Can Europe Make It?

“We are not anti-Greeks”: the need for a return of solidarity to eastern Europe

“Greece hasn’t even dreamt about what Slovakia had to go through, what does it mean to carry out real reforms and have real privatization.”  - Robert Fico, Prime Minister of Slovakia.

Barbora Cernusakova
15 July 2015
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Robert Fico with Angela Merkel. Demotix/Goncalvo Silva. All rights reserved.

“Greece hasn’t even dreamt about what Slovakia had to go through, what does it mean to carry out real reforms and have real privatization.”

Robert Fico, Prime Minister of Slovakia

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I spent most of June travelling for work in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. A noticeable disdain towards the “Others” present in the media and in public discussions hit me during the trip. This time the “Others” were not only the usual ones, the Roma and the migrants, but also the Greeks. The disdain escalated after the referendum when allegations of consumption beyond means, “luxurious pensions” and “frivolous governance” penetrated the public space. They felt like epitaphs on a graveyard of solidarity.

It is not a coincidence that the countries on the eastern periphery of the EU are the most audible critics of Greece’s rejection of (further) austerity measures. This criticism is coming both from political elites, including those ostensibly on the left, and from the public. It dwells on comparisons of public spending, tax systems and living standards with Greece. In a manner similar to the way Roma or migrants are being portrayed as those who “cost us money”, the Greeks have gained the label oscillating between a misbehaving child and a parasite. The popular success of this way of framing the problem, resting on moralizing and disregard of the role of the representatives of capital or “creditors” for the current situation, deserves special attention.

Anti-Greek critics rely on the assumption of some undisputed truths. One of them is the belief that austerity measures are necessary for Greece’s future economic prosperity (or at least stability). The other is the belief that they are fair. These truths were learned and absorbed by generations of eastern Europeans who experienced the 1990s and the so-called transition process. Within it, they learned to accept the new order and inequalities – both economic and political – that have become part of their everyday lives.

A critique going to the heart of these inequalities, pointing that they are a direct consequence of policies imposed by the same financial institutions that brought Greece to the current socially explosive situation would require a different political vocabulary. One that would allow people, working classes in particular, to formulate their common interests: not against each other but against those who impose the policies that harm them.

Albeit frustrating in its consequences both for practical life and self-esteem, the transition project in eastern Europe achieved its goals: radical reduction of redistribution and welfare, subsequent downward pressure and delegitimisation of socio-economic rights and their agents (e.g. the trade unions). Crucially, it also led to fragmentation of working classes and disappearance of solidarities.

New forms of collective consciousness and politics emerged in their place but these have not centered around interests of workers, those depending on waged labour, but identities such as nation or ethnicity open to arbitrary interpretations. These new collectivities also led to a need to exclude the “Others”, a construct that has been changing since the 1990s, initially targeting national minorities, e.g. the Hungarians (in Slovakia or Romania) and later stabilized by the systemic exclusion of the Roma throughout the countries of the region.

In the meantime, working classes in eastern Europe have been experiencing radical loss of opportunities, long-term unemployment and not least also rejection and humiliation. They had to adopt strategies on how to cope with these losses and survive, in which migration to western Europe played a significant role.

This experience is something people in the transition countries share with the Greeks. The reasons for this are structural, namely the “treatment” that they undertook as part of international loans: the IMF and World Bank in the case of the Eastern European Countries, and the IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission (so called Troika) in case of Greece.

These conditionality packages, in some transition countries known also as “shock therapies” contained series of measures characterized among other things by severe cuts in public spending, including in the welfare programmes, and privatization of public services (frequently called by other names such as “modernizing”, “upgrading” or “reforming”). Although the policies adopted by the transition countries were more profound and structurally radical than the austerity measures imposed on Greece, their social impact has been similar.

In general, the changes carried out within the transition in eastern Europe have been accompanied by growth in unemployment, drops in real income, growing poverty and significantly increased economic disparities among regions within individual countries. Income losses were attributed to the collapse of the Eastern European markets and were reported to be “greater and more sustained than those in the USA and Germany during the Great Depression of the thirties." 

Austerity measures aggravated the social impact of these changes. For example, in Slovakia an NGO, Friends of the Earth-CEPA documented that in 1999, ten years since the beginning of the transition, over 10% of the population lived in material poverty mainly as a result of growing unemployment which has reached 20% by 2000. Alarmingly, 43% of unemployment was long-term and the situation of people who lost their jobs was exacerbated by cuts in the welfare programmes. Although unemployment in Slovakia has dropped in the following years, it still continues to be one of the highest in the EU with 13.2% in 2015 according to Eurostat.

The consequences of the austerity measures that came with the “rescue package” for Greece under the Memorandum signed in 2010 include: growth of unemployment which reached 25.6% in 2015, the highest rate in the EU according to Eurostat, with youth unemployment (those under 25) peaking at 49.7%. Greece has also the highest rate of those at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the Eurozone 31%. The number of people aged between 18 and 60 living in households with no income has reached 17.5% of the population in 2012. These numbers translate bitterly in people’s lives. Oxfam reported an increase in the number of suicides in Greece since 2011. One in three Greeks were reported to have no access to public medical insurance in 2013 and completely depend on community clinics providing care free of charge.

The current crisis is occurring within processes that both Greece and the transition countries accepted as a result of lack of other – less socially harmful – choice. The absence of solidarity of Slovaks, Hungarians, Czechs, Poles and others with the Greeks is one of the results of these processes which on one hand led to significant suffering and losses of (especially) working classes in these countries and at the same time led to fragmentation of solidarities along ethnic or national lines.

Instead of blaming the creditors and the political representatives who enforced harmful policies, people of these countries take their anger out on the “other”: the Roma, the migrants and the Greeks. And all of that in time when solidarities of those affected by austerity are crucial for building any political alternative to it.

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