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Poll Finds Generational Split In View Of Postcommunist Reforms

Many people over 50 looks back at life before 1989 with nostalgia.
(RFE/RL) --- Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, people in countries that were once behind the Iron Curtain have mixed feelings about the changes democracy and capitalism have brought to their lives.

That's according to a new Global Attitudes Survey by the Pew Research Center, which surveyed people in nine Central and Eastern European countries: Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, and the former East Germany.

The report compared its findings with an identical survey taken in 1991, just after the collapse of communism, and concluded that in general, a majority of people in most countries are happier now than they were 20 years ago but are less supportive of democracy and capitalism now than they were when the wall first came down.

Still, Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center, says that in every country surveyed, people reported being happier with their lives now.

"Satisfaction with life in all of these places, as we measure, is better now, much better now, than it was back in 1991. In 1991 in Poland, for example, 12 percent of the Poles said that they were 'highly satisfied' with their life, as they defined what a successful life is," Kohut says.

"Today it's 44 percent. In Russia, it was 7 percent then, it's 35 percent now. In every one of these countries, the numbers go up."

By a wide margin, the study found that people under 50 are happier than the older generation about the changes the last 20 years have brought.

Kohut says younger, better educated, and city-dwellers express the most satisfaction with their lives and have made the greatest gains since 1991.

"In communist days, just about everyone did not feel very good about their lives," he says. "Today, more people feel good about their lives, but there's considerable disparity on the basis of age and other demographic characteristics."

This generational gap is widest in Bulgaria and Russia, where, for example, in the latter, less than a third (27 percent) of people over 65 approve of a multiparty political system, compared with two-thirds (65 percent) of those aged 18 to 29 who do.

The people happiest with the move to democracy are Czechs, Poles, and citizens of the former East Germany, while those who express the most dissatisfaction are Russians, Ukrainians, and Bulgarians.

Ukrainians stand out as the unhappiest with the changes democracy and capitalism have brought. In 1991, nearly three-quarters (72 percent) said they welcomed democracy; now less than a third (30 percent) do. In 1991, more than half (52 percent) said they approved of the switch to capitalism; now only slightly more than a third (36 percent) do.

The numbers are similar in Russia, where barely half (53 percent) feel favorably toward democracy and only half (50 percent) like the changes capitalism has brought.

Communist Nostalgia

Also in Russia, the study found a surge in nationalist sentiment since 1991. A majority of Russians (54 percent) agree with the statement, "Russia should be for Russians," compared to a quarter (26 percent) who did in 1991.

Kohut says the study showed clear concern about this among Russia's neighbors.

"We certainly see that among the Czechs, the Hungarians, and the Slovaks, we see less of it than we might have expected among the Ukrainians, where the attitudes toward Russia are surprisingly positive," he says.

Well over half (58 percent) also said they agreed with the statement, "It is a great misfortune that the Soviet Union no longer exists," and nearly half (47 percent) think "It is natural for Russia to have an empire." Only about a third (37 percent) said the same thing in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse.

By far, more Hungarians than any other nationality surveyed declared themselves to feel worse off now than under communism. Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) said that. Support for capitalism in Hungary has dropped from 80 percent in 1991 to 46 percent today.

Right behind Hungary is Ukraine, where 62 percent think their lives were better before 1991. In Russia, nearly half (45 percent) remember happier days 20 years ago.

The study identified a positive trend in the region -- the decline of ethnic hostilities. In several of the countries surveyed, fewer people now say they hold unfavorable views of their country's ethnic minorities than said so in 1991.

After the economy, corruption tops the list of concerns in six of the nine countries surveyed. Russians worry slightly more about illegal drugs, and also think pollution is a severe problem. Ukrainians list corruption as their biggest issue, followed by pollution and crime.

The Pew survey was taken in August and September of this year.