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East: EBRD Survey Documents Trauma Of Transition

An elderly woman in St. Petersburg searches through a garbage dump in 1995 (AFP) May 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The 1990s were a traumatic decade for many people across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union as they struggled to adjust to a new era as communism collapsed and the market took hold.

And, according to a comprehensive new survey by the World Bank and the European Bank For Reconstruction and Development, many people continue to struggle.

It the 15 years since the end of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, many surveys have focused on economic indicators to assess the progress of reforms.

"The results show that many people remain unconvinced by the virtues of markets and democracy." -- EBRD

And they indicate that, overall, the situation is improving.

But few regional surveys ask people a simpler question: do they feel their lives are getting better?

The new joint survey asks jus this question and offers stark evidence that the transition to capitalism has been very painful.

The Life in Transition survey quizzed 29,000 people in 29 countries across the region about their lives and hopes. It was released during the EBRD's annual conference, which is taking place in Kazan, capital of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan.

Corruption Continues

The survey found that only 30 percent of those polled thought their lives are better now than before 1989. And two-thirds of those surveyed across the region believe corruption in their countries is now as bad or worse than it was in 1989.

The EBRD's chief economist, Erik Berglof, tells RFE/RL he is relatively optimistic that things are now improving across the region. But he says the results reflect the distress experienced by many people as their lives were turned upside down in the 1990s.

"A lot of what we see is resentment toward what happened in the '90s and now there is sort of an acceptance that things have gotten better, that things are -- in most countries at least -- more predictable, more stable, that the right kind of values when it comes to advancing society are being promoted," Berglof says. "But it was a very costly process, and many people feel like they somehow lost out in this very traumatic event of the '90s."

Divided Societies

The survey confirms what many people in the region already know: that post-communist societies have become deeply split.

The gaps between rich and poor, rural and urban dwellers, and the young and the old have widened steadily in the new era.

Impoverished Kyrgyz at a dump near Bishkek in 2005 (AFP)

Basically, Berglof says, it is the young and the educated who have the most positive outlook and the most opportunities.

"I would say that there's a lot of variation across different age groups and different income groups and education groups, so the younger you are, the more positive you are about what has been achieved, and the more positive you are about the future," he says. "The more educated you are, the better off you are."

But the young and well educated remain in the minority, which is why, as the report notes, "the results show that many people remain unconvinced by the virtues of markets and democracy."

Berglof believes the survey should give policymakers in Eastern Europe and the CIS serious pause for thought.

Statistical indicators may show many Eastern economies are growing, but a lot of people in the region continue to feel anxious and see few benefits in the transition to capitalism.

Greater attention must be paid to taming corruption and addressing key social issues, to give people hope for the future, according to Berglof.

"[The survey] clearly indicates that features that [people] do miss today are the quality of health care, the quality of education -- there is not so much a nostalgic view of the actual quality of health care and education at the time -- but it was the access that people had and the stability of the system of health care and education that they appreciated, I think," Berglof says. "We need to think much more how we can contribute to those sectors in these countries."

On a more optimistic note, 54 percent of those surveyed said they believe their children will have a better life than they did.

Building Democracy

Building Democracy
An Afghan woman votes in Kandahar in October 2004 (AFP)

ROWING AGAINST THE TIDE: National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman and Hudson Institute Senior Fellow John O'Sullivan led an RFE/RL briefing about U.S. efforts to promote democracy around the world, and especially in the Middle East.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 55 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


U.S. Reports On Democracy-Promotion Efforts

Is Bush Abandoning Democracy Building In Iraq?

Karen Hughes Urges Dialogue Based On 'Common Values'

Promoting Democracy In Iran


For a regular review of civil-society developments throughout RFE/RL's broadcast region, subscribe to "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies."

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