Monday, January 19, 2009

Eastern Europe worries about 'spring of discontent'

According to the Guardian (UK), governments across Eastern Europe are bracing for a spring filled with rowdy (and perhaps violent) public protests. People from the Baltic to Bulgaria are growing more and more angry with their governments over the local effects of the global financial crisis and, in countries like Bulgaria and Romania, energy shortages caused by the recent natural gas feud between Ukraine and Russia. Experts in the region warn that mass public demonstrations are likely in many countries in the region, a few have already occurred. Police used tear gas to break up a rally in Lithuania after protestors began tossing rocks at police, protests in Bulgaria and Latvia last week also turned violent. And, experts warn, that minority groups in these countries could find themselves the target of bias attacks as people look for ways to vent their frustration.

The countries in Eastern Europe are especially vulnerable in the current global crisis. For decades, these countries were under Communist rule (a description of life under Communism I once heard was that you were poor, but everyone else was poor, so it was ok since you were all in it together). When the Communists lost power in the 1990s, chaos tended to follow. In the past decade though life has gotten much better; governments have become democratic, the countries stable and the standard of living has improved enough so that most people can afford even a few modest creature comforts.

At the same time though, governments across Eastern Europe promised their citizens that if they just became part of the European Union, everything would be fine - the standard of living would just keep getting better and better until even the most remote village in the mountains of Romania looked like the American suburbs they saw on satellite TV. The result is that people in many of these countries now don't have a lot of patience for rising inflation, their money falling in value, or their jobs moving out of the country (all the effects of the global financial crunch hitting these countries now). To make matters worse, the governments in some Eastern European countries also themselves believed that life would just keep getting better and better, so they didn't plan for emergencies like they face now. The Guardian describes how Estonia actually did build up a sizable reserve of money just in case there was a financial crisis like the one currently gripping the world, their neighbor Latvia, meanwhile, a country very similar to Estonia in most ways, did not. Latvia had to get an emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund of more than six billion dollars last fall just to keep their economy afloat, while so far Estonia has weathered the crisis.

It will all make for a tough spring in a lot of places in Eastern Europe.
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