Getting on the Neoliberal Bandwagon

Milestones of the Transformation

In his reflections on the year 1989 and the concept of revolution, Polish-born sociologist Zygmunt Bauman stressed how different the dissidents and civil rights activists were from earlier revolutionaries.1 He argued that the actors who came to power that year strove to build a new order with concrete visions in mind. In this way they differed from the Bolsheviks and the Jacobins, whose main motivation had been to eradicate their respective ancien régimes. What was the reason for this? Why were the new power elites and the protesters behind them so constructive? Was the latest wave of revolutions in modern European history less destructive because individual and collective experiences of late state socialism were less humiliating and traumatic than those of French absolutism or Russian Tsarism had been? Even those civil rights activists who had personally suffered before 1989 rarely condemned communist ideology or “real existing socialism” outright.

The constructive mood among the revolutionaries of 1989–91 was due, perhaps, to their social backgrounds. Václav Havel hailed from Prague’s bourgeoisie; Marianne Birthler, like many East German dissidents, came from a middle-class background; Bronisław Geremek and Adam Michnik were members of the traditional intelligentsia; Lech Wałęsa came from the upper strata of the socialist working class. The goal these middle-class revolutionaries pursued was not wanton destruction but a civil society.

To place historical processes in discrete time frames, one needs to identify the end as well as the start of the historical period in question. Neither is clearly determinable in the case of postsocialist transformation; in fact, the changes to the political systems and the former planned economies continue to this day. Although democratic structures have been installed in most Eastern European countries (and dismantled again in Russia), the privatization of state enterprises, the restitution of private property, and other measures considered to be key elements of the economic reforms are far from complete. West Germany forms the only exception; here the Trust Fund privatization agency (Treuhandgesellschaft) was closed in 1994, and its last relic, the real estate company TLG-Immobilien GmbH, sold to US and German investors in 2012.

A number of earlier milestones could perhaps be regarded as endpoints of the transformation, or the period of accelerated political, economic, and social change. At the Copenhagen Summit in 2002, the European Union declared that the eight East Central European countries, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, had successfully completed, or were well on the way to completing, the transition to democracy and market economy. In 2004 the European Union was enlarged as planned; in 2007 Romania and Bulgaria acceded. But though each of these events marked a milestone, none of them can be regarded as the end of transformation.

The global crisis of 2008–9, by contrast, was a watershed. It has weakened the global hegemony of neoliberalism and particularly shaken Eastern Europe. Since then, academics and politicians in the East and West have begun to challenge welfare cutbacks, deregulation, privatization, and growing social inequality. The critics of neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus have also attacked the manner in which neoliberal policies were communicated.2 Variants of Margaret Thatcher’s slogan “There is no alternative” (abbreviated and parodied as TINA) had characterized the political discourse in Eastern Europe and Germany since the 1990s. Most recently, austerity programs in Southern and Eastern Europe were also presented to the public as necessary, unavoidable, and the only alternative. The equivalent German attribute, alternativlos, was used so often and obtrusively in reference to the German labor market reforms between 2001 and 2005 that the German Language Society (Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache) declared it the ugliest word of the year in 2010.3 While the linguistic term can be rejected, the convictions and power structures behind it are not as easily dismissed. Reforms are still prescribed by politicians and experts who operate from the safety of their desks and permanent work contracts. The elites are hardly affected by liberalization, the sale of state enterprises, or social cuts. These apolitical and essentially antipolitical arguments are among the distinctive features of neoliberalism.

The Russian intervention in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014 could be regarded as a political endpoint of the transformation period. By annexing the Crimean Peninsula in blatant violation of international law, Vladimir Putin broke with a major consensus of the transformation period: to respect the postwar European borders and those of the former Soviet republics and successor states. The purposeful destabilization of Ukraine undermined one of the basic preconditions of transformation—that every country could shape its future in peace and largely autonomously. Russian neoimperialism has repercussions far beyond Ukraine. It jeopardizes the peace dividends from the end of the Cold War that helped the former Eastern Bloc countries to evolve economically and politically. If one heeds Putin’s repeated pledge since 2005 (since shortly after European Union expansion) to “protect” Russian minorities in neighboring countries, the Baltic states, especially, have cause to be concerned about their security. Few international observers noticed when, in 2011, Russia confronted Poland and Germany with the threat of stationing nuclear missiles in the exclave Kaliningrad. Russia’s geopolitical ambitions—geopolitics is a central concept in Putin’s foreign policy—have ended the period of peaceful transformation that began in 1989.

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