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East and Central European Social Forum in Wroclaw
by Pierre Gottiniaux
4 April 2016

Europe is about to implode. This was the first point made at the East and Central European Social Forum which was held in Wroclaw from 11th to 13th March 2016. Since the banking crisis broke out in 2008, rapidly becoming a worldwide crisis of sovereign debt, things in seem to be going from bad to worse for Europe. Eastern and Central European countries have been particularly badly hit by the way that the crisis has been managed by the European Union and their own governments, imposing a web of antisocial measures with no regard for their populations. The imperial wars drag on in Ukraine and Syria with their waves of refugees, like cluster bombs that the US, Russian, EU and Turkish governments and their cronies fire at each other while populations suffer the consequences; all this in the name of so-called geo-strategic interests, a subtle combination of political ideology and the desire to seize control of natural resources and the routes required to transport them. Meanwhile, the European Union with its 500 million inhabitants seems incapable of collectively organizing the reception of one million refugees, and parties of the far right are winning support throughout all this and imposing their views. Given this context, the very possibility of a Brexit is already seen by some as the end of the European Union. [1]

One foot in the past…

Between the 1950s and the 1980s, “real socialism” brought rapid industrialization to many East European countries, along with full employment (for men!) , improved lifestyle, better education, health cover and more. On the downside was a heavy price to pay: bureaucracy with corruption at the top and an economic system which proved far from efficient. Then there was Soviet interventionism, sending its tanks to places like Budapest, Prague, Gdansk and Poznań. Even though movements like Solidarnosc did emerge and accomplish great things in terms of raising workers’ awareness and creating alternatives, at the beginning of the 1980s the outcome was hardly glowing. Then came the “transition”, when the State model, characterized by bureaucratic public ownership, shifted to a liberal capitalist model. Privatized companies, opened-up markets and deregulation brought joy, happiness and prosperity, some claimed. But what was the price to be paid? It was the acceptance of a model based on indebtedness and exploitation of people and nature.

Not surprisingly, the honeymoon did not last. In Slovenia in the 1980s, one in two workers worked in industry, and there were fewer than10 000 unemployed. Today there are 200 000 in a population of 2 million inhabitants, with one in four people close to the breadline, while public debt continues to increase relentlessly. It has gone from 5 billion euros in 2005 to 45 billion today… thanks to the euro. In Poland, which underwent the shock therapy mainly from 1989 to 1991, the proportion of the population living below the minimum threshold necessary to participate in society [2] has gone from 15% before 1989 to 37% in 1996 and over 40% today. Two million people have lost their jobs, salaries have fallen by an average of 25% - and by 50% for farmers – and the country’s production has plummeted by 38%.

Naturally, all this comes with the most flagrant social injustice. To start with, the privatization of means of production and housing was by no means transparent. It was not carried out under the auspices of independent institutions, citizens and trade unions. Although privatization mainly benefited the most privileged class locally, many companies were bought up for a fraction of their true value by foreign companies, often from Western Europe, but also from the United States and Japan. In East Germany, the federal government went as far as paying foreign investors who agreed not to reduce the workforce when they bought over East German companies! In 1989, the assets of the German Democratic Republic were estimated at 600 billion deutschemarks. That was the amount they should have got from selling them. But in the end, once all the assets had been sold off at bargain prices, the result of the operation for the German government was a debt of 260 billion deutschemarks. Not long after the shift to capitalism, there were waves of mass redundancies, despite the buyers’ promises. As for housing, homes were sold off in a similar way, to the detriment of the people living in them. Tens of thousands of families were simply evicted from homes they had occupied for years, without any alternative housing proposed.

The application of the capitalist “remedy” for East and Central European economies has resulted in bringing those economies to their knees. The West, in the spirit of collaboration we know so well, invested over 120 billion euros in the economies of the former Eastern Bloc, ostensibly to aid and support their reconstruction and development. In reality, it was much more a question of helping oneself, to maintain privileges which, in a capitalist system, can only come from exploiting the periphery. With the South subjected to maximum pressure, the transition of East European economies was just what was needed. Debts were soon accumulated and the means to repay them disappeared in the pockets of the predator classes. Insolvency was just around the corner. Then the IMF turned up with its loans conditioned upon the application of structural adjustment programmes. For those who may not be familiar with the system, this means redundancies, reduced salaries, increased VAT, selling public assets, pension cuts and so forth… with ever more hardship and inequality.

...and one foot in the struggle, very much in the present!

Once we understand what is going on – and the same applies to all the countries of the former Eastern Bloc and the Balkans— what can we do? It was to talk about this very matter that we gathered on that weekend in Wroclaw, with about a hundred activists from Hungary, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine, Serbia, Slovakia, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Romania, the Czech Republic, Greece, Bulgaria, Poland, Austria, Russia, Belorussia, as well as Tunisia, Cameroon, Germany, Belgium, China, the United States, Switzerland, Palestine, Colombia (I hope I have not forgotten any...), representing a broad panorama of regional situations and ongoing struggles. And there are many struggles. Yet very quickly, another problem becomes clear: at first glance, the state of leftwing movements in Eastern Europe, by which I mean organized progressive movements fighting for a fairer, more egalitarian society – leaves a lot to be desired. The governments in power in Hungary, Poland and Croatia (not to mention Bosnia!) make the picture even grimmer.

Greece is a focal point of the overall situation in Europe. The financial crisis revealed the chasm that exists between Northern and Southern Europe, and now the refugee crisis reveals the chasm between the East and the West. Greece is a concentration of all these crises and is paying the price of the European Union’s inability to come up with any proper solutions. Today, resistance is mounting among the people around Europe, solidarity with migrants is being organized by citizens locally and solutions to the Greek crisis are emerging in the form of self-organized health centres and social centres. We are all duty-bound to give them our active support and solidarity.

In Poland the resistance movement against evictions and, more broadly, against mortgage debts that are illegitimate and illegal on several counts, [3] is gaining strength and managing to win some battles while at the same time bringing this emblematic topic to the forefront. In Hungary activists are succeeding in drawing in more and more people to take part in meetings and citizens’ actions. They have created a movement which was able to influence local elections, and this is just the beginning.

The year 2011 saw the start of the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as the emergence of the “Indignados” in Spain and “Occupy Wall Street” in the United States. In 2012 we saw enormous demonstrations in Slovenia. In 2013, all eyes were on Turkey and Brazil. In 2014, there were popular uprisings in Bosnia, where students and workers joined forces, voicing the same demands and creating “Plenums” (huge popular assemblies). As for the political arena, there seem to be clear signs of change in the air, with the rise of Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the IRA in Ireland, as well as the emergence of Corbyn in the United Kingdom and Sanders in the United States. All these promising developments call into question the way government institutions are run and reflect the material possibilities of a social revolution.

Those taking part in the Social Forum collectively reasserted the importance of an anti-capitalist struggle and unanimously called for the dissolution of NATO and an end to militarization. The crisis of neoliberal policies has triggered the resurgence of far right political forces and fascist-like ideologies. Capitalism prefers fascism to the power of the people. The participants have therefore decided to organize a meeting on the issue of refugees in Southern Europe, in either Greece or Italy, this year; to hold the next East and Central European Social Forum in Spring 2017 in either Bulgaria or Hungary; to broaden and reinforce cooperation between movements in these countries and in North Africa and Latin America as well as with social movements in China.

Another world is not only possible but necessary, and it is on its way.

Footnotes :

[1Wolfgang Munchau, Europe enters the age of disintegration, Financial Times, 29 February 2016 (accessible at:

[2This is according to the main Polish trade union, “August 89”. Their minimum threshold required to participate in society includes access to decent housing, enough money for food and clothing, access to one cultural event per month, amongst other things.

Pierre Gottiniaux

CADTM Belgium