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Vol 3, No 10
12 March 2001
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Sam Vaknin Axes to Grind
A taxonomy of political conflict
in Central and Eastern Europe

Sam Vaknin

When the current government of Macedonia came to power and I signed on as its economic advisor, I was asked by local journalists, with genuine amazement: "what are you doing with these villagers?" "Villagers" is just about the most pejorative word applied here to rivals and adversaries. In Macedonian, the word evokes the image of uncouth, rough-hewn and yahoo usufructuaries.

Transition is a messy affair even in the best of times, and the last decade of Central and Eastern European (CEE) history has been by far the worst in the last 50 or so years. Politics mirrored this age of mayhem and upheaval. It unfolded along several axes of conflict:

The rural versus the urban

This is a maelstrom oft overlooked. The countries of CEE are manifestly rustic and dependent on the vapid effort, ignorant labour and dilapidated machinery that indigenously pass for agriculture. Urbanization—though in full force—is a relatively recent event. Scratch the veneer of a city-dweller and you are likely to find a full-blooded yeoman. Employment is an oppidan phenomenon and immigrants flock to cities and stoke the virtuous cycle of job creation with their new demand. Only a war reverses this flow as people prefer the home grown vegetable to the soup-kitchen.

The demise of Communism has demoted previously extolled workers, both industrial and agricultural. These rejects of a failed ideology—frustrated, angry and insistent—stand behind political parties and grassroots populist organizations from Russia to Poland and to the Balkan. Their natural and accosted enemies are the envied well-educated, the despised intellectuals, the self-proclaimed new elite, the foreigner, the minority, the rich. They are manipulated by their former masters cynically and by new masters naively, and they are growing more powerful as the debacle that the transition process is unfurls.(See: "Forward to the Past: Capitalism in post-Communist Europe")

The young and the new versus the old and the tired.

Perhaps nowhere in the world is the cult of youth more prominent than in these parts of the world. This is because nowhere in the world has the failure of previous generations been so utter. In the battle joined with the new and the untried, the old and tried and failed fail yet again.

Macedonia's Minister of Finance is 30 years of age, its Prime Minister barely a few years older. This is the range of ages of senior politicians, managers, entrepreneurs and journalists across this region. Yet, this is far from a foregone conclusion. The inexperienced temerity of the young has landed them in some hot spots. Most of them are too identified with the pratfall of "reforms." Age and experience reassert themselves, and with them the disingenuous habits of the past. The young are in retreat, and as revolutionaries age, they turn territorial and hidebound. Turf wars are likely to intensify rather then recede.

Technocrats versus lobbyists

In the elysium of Communism, managers were trained mostly to wheedle, lobby and to cadge. The fall of Communism, the impoverishment of the state and its dependence on multilateral (and tightly supervised) financing, brought these skills into desuetude. This claque of suppliant supplicants suddenly had to trade their irenic and craven nature for the untoward and alert aggression that is capitalism. The many failed and in their stead a novel breed of predators emerged, fully armed with expertise, fully attuned to markets and to profits, fully enslaved to competition. In a rearguard skirmish, the old guard expropriated the decrepit assets of the dying system. But these "privatized" enterprises were soon taken over by foreign investors, or shut down. The old guard lost its capital—both pecuniary and political—decisively.

Bureaucrats versus politicians

The distinction between an apolitical civil service and its political—but, luckily, transient—masters has yet to permeate the post-Communist societies. Every appointment in the public sector, down to the most insignificant sinecure, is still politicized. But politicians—faced with the (mainly economic) disintegration of their countries—finally resorted to a cadre of young, foreign educated (or well travelled), dynamic and open minded bureaucrats. These are still a negligible minority, but not for long. And as their power and ubiquity increase, so does their political prowess. A clash between the lugubrious and supernumerary class of professional politicians and the trenchant group of professional professionals is both inevitable and soon.

Nationalists versus Europeans

Villains of all stripes as well as outré fanatics constitute the malignant outer fringes of patriotism in CEE. No country is exempt and no minority absolved of their censorious rants and worse. From acts of vandalism to ethnic cleansing, the inimical spectrum of nationalism, a spectre of demented past and vicious future, hangs hazily above these lands. Its pull is strong, as portentous election results and sycophantic panegyrics to "strong men" and past dictators show.

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This tendency is balanced only by the strong urge to belong to Europe and to enjoy its auspices. This too is strong—witness the patience with which the interminable and arduous process of EU enlargement has been endured. But the outcome of this clash between parochial nationalism and Europeanism is far from certain (as Yugoslavia has demonstrated until recently and Belarus still does).

Centralists versus the regionalists

This is a pan-European variance. The centrifugal force of the century old nation state has weakened greatly and the centripetal energy of regions has increased. Such fragmentation is effected peacefully (USSR, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Yugoslavia and Macedonia)—or through war (Chechniya, the Yugoslav wars of cessation including Kosovo). Minorities tend to concentrate and disrupt the continuity of otherwise homogenous states. Majorities do their damnedest to eradicate these discontinuities by various means—from assimilation to extermination. CEE is Africa at the heart of Europe. Arbitrary colonial-era borders cut across ethnic groups in historically charged lands. Expect further eruptions. (See: "The MinMaj Rule")

These axes of tension, these funnels of frustration, these channels of violence will not deliquesce. They are the landscape of this wasteland as surely as its polluted rivers and ashen air. They pulsate with fear and hatred and self-interest. They seethe underground and dictate in their subversive manner the contours of this new creation, the post-Communist countries in transition. Ultimately, they will dictate the shape of things to come.

Sam Vaknin, 12 March 2001

The author:

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgments of the author.

After the Rain cover

After the Rain:
How the West Lost the East

Sam Vaknin's book on sale from CER as a print book and as an ebook

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