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

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 long-term 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.

 Indexing catch-up

The latest annual version of the European Catch-Up Index, produced by  Open Society Institute – Sofia and its research arm the European Policies Initiative, tackles these issues head-on, measuring the measures the performance of 35 EU member states, candidate and potential candidate countries across four categories – economy, quality of life, democracy and governance using typical and top West European levels of development as benchmarks. Each of the four is based on basket of weighted indicators and sub-indicators, which can be varied and reframed according to taste. As James Dawson’s excellent book on Bulgaria and Serbia (reviewed in a previous post) makes clear, comparative indices based on experts box-ticking and economistic measures are not without their problems. And a composite index of indices is on even shakier ground. But the 2014 Catch-Up Index, which can be reframed and reweighed by users using a dedicated web tool, seems more food for the thought rather than infallible measurement.

 The Report in many ways offers good news, presenting a relatively upbeat set of conclusions about CEE and process of catch-up, although in some areas (Quality of life and – as panelists at the Brussels launch event noticed – incomes) there are still sizeable East-West gaps. A splash of optimism is certainly   as a healthy corrective to media depiction of Central and Eastern Europe as a crisis zone and wracked by instability, rampant nationalism and imminent prospect of authoritarian return.

  In others ways, however, the report’s findings offer grounds for cautious and thoughtful pessimism.  Its key implication is only that while some CEE states will catch up in the longer term, new patterns – and perhaps entrenched – divisions are opening up a new north-south divide, both in the East between successful, rapidly reforming post-communist states (the report highlights Poland and the Baltic states) and states like Bulgaria, Romania possibly Croatia seemingly locked into a cycle of weak performance across all areas;  and in the old EU, between core  West and North European states and the troubled Southern periphery. The performances of Greece and Italy compared to other EU15 + 2 states are strikingly poor in almost all areas except quality of  life.

 But the Report’s  most interesting message is a different and more complex one: that the concept of catching up,  traditionally presented as an East-West division with ‘leaders’ and ‘laggards’ strung out like runners in race is perhaps a misnomer: Europe has diversified into clusters with some old divisions closing and new divisions emerging. In general all good (and bad) things seem to go together with high (and low) levels of democracy, governance, economic and social development running together.  Intriguingly, the newer divisions are often North-South, crosscut both the old West and old East (although the Cold War divide are sharply visible in areas such as Quality of Life).


The new ‘Central Europe

At one level, the patterns revealed can be read as old pre-communist divides reasserting themselves. The idea, in the long term, communism didn’t really matter – that one party totalitarian regimes made big impacts, but ultimately transient legacies or were, all along, just well disguised conduits for the continuity of older traditions. This a view gaining ground in academic research on the region. And, it also emerges, in the patterns thrown up Catch-Up Index’s less academic take.  The clusters picked out feature highly a distinct Balkan or South East European (sub-) region of poorly performing states now including not only Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia, but also Greece,

  But for me the most striking phenomenon was not this, but the appearance of what we might term, a ‘new Central Europe’. This new Central Europe is not about the legacy of the Habsburg Empire, Catholic Mitteleuropa or even the band of little states that Czechoslovakia’s founding president Thomas G Masaryk wrote of exactly a century ago – or a particular pattern of successful post-communist reform, but broad middle group of countries running diagonally from Estonia in the North-East to Spain in the South-West – including most new CEE member states as well as many Southern European states –  which are neither very good nor very bad. These states – although for a variety of reasons – somewhat flawed market economies, societies and democracies but making progress and functional.

 The emergence of this band of not-so-good, but not-so-bad EU democracies and economies seems driven by twin processes: the social consequences of fiscal and economic crisis and (as the Report implies) the failure of elites to manage that crisis (Slovenia, Hungary, Italy, Greece, Spain) and states with relatively successful post-communist reform (Poland, Estonia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, but all the attendant flaws. In Czech Republic and Slovenia, the emphasis should, however, be on the word ‘relatively’: patchy levels of catch-up suggests that these states, while high-performing, may have under-achieved.

 This ‘New Central Europe’ may, of course, be a transitional phenomenon bunching together countries, which have similar profiles, but are heading in different directions.  It may, in time,  give way to a starker division, crosscutting the old East-West divide, between a ‘Europe A’ of prosperity, high human welfare, good governance and high democratic standards and a ‘Europe B’ of poorer, more poorly governed, more troubled democracies with more intractable social problems and inequalities.  On the other hand, it is difficult not to notice that both Southern and central Eastern Europe – despite the many historic and social differences –  are historically semi-peripheral regions of Europe, which as historians know have been playing catch-up for centuries. Both groups also democracies that emerged ‘only’ in the last 25 to 40 years after long periods of authoritarianism, whose apparent consolidation may special kinds of underlying weaknesses.


Beyond catch-up?

 The composition of Catch-Up Index’s categories is, perhaps less compelling, than the big politically charged issues of Catch-Up it asks.  And, looking forward, there are questions about how to finesse measures and tie them to the most pressing current concerns.  Despite a nod to the Copenhagen Criteria, it is not always understand concepts such as democracy and good governance – and different elements are weighed as they are. From a Central and East European perspective, for example, makes excellent sense to stress central importance of pluralism in media for the future of democracy. As developments in Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic have underlined, politicians and businessmen – who are often one in the same people – move quickly to capture and stifle critical media voices when they want to make a power grab.

 But how are we measuring democracy and what threats do we fear? Are we concerned with the consolidation of democracy as a regime and our fears that democracies which are weakly rooted could morph into new forms of authoritarianism? If the fashionable label of ‘Putinisation’ means anything it should mean something like this. Or we concerned more with the quality of democracy, the extent of citizen participation and engagement? Or are bothered more with the accountability of political elites and the ability of citizens to check up on and ‘kick out the rascals’?

 As several participants in the report’s Brussels launch discussion noted, the measures sometime bore the hallmarks of technocratic agenda – characteristic of both Brussels elites and local reformers – crudely centring on economic growth with little to say about sustainability.  A Central and Eastern Europe of healthy GDP growth, sound public finances but stubbornly low incomes catching up with a Western Europe of motorways, consumer consumption and nuclear power might not be an attractive vision for Europe.  The concept of relative catch-up, whether East-West or North-South, inevitably leaves the question of where Europe as a whole is going hanging tantalizingly in the air.

 This post is based on remarks made at the launch event of the 2014 European Catch-Up Index hosted by the OSI-Sofia and the European Citizen Action Service in Brussels on 4 December 2014.

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