Many of the capitalist regimes in Eastern Europe have faced continued instability as they are challenged by mass movements from below. What is the historical background to these struggles and what are the challenges and limits of these movements?It was 25 years ago when the German band Scorpions sang "Wind of change" to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the "socialist bloc" that followed it. With this sweet melody we were told about fraternity and the dreams of new generations. In the East, 25 years later there is nothing but poverty, unemployment, corruption and inequality. However in recent years there has been a social and political crisis also marked by grassroots mobilizations in the region. This social and political instability is becoming a concern among Western capitalists, is this going to mark the end of an era of working class paralysis?
In recent years, a number of countries were affected by popular uprisings, political crises and social explosions. This is the case of Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Moldova. Hungary, Croatia, Montenegro and Albania have also witnessed less intense mass mobilizations.
Obviously, these movements and crisis have had varying degrees of depth and intensity in different countries. In some cases, they managed to bring down the local and/or national governments; in other cases they were not strong enough to do so. At the same time, we should point out that the Ukrainian crisis - although it is a part of this series of conflicts in the region - its severity, its geopolitical implications and potential consequences, make it a special case.
In all these examples we have seen a reproduction of similar dynamics. Even if the popular discontent could erupt for specific issues (price increases of public services, repression of protests, corruption scandals, suspicion of electoral fraud, etc.) very quickly the questioning of a political “elite” became one of the principal focuses of the struggle.
Beyond the real limits of these movements, the first thing that should be noticed is that the masses of this region are taking little by little the "habit" of direct action, of the fight in the streets against the corrupt and repressive governments. We cannot deny that it is the result of a spillover of mass mobilizations against the attacks of capitalists, which took place in the countries of southern Europe and North Africa.
This element gives them a different character from what were called the "velvet revolutions" that were fomented by NGOs and by imperialist foundations to install puppet governments favorable to Western powers. Obviously, this does not mean that the imperialists through their international institutions, foundations, political allies and the "civil society" at the local level, did not try to channel and divert the popular dissatisfaction to its own geopolitical and economical goals in the region (on this point the example of Ukraine is emblematic).
This new tendency of mass mobilizations in Eastern Europe seems to express an early change in the masses’ predisposition to struggle. It is important considering the great demoralization and the loss of confidence in the collective strength of the working class movement which spread throughout the region in 1990-2000. It is clear that the legacy of the Stalinist period and the process of capitalist restoration (which meant a profound social, cultural and economic setback for the popular classes) still weighs. This is what the objective and subjective limitations of recent mobilizations suggest. But it is also important to take into account that this change opens a lot of possibilities for the working class and oppressed of the region to emerge.
Capitalist restoration and decomposing democracies
This new situation of social unrest - to which leaders of the Western powers must adapt - is in opposition to the earlier period of the bourgeois triumphalism in which the imperialism used the capitalist restoration in the former "Soviet bloc" as one of the central elements of its propaganda. The capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe was in fact represented as one of the greatest victories of capitalism in the twentieth century.
In the countries of the former "socialist bloc", or what we could call more correctly ex-bureaucratised workers’ states, the reintroduction of capitalism has involved a profound degradation of the living conditions of the working class. The privatizations have resulted in company closures and massive layoffs. In countries like the former Yugoslavia, this process has also triggered the bloodiest armed conflicts in the continent since the end of World War II.
The process of capitalist restoration was parallel to the establishment of bourgeois democratic regimes. This was also an important element of the imperialist political propaganda because it was alleged that there was a correlation between (neo-liberal) capitalism and "democracy." At the same time, communism, and any system that is not a bourgeois democracy, was (and still is) equated with totalitarianism and dictatorship.
But these bourgeois democratic regimes that were established in the former bureaucratised workers states (as well in other regions of the world) were of a pitiful quality. Even from the standpoint of the capitalists. The decomposed and degraded nature of these "democracies" can be found not only in the endemic corruption and clientelism, but also in the quality of institutions.
What is usually called "the Rule of Law" is completely weak in these countries. Not only the workers, but the general masses don’t trust the institutions (justice, parliament) that are completely subservient to governments or oligarchs.
For example, the complicity between the judiciary, large local capitalists and multinational companies presents itself very openly and shamelessly. Thus, in the face of repeated violations of workers’ rights (that are already weak) from domestic and foreign employers, workers know that it is useless to resort to the courts.
Another example of this direct link between the capitalist class and the state is reflected in the many cases where the magnates of a particular industry’s sector are simultaneously deputies or ministers at local or national level (for example, in Ukraine the current president, Petro Poroshenko, is the head of a big chocolate firm and other companies). In other words, the local bourgeoisie, which is from the former Stalinist bureaucracy, is often directly in political power.
To all this we should add the total control of the mass media by oligarchic groups that are directly linked to the government and/or imperialist powers... Not to mention the cases of direct repression against opposition journalists or against those who are merely critical of the authorities.
This poses a problem even for capitalists, because the corruption and the lack of any independence between the state institutions, the governments and local ruling classes, creates the basis for a possible crisis of the state’s legitimacy. That crisis could develop not only among workers but also among the middle classes - including its most privileged layers. It is no coincidence that NGOs, foundations and imperialist leaders insist so much on the importance of strengthening the "Rule of Law" and the fight against corruption in these countries.
Global economic crisis and the crisis of capitalist triumphalism
The economic crisis that erupted in 2007-2008 is a historical crisis of capitalism. It has affected the central imperialist countries like the US and several major powers of the European Union (EU). However it was the peripheral imperialist countries such as Greece, the Spanish State, Portugal and Ireland that were the most affected. The semi-colonial countries of the European periphery have also been hit hard by the crisis.
As a result of capitalists’ attacks through their austerity plans, the economic crisis has rapidly become a social and a political crisis in several countries. In some cases, as in Greece and the Spanish State, the economic crisis has also led to a crisis of the political system.
This is also the case in several Arab countries in northern Africa where the revolutionary process that was born in Tunisia has led to the fall of dictators who were in power for decades: Ben Ali in Tunisia, Gaddafi in Libya and Mubarak in Egypt. Although these processes are experiencing significant declines, they remain open.
These struggles and crises are undoubtedly a blow to the capitalists’ triumphalist speeches worldwide. Remember that in the 1990s the imperialists openly proclaimed the "end of history" and that "there was no alternative" to liberal democracy and capitalism.
The crisis of the EU and the "old democracies" is an additional element of this crisis. The immense suffering that the "European partners" impose on the masses in Greece and in other EU countries, alongside the authoritarian, bonapartist turn of all political regimes of the continent, makes "the European perspective" less attractive to people in several peripheral European countries.
It is in this context that massive mobilizations and struggles have begun to develop in different countries of Eastern Europe in recent years. In none of these revolts was the requirement to move towards "European integration" a central axis. Even in Ukraine where this claim was initially important, the denunciation of the corrupt and repressive government of Viktor Yanukovych was the main focus (at least until a pro-imperialist government moved to Kiev and the conflict took the form of a civil war).
Although the rejection of the political caste is something that is gradually expressed in different parts of the globe and something that has deepened with the progress of the crisis, we should point out a particularity of Eastern European countries. In fact, given the form in which most political regimes were formed throughout the last 25 years in these countries (that is to say as "democratic counter revolution" and restorationists regimes) the questioning of political parties and governments is closely linked to questioning the whole process of capitalist restoration.
In other words, in these countries it is difficult to question the political caste in power since the early 1990s without questioning privatization, factories closures, layoffs, the destruction of public sectors, the loss social benefits, the deep deterioration of living standards of the population in general and of the working class in particular.
This obviously does not mean that the mass mobilizations in the former bureaucratised worker’s states of Eastern Europe mechanically lead to a questioning of capitalism. However, there is a tendency to establish very quickly the link between the issues of the political regime and economic issues, as if it was the same question.
Thus, in the mobilizations that took place in recent years it has been observed that the requirement of resignation of governments went with the revision of privatizations that took place in previous decades. In the case of Bulgaria in 2013, for example, after the increase of the price of electricity bills protesters demanded the renationalisation of electricity suppliers and even of all the privatizations that took place in the last 25 years. During the social explosion in Bosnia and Herzegovina in February 2014 some even talked about the nationalization under workers’ management of certain enterprises along with other workers’ demands.
"Civil society" and class conciliation
What fundamentally characterizes these movements is their ideological confusion and lack of an alternative program that responds consistently to the interests of the working class, independently of the capitalist political currents and imperialism.
Facing the political regime and a degraded democracy, protesters often advocate for "strengthening civil society". On the issue of mass privatization, it is not uncommon to hear the demand for "transparent privatization". Somehow there are widespread illusions about the possibility of building "good capitalism" and true liberal democracy. That is to say, a class-conciliationist vision in which "good bosses", middle classes and workers have a common objective: the fight against the corrupt political class.
NGOs, foundations and international imperialist organizations help instill the vision that bourgeois democracy and capitalism are impossible to overcome. They present the "European horizon" as the only salvation for Eastern European societies and use this ideology to contain mass dissatisfaction.
However, even if local capitalists and imperialism are able to deflect and/or contain different popular revolts, it does not mean that the governments are stable and the sources of rebellion have disappeared. On the contrary, these demonstrations and riots are a blow against the regimes, weakening them and leaving open the possibility of more social struggles in the future.
One of the problems of these mobilizations is that they take on a polyclassist, “citizen” form where the working class participates, but is diluted in the mass of ’’citizens’’. It makes the development of class-oriented demands more difficult. Instead, it’s the middle class that shapes the political demands.
The only example that has occurred in recent years in which the workers’ demands were really the center of the movement was during the social explosion in Bosnia in 2014. In this case, the movement was born out of the struggle against the repression of the unemployed and precarious youth in the (former) northeastern industrial city of Tuzla. The unrest then spilled over into major cities, including the capital of Sarajevo.
But there were still some limitations. For instance, the movement failed to extend to the Serb entity, Republika Srpska. Furthermore, the sectors in struggle were largely the unemployed, precarious youth, or workers whose factories were in advanced stages of closure. Paralyzed by fear of unemployment, the job-holding sectors of the working class were not actively involved. The bureaucracies of major trade unions even condemned the protests.
The main question is whether the working class, with other oppressed sectors, will manage to intervene in future social explosions and impose its own claims against the local ruling classes, imperialism and their allies in the union bureaucracies.
The passage from “restoration" to "transition"
Defending a class program that is independent from the local ruling classes and imperialists is fundamental. This is especially the case in a region in which, in the 1980s many countries experienced major workers’ struggles that were against the Stalinist bureaucracies, but were incapable of solving the economic and social crisis spreading across the entire socialist bloc.
Popular uprisings in several countries have managed to reverse the old Stalinist regimes, but have been capitalized and diverted by various bourgeois and restorationists political alternatives. The pressure of the working class is one of the main factors in the 1990s that led a part of the Stalinist bureaucracy to adopt the path of capitalist restoration.
In all of these cases, workers were unable to slow down the process of capitalist restoration and halt the establishment of bourgeois democratic regimes by defending their own program of political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy – that is, to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy and replace it with a regime based on proletarian democracy with decisions taken in organisms of self-organization (worker’s soviets or councils); to defend the economic bases of the state (social property); thus allow for the improvement of living conditions for the masses and begin an internationalist struggle for socialism. Unfortunately it was not like that. A significant part of the proletariat decided, though reluctantly, to support pro-capitalist alternatives.
Today, as we begin to see emerging breaches in these regimes introduced in the early 1990s, the working class should avoid making the same mistakes. It is imperative that the alternatives are radically different from the "solutions" provided by the bourgeoisie and the imperialism.
Thus, when dealing with corrupt and repressive regimes, it is not possible to propose superficial changes and reforms that are limited to the existing framework. The framework itself must be reversed. In this sense, the demand for a Constituent Assembly based on the broadest democracy could become a first step to move towards meeting the structural democratic demands of the masses.
In this way, workers, youth and all the oppressed could defend measures (ie., all politicians should earn the same salary as a skilled worker) that would prevent politics from becoming a source of personal enrichment for a handful of corrupt politicians. This is a central problem in all countries of the region that has generated a general rejection, but does not ensure that the politicians will stop governing for the interests of capitalists. Therefore, in addition to defending the claim of the election of all positions in the state, we should highlight that MPs, ministers, judges, etc. are revocable at any time.
In this region, the question of national oppression arises for the concerned people not only against imperialism, but also within each country. Nationalism has been used by several restorationist currents to divide the exploited in order to reap benefits from the reintroduction of capitalism. This is why the right to self-determination for the oppressed nationalities of the region is also a central democratic demand and the only way to lay the foundations of a real fraternity among peoples.
In former bureaucratized workers’ states of Eastern Europe, one question plays a major role – perhaps comparable to the question of land reform in the past: the re-nationalization of all public companies and services that were privatized during the process of capitalist restoration, without compensation and under the management of workers and the population. This claim could also be extended to the private businesses that were opened during this period and are now in crisis, deciding to close or implement massive dismissals.
While the private appropriation of wealth that was produced collectively is one of the fundamental characteristics of capitalism in the former bureaucratized workers’ states, at the same time capitalist restoration involved the large-scale theft of property and national wealth produced over several decades by the entire society. The openly criminal character of this contemporary primitive accumulation of capital allows the claim for re-nationalization to be fundamental and clearly comprehended by the working masses in these countries.
This measure would not only be a way to address the urgent problem of unemployment, especially among young people, but also a solid foundation for the establishment of organs of self-organization of the working class and masses; That would then provide an answer to the question of "popular participation" in making economic and political decisions in society. This self-organization of the masses could even grow to create forms of dual power and dispute with the bourgeoisie.
Putting the working class into motion in defense of such a program would require an organization – an organization that is able to respond not simply to practical, but above all to political issues. In this sense, one of the preparatory tasks preceding the (very) probable event of social explosion and maybe revolutionary process is the construction of a revolutionary party of workers, youth and all the oppressed; a party that is completely different from those that have been developed so far in the region; a party that is decidedly revolutionary and sides with the exploited and oppressed; a collective organizer that is able to learn from the past and recent struggles and thus prepare for future victories. For this, the exploited masses’ recuperation of the regions’ political and ideological heritage of Trotskyism – the only Marxist current that denounced from the beginning the bureaucratic deformation of the former USSR dominated by Stalin – will be fundamental.