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Thirty years ago, a stunning wave of political change swept across Europe, overthrowing regimes, tearing down walls and destroying an Iron Curtain that had divided Europe for decades. Communism was eventually discarded, and newly free publics embraced democracy and capitalism. The ensuing three decades have brought successes and disappointments alike, but as a new Pew Research Center survey shows, few in the former Eastern Bloc regret the historic upheaval of 1989.
From Isolation to Solidarity: How we toppled communism and what challenges lie ahead by Lech Wałęsa, Founder, Lech Wałęsa Institute and Former President of Poland
Still, many believe progress has been uneven, and that some have benefited more than others from the enormous political, economic and social changes that have taken place. And when asked about the future, Europeans on both sides of the old East-West divide express strong concerns about their political and economic systems.
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Overall, the seismic shifts toward democracy and capitalism that began three decades ago are generally popular in the Central and Eastern European nations surveyed. In countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Lithuania, large majorities approve of the transition to a multiparty political system and a market-based economy.
The end of the communist era generated hopes of a common European future for many.
However, this political and economic model may not be providing benefits to everyone in an equitable manner. Large majorities across the Central and Eastern European nations polled say politicians and business people have benefited from the changes since the wall fell, but considerably fewer say this about ordinary people. And while most believe the changes have had a positive impact on education, living standards and national pride, views are more mixed when it comes to the impact on spiritual values, law and order, health care and family values.
While assessments of the past three decades vary across issues, they also vary across countries. For instance, majorities in Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania say most people are better off economically today than they were under the old regime, but more than half in Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria believe most people are worse off today.
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Democratic principles are generally embraced by Central and Eastern European publics, although the strength of their commitment to democracy is sometimes underwhelming. For instance, across six former communist nations that are now European Union members – Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia – a median of 91% say it is important to have freedom of religion in their country, but just 54% believe it is very important. Only 55% think it is very important to have a system where opposition parties are able to operate freely. Overall, the survey found higher levels of support for democratic rights and institutions in the longer established democracies of Western Europe.
The end of the communist era generated hopes of a common European future for many. Membership in the EU was something Central and Eastern Europeans, newly free from Soviet control, aspired to, and within a decade and a half several former communist nations had become members. Today, the EU is largely seen in a favorable light, although people do have strong complaints about Brussels. In total, the survey included 14 EU countries from both sides of the former Iron Curtain, and roughly half or more of those surveyed in each expressed positive overall views of the EU. Nonetheless, opinions are mixed about the economic impact of EU membership. For instance, in France, Greece, Bulgaria and Italy – nations where few are happy with the current state of the economy – less than half believe European economic integration has been good for their country. As previous Pew Research polling has shown, people across the continent widely support the noble goals of the EU – they believe it promotes peace, prosperity and democracy – but they also see Brussels as intrusive, inefficient and out of touch with ordinary citizens.
Most also believe political elites in their own countries are out of touch. Majorities in 11 of 14 EU nations say elected officials do not care what people like them think, and most Russians and Ukrainians feel the same way. This perception that political leaders don’t listen, and maybe don’t even care, is one reason why so many are unhappy with the way their political systems are functioning.
Perhaps more troublingly, there is widespread pessimism about the political future. Across the 14 EU nations in the study, a median of 53% say they are pessimistic about the way their political system works. People are even more pessimistic when it comes to their country’s ability to tackle inequality.
As the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaches, many Europeans will recall the hope and optimism of 1989: as the current study shows, the democratic values and European principles that inspired many three decades ago are still embraced by average citizens across the continent. But the data also highlights the degree to which many are unhappy with the current state of politics and uncertain about Europe’s future.
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