Tag Archives: Eastern

Impressions of Central/Eastern Europe’s Former Communist Countries

I’ve now traveled through 8 of the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe – Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria.  Although I’ve written about most of them individually, I’ve recognized some things they share that I think are interesting:

  • Capitalism has been enthusiastically adopted in these countries.  Foreign companies are welcome.  There is advertising everywhere.  There are lots of small entrepreneurs working hard.
  • There is a lost generation of older people who grew up during the 45 years of communism.  Many have had a very hard time adapting to capitalism.  They lack the necessary skills or work ethic, and as a result, are a drag on the economy.  This has results in a huge generation gap, as younger people are driving the economy that supports the older ones.
  • Some people still look fondly to the Communist days.  They liked that everyone was provided with free, though basic, social services such as health care, welfare, pensions, etc. Now the people have to pay for these services.  They also didn’t have to work as hard or be responsible for themselves to the same degree that they do now.
  • Under communism, there was no personal property.  People were assigned housing by the government, with Communist party members normally receiving the better accommodations.  After the fall of communism, people had to apply to gain ownership of their existing homes.  They did not have to pay for them.  Communist party members generally retained their superior housing.  Citizens also had the opportunity to buy other state-owned assets like land and businesses, but most didn’t have the money, so many of these became the property of former communist leaders, who had amassed wealth under communism or who pilfered state funds, or of thugs (mafia, gangs, etc.)
  • There is still a problem with corruption in some of these countries at many levels.  The EU continues to reprimand those members with corruption problems.  A campground owner that I spoke with in Bulgaria told me of his ongoing challenges with local authorities seeking bribes for things like building permits, erecting street signs, etc.
  • Almost all of these countries are now members of the European Union, although some don’t use the Euro yet.  With the recent Euro problems, it might seem like they wouldn’t be anxious to switch.  In reality, some of their governments continue to spend wildly, and therefore don’t meet the fiscal criteria to switch to the Euro (criteria that are only likely to be tightened given the recent problems in Greece, Ireland, etc.).
  • As poorer members, countries like Romania and Bulgaria are recipients of considerable funding from the EU.  It is used to migrate to EU standards in many areas of government, business, and society (e.g. health care, military, signage, etc.) and to upgrade infrastructure.
  • With the fall of communism, many people’s communist era pensions lost value, so many seniors now exist on a small amount of income.  As prices rise towards the levels of Western Europe, inflation is making it very difficult for those who live on fixed incomes.
  • With inflation, those who own property are seeing significant increases in its value.  Those who don’t are becoming locked out of the real estate market due to the high prices (kind of like Vancouver).
  • Throughout these countries we’ve noticed a lot of abandoned buildings.  Many are government facilities no longer required (e.g. border crossings between Schengen countries that now share a common customs and immigration boundary), businesses found to be unsustainable in a free market economy, or homes abandoned as people moved to take advantage of new opportunities).
  • Despite the daily rain showers which remind us of Vancouver, we enjoyed our travels through the formerly communist countries of Central/Eastern Europe.  In most places (except for a few popular cities like Prague and Budapest) the prices are lower and there are fewer tourists.  The roads, facilities, and services are more variable, but definitely adequate, and these countries all have rich and interesting histories that most Westerners know little about.

Observations about East and Southern Africa

  • People have a vague understanding of Canada, and a generally positive impression. Some think it is part of the US. Many know that it is cold there, and can quote the city names of ‘Toronto’ and ‘Vancouver’, even though they have no idea where these are.
  • The majority of the people are Christians, the result of a century of successful missionary activity that continues to this day.
  • Many of the businesses are controlled by South Asians, primary East Indians. They drive much of the economic activity, including import/export and retail. They often employ African people, and there appears to be a love-hate relationship between the two groups.
  • Women are generally not empowered. They do the majority of household and farming work, all while carrying a child on their back and with toddlers scrambling around their feet.
  • Education is highly prized. In most countries, elementary school education is free, but you usually must be able to afford the uniforms and school supplies, so many children do not attend.
  • HIV/AIDS is widespread. Funerals are common, and many children are raising their siblings.
  • Life expectancy is generally low. The combination of high infant mortality rates, HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, unclean water, and malaria mean that the average life expectancy in these countries is between 38 and 48 years.
  • African politics generally follows the approach of the British parliamentary system. However, in most countries corruption , partisanship, and patronage are widespread. The newspapers constantly report it, but there is rarely any information about perpetrators being punished. Governments and politicians will often go to extreme lengths to remain in office (e.g. by removing or extending term limits, or rigging elections). By the time an individual or party loses an election, or is otherwise thrown out or overthrown, they need to have feathered their nests enough that they don’t need to work again, and can leave the country if necessary, because the new government will likely not be fair to them.
  • The quest for money seems to dominate the lives of most African people. This is really no different than in Canada, but because the amounts of money are relatively much smaller, it is often surprising the extent to which they go to earn just a little bit of money. e.g. a woman with a small child will sit out in the hot sun all day selling peanuts, to earn a total of a dollar (or less). Sellers will wander around a bus depot all day trying to sell a single item like a pair of shoes or a flashlight (not one type of product, but one specific item).
  • Lack of capital is an issue. Many people have the work ethic and ingenuity, but lack the money to initiate an activity that would allow them to support themselves (e.g. buying hand tools or a pump to farm, a bicycle/motorcycle/car to operate as a taxi, or chickens to sell eggs). A variety of groups are working to filling this void by offering micro-financing.
  • Almost all the men love soccer, which they call ‘football’. Most boys and young men play football. In addition to their national team, they follow the English Premiership very closely. Many men wear the jersey of their favourite team and decorate their vehicle with stickers, etc. Most buses and mini-buses display the name or logo of a Premiership team. Manchester United and Arsenal are the most popular teams, and Patrick is often asked which team he supports.
  • The people of East and Southern Africa are generally friendly and pleasant. They appear to like foreigners and are usually willing to help out in any way they can. Sometimes they want so badly to be helpful and to not be rude, that they’ll give you information about things they’re not sure about.