At first, the people in these emerging democracies felt great excitement and hope. By the mid-1990s, however, things began to go wrong. One of the first shocks was widespread unemployment.
In the old socialist command economy, most people worked for government-owned farms, factories, and other businesses. Although wages were low and working conditions often poor, workers usually had a job and a paycheck. But after 1989, as more government businesses changed over to privately owned enterprises, unneeded workers lost their jobs.
Under socialism, the government set the prices of goods and services. This kept prices low, but also resulted in shortages of many consumer items. In a free market economy, however, the law of supply and demand determines prices. The supply of consumer goods in the emerging democracies remained in short supply, so price inflation occurred. Unemployment and runaway inflation combined to depress the standard of living of many people in the emerging democracies.
Corruption and bribery were common in all the former communist regimes in Eastern Europe and Russia. After the collapse of communism, these practices continued in many countries. Government bureaucrats accepted bribes from businesses seeking special favors. The rebirth of free enterprise also produced its own corrupt practices. An early example was an explosion of phony "get rich quick" investment schemes that often robbed people of their life savings. Deceptive and outright false advertising further eroded faith in moving toward a capitalist economic system.
In several countries with depressed economies, dissatisfied voters elected former communist politicians back into power. In some cases, the communists slowed down the transition to a free-market economy.
Today, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are the leaders in the transition to democracy, human rights, and a market economy. In 1999, all three of these emerging democracies also joined NATO, the Western defense alliance led by the United States.
Russia and most other emerging democracies are still struggling against the legacy of communist-party rule and a government-run economic system. Belarus, Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), and the Muslim countries formed out of the old Soviet Union in Central Asia are lagging far behind in implementing democratic and free-market reforms.
Here are some examples of how three emerging democracies are doing on economic, democratic, and human-rights reforms.
A Polish shipyard strike in 1980 started a strong movement against communism. Led by an electrician, Lech Walesa, strikers formed Solidarity, an independent union that soon developed into a political movement for national freedom.
Solidarity eventually forced the communists to hold free elections in 1989. In September of that year, Solidarity formed the first non-communist government of Poland in 40 years. A year later, Polish voters elected Lech Walesa president.
The Solidarity government adopted a "shock" approach to move Poland quickly to a free-market economy. The government ended price controls, eliminated subsidies for state-owned industries, and cut the national budget. The resulting double-digit unemployment rate and hyperinflation caused economic pain among the Polish people. But Poland became the first of the emerging democracies to rebound from depression to economic growth in the late 1990s.
Today, private enterprise accounts for two-thirds of Poland's economic production. Inflation is under control, and foreign investment is creating more jobs. Poland is also on track to join the European Union, a common market of trading countries.
Compared to most other Eastern European countries today, Poland has a fairly corruption-free reputation. Businesses sometimes bribe government officials to get around economic regulations or to secure favorable rulings in lawsuits, but such cases are not widespread.
On the negative side, unemployment remains stubbornly high (17 percent in 2001). Also, over 20 percent of the labor force works on small family farms that contribute little to commercial production and depend on government subsidies to stay in business.
Polish voters barely approved a new democratic constitution in 1997 after a bitter debate over limiting the powers of the president. The constitution brought about a vigorous and highly competitive political party system along with free and fair elections.
In 1993, as free-market reforms were causing hardship in the country, former communists and their allies defeated Solidarity and won a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament. Two years later, a former communist, Alexander Kwasniewski, defeated Walesa in the presidential election. Kwasniewski was re-elected in 2000. He is, however, a strong supporter of free-market and democratic reforms as well as of Poland's membership in NATO.
Today, the Polish government generally respects freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion. In a hangover from communist rule, however, the government may criminally prosecute people for slandering public officials.
The government treats racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups equally under the law. Workers have the right to join independent unions, and most have the legal right to strike. Women, however, experience serious job discrimination.
While the right to a fair trial exists, the court system is slow, inefficient, and lacks public confidence. Poland has abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
The shock of change has perhaps affected Russia the most. It has gone from a superpower, the leader of the communist world, to a nation struggling to make the transition to democracy and capitalism. In 1991, Boris Yeltsin, a former communist-party official, became Russia's first freely elected leader. When economic conditions worsened as he implemented free-market reforms, communist politicians made strong showings in parliamentary elections. This enabled them to block economic reforms. Legislators even led an armed revolt in 1993, which the army had to put down.
In 1992, Russia began its transition from a socialist economy controlled by government planning to a free market. Government subsidies for most consumer goods and services stopped, and thousands of state-owned businesses converted to private enterprises. Many workers lost their jobs, prices rose, and many people lost their savings in fraudulent "get rich" schemes.
By 1998, the Russian economy faced an economic depression. The government defaulted on payments for foreign loans used to pay for huge national budget deficits. Under heavy criticism, President Yeltsin resigned in December 1999. He appointed Vladimir Putin, a former Soviet espionage official, as acting president.
Since 1998, the economy has improved. It has benefited from the higher world prices for oil, which is a major Russian natural resource and export. Economic growth and wages are rising. Unemployment, however, is still above 10 percent.
Russia is still struggling to separate business and government, which were fused together during the communist era. In the 1990s, government bureaucrats often took bribes from large new capitalist enterprises to permit their plundering of the nation's natural resources. Surveys of small-business owners consistently put bribery and corruption of government officials as the greatest barrier to a truly competitive free-enterprise system.
Reformers say that Russia must modernize old and inefficient industries, make it easier to buy and sell farmland, improve tax collection, and rein in the cost of government social benefits. Commercial law codes are inadequate, making enforcing business contracts sometimes difficult.
Many people oppose the economic reforms. They want an improved social safety net. They are pushing for better protections for retirement, health, and employment.
Decades of environmental neglect have resulted in much air and water pollution. Pollution causes up to 40 percent of all illnesses in industrialized areas.
The United States recently designated Russia as a "market economy." This should help the country's international trade and ease its eventual admission into the European Union.
In 1993, Russian voters approved a new constitution drafted by President Yeltsin. The constitution grants strong powers to the president, including the power to issue decrees that have the force of law. By contrast, the Russian parliament is relatively weak. In the area of national defense, Russia opposes NATO's expansion into Eastern Europe, but has a cooperative arrangement with the alliance.
Russian political parties are competitive, but are significant only in parliamentary elections. Elections have been generally free and fair with up to 70 percent voter participation. The Russian Communist Party won 25 percent of the popular vote in the 1997 parliamentary election. Acting President Putin won a full term in March 2000. Putin is continuing the economic and democratic reforms. But he struggles against opposition from communists and nationalists who yearn for the days of the Soviet superpower and the protections workers used to enjoy.
International observers have alleged major human-rights violations in Russia's continuing war against Chechnya. This is a Russian territory whose people are mostly Muslim and want to form an independent country. Russian troops invaded Chechnya in 1994 and again in 1999 to put down armed revolts. The Russian military used indiscriminate force, causing many civilian casualties. There also have been many reports of atrocities by Russian soldiers against the civilian population. The Russian government views Chechnya as a home to terrorists and sees its actions in line with the recent U.N. Security Council resolution against terrorism.
Freedom of speech, assembly, and religion now exist in Russia, but freedom of the press is limited. The government has censored news stories and prosecuted journalists for insulting public officials.
The government has often been slow to prosecute "skinheads" and "hooligans" who attack people belonging to religious and other minority groups. Workers have the right to join unions and to strike. But the law bars unions from representing members in non-payment of wages cases, a major grievance among Russian workers.
Police beatings and torture are still widespread. Extreme overcrowding and other harsh prison conditions cause 10,000 inmate deaths a year. Russia retains the death penalty, but does not use it in practice.
Forcibly added to the Soviet Union after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Belarus became an independent country when the USSR disbanded in 1991. Belarus held its first presidential election in 1994. International monitors judged that it was free and fair.
The winner of the presidential election, Alexander Lukashenko, was relatively unknown. He was a communist member of parliament who had a reputation for fighting corruption. He ran on a platform of keeping government subsidies for industries and agriculture, maintaining government price controls, and unifying Belarus with Russia.
As in most other emerging democracies, free-market reforms in Belarus at first caused rising unemployment and a depressed economy. Once elected president, Alexander Lukashenko drastically slowed the transition to a free-market economy.
Today, 80 percent of the industry in Belarus remains government-owned, inefficient, and unproductive. The hostile climate for private enterprise has kept away most foreign investment. A long decline in economic output has lowered the standard of living for many people.
The country depends heavily on trade with Russia and imports Russian oil and gas at discounted prices. Belarus also sells weapons to dangerous nations. (It used to sell to Iraq.)
The country faces a severe crisis in agricultural production. In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant melted down in the neighboring country of Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union). About 70 percent of the radioactive fallout dropped on Belarus, contaminating a quarter of the country's territory, mostly farmland.
In 1996, President Lukashenko pushed for a referendum that illegally amended the 1994 Belarus constitution. The amended constitution strengthened Lukashenko's presidential powers, extended his term of office, and allowed him to replace members of parliament.
There are over a dozen political parties in Belarus. But human-rights observers declared that neither the 2000 parliamentary election nor the re-election of Lukashenko in 2001 were free or fair. There was much evidence of vote-counting fraud in both elections.
Belarus is one of the few emerging democracies not to actively seek admission into NATO and the European Union.
Police beatings, "death squads," and kidnappings of political figures clearly reveal the lack of human rights in Belarus today. Public insults against the president are punishable by up to four years in prison.
The government subjects the independent print, radio, and television press to censorship and libel prosecutions.
Police tightly regulate peaceful protests and often beat up demonstrators. Even so, youthful protest groups regularly put on street skits criticizing the government. In 2001, protesters dressed in white doctors' smocks and handed out a mock psychiatrist report on Lukashenko, claiming that he was mentally unfit to govern.
"Non-traditional" churches, mainly Protestant, find it difficult to rent meeting places and spread their faith. The government harasses independent unions and makes the right to strike difficult because of the regime's restrictions on public demonstrations. The government sometimes forces workers and students to "volunteer" to harvest crops.
Police may arrest and interrogate people without a lawyer being present. There is no right to bail. Trial judges decide most cases, although local officials sometimes dictate verdicts. Defendants may ask for a jury trial only in death-penalty cases. In criminal cases, the defendant is presumed guilty. Prisons in Belarus are overcrowded; disease is widespread; and torture is common.
President Lukashenko entered politics in the early 1990s and campaigned against corruption in government. While some have accused him of misusing government funds since he became president, these charges are insignificant compared to the corruption of government institutions he has fostered. Fraudulent elections, politically motivated police arrests, and judges deciding cases the way the government wants all make a mockery of Belarus as an emerging democracy.
For Discussion and Writing
- Why do you think did Poland, Russia, and Belarus all experience high unemployment when they started to change over to a free-market economy?
- Compare the political leadership of Poland, Russia, and Belarus since the collapse of communism.
- What do you think is the most important step Poland, Russia, and Belarus should each take to improve their record on human rights? Why?
For Further Information
Eastern Central Europe: The Multicultural Arena Links to information about many countries.
Human Rights Organizations
Politics in Eastern Europe by George S. Schopflin.
A C T I V I T Y
Characteristics of a Democracy: What's Most Important?
Below is a list of some characteristics of a democracy. Form small groups to discuss and rank the characteristics from most (#1) to least (#10) important. Each group should then report its ranking, and give reasons for its number one and number 10 choices.
_____ freedom of speech
_____ freedom of the press
_____ freedom of assembly
_____ freedom of religion
_____ right to privacy
_____ right to a fair trial
_____ equal protection of the law
_____ right to own property and a business
_____ right to join a labor union and strike
_____ free and fair elections
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