Rüdiger Rossig | Journalist | Novinar

Failed transition

In southeastern Europe, tiny political and business elites thrive while the general population remains poor | By Rüdiger Rossig

The shots rang out suddenly on the morning of May 9. The majority- Albanian inhabitants of the neighborhood in the Macedonian town of Kumanovo fled to their basements in panic. Hundreds of men, women and children spent the next 13 hours there while outside, special police units battled with heavily armed individuals not known by local residents. The death toll: 18.

In Macedonia, just as in large parts of ex-Yugoslavia and the ex- Soviet Union, social conditions are bad. The transition from a communist command economy to the global free flow of market forces has led to deindustrialization on a massive scale, and mass unemployment has led to mass poverty.

The transition has brought a degree of general prosperity to the Balkan republics, Slovenia, Poland and parts of the former Czechoslovakia. But in the other post-Communist nations, most people are struggling to survive economically. Middle classes are barely existent, and nations are ruled by a small elite group of super rich and powerful people

The networks that govern the successor nations of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia are recruited from pools of politicians who were formerly functionaries of the ruling parties, directors of large state-owned companies, employees of the old security apparatuses, ex-dissidents whose authoritarian world views are similar to those of their former opponents, and criminals who have come to great wealth by dubious means in the chaos of the 1990s.

The post-Communist elites are small: In Ukraine, for example, 50 people control 47 percent of the country’s wealth. This has its uses: everyone knows everyone else. Since they are all in cahoots with each other, the cake can be shared between individuals in the group without any bothersome competition. The worst example is Montenegro, formerly part of Yugoslavia, where the same people have been in power since the early 1990s.

The economic goal of powerful elites in eastern and southeastern Europe is to acquire wealth, their political goal is power and the preservation of the status quo. All means are allowable in pursuit of these goals: on the economic side corruption, on the political disinformation, electoral fraud and even the stirring up of violence, in order to provide the authorities with an excuse to suspend political freedoms. The dissolution of Yugoslavia and the annexation of Crimea also prove that when things get hairy for the elites, they are not afraid of playing the war card.

In the case of Macedonia too, the Kumanovo unrest could be the overture to a civil war. The government of this destitute nation is under pressure. Instead of raising social standards, it has frittered away billions on monumental buildings intended to help promote the development of the small southern Balkan state by reclaiming its direct historical links with the ancient empire of Alexander the Great.

The Macedonian government is accused of not only eavesdropping on opposition parties’ telephone calls, but also on those of up to 20,000 people within this nation of 2.1 million. Critical journalists are being threatened and prevented from carrying out their work. Ten years ago, Macedonia was ranked 43rd on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index; now it is in 117th place, just behind Tajikistan.

Independent journalists across eastern and southeastern Europe live dangerously because they shake one of their rulers’ key ideological pillars: problems are always someone else’s fault. In Macedonia, they are the fault of “Albanian terrorists”, elsewhere Russian or Ukrainian guerillas. Even unquestionably local political thugs like the Ukrainian “Right Sector” are portrayed as a foreign product by casting them as the reincarnation of World War II Nazi collaborators.

In the eyes of the post-Communist rulers, evil always comes from outside. “The enemy from without that never sleeps” is how intelligence service jargon used to describe it. Today, the former KGB man Vladimir Putin’s main propaganda vehicle Russia Today believes the US and the EU are intervening in Macedonia by trying to prevent the construction of the South Stream pipeline though the small Balkan nation, so that Moscow’s gas doesn’t reach the Balkans.

In the same vein, the “color revolutions” such as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine are presented as the work of foreign forces. The people themselves are evidently not thought to be capable of rebellion – although they are the ones suffering from poverty, corruption and the erosion of democratic rights.

What is the West doing? If the situation does not escalate into fullscale war such as in the Balkan conflicts of 1991-1999 or the current fighting in Ukraine, then places such as Kiev and Kumanovo are for most people as far off the radar as for the decision makers themselves. But it is only 2,000 kilometers from Berlin to the disputed Donetsk, and just 1,600 kilometers separate the German capital and Kumanovo. At the latest when the fighting in Ukraine flares up again and the first refugees start arriving, Europe will understand that developments in ex-Communist dictatorships close to our borders will impact upon us.

With the 1989/90 triumph of capitalism, two prospects united the people of eastern and southeastern Europe: that of political freedom and that of economic prosperity. Instead, their markets were deluged with Western goods muscling out domestic industry. Many factories were shut down, and where companies were taken over by Western businesses, only a fraction of the workforce remains.

None of this was meant to cause any harm, in fact from an economic point of view, it often made sense. But to the people living in these countries, images showing Western politicians and managers with the rulers of eastern and southeastern Europe look rather too chummy. Any hope that Western elites might be quite different to those of the east is gradually fading. In its place, the assumption that “those up there” are all the same.

This sentiment is also being fueled by the ruthless conduct of Western companies and concerns in the privatization and liquidation of industries in ex-Communist nations. This is also understandable from a business point of view – but for the economy as a whole, it is a catastrophe for all those involved, after all there can be no prosperity – let alone any mass purchasing power – in a place where no quality products are being manufactured for sale.

In all of this, it is not only the people of eastern and southeastern Europe who need to be able to believe that their lives, or at least that of their children, will improve one day. Polish society only survived the drastic economic and social upheaval of the 1990s because a light was visible at the end of the tunnel. In ex-Yugoslavia and the ex-Soviet Union it is pitch black.

Eastern and southeastern Europe need outside help. Specifically, a genuine effort by the rich neighbors in the north and west aimed at massively improving living conditions there. Germany of all places is well aware that this comes at a cost. The rejuvenation of the former East Germany was expensive, to put it mildly. But: How would things be there now if the West had pinched the pennies? And who would be in power there?

The major dilemma facing this urgently needed development plan is that its success will likely be hampered by the ruling elites. But in eastern and southeastern Europe, there are hundreds of thousands of people with whom cooperation is worthwhile. Anyone wanting to bring lasting prosperity, and therefore peace to Europe’s periphery must stick by these people – not the people in power.