Whence the Future of the Not-So Grand Soviet Social Experiment?

The end of Soviet communism created the equivalent of a massive geopolitical experiment.  How could people move from totalitarian communism to democratic capitalism?  It hasn’t been easy.

The European Science Foundation has produced a new study, “Central and Eastern Europe Beyond Transition:  Convergence and Divergence in Europe.”  The report focuses on research about the former Soviet empire.  Observed ESF:  “The last 25 years have witnessed some of the most profound political, social and economic changes in Europe’s history.  The fall of communism at the end of the 1980s not only reshaped relationships within the continent against a background of rapidly increasing globalization, but also provided fascinating insights into the potential for, and limitations of, the large-scale reshaping of society.”

The travails suffered throughout the region have been many, but some nations, such as the Baltic States, appear to have surmounted both economic and political challenges.   Their success offers a model for lagging governments:  democratic participation combined with fiscal rectitude.  That process would best be aided by European Union engagement rather than management.  The more the EU attempts to assert control, the less likely its efforts will aid economic or political development.

ESF offers an interesting set of scenarios for future developments in the region.  The purpose, explained the foundation, is “to spawn further reflection and brainstorming among scholars about where research in and on the region should be going.”  Scenario one would please Eurocrats — the “Europeanization of policy” including “clamping down on flat tax regimes and other practices used by neo-liberal countries such as the Baltic states to establish competitiveness,” which, paradoxically, would deliver “renewed prosperity.”  Scenario two involves rising barriers to more Europe.  In particular, “The Baltic states pursue deregulation and tight fiscal controls, as no EU cooperation in this area can be agreed to.”

Scenario three finds countries determined to go their own way (the “Sinatra doctrine”), as “[p]opulist politicians emerge demanding a relaxation of the convergence rules.  Germany and other hawks resist, leading to a crisis in the EU, which remains unresolved.”  Scenario four sees economic failure in Greece and Portugal leaving “the EU overwhelmed with crisis spending” and “paralyzed politically.”  Throughout the East, “anti-EU sentiment becomes pronounced.”

Although one senses ESF’s implicit endorsement of ever-tighter EU controls, the foundation’s effort might lead to a more nuanced and thoughtful research agenda into a future that remains highly uncertain.  Explained ESF:  “Rather than assuming unidirectional adaptation effects [in the region] in the face of EU influences, this perspective … points to a need to see Central and Eastern Europe in a multi-level and multi-dimensional development setting.”

Indeed, that sounds like a good basis for EU policy as well as ESF research.  The members of Central and Eastern Europe vary greatly.  Even former Soviet republics had very different experiences and today face very different challenges.  They all are likely to do better if shown what works best rather than if ordered to do what Brussels believes should work best.

No people want to think of themselves as involuntary participants in a huge social science experiment.  However, Soviet communism, through both its rise and fall, in essence turned human beings into experimental subjects.  It is up to the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe to demonstrate their ability to deliver an ever better future to their children and grandchildren.

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