In the aftermath of the revolutions of 1989, Eastern Europe has become a discordant mosaic of contradictions, ambiguities and animosities.
Assessed most ominously, the results of the Times Mirror poll give rise to fears of new crises among the largely Slavic nations stretching thinly from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The peoples of Eastern Europe, simply put, do not like their neighbors. Their ethnic divisions are so sharp, and their national hostilities so deep, that radical improvement of relations probably must wait for generations to come. "What I call the cemetery problem," says one Pole, only half-joking. "Those who suffered grievances will have to be buried before we see any improvement."
Current national borders seldom coincide with ethnic and religious boundaries. Blood cousins live just across the rivers and roads that make up the frontiers. So it is not surprising that nationalist forces, long suppressed by Communist rulers, have erupted into violent demands for greater independence or political autonomy, as in Yugoslavia. And people in all Eastern European states, except the former East Germany, believe that parts of neighboring nations really belong to them.
But there also are indicators that democracy is taking root and that free market instincts have not perished under the weight of 45 years of Soviet-style communism. So while there is potential for calamity, there also are exciting signs of renewal. "History," said a shop manager in Prague, "proceeds here."
East Europeans today rate their personal lives one-third below West Europeans, 4.2 against 6.1 on a 10-point "ladder of life." And while West Europeans believe their plight has improved over the past five years, Easterners have experienced a demoralizing decline.
Nevertheless, with the exception of the Hungarians--among whom pessimism is culturally endemic--East Europeans are generally optimistic about their personal futures. Most remarkable is the extreme optimism shown by Bulgarians, despite that nation's harsh economic realities.
Czechoslovaks are generally upbeat too, rating their lives a third higher than others in East Europe. But much of that feeling may be tied to trust in the country's highly popular president, Vaclav Havel. Meanwhile, the Slovaks, who constitute the poorer third of the federated country, are almost as pessimistic as Hungarians.
East European fears center overwhelmingly on economic problems, particularly unemployment.
Political concerns did rate high in some places. When people were asked what would make them personally happy, 23% of Bulgarians mentioned political stability. No other nation, East or West, cited this as a reason for personal happiness. Soviet republics face graver issues--including civil strife--than the materialistic worries elsewhere. Bulgarians were particularly concerned about a return to their authoritarian past.
For most, though, bread-and-butter issues have the highest priority. Hungarians and Czechs fear a further collapse of the Soviet economy, for instance, and a flood of refugees.
Eastern Europeans approve of the revolutions of 1989, but dislike many of the effects. Enthusiasm is generally higher for economic restructuring than political reform.
Among negative changes cited were deteriorating law and order, and interpersonal and ethnic relations; most believe people now care less about each other. "People are irritated, uncertain," said a Slovak economist. "Before, when two friends met, they asked: 'How are you?' Now they ask: 'Do you still have a job?' "
The preference throughout the region is for a social democratic form of capitalism, with margins of up to 5 to 1 favoring a "Garden of Sweden," as it were, rather than the relatively unfettered free market of the United States. Huge majorities want the state to retain a dominant role in major industry and transportation, controlling mining, phones, trains and the like. Most people, however, endorse private ownership of stores and restaurants.
The enterprising spirit has not been killed among East Europeans. By 2-to-1 margins, they prefer to be paid on an incentive basis. Significantly more than westerners, however, they are self-doubters about how much they control their fate. Fewer believe that hard work guarantees success--they think it's determined by forces beyond the individual's control.
Overall, East European society seems fragmented and disoriented--even demoralized--by the changes of the past two years. People lag in understanding new concepts like private property, profits and even democracy.
There is a great appetite for foreign investment throughout the region, for instance, but also suspicion of foreign investors, as if they intended to buy land and annex it to their own countries.