30 years after fall of Berlin Wall Pew poll finds progress but a values fault line lies across Europe

30 years after fall of Berlin Wall Pew poll finds progress but a values fault line lies across Europe
Life is better in CEE after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but some countries are finding the transition harder than others. / wiki
By Ben Aris in Berlin October 22, 2019

With the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall due in November, the international pollster the Pew Research Center has released a report looking at how attitudes to democracy, liberal values and market economies have developed in the last three decades. The results are depressing. While all the countries in emerging Europe have made progress there is a still a fault line that runs roughly along Ukraine’s western border and down to the Black Sea where everything to the west is much more liberal and everything to the east remains mired in traditional illiberal mores, grounded in the Orthodox church’s conservativism.

Changing people’s attitudes is a work in progress and it can take generations. While very few people in New Europe regret the end of the old totalitarianism and centrally planned economies, they are not exactly happy with the new system either. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought destitution and suffering to hundreds of millions of people that they have not forgotten and the competitive nature of the mercantile capital system has favoured the young, but failed to materially improve the lives of those who were in their 40s and above in 1991. There is still a lingering resentment amongst many, especially the older generations. And even the young, the big winners from the changes, are caught between two worlds as they embrace the challenges of the new system, but were brought up with the values of their parents.

“Thirty years ago, a wave of optimism swept across Europe as walls and regimes fell, and long-oppressed publics embraced open societies, open markets and a more united Europe. Three decades later, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that few people in the former Eastern Bloc regret the monumental changes of 1989-1991. Yet, neither are they entirely content with their current political or economic circumstances,” Pew said in its latest report entitled “European Public Opinion Three Decades After the Fall of Communism.”

One of the first results to jump out of the research is those countires in Central Europe that joined the EU in 2003 have been big winners and their populations are pretty happy with the changes since then.

Asked if they approved or disapproved of the switch to multiparty systems and the market economy, the support for both was overwhelming in countries like Poland (85% approve of multiparty politics, 8% disapprove; 85% approve of market economy, 8% disapprove), Czechia (82%, 11%; 76%, 16%) and Hungary (72%, 20%; 70%, 19%).

Meanwhile, when asked if the principles of democracy – such as fair judiciary, gender equality, opposition parties – were important, Russians consistently marked these down as the least important to them of anyone polled by Pew.

However, the populations of the countries to the east have not enjoyed the large infrastructure grants and grafting of functioning institutions that come with EU membership, and have been left mired in a bureaucratic and corrupt system. They are a lot less impressed with the changes.

In Russia the population is pretty evenly split between support for the new system with a slight bias towards “things were better before” as nostalgia for the sureties of communism linger (43%, 48%; 38%, 51%). Russian respondents hanker after the certainties of the socialist system: the quality of products and services were inferior to those in the west, but they were guaranteed. There was a social safety net that served everyone, whereas in the market economy it is possible to fall through the holes and especially in the 90s many struggled to simply keep their heads above water. Indeed, it is notable that in Russia the majority (51%) disapprove of the market economy versus 38% that approve of it.

In Ukraine, which has ousted two presidents with two popular revolutions, the support for multiparty politics is stronger with the majority (51%) supporting the plurality of their political system, against the third (35%) that oppose it, but as the poorest country in Europe, the support for the market economy is less strong (47%, 38%).

“These questions about democracy and a market economy were first asked in 1991, and then again in 2009. In a few nations – Hungary, Lithuania and Ukraine – support for both declined between 1991 and 2009 before bouncing back significantly over the past decade. Russia is the only country where support for multiparty democracy and capitalism is down significantly from 2009,” said Pew.

Support for the changes in Central Europe is easier to win as the region has been enjoying a boom over the last half decade that has lifted everyone. The noughties were also a euphoric time in Eastern European as the chaos caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union faded and incomes grew by about 10% a year, creating a middle class in the process. But since 2008 those economies have suffered several setbacks and both Russia and Ukraine in particular saw their economies hit by huge shocks – although entirely different in nature – that dramatically set back the standard of living.

“Most Poles, Czechs and Lithuanians, and more than four-in-ten Hungarians and Slovaks, believe the economic situation for most people in their country today is better than it was under communism,” says Pew. “However, in Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria, more than half currently say things are worse for most people now than during the communist era.”

And the benefits of the change have not been evenly distributed. The middle aged and pensions were big losers from the collapse of the Soviet Union, while the young have been able to take up the opportunities of the new system, but the really big winners were the elite and the insiders.

Russia has the world’s highest levels of wealth inequality, surpassing the US and China, the Credit Suisse Research Institute’s annual review reported in October. An estimated 83% of Russia’s wealth is now owned by its richest decile despite the country’s modest average wealth, the financial services company said in a report – higher than 76% for the US which is the second most unequal.

Those men (and only two women) in the right place in the 90s became overnight billionaires and today there are 110 billionaires, while the number of millionaires rose from 172,000 to 246,000 between mid-2018 and mid-2019, according to Credit Suisse.

The obvious corruption of the elites contributes to the general apathy towards democratic values in the east. However, it is not limited to New Europe as the respondents from several western countries like Greece and Spain see their elected representatives as just as corrupt, or more so, than the countries of Eastern Europe.

Sex and religion

While almost everyone in New Europe agrees that the standards of life, education, and approval of capitalism has improved in the last three decades, when it comes to the family values package the fault line between eastern and western mores is thrown into sharp relief.

The acceptance of homosexuality is the touchstone issue that illustrates the difference best. While alternative sexualities are almost universally accepted in Western Europe, they are tolerated in the EU accession countries, and more so each year, but cross the Ukrainian border and societies as a whole reject open homosexuality.

“Across Europe, attitudes on some topics reflect a sharp East-West divide. On social issues like homosexuality and the role of women in society, opinions differ sharply between West and East, with Western Europeans expressing much more progressive attitudes,” Pew said.

As bne IntelliNews wrote in an op-ed in 2014 “The 50-year fight for gay rights” it will take several generations to shrug off the deeply rooted homophobia that pervades Eastern Europe, as it took several generations for the west to comes to terms with alternative sexualities, since the civil rights movement took off in the 60s. However, progress, in Central Europe at least, is being made as bne IntelliNews reported this year on the record crop of gay pride marches held in New Europe.

EU member states are mostly united in their support for the broad European project. The EU gets largely favourable ratings, most say membership has been good for their countries, and most believe their countries have benefited economically from being a part of the EU.

And most in the region think there is more progress in store and are more optimistic about an economic improvement ahead for their children than in the west. Around six-in-ten Ukrainians, Poles and Lithuanians believe that when children in their country grow up, they will be financially better off than their parents. In contrast, roughly a quarter or fewer hold this view in Greece, Spain, Italy, the UK and France, Pew found. However, it is Ukraine and Russia that really stand out from the crowd. Despite Ukraine’s turn to the west, it still shares far more values and prejudices with Russia than it does with any EU country.

“The two former communist nations in the survey that have not joined the EU – Russia and Ukraine, both of which were part of the Soviet Union – look very different from the EU nations surveyed on a number of measures. They are less approving of the shifts to democracy and capitalism, less supportive of specific democratic principles and less satisfied with their lives,” Pew said.

When asked to reflect on their country’s EU membership, respondents mostly say it has been a good thing, especially in Germany, Poland and Spain, where at least two in three express this view. In contrast, only half or fewer believe membership has been good in Italy, the UK and the Czech Republic.

Publics are somewhat more lukewarm about the economic impact of EU membership. When asked whether the economic integration of Europe has strengthened or weakened their country’s economy, a median of 56% across the 14 member states surveyed say it has strengthened it. However, just 42% in France, 35% in Greece, 25% in Bulgaria and 22% in Italy share this opinion.