colleague Kristen Ghodsee came from elsewhere for our common project. Previously, it mainly dealt with Bulgaria, and this is a completely different case: Bulgaria lost more than twenty percent of its population after 1990.

But isn’t that normal? The Berlin Wall fell and people got better.

Yes, poor countries do indeed generally lose population to the detriment of rich countries. But in this case, the loss is extreme. In times of peace, it cannot bear comparison with any other country in the world. And it is not only about migration, but also about the breakdown of family formation, births, etc. Losing almost a quarter of the population is a terrible problem. And one of the main reasons for the population exodus is that Bulgaria – like some other post-communist countries – simply does not work economically, that the transition has not been successful. Visegrad is a bubble and you have to get out of this bubble and talk to Serbs, Bulgarians or Macedonians. You really can’t live in their country.

But how useful is it to compare countries like Russia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Czechia or Poland in one book? Aren’t these states so different that talking about them in one place means talking about quite different things – and therefore leads to misleading general answers?

But your Czech Republic has also experienced a recession. Czechia also experienced a short drop in life expectancy. Compared to other countries, it was milder, yes, but the trend was the same. Same collapse of communism, same collapse of social security, same collapse of the food system, same reorientation towards the West, same policies put in place… The Czech model of privatization did not differ from the Russian or Tajik model.

Muscovite family who lost their house during the economic and social crisis after the liberalization of the Russian market, November 1990.

Photo: Profimedia.cz

So yes, either, we can conclude that the transition models adopted were in principle adapted to Poland, Hungary, Slovakia or the Czech Republic. But were they also suitable for Russia? And what about Tajikistan? In these cases, weren’t the instructions for triggering the economic calamity six times worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s? Post-communist states returned to 1990 levels in an average of seventeen years. It’s a whole generation! And the most affected countries have not yet reached this level.

In other words, in the book, are you trying to explain how such different things could have happened in different countries at the same time?

And what is your conclusion?

That the countries are probably really different. But then why impose the same policies on such different countries and expect them to work the same way everywhere? And why weren’t they abandoned as soon as we could see them failing somewhere? It does not mean anything ! Was it necessary for the Russian people to suffer so much that they hate the West today? Should the Balkans be decimated by their population?

In our book, we also compare the post-communist transition with developments in China and Vietnam. Even these countries have more or less got rid of the communist type of economy. But a massive recession did not occur in them. Why? What can we learn from this? Are Chinese and Vietnamese economists better? Hard to say. But we should abandon the idea that communism cannot be transformed in a gradual, gradual way. It turned out that it was better to keep the public sector than to privatize everything immediately.

Progressive states avoided recession and grew much faster. Shouldn’t we think about the transition one more time?

You describe the situation quite grimly, but who is responsible? Western elites? International Monetary Fund? The World Bank?

More important than finding the culprits, in my opinion, is that even after three decades there is no consensus on what really happened in the 1990s. he era was not as simple as it is often presented and as I initially thought. This image is simply different from what a large part of the Poles or the Czechs think. In fact, it was an economic disaster for a large number of people. The current debate must therefore be modified to make the transition more realistic. Much more realistic.

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