It is very symptomatic that the story of the great historical break of 1989 in Eastern Europe is usually articulated in purely political terms, often with obvious romantically-nationalistic overtones: winds of change have swept away old curtains and walls of the obsolete system, bringing about a second spring of nations that were at last able to breathe freely and democratically. Topics of the concurrent economical and social transformation are usually given much less attention and tend to be very briefly subsumed under the vague notion of ‘liberalisation’. In any case, all these transformations were also supposed to have a determinate final goal: the accession to the EU, which would gladly extend its hospitality to the newly independent neighbours and guide them in the task of constructing democratic institutions.
However, if we assume a more sober perspective it quickly becomes obvious that, given the new political and economic reality, the absolutely crucial social ‘institution’ that the Eastern European countries certainly lacked was a proper capitalist class. The purpose of this panel is therefore to trace the patterns of socio-economic transformations in Eastern Europe between the collapse of Soviet Union and the accession of the new countries to the EU. What was the interaction between former state property, foreign capital and the newly emerging capitalist class? Did the latter truly emerge – as many perhaps were hoping for – smoothly and spontaneously, simply by the force of the newly unleashed entrepreneurial energy? Or did a shadier process take place, one much closer to Marx’s description of ‘primitive accumulation’, namely a process of violent expropriation?
This discrepancy between the harsh reality of the transition in Eastern Europe and the accompanying Western naivete is perhaps best expressed in the statement that a US treasury official gave regarding Russia as early as 1994: ‘We had a belief that the first generation of Russian capitalists would be nice guys, but they are ruthless motherfuckers.’