Fading reds, absent greens

The East European Economy in Context
October 24, 1997

The East European Economy in Context is full of facts, a book firmly in the Gradgrind tradition. That Victorian schoolmaster would have been impressed by a work with its "facts by the imperial gallon" and its buckets of bibliographical citations. Some readers will find this useful and the book may be a helpful reference source on economic transformation in Eastern Europe but, it has to be said, to read it is as dry as new sandpaper.

The book has a clear enough layout, the first two chapters covering Eastern Europe to 1945 and in the Communist period, followed by two chapters on "transition" (one political/social the other economic), before shifting to a detailed country-by-country focus in the next two chapters, then turning to sectoral matters (restructuring in agriculture and industry) and culminating in a "prospects" chapter.

Nuggets of useful information abound and, used purposefully and selectively, this book will yield them to the determined reader. By way of example take postwar demography, where the author reminds us that the lack of ethnic conflict in much of the northern part of Central Europe may be due to the massive population shifts of 1944-48. David Turnock notes the vast forced migration of Germans from Poland (10.2 million) and Czechoslovakia (2.8 million). This swelling tide of post-war population movement saw half a million Ukrainians leave Poland while 1.5 million Poles from Poland's former eastern provinces were resettled in the new territories in the west. The postwar years were undoubtedly a harsh period of licensed, but usually not murderous, ethnic cleansing.

But it is hard to avoid the feeling that the book, with its extensive coverage (all the countries get a fair going over), is part extended dictionary. For example, we read, under the heading "Ethnicity": "This is a major source of instability ..." and a description follows that could easily have formed a "capsule" in the style of Norman Davies's recent work on Europe. Later in chapter seven, on industrial and agricultural restructuring, we get a series of snapshots on cooperatives, state farms, marketing and food-processing before the focus becomes sharper and spotlights dairying, sugar, wine, beer, etc. The style is similar to the descriptive country profiles published by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Indeed at times one has the sneaking suspicion that the target audience is the consultant looking for the background for his or her next application to Brussels for EU project funding for Eastern Europe.

The drawback in all of this is that it is not easy to spot connections across themes or patterns between countries. Another problem is that some issues are touched on (environment, politics) which raise questions that the author does not pursue. Why, for example, given environmental damage on a huge scale, has a green politics been so noticeably absent in Eastern Europe? Or, given the energetic struggle for democracy, what is the actual degree of participation in formal political life in elections in the 1990s? It is odd, too, that the privatisation discussion takes place with virtually no mention of the "corporate governance" debate and the helpful theoretical framework it generates.

In the welter of publishing following the fall of communism authors have sometimes been lured into making too hasty assessments in a highly fluid situation. Turnock, alas, has fallen into the trap. Thus, "Solidarity showed some promise, but ... remains little more than a labour union", while absolutely right for the period 1992-95, is distinctly off the mark following the September 1997 general election. Nato's "unwillingness to risk antagonising Russia", by taking on new members is also, following the recent invitations extended to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, plainly mistaken.

A pity too that in proof reading small but niggling errors were not rooted out. East European names can be awkward but in a book with an economic focus it is unfortunate that Leszek Balcerowicz, with his famous "shock therapy" is wrongly labelled as "I. Belcerowicz"; and hard currency shops were a feature of daily life in centrally planned economies long before 1987 when the author suggests they opened in Poland.

Finally, Turnock's part encyclopaedia, part dictionary also assumes another role as part policy adviser. In a somewhat glib manner we come across scattered lists of policy "shoulds": there should be better protection for workers ... better health education ... better education policy ... housing benefits ... banks should be relieved of inherited debt ... small business supported. Such objectives are worthy and well intentioned but they simply raise other questions, part technical and part-political/social - how to produce "good" policy, who will pay, and how will the benefits be shared?

George Blazyca is professor, Centre for Contemporary European Studies, University of Paisley.

The East European Economy in Context: Communism in Transition

Author - David Turnock
ISBN - 0 415 08626 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £55.00
Pages - 425

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