Eastern Europe Protests, but Not Against the Bankers Newsweek - 2009/2/7
Will the financial crisis challenge public faith in democracy and the free market? For the shaky governments of Eastern Europe, it's a pressing question. Some of the angriest of Europe's street protests over the past month have erupted in the region's capitals, as the recession undermines fragile national economies. As yet, the protests have failed to topple a government, but the demonstrations are the worst to be seen since the collapse of communism 20 years ago.
Local politicians can take little comfort from the spate of protests elsewhere. Sure, the downturn has also prompted mass demonstrations in France and Greece—but unlike the established democracies of Western Europe, countries such as Latvia or Bulgaria have little or no tradition of public protest. And for a generation that grew up with the promise of a better future, any sense of grievance is enhanced by frustrated expectations.
The discontent is not hard to understand. The recent affluence of the region's best performers has vanished, crushing assumptions of rising prosperity. Analysts say the Latvian economy, after two years of double-digit growth and a credit-fueled spending boom, could see a 10 percent contraction this year—the worst figure in Europe. Romania's growth rate, which reached 8 percent in 2008, is forecasted to halve. The slump is also bringing on deep budget cuts. Among the worst hit could be Hungary and Latvia, the two EU states that have been forced to seek help from the International Monetary Fund. To meet stringent conditions on their loans, Latvia is shedding 10 percent of all government staff, while Hungary has frozen public-sector pay across the board.
Despite this rude introduction to the free market's yo-yo turns, there's little sign that protesters yearn for a return to the certainties of communist rule. "What you don't see are people with placards saying DOWN WITH CAPITALISM OR BACK TO COMMUNISM," says Zilvinas Silenas of the Lithuanian Free Market Institute. 'They're more likely to be calling for changes to the tax bands."
What has angered the protesters is political incompetence as much as economic hardship. In Latvia, where 14 governments have ruled in the 20 years since independence, the center-right coalition is taking a hit for failing to check the runaway market, not for its faith in the free market. "Here, it is about a disappointment with the way that politics has turned out: with the graft, corruption, nepotism and conflict of interest," says Boyko Todorov of the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, Bulgaria, the scene of violent street protests last month. Prosperity alone is not the issue. What is wanted may be better democracy, not less.
Author: William Underhill