Mapping Transition in Eastern Europe: Experiences of Change after the End of Communism

With rise of populism, illiberalism and xenophobia in EU’s Eastern Europe, a key question has become “what went wrong?”. A region considered a textbook example for transition, EU integration and democratisation, now writes alarming headlines almost every day. With the global West being caught in its own democratic retreat and the single countries becoming increasingly isolationist, it is too tempting to look for the same explanations and same solutions in every country. Our understanding is that Eastern Europe needs a different approach, which begins with a closer look into both communism and a variety of transitional experiences of the past.

In the same vain, we are pleased to present our latest publication “Mapping Transition in Eastern Europe: Experience of Change after the End of Communism”. Driven by these questions, my colleagues and I tried to map the challenges we (in Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Romania, Ukraine and Russia) face today that can be ascribed to the recent past.

The comparative chapter in the book outlines common problems and gives few ideas about how to approach them. The six country profiles focus on a set or sets of issues and offer means to overcome them using the toolbox of civic education.

We hope that with this publication we will be able to contribute to a broader discussion about the role of civic education in countries in transition. We aim to demonstrate that unless the political culture of the citizens at large becomes a centrepiece of the efforts in countries in transformation, transition itself will be continuously perceived by many citizens as a failure. Institutions and elites usually take priority in countries in transition, but unless attention is paid to the society at large, legacies of the past will loom in the present, opening space for illiberal and populist forces to determine the future of democracy.

This publication is the result of the two-year-work of a network of practitioners in civic education in Eastern Europe and funded by the German Federal Agency for Civic Education.

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by Louisa Slavkova, Executive Director, Sofia Platform

A failure to invest in a political culture at large, not dealing with the legacies of a communist past, and rising economic inequality in the newly established market economies are some of the key reasons for the rise of illiberalism today. Notably populist parties, with extreme views, are gaining ground in Eastern Europe and are happily reaping the “benefits” of the failures of transition.

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by Iva Kopraleva, Project Coordinator at Sofia Platform

More than quarter of a century after the end of the communist rule in Bulgaria, the country has largely overcome the struggle with the direct consequences of the transition towards democracy. There has been undeniable progress on many  fronts. Despite all of the legitimate criticism that can be directed towards the justice system, corruption levels,  media  freedom, and many other areas, overall, Bulgaria has a functioning market economy and democratic institutions.  As  a member of the EU and NATO, we are also well integrated with Euro-Atlantic international structures. Against this backdrop, one question looms large: why are young Bulgarians so ignorant of the country’s communist past?

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by Rafaela Tripalo, Project Coordinator at Stiftung Wissen am Werk/Zaklada Znanje na djelu in Zagreb

Identifying high youth unemployment and brain drain to be among the most pressing problems in Croatia, a group of leading local entrepreneurs founded Stiftung Wissen am Werk. Our core mission is to bring together schools, enterprises and youngsters in order to help develop better education and skills training for young people and to provide more attractive employment opportunities at home. The different programmes are developed in partnership with schools, educational authorities and partners from businesses, institutions and social enterprises. As a member of the Transition Dialogue Network, we expanded the scope of our work, looking into defining the generation of transition and how it relates to current challenges. The refugee crisis being one of them, made us look into attitudes in comparison with other post-communist countries (Bulgaria and Ukraine).



by Dr. Judith Enders, Mandy Schulze, and Christine Wetzel

A separated country that has been peacefully reunited is what characterises the unique case of Germany. While the majority of East Germans say the reunification has benefited them, criticism is directed at the speed of the transition and the process of adaptation to the West German system. People interviewed by members of Perspective3 stated that despite their initial enthusiasm, they felt deprived of agency in the project ‘Aufbau Ost’ (building up the East) and in redeveloping the state, the society and the economy. Noting that East German viewpoints are underrepresented in the assessment of the GDR and the reunification process, Perspective3 was created to give the the last one that grew up under the socialist system – the so-called third generation – a voice. This essay also addresses structural weakness of rural areas as a remaining societal problem.

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by Irina Ilisei, PhD, founding member and President of PLURAL Association in Bucharest

During the transition, the most vulnerable societal groups that were exposed to change were the ones invisible during the communist era. Ethnic, gender and sexual minorities were the social categories that had, in theory, the greatest windows of opportunity. But in practice, they suffered the greatest losses during this period of time. While any kind of change in a political, institutional or economic system is a long process, building a plural, inclusive society takes even longer and has to be based on education. The experience of a totalitarian regime and a history of state racism and a patriarchate cannot be easily wiped out.

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by Oksana Bocharova, sociologist and researcher at Validata, Polina Filippova, project coordinator at the Sakharov centre, Vlada Gekhtman, sociologist and researcher at Validata

The 90s are both condemned and praised as a period. However, I have always felt that the arguments of both camps are not arguments about the 90s as a historical period, but rather arguments about different world views, and different sets of values. Memories people have about transition are highly fragmented. This is not, for instance, a topic families and friends discuss among themselves. I often feel that whenever we speak of transition and the 90s, rather than analysing the past, we speak about the future. In other words, we speak of the time thinking of what should have been, rather than of what really was. The 90s are the time we have lived without Sakharov – he left us on 14 December 1989. But his hopes and fears for a new world yet to come have stayed with us as challenges and questions that remained not tackled. Following his legacy, we try to look at the 90s as a multidimensional decade in the history of our country and try to escape from a black and white reading of history that attempts to diminish its importance.

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by Olena Pravylo, Chairperson of the Congress of Cultural Activists

The aim of the Cultural Congress is to support the reform agenda in cultural politics, and foster dialogue and participation aiming at a progressive and inclusive cultural policy. In this respect, culture is seen as a means to involve citizen in social and political matters, comment on current debates and also provide opportunity for a new creative industry to emerge.

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