How the West Lost the East

NATO, the European Union (EU), the USA and Central and Eastern Europe

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

Also published by United Press International (UPI)


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Written December 9, 2002

Updated August 2005

The Pew Research Center published in December 2002 a report expansively titled "What the World Thinks in 2002". "The World", reduced to 44 countries and 38,000 interviewees, included 3500 respondent from central and east Europe: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine. Uzbekistan stood in for the formerly Soviet central Asia. The Times-Mirror 1991 survey, "The Pulse of Europe" was used as a benchmark.

With the implosion of communism in 1989 and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, large swathes of central and eastern Europe found themselves devoid of an internal market, an economic sponsor, or a military umbrella. The countries of central Europe - from Slovenia to Hungary - and the Baltic dismissed the communist phase of their past as a "historical accident" and vigorously proceeded to seek integration with Western Europe, notably Germany, much as they have done until the rise of Fascism in the 1930s.

The polities of eastern Europe bitterly divided into the "nostalgics" or "reactionary" versus the "European", or "progressive". The first lot - including Russia, Ukraine and Belarus - sought to resurrect an economic incarnation of the former USSR. The latter - notably Poland - reclassified themselves as "central Europeans" and emulated the likes of the Czech republic and Hungary in a desperate bid to curry favor with the European Union and the United States.

The Pew report reveals that the concerns of the denizens of central and east Europe are varied but closely aligned with the global agenda. In this sense, the iron curtain has, indeed, lifted and total integration has been achieved despite massive economic disparities. The publics of the former Soviet Bloc place surprisingly great emphasis on the environment, for instance - hitherto thought to be a preoccupation of their more affluent neighbours to the west.

Consider the war on terrorism.

People in Russia are vehemently opposed to the use of force to dislodge Saddam Hussein. They regard the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a greater threat to peace in the Middle East. They are convinced that the USA is bent on war in the Gulf to secure its oil sources. Europe is likely to pay the price, say the Russians, by becoming a target for international terrorism.

Yet, in a sweeping reversal of sentiment, Russians now regard the world as safer with a single superpower. In Uzbekistan, whose crumbling economy has enjoyed a fillip from the presence of 1500 US troops, support for America's military campaigns is understandably high.

Yet, the most startling and unambiguous revelation was the extent of anti-American groundswell everywhere: among America's NATO allies, in developing countries, Muslim nations and even in eastern Europe where Americans, only a decade ago were perceived as much-adulated liberators. "People around the world embrace things American and, at the same time, decry U.S. influence on their societies. Similarly, pluralities in most of the nations surveyed complain about American unilateralism." - expounds the report.

The image of the Unites States as a benign world power slipped dramatically in the space of two years in Slovakia (down 14 percent), in Poland (-7), in the Czech Republic (-6) and even in fervently pro-Western Bulgaria (-4 percent). But it rose exponentially in Ukraine (up 10 percent) and, most astoundingly, in Russia (+24 percent, albeit from a very low base).

Still, rising anti-Americanism may have more to do with a nonspecific wave of gloom and dysphoria than with concrete American policies. "People who are less well off economically are more likely than those who are more financially secure to dislike the U.S." - says the report.

Only two fifths of Czechs are satisfied with their own life or with the state of their nation. Three quarters are unhappy with the world at large. The figures are even way lower in Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine. Only Uzbeks are content, probably for want of knowing better.

In Russia, less than one fifth are at ease with their life, their country, or the world. Bulgaria takes the prize: a mere 8 percent of Bulgarians find their life gratifying. One in twenty five Bulgarians is optimistic regarding his or her nation. One in eight approves of the world.

East Germans are far more pessimistic than the Wessies, their brethren in the western Lander. East European are exceedingly displeased with their income, though they find their family lives agreeable and, in the lands of vertiginous unemployment levels, their jobs appealing.

Nine in ten Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Poles and Slovaks maintain a negative view of their national economies. In Russia the figure is 83 percent and even in the Czech Republic it is 60. Three quarters of east Europeans surveyed - including east Germans - do not believe that economic conditions will improve.

"Will my kids go hungry? Will they be stuck with my debts? It looks bad and it can only get worse. I mean, you can hope it will get better but it does not look good" - muses a forlorn 69-years old Polish farmer.

Incredibly, these dismal figures reflect a rise in satisfaction throughout the region since the demise of communism in 1989-91. Significantly, the young are double as hopeful than those older than 35. Between one third (Bulgaria, Czech Republic) and one half (Ukraine, Slovakia and Russia) of respondents of all age groups believe in a better future - far outweighing the pessimists. Only in Poland are the majority of people are anxious for the future of their children.

Still, "while Eastern Europeans feel their lives are better off since the collapse of communism, many say they have lost ground over the past five years. A majority of Bulgarians (55%) believe their lives are worse today, as do pluralities in Ukraine, the Slovak Republic and Poland. Again, Czechs are the exception 41% think they have made progress while 27% believe they have lost ground. Russians are divided on this point (37% say they have lost ground, 36% feel they have made progress)."

Poverty is a potent depressant. The greater part of Russians and Ukrainians reported that "there have been times in the past year when they had too little money to afford food", medical care, or clothing. So did half the Bulgarians, one third of the Poles and one sixth of Slovaks. Ninety-two percent of the Bulgarians interviewed identified economic problems as having the most effect on their lives.

Similar figures obtained in Russia (85), Ukraine (79) and Poland (73). These data are as bad as it gets. Senegal, Mali and Bangladesh are in the same league. The situation is better in Slovakia (63 percent). At 46 percent, the Czech Republic proved equal to the much richer United Kingdom and United States.

People everywhere do not blame their economic predicament on inapt administrations, or on specific leaders. Vladimir Putin is much more popular in Russia than his cabinet but the government get good marks. The leadership in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, suffered precipitous drops in popularity since 1991. East Europeans - except the Russians - also rate the European Union higher than they do their own authorities. In Slovakia the ratio is a whopping three to one.

With the notable exceptions of Ukraine and the Czech Republic, east Europeans approve of their religious leaders. Ukrainians distrust their military - but all other nationalities are fond of the armed forces. The media and journalists are universally highly rated as positive social influences.

Russians and Uzbeks are concerned about lack of housing. Health is a universal headache: two fifths of Russians, one third of Poles and Czechs and one quarter of Slovaks listed it as such. Central and east European education still yields superior results so only one fifth of Russians find it worrying. Respondents from other countries in the region did not.

Between two thirds and four fifths of the denizens of the crime-infested societies of the countries in transition registered delinquency as a major scourge, followed by corrupt political leaders, AIDS and disease, moral decline, poor drinking water, emigration, poor schooling, terrorism, immigration and ethnic conflict.

East Europeans are as xenophobic as their counterparts in the West. Between half and three quarters of all respondents - fully 80 percent in the Czech Republic - thought that immigrants are a "bad influence on the country". Only Bulgaria welcomes immigration by a wide margin. But nine of ten Bulgarians decry emigration - Bulgarians fleeing abroad. Three quarters do so in Slovakia, Ukraine, Poland and the former East Germany.

Ironically, the more xenophobic the society, the more concerned its members are with ethnic hatred. Almost three fifths of all Czechs identify it as the major problem facing the world today. Other east Europeans are equally worried by nuclear weapons, the gap between rich and poor, the environment and infectious diseases.

The survey reveals both the failure of transition and a decisive break between central and eastern Europe. The shared brief episode of communism failed to homogenize these parts of the continent. Central Europe - including Slovenia - with its history of industrial capitalism, modern bureaucratic governance and the rule of law - is reverting to its historical default. It is being reintegrated into the European mainstream.

The countries of east Europe - Poland included - are unable to catch up. Their transition is tortuous and unpopular among their subjects. Their lot is, indeed, improving but glacially and imperceptibly. They are being left behind by a largely indifferent West. Their erstwhile central European co-inmates in the gulag of communism are now keen to distance themselves. They are considered a drag and an embarrassment. Their unquenched hopes for a better future are smothered by insurmountable economic and social problems.

European enlargement is likely to stall after the first intake of 10 new members in May 2004. Those left out in the cold are excluded for a long stretch. Rather than relying on the double panacea of NATO and the EU, they would do well to start reforming themselves by bootstrapping. Surveys like these are timely reminders of this unpleasant reality.


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