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Analysis From Washington -- A Revolution Of Falling Expectations

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 1 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Buffeted by the difficulties they experienced in 1998, ever fewer people in the post-Soviet states expect their situation to be significantly better in 1999.

Indeed, polls taken across this region suggest that many there would now agree with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who said on Monday that there was no reason to think that 1999 would be any easier in his country than 1998 had been.

And this shift from optimism to pessimism is now so widespread that it constitutes a veritable revolution of falling expectations, one which may have just as many serious political and economic consequences as the more familiar revolutions of rising expectations have had elsewhere.

Revolutions of rising expectations, of course, occur when improvements in their lives have led people to expect more of them. And that optimistic conclusion sometimes leads them to make demands that neither the economic nor the political system is able to meet.

That frequently creates a crisis, one that can lead either to the transformation of these systems or to the demobilization of the groups making such demands. But in either case, optimism about the future beyond the capacity of the country to cope can create instability.

A revolution of falling expectations -- such as the one that appears to be starting in some post-Soviet states -- can be equally destabilizing but in very different and unexpected ways.

Some observers have suggested that declining expectations by leaders and peoples in the post-Soviet states not only represents a new form of realism on the part of both but also gives elites in these countries new opportunities for moving toward democracy and free markets.

Certainly, popular and political recognition of the difficulties involved in the transition from communism represents a more realistic stance than the often starry-eyed optimism that characterized the immediate post-communist period and that Western governments in fact promoted.

And it is obviously true that leaders have more room to maneuver when they are not under pressure from populations who expect and even demand that tomorrow be better than today.

But there are three compelling reasons why such a view of what has been called "the new realism" in these countries is likely too rosy and why the revolution of falling expectations taking place there may have some potentially frightening consequences.

First, populations which believe that tomorrow will not be better than today and may even be worse have few reasons to look beyond themselves and seek leadership from political or economic elites. Not only does that make it more difficult for such elites to generate the kind of authority they need to make changes for the better, but it also means that these elites may be tempted to defend their own interests by force or at the expense of those of the population at large.

Second, when senior political leaders come to share the pessimism of their populations, they are unlikely to be willing or able to take the risks necessary to help their countries escape from their current difficulties.

And that unwillingness in turn is likely in many cases to reinforce the pessimism of the population and the other problems such pessimism entails.

And third, when both populations and their leaders become so pessimistic, the former are likely to be ever more willing to listen to those who would blame someone for their problems, and the latter are likely to be ever more willing to participate in such scapegoating.

That helps to explain the rise of anti-Semitism in several of these countries and the antagonism to others some view as outsiders in a few of them. And it also helps to explain why ever more people and governments in these states are becoming more hostile to the West.

Those attitudes and the actions that flow from them in turn will make it more difficult for these countries to move toward democracy and free markets or to integrate into the international community.

But just as revolutions of rising expectations do not last forever, neither do revolutions of falling expectations. They can end either when conditions finally begin to improve or more often when leaders use their own optimism to help spread it to their own populations.

The role of leaders may be particularly important. And to paraphrase the words of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, who came to office in the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the only thing to be pessimistic about in this region is the spread of pessimism to so many.