As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – or, more aptly, the collapse of communism – another anniversary should not be forgotten, and this is something that goes back 30 years.
Without that earlier event, the 20-year-old milestone we celebrate today might not have taken place until now. Why 30? Because it was in 1979 that the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, and it was this invasion that in 1980-1981 prevented the USSR from crushing “Solidarity” – the unprecedented social movement that brought freedom to Poland in 1989 and paved the way to ending the East/West divide. It was in 1979 that John Paul II, on his visit to Poland, told the Poles, and in fact the other peoples in that part of Europe, “Don’t be afraid”.
Let me quote from former German President von Weizsäcker, who, like Chancellor Angela Merkel, rightly associates input from “Solidarity” with the events that resulted in the Wall’s downfall and – not long thereafter – the dissolution of the “red superpower”: “’Solidarity’ was the model of civic activity in the Eastern bloc, beginning with the 1980 uprising and continuing through its survival despite marshal law and until the Round Table in the Spring of 1989, which became a signal for bloodless revolutions in other countries of the Soviet bloc.”
Another president – the historical leader of Solidarność, Lech Wałęsa – was quite right to remind us that “it is not 1989, but rather 1980, when the strikes started in Poland, in Gdansk, that has remained the key date”, despite the fact that 1989 and 1990 are considered the beginning of a great change – not only social and geopolitical change, but systemic change as well. Specifically, the economic regime needed to be totally overhauled, leaping from an economy based on the poorly planned pre-war Soviet model to that of a free market open to international trade. Such a transformation was unprecedented in history.
The model imposed was more or less similar throughout the region, but conditions at the starting point were different, and these included the role and the position of the private sector. The scope of the undertaking was not limited to forging new institutions: what also needed changing was a mentality warped by half a century’s existence of an economy run centrally under the influence of party bodies with a monopoly on power and a system based on directives and redistribution rather than on laws of the market. It was therefore necessary to put an end to the syndrome of the “homo sovieticus” – who lacked initiative and willingness to work honestly, having no respect for common good. This was an endeavour in which the OECD was to take part from the outset in conjunction with its fruitful “Partners in Transition” programme.
I think therefore that it would be of interest to compare – as we listen to our panellists – which changes were deemed of key importance in those historic times, how people reacted to them in the Central European countries represented here today, what was relatively easy, where obstacles were encountered and how they were overcome, and how these fully sovereign countries learned to compete – domestically and internationally.
20 Years After: reflections on the economic transformation of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and the Slovak Republic