30 Years After Fall of Communism, Mixed Support for Democracy

Kevin Drew

In the early days following the revolutions that overthrew the communist regimes across Central and Eastern Europe, the public joy that coursed through the former Iron Curtain countries could best be summed up by one word: bananas. The fruit had long been largely restricted from citizens from the old Soviet bloc, thanks to the communist barriers walling off Western Europe. Suddenly available, the banana was seen by Central and Eastern Europeans as an exotic expression of their liberation from authoritarianism.

Thirty years after those revolutions, much has changed in the region. The initial hope for cooperation that has led most of the former communist countries to join the European Union has also given way to the sober realization that the corruption that had seeped into the countries' politics, business and culture may take generations to change. One of Europe's long-standing sins, centuries of ethnic animosity, would in the 1990s draw the peoples of the Balkans into civil war and genocide. Today, all of the countries enjoy some form of democracy, though in recent years worries have grown about rising nationalism in many of those nations.

A survey released on Tuesday shows most people across the region support democracy and the EU, but many are worrying about the political and economic futures of their countries. The survey, released by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, shows few people surveyed regret the changes that came with the revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

However, the survey of 18,979 people found significant differences in what the study's authors describe as the "intensity of people's commitment" to democratic principles and support for market economies. For example, 85% of Poles surveyed support the shift to democracy and capitalism, the strongest level of support across the region. About half of Russians disapprove, as do slightly more than a third of Ukrainians and Bulgarians.

Most people surveyed in Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania say the economic situation today is better than it was during communism, as do more than 4-in10 in Slovakia and Hungary. But more than half of people surveyed in Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria say their lives are worse today than during communism.

Across the region, the changes in education, the standard of living and pride in their country drew the most positive responses. But opinions were mixed on family values and law and order. And a majority of people across the region said the changes of the past three decades have adversely affected their country's health care.

The survey was conducted from May 13 to Aug. 11 of this year in 17 countries; 14 EU member countries from both sides of the former Iron Curtain, as well as in Russia, Ukraine and the United States.

Among other notable findings in the survey:

-- Certain issues reveal clear East-West divides. Homosexuality and the role of women in society reveal regional differences, with Western Europeans showing more progressive views.

-- Eastern Bloc nations express greater belief in the future economic prospects for the next generation than people in Greece, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom and France.

-- A greater level of optimism is expressed by 18- to 34-year-olds in the surveyed countries than older people.

-- In several countries women are more likely than men to place a high priority on gender equality. Double-digit gender gaps exist in Italy, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Russia, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Broad support was expressed in all 17 countries for democratic rights and institutions. Large majorities existed for having a fair judicial system and for having gender equality. Support was more uneven for religious freedom and allowing civil society groups to operate freely.

Likewise, agreement is widespread that elites have gained more than average citizens from the changes brought by the past 30 years. Large majorities of people surveyed in Central and Eastern European countries say politicians and business leaders have benefited more than average citizens.

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A median of 69% of peopled polled in the 14 EU countries disagreed with the statement, "Most elected officials care about what people like me think." Majorities in Russia, Ukraine and the U.S. also shared this sentiment. That frustration may in part be due to the early post-communist years, where politicians and business leaders across the region sought to gain from societies that were writing news laws on governance. It may also be due to cynicism the public built up over decades of the abilities of communist government officials to improve people's lives.

"Unlike transition in the structures of government and politics, change in people's minds and cultural change requires more time," wrote Masaryk University's Zden?k Janík on the 20-year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in the then-Czechoslovakia. "Such change is a long-lasting process that will be accomplished, perhaps, with future generations."

And, perhaps, with more bananas.

Kevin Drew is the assistant managing editor of Best Countries, which he helped develop and launch for U.S. News & World Report in 2016. Among his recent projects is an exploration of the global impact of pediatric cancer, made possible by a grant awarded by the Solutions Journalism Network. Before joining U.S. News in 2015, he worked as an editor and writer for the New York Times' Hong Kong bureau and as a supervising editor for CNN International; he has also worked for CNN.com, the Associated Press, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Christian Science Monitor and The Prague Post and taught journalism at Hong Kong University. He is a graduate of Oregon State University and earned his Master of Arts in Journalism at the University of Missouri. He is the recipient of a DuPont Award for Excellence in Journalism as a supervisor for CNN's digital coverage of the South Asian tsunami, and a Peabody Team Award for CNN's coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, or email him at kdrew@usnews.com.