- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2000

Hard as it is to believe, 10 years have passed since the communist East Bloc crumbled before our eyes. In some ways, the world has changed so much that memories of the frightening Cold War confrontation tend to take on a slightly surreal quality today. In other ways, the transition from communism has been far more difficult than anyone had imagined in the former East Bloc due to the lingering communist mentality, corruption and deep-rooted political systems.

A sad case in point is Romania, which has failed miserably to move beyond the legacy left by megalomaniac dictator Nicolae Ceauscescu, who was dispatched with a bullet through his brain in the cold December snow a decade ago. On Dec. 10, Romanians will be going to the polls in the run-off for the presidential election to choose between bad and worse. That would be between Ion Iliescu of the Social Democracy Party, ex-communist and Romania's disastrous first post-Ceauscescu president, and Corneliu Vadim Tudor, the ultra-nationalist leader of the Great Romania Party, who still dreams of former territorial claims in Moldova and is given to making ugly statements about Arabs, Gypsies and other minorities. In the first round of elections on Nov. 26, Mr. Iliescu received 36 percent of the vote, compared to 28 percent for his opponent; he would be the least offensive to the organizations that Romania unsuccessfully has aspired to join, NATO and the European Union.

Recent European Union reports have shown how little progress Romania has made. No market economy has been able to develop, corruption is rampant and the bureaucracy is as entrenched as ever. The return of private property stolen by the communists has been excruciatingly slow and limited in scope. Those who follow Romanian politics will not have to search long to understand why. During a visit to Bucharest in the early 1990s, I was introduced to the privatization minister in the first Iliescu administration, a former communist official. The same gentleman later turned up as the foreign minister in the "reformist" government of the next president, a well-intentioned but ineffectual geology professor. With this round of elections, it seems like Romania is still playing musical chairs with a well-known cast of political characters.

The 10-year mark obviously affords an occasion to take stock of transitions in the former East Bloc, and several organizations have seized the opportunity to do so, among them the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Freedom House. What they show is that Romania is by no means alone in struggling with the difficult process of transition.

For an overall view, including political, social and economic factors, Freedom House's massive "Nations in Transit, 1999-2000" is an indispensable source. It reminds us just how vast and diverse an area we are talking about 28 countries stretching from Central Europe to East Asia, comprising 415 million people; more than the United States, more than the European Union. Its most important finding is summed up by Freedom House's president and editor of the study: "The survey's most important finding is that the pace of change in the region under review has slowed and the period of dramatic and economic transition has ended. The rapid gains made shortly after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are unlikely today," writes Adrian Karatnicky, president of Freedom House.

According to Stanley Fischer and Ratna Sahay, writing for the IMF, "The countries that have done the best are those who have pursued their reform agendas most consistently; they are also those who seemed from the start most committed to reform. By and large, they are also the countries closest to western Europe, and those who spent least time under communist rule." None of this comes as a surprise perhaps, but what is interesting is that the passionate debates raging in the 1990s over "shock therapy" may ultimately have been of less consequence than plain old historical patterns.

Looking at GDP growth in transition economies, the IMF registers only negative growth as compared to 1991 figures in three European countries: Bulgaria, Macedonia and Romania. Every other country, even poverty-stricken Albania, shows economic growth. By contrast, not a single economy in the former Soviet Union is at 1991 levels, with the Baltic countries and Uzbekistan doing the best. Some economies, particularly in the Caucases and the Central Asian republics, are doing dismally and still declining; some are at less than half their 1991 levels. The Russian economy itself is just 60 percent of what it used to be. Necessary as the crunch may have been, one still has to wonder whether they will ever be able to recover.

Should all of this give us reason to despair? Obviously not, though patience is clearly recommended. NATO has expanded to include several new member states, and the European Union, though moving at a glacier-like pace, is holding open the door for countries from Central Europe and the Baltics. Whether the day will ever come when Russia and its neighbors will ever be in the same fortunate position only history can answer. What is undoubtedly true, though, is that freedom's borders have been moved forward.

E-mail: helle.bering@washtimes.com.

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