This is not how it was meant to be. The night had been planned for months as something that would be remembered for the next decade: much like the celebrations across central and eastern Europe a decade-and-a-half ago, when the Iron Curtain came down, ringing in what promised to be a new era of freedom.
But on the eve of Europe’s formal embrace of the former Soviet satellite states in the Eastern bloc last weekend, missing from Prague’s Wenceslas Square were the huge crowds that celebrated their liberation from communism in 1989. At an arena not far from the historic Square, 17,000 people had squeezed in to watch the Czech team playing against Austria in the world ice hockey championships.
Attendance at the public celebrations to mark the Czech Republic’s accession to the European Union was by far fewer. It was the same story in Bratislava, capital of neighbouring Slovakia, which broke away from Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism, but now joins the Czechs in the EU.
A huge gap exists between the spin that the end of Marxist rule has opened up opportunities for the “liberated” people of eastern and central Europe to achieve the capitalist dream and the reality that in day-to-day life, they are worse off than they were 15 years ago. Why would the Czechs flock to Wenceslas Square to celebrate their country’s membership of the EU when every eleventh member of the country’s workforce is out of work' Under communism, unemployment was a mere 0.7 per cent.
In Hungary, estimates are that nearly half the adults under the age of 25 have never worked even for a single day: the capital, Budapest, and nearby pockets of affluence are exceptions.
EU membership brings little cheer to the unemployed in the former Eastern bloc. Until they joined last weekend, free movement of labour was one of EU’s cherished principles. Not any more. In most of the rich, Western EU countries, citizens from the new, former Marxist states will be prohibited from taking up employment for upto seven years. The restrictions are less stringent only in Ireland, Sweden and Britain.
Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital, gives the impression of a city with promise, clearly growing in affluence. Unemployment there is only 4 per cent. But this is explained by Bratislava’s proximity of less than an hour’s drive to Vienna, the flourishing capital of Austria.
Bratislava’s location and infrastructure, combined with Slovakia’s low wages, have helped it draw businesses and investment from the West. But drive out of the island of prosperity that is Bratislava and the devastation since the end of communism appears extensive. In many towns, more than 60 per cent of the work force have lost their jobs; in some towns, which had one giant industrial plant providing employment, there is no hope that its middle-aged or older workers will ever find work in their lifetime.
The biggest problem in the former Soviet satellites which have just got into the EU is that most of these states are still run by the very communists who were responsible for a different kind of mess which brought about the collapse of those governments 15 years ago. Not just the presidents or prime ministers, but the steel frame of the civil service. In some of these former Eastern bloc states which have now joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the situation is so critical that at Nato’s urging, serving ambassadors — who are former communist apparatchiks — are no longer authorized to access cipher telegrams arriving at the embassies they head, or read classified files.
In much of eastern and central Europe, ardent Stalinists who ran these countries quickly became free-marketeers and democrats once the tide changed. In the process of privatizing the state’s wealth, many of them became millionaires. Now these people hope that a united Europe will open up new opportunities for them to do what they have been doing for a lifetime, first under Marxism and then, for the last 15 years, under what passes for democracy.
So what will happen now that the EU’s population has shot up by 74 million, making it the world’s biggest trading bloc of 455 million consumers' The experience of Germany, which absorbed its communist east through unification in 1990, offers the best possible clue. The former Federal Republic of Germany, the affluent Western half of the country, has pumped in 50 billion euros annually into its poorer eastern landers — or states — since unification. Yet big disparities remain between the country’s eastern and western parts. Unemployment in the former German Democratic Republic is still twice as high as in the western landers. Brussels will pump in 20 billion euros each year for the next two years into the economies of EU members who joined on May 1.
The eastern states of Germany have a population of less than a quarter of the EU’s new members. If two-and-a-half times the funding for this significantly smaller population over a period of 14 years has produced less than ideal results, then it needs little more than common sense to divine what the future is likely to be for what Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defence of the United States of America, takes pride in describing as “new Europe”.
What economists in the EU probably have not taken into account in working out the bail-outs for its new members is the corruption in the former Soviet satellites: a large share of the money from Brussels will simply end up in the private accounts of the apparatchiks who still control eastern and central Europe one way or another.
In addition to corruption, the new EU members suffer from severe political instability, caused in part by their alienation from their people. On Iraq, for example, eastern and central European governments support the US; but their people are totally opposed to the war in Iraq. Such contradictions are also inheritance from the Soviet days. In Prague, Warsaw or Budapest then they simply took orders from Moscow. In changed circumstances, the rulers in these capitals believe that the right thing for them is to similarly do Washington’s bidding.
It is, therefore, perhaps in the fitness of things that within a day of joining the EU, Aleksander Kwasniewski, the president of Poland, the largest of the new EU members, chose as his new prime minister, Marek Belka, a man who is already tainted by his service as economic adviser to the occupation authority in Iraq.
India, however, is quickly reaching out to the reconstituted EU in a variety of ways. It needs to do so since Europe, as a single political entity, now has the potential of being one key pole in a world which is fast returning to multipolarity as a result of the rapid erosion of America’s diplomatic and moral power as well as Washington’s military ineffectiveness demonstrated by recent events in Iraq.
The Indian co-chairman of the EU-India Roundtable lost no time in visiting Brussels to lay out a time-table for deepening bilateral interaction, particularly in the area of business. A similar initiative to deal with bilateral political issues will follow when India’s foreign secretary visits Brussels before the end of this month.
India had very strong links during the Soviet era with most of the countries which became EU members on May 1. These ties have fallen into disrepair largely because relations between India and these countries were deprived of their substance in the post-Soviet world. India’s existing ties with the EU offer an opportunity to reinforce relations with eastern and central Europe. It is a matter of satisfaction that New Delhi is taking steps to do just that.