Eastern Europe, now and then: 25 changes in 25 years

A story of progress?

(Note: I unsuccessfully tried to publish this piece over 10 years ago as 20 changes in 20 years and then 5 years ago as 25 changes in 25 years. I should have updated it to 30 changes in 30 years for 2019, but I never got around to it and I probably won’t make it to 35 changes, so I thought that I would put this out there. I’ve added a new introduction making the case for progress and noted a few things that have gone a little sour since then. A shorter version is available as well if anyone is interested, but real estate is cheap on the internet.)

What are current examples of progress? Eastern Europe might seem like an unlikely place to look. The strikes against the region are not just the ascendant nationalist leaders in Hungary and Poland, but also the massive recessions they suffered in the 1990s and the subsequent transition to higher levels of inequality, unemployment, and crime. The glum faces (ie, low measured levels of happiness) that one sees in the region don’t help either. Yet, I would argue that despite this, what we see is a story of progress.

It is hard to think of any countries that have undergone such a dramatic set of changes in such a short period of time, transformations that reach from the height of international alliances to the most intimate aspects of personal lives. The first years after 1989 are probably as concentrated a set of changes as any in history. And I’d argue that most of these changes constitute real progress. Coming out of this process in one piece may be a sign of progress itself. At the very least there was not stagnation, a bugaboo for some.

Below I try to describe the changes (or continuities) in 25 areas of life in the time since the fall of communism in 1989, so that readers can judge for themselves. The table (sorry for the poor formatting, Substack doesn’t allow tables) shows how things were before and since 1989 in my possibly biased interpretation. My focus is on the countries who joined the EU (Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia) rather than the post-Soviet states where the transition was less dramatic in some ways and more in others, but overall less successful.