Sunday, November 6, 2016

The long shadow of 1989

As I was reading a new EBRD report on the life in transition, my attention was drawn to two remarkable facts, one positive, another negative, that came out of a detailed survey-based analysis. On the negative side, the generation born around the early 1990s, which has now reached its maturity, has on average a height of about 1 cm less than the previous generation. The explanation is not only, the report argues, in suddenly plummeting incomes (Russian incomes decreased more than the US income during the Great Depression), but in additional factors, like parental stress, alcoholism and drug abuse, and all kinds of pathologies that made people unable to take care of their families.

The good news is that the happiness gap between Eastern and Western Europe has closed. East Europeans are no longer systematically unhappier (in terms of self-reported happiness) than their Western counterparts.  What greater unhappiness there exists in the East is due to the differences in income; moreover, in an ironic twist, the gap was also in part closed because of the unhappiness hysteresis in the West, where the effects of the Great Recession led the population to a lower happiness path.

Both the height loss and the happiness stories illustrate well the importance to people’s lives of traumatic events like the economic collapse during the transition or the Great Recession. Sometimes, it seems that the real trauma of such events is felt more acutely once they are past.

And in a fitting reminder of these events, I read Simon Kuper’s today’s piece in the Financial Times on the diverse fortunes of Merkel, Putin, Kaczynski and Orban who were all, in different places and positions in 1989, and whose 1989  experience very much influences their today’s beliefs and policies. Their varying personal stories are well known and need no retelling here, and whoever is interested in them, may read Kuper ’s article.  

What I found interesting in Kuper’s article are two points which were very seldom found in Western press at the time of the 1889-90 revolutions and even less frequently afterwards. The first is recognition that the 1989 revolutions were essentially nationalist revolutions, or revolutions of national self-determination. Kuper is acknowledging this in reference to Viktor Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, but the same point can be made with respect to all then activists and later post-communist leaders. Even Yeltsin’s revolution was a peculiar nationalist revolution where the core nation decided it wanted to get out of a federation. A quarter century before Brexit, Yeltsin did the same thing: he was a nationalist “Russexiter”.

For the other leaders, from the Baltics to the Balkans, nationalism as the main ideology was self-evident. In no small measure, they despised internationalism because it was part of communist ideology.  Thus, the return to nationalism in the East, which coincides with the nationalistic turn taken by Western Europe too, came very naturally to the leaders issued from the 1989 revolutions. It is also coming easily to the second-generation leaders who are indeed the products of heavily nationalist and at times clerical education in their countries.

It is useful in that context to mention that West’s (and especially American) support to anti-communists during the Cold War was primarily directed toward nationalist activists who seemed, due to the power of the siren song of nationalism, particularly able to organize an effective opposition to the communist rule. There were two groups of activists who were supported: those whose objective was national liberation from Soviet domination, and those whose objective was national emancipation that required the break-up of the countries where they lived. The second of these obviously had much more dramatic consequences because it involved wars, both in Yugoslavia and in much of the territory of the Soviet Union. A return of nationalism of the Orbans and Kaczynskis today is just another instance of a “blowback”, not dissimilar from that of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The second interesting point by Simon Kuper is the recognition, through the lives of the four politicians, of diversity of experiences triggered by the transition. This was hardly recognized as the triumphalism of the 1989-90 made it appear that it was all one great festival of freedom and good humor. But it was not—and especially it was not for multiethnic societies which were divided according to ethnic or religious principles. Sizeable minorities, who either were of mixed backgrounds or had identities associated with the country that was now divvied up, were left totally unmoored. (To complete the irony, the break-up according to nationalist principles in the East took place while the West celebrated the dawn of a new age of multiculturalism.)  

I know of many people, myself included, who for several decades had one national identity, and then within months had to start believing they had another one. Anyone who thinks it is a simple process and that people can, at the drop of a hat, start believing the opposite of what they believed for several decades is deluding himself. Anyone who believes that countries are lego-blocks that can be, with ease, put together or broken  apart, is deeply wrong. Just look at the Scottish referendum, Brexit and Catalan strive for independence.

The India-Pakistan Partition in 1947 was and remains a defining moment in the lives of many Indian and Pakistani families, regardless of the fact that it is now almost 70 years old. The break-up of countries (or unification, in the case of Germany) likewise remains a defining moments for many people who had lived through the 1990s in Eastern Europe. Despite my pro-federalist and pro-Yugoslav feelings at the time, I am glad—today—that Yugoslavia no longer exists because I became convinced that managing it would have been impossible. Of all the books on the break-up of Yugoslavia, the most influential for me, was AJP Taylor’s “The Habsburg Monarchy”. It shows the failure of all constitutional arrangements between 1809 and 1914 that tried to solve the famous “nationality problem” in the Empire. Each arrangement solved one problem at the cost of opening another one. Taylor ends the book by pointing out that success or failure of Tito’s Yugoslavia will answer that perennial question of whether it is possible to have a multiethnic federation in Eastern Europe. We know the answer today.   

But the opinion about the inevitability of the break-up that we may hold today, cannot make us forget not only how traumatic and bloody the process was, but also how many of the newly-created countries, from Ukraine to Bosnia, remain utterly fragile and, it seems, permanently suspended over the precipice of yet another war. And how the past extends its long shadow over the present.

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