Twenty-five years since the Velvet Revolutions, how much has changed in the Eastern Bloc?

7 Mar 2014

This Sunday, 9th March marks twenty-five years since the first major breakthrough in the roundtable talks between the Solidarity and Communist Authorities in Poland – an agreement on bicameral legislature called the National Assembly. The breakthrough can be seen as the first step towards the Velvet Revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe, which brought about the collapse of Communism, dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and as such, provides a timely reminder of how far we have come in the past quarter of a century.
 
Given recent development in Russia and the Ukraine, we may be forgiven for thinking that much of the progress of the 1989 revolutions is in danger of unravelling over the coming years. Yet Central and Eastern Europe is now indisputably a very different place, and the legacy of political, legal, economic, and social reform should not be underestimated. Twenty-five years ago, few would have envisaged the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the accession of Poland and former Socialist Republics to NATO and the European Union.
 
The revolutions in the years since 1989 will no doubt be extensively explored over the course of the year, in events marking various milestones in the process of transition. Just last month, the lessons of 1989 were explored in an international conference on Poland’s Peaceful Revolution, which identified the events that paved the way for the peaceful transfer of power from the Communist regime to a democratically elected opposition. The conference, organized by the Programme on Modern Poland at the European Studies Centre of Oxford University, sought to broaden our understanding of successful negotiations between authoritarian regimes and advocates of democracy, and drew lessons from history that we might hope would be learned by policymakers working to resolve the escalating tensions in Crimea today.
 
And yet, when we come to examine the legacy of 1989, the successful legal and political transfers of power that followed the Velvet Revolutions across Central and Eastern Europe do not tell the full story. The transition from centrally planned economy to capitalism has brought with it increased prosperity for some, and an increased interdependence with the economies of Western European neighbours, which may explain the reluctance to deploy economic sanctions against Russia as a response to the situation in Crimea. But there is another, less well-known consequence of the economic transition, one that raises questions over just how much the effects of the Transition have infiltrated the economic spheres of everyday life.
 
It is this question that will be the focus of an event later this month convened by the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies and the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society, in which the authors of two recently published books on the role of informal economies in Central and Eastern Europe and post-Soviet Russia will discuss the thriving, if hidden, informal economies that they have uncovered in their research. The book colloquium, (In)formal Economies, Economies of Favour: The End of Transition? will challenge the consensus among social scientists in recent years that the informal economy of everyday transactions is a relic of a previous era that is gradually declining as a result of a more thoroughly regulated formal economy. 
 
John Round and Nicolette Makovicky will discuss the findings of their books The Role of Informal Economies in the Post-Soviet World and Economies of Favour after Socialism with socio-legal scholars, anthropologists, policy advisors, and representatives from civil society, to throw light on the reality of day-to-day life for people living in former Eastern bloc countries, and question the extent to which the ideals of Western capitalism have influenced the economic practices established under Soviet rule.
 
In Economies of Favour after Socialism, Nicolette Makovicky and David Henig take a wide-ranging review of post-Soviet space to argue that, despite the rhetoric of economic liberalism, the complex network of ‘economies of favours’, including clientelism and bribery, which developed under the command economy, are very much a part of the formal economy since the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
 
In Ukraine and Russia meanwhile, John Round, Colin C. Williams, and Peter Rodgers have shown in their book on The Role of Informal Economies in the Post-Soviet World, that for many people, the informal economy, such as cash in hand work, subsistence production and the use of social networks, is not only integral to everyday life, but actually supports the formal economy, supplementing the incomes of those in low-paid formal work.
 
Whilst it may be true that much the same can be said for countries in Western Europe and elsewhere, and that this does not necessarily signal an end to transition in the Post-Soviet world, it may perhaps offer yet more subtle and unappreciated evidence of the persistence of Soviet-era practices and beliefs, the reemergence of which have brought to Europe’s doorstep what many commentators are describing as the worst crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War.

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Agnieszka Kubal is a British Academy Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford.
 
The colloquium on (In)formal Economies, Economies of Favour: The End of Transition? will be held on 20 March at Wolfson College, Oxford. To reserve your place, complete the registration form at the bottom of the event webpage.