Analysis: Legacy of bad old days resurfaces in the east

Times are tough for “new Europe”. The energy and optimism that the post-communist states once brought to lethargic western Europe has pretty much evaporated, as economies struggle and governments totter.

Rather than dynamic and sparkling new, they now appear to be spluttering along on the kind of two-stroke-engine that once powered so many cars in the region.

This week the Romanian prime minister and his cabinet quit in the wake of public discontent and protests over austerity measures introduced to comply with the conditions of multi-billion-pound loans from the EU and IMF. The economy, although predicted to grow this year by about 1.1 per cent, has about 16 per cent of its banking sector in Greek hands. Austrian banks, another big shareholder in Romania, are under pressure to rein in spending, raising the prospect that the country will be starved of cash and investment.

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The state of the chronically underfunded health service – a bone of contention for millions of Romanians – has deteriorated, while people have to deal with 24 per cent VAT and stagnant wages – or, if you’re a public sector employee, a 25 per cent pay cut.

Neighbour Hungary is also in the wars. An economy that once prided itself as the pace-setter for the former communist bloc has ground to a halt, and austerity budgets are eating away at both people’s incomes and their patience.

Similar problems have raised their heads in other countries of “new Europe”, and, indeed, of old Europe. But adding to the mix in central European states is their past. Although the revolutions that swept away the communist regimes occurred over 22 years ago, there is still a sense of unfinished business; a feeling that a class of politicians and bureaucrats who once suckered on the corruption that bedevilled the communist states simply changed their spots and became “democrats” in order to exploit new opportunities to line their pockets. For many people there was never a successful purge of the systems. Even when the communist generation shuffled on, they simply bequeathed to a younger generation a corrupt environment where criminal gain was accepted as a part of the culture.

Czechs mourned the passing of Vaclav Havel in December not only because they regarded him as the founder of their modern state, but also because he was an incorruptible man of principle. Ask Czechs what they think of Havel’s successors, and profanities generally outweigh compliments.

Occasionally, people have been called to task. Last month, Adrian Nastase, a former prime minister of Romania, got a two-year jail sentence for corruption, and in doing so became the biggest name by far in the country to be found guilty of graft. But he was prime minister in 2004, and the Romanians who took to the streets earlier this year feel that corruption now is as prevalent as it was in Nastase’s day.

The culture of corruption has been a source of festering resentment for central Europeans, but when times were good and the one-time economic basket cases flourished as western firms and institutions poured in money, people could set it aside.

However, with the good times over and economies in crisis this resentment has come to the surface, and rightly so. Corruption has dogged many, but not all, of the states in the region since 1989, holding them back, tarnishing the memory of the revolutions and damaging the credentials of the democratic systems.

Without firm and decisive action to root it out, public resentment will just get stronger.

Matthew Day writes for The Scotsman on eastern European affairs.

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