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The East: Ministers List Lessons Learned During Transition From Communism

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary this year of the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, a group of leading officials from six countries in the region assembled in Switzerland last weekend to share experiences. RFE/RL's Mark Baker sat in on the discussion. He writes that what emerged was a realization that there is no single best way to transform a society but that certain lessons can be learned and applied.

Prague, 29 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Leading officials of six Central European countries assembled this weekend at the Crans Montana economic forum in Switzerland to discuss progress made in the past 10 years in the transition from communism to democratic institutions.

The discussion included Slovak Finance Minister Brigita Schmoegnerova, Polish EU Minister Jaroslaw Pietras, former Hungarian finance minister Peter Madgyessy, Romanian Senate leader Petre Roman, Czech Deputy Prime Minister for economic policy Jan Mladek and Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov.

Our correspondent writes that the discussion was surprisingly frank. Ministers, in turn, discussed the various difficulties they had faced in transforming their respective political and economic institutions.

Participants agreed that while there is no set formula for transforming a society, there are important lessons to be learned that might be applied to other countries.

Poland's Pietras told the group that effective transformation takes two things: consistency in policies and the ability to give people credible hope for the future.

Responding to Western criticism that Poland has been politically unstable this decade, changing its government nine times, he says you have to look more at policies than personalities. He says Poland's policies stayed the same regardless of whether a left-leaning or right-leaning government was in power:

"Don't watch whether the prime minister is being changed. Don't look at the ministers that are being changed. Look at policies, because you have to verify stability by policies. And when you look at [Poland's] policies, they have been quite stable over the past decade. This can be verified by the direction of the policies and also by the results."

Pietras says the proof is seen in statistics on the economy. Poland's economy has been growing since 1992 and even this year, in spite of recent economic crises in Asia and Russia, Pietras says the economy will expand four percent.

He says in addition to making consistent policies, governments have to show people a clear path to a better life. Pietras says this is difficult because it depends largely on third parties, such as the European Union, to succeed. He says, for example, that people are willing to tolerate hardship more readily if they're convinced the hardship will lead to membership in the EU. Without this assurance, the chances for success are less.

Slovakia's Schmoegnerova agreed with Pietras on the need for good policies, but says that enforcement of laws is equally as important, if not more:

"Even if you have a very good legislative framework, what is more important is the enforcement of the law. This has also been the experience of many [other] Central European countries. Having good legislation when there is not effective enforcement simply doesn't work. I could give you many examples of relatively good laws in Slovakia."

She says at the beginning of the decade, Slovakia developed good policies but with the election of former prime minister Vladimir Meciar in 1994, enforcement lagged. She says the country's new government, which took power last October, is dedicated to democratic processes and enforcement.

The Czech Republic's Mladek says successful transformation depends on weeding out incompetence and corruption in the civil service.

He told the forum that countries need to find a balance among a market economy, a healthy civil society and a competent bureaucracy. The Czech Republic has been often been criticized for corruption and a poorly functioning judiciary. Mladek says training the civil service has been ignored:

"In my country, former prime minister [Vaclav] Klaus stressed only the market economy. Our president, Mr. [Vaclav] Havel, was always stressing the civil society, but seeing it in opposition to a market economy and not its complement. And so far no one has been pushing through the proper reform of civil administration. For the future, we need to find the proper balance between these three pillars of modern society."

Mladek says the poor state of the country's civil service can be tied directly to the policy of "rapid privatization" of state assets promoted by former prime minister Klaus. He says respect for the law in general and the way in which state assets are sold are closely related.

Mladek said that when the Czech Republic sold off many of its assets in the early 1990s, the buyers put more energy into weakening the laws to hold onto their new power than in restructuring companies:

"It is no surprise afterwards to me that the state of our law is poor, and we are criticized for having it. We must do something with that, we must harmonize our laws with the European Union. But what should be taken into account is that we are in this poor situation with the legal system not accidentally but for following the advice of quick privatization."

President Gligorov's position was very different from leaders of the other countries given Macedonia's proximity to the wars this decade in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Gligorov emphasized the countries of southeastern Europe should be brought more quickly into the European integration process. He also called for the introduction of a single currency in the region and the coordination of economic policies.

Macedonia until now has largely been excluded from the European Union's expansion plans, but Gligorov said a Balkan Stability Pact taking shape this year foresees a type of free trade status for Macedonia that will set the basis for eventual membership in the EU. Observers said Gligorov's position on the panel indicates how far Macedonia has come in the wake of the Kosovo crisis in gaining European respect. A year ago, they said, it would have been difficult to imagine a Macedonian leader on the same panel with the Czechs, Poles and Hungarians.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.