30 Years After Fall of the Wall, Eastern Europe a Bit Quizzical

(CN) — Thirty years after the Berlin Wall came crashing down, a wide-ranging survey finds many people in the former Soviet Union bloc happy about the transition to capitalism and multiparty democracy but also saying life in many areas isn’t better and has gotten worse.

East German border guards patrol the Berlin Wall with the Brandenburg Gate in background, in November 1989, as the wall fell. (AP file photo/Jockel Finck)

The survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center looked widely at how Europeans across the continent feel about the state of their countries, and revealed that people in a handful of wealthier countries in Northern and Central Europe are positive about the state of their countries while people elsewhere are much more negative.

The survey talked with 18,979 adults between May and August this year, gathering the opinions of people in 14 European Union states. For the sake of comparison, it also got the views of people in Russia, Ukraine and the United States.

The poll focused on how people in the former Soviet bloc feel about life today compared to 30 years ago. It gathered opinions in Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and eastern Germany, all of which were part of the Soviet bloc and are now within the European Union.

In these places, a majority of people said the transition from communism to capitalism was positive, and that the shift away from one-party systems was good.

Generally, respondents said the shift away from communism improved education, raised living standards and has given people more pride in their countries, the survey found.

Notably, though, the survey said this view was found mostly among higher-income and more educated people, who said the changes since communism have been a benefit to ordinary people. The survey said lower-income respondents mostly felt otherwise and said ordinary people had not gained.

Significantly, the survey also found many people felt that their countries were no better off — and even worse — in the areas of healthcare, law and order and family values since communism.

In all these countries, large majorities said political and business elites had gained more than average citizens in the past 30 years. Seven out 10 Poles, however, said ordinary citizens too have prospered greatly since communism, the survey found. Poland has been enjoying a strong economy, largely due to its proximity to Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse.

Russians and Ukrainians held much more negative views about life under market economies and multiparty systems. Neither country is part of the EU and both have struggled with corruption and the concentration of wealth in the hands of oligarchs since the end of communism.

In Russia, the survey found only 38% of Russians in favor of capitalism and 43% happy with multiparty democracy. Ukrainians were more positive, but still only 47% felt positive about the transition to a market economy and 51% approved of the evolution to a multiparty system, the study found.

The survey’s examination of Western Europe revealed stark differences between Northern and Southern Europe.

It found many people in Southern Europe (Spain, Italy, France and Greece) dissatisfied with the direction of their country and their economies in bad shape. A majority of people in the United Kingdom also expressed frustration with the direction of the country and only half said they were satisfied with the economy. People in these countries also said they were not happy with the way democracy was working.

Southern Europeans were hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis and have struggled to rein in public debt and high unemployment. Many people in Southern Europe blame EU fiscal policies and complain that the EU system is benefiting Germany and other northern countries to their detriment. Emigration from the south to northern cities for work is common in Italy, Greece and Spain.

By contrast, a majority of people in Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany said they were happy with their economies, the direction of their countries and how democracy was working.

In Central and Eastern Europe, the survey found a majority of people in Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia positive about the state of their economies and the direction of their countries. People in Hungary and Bulgaria were less positive.

Across Europe, the survey found widespread dissatisfaction with politicians and how democracy is working. In asking whether elected officials care about what “people like them think,” the survey found most people unhappy with politicians. Only in Sweden was there a clear majority (56%) of people viewing politicians favorably. In Greece, only 13% of people said their politicians care about what they think, the survey found.

There is “a shared sense that elected officials do not care about their constituents,” the survey said. They are “often perceived as out of touch with average citizens,” the survey said.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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