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This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

In Transit

One of the books of which I’m most proud is In Transit – notes on good governance which I drafted in 1998 - after almost a decade of experience of working and living in Czechia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Latvia on projects building, we hoped, more open institutions of local government and regional development. I had come to that work in 1990 after 20 years of trying to get our Scottish system operating in a more citizen-friendly way – so I felt I knew what people in central Europe were up against.

The book was, unusually, written very much for the younger generation in those parts of central Europe and central Asia I was working with; picking out the key features of the new systems they were being asked to run; and tried to identify some pointers for how to effect change in local and central government state bodies. I remain pretty satisfied with the book – although I might have made a better link between the case study of strategy work in Scotland and the rest of the book

In the early days of what used to be called “transition”, people sometimes asked me what, as a western consultant, I could bring to the task of crafting state bodies in the countries of the old soviet bloc. They didn’t realise that, in many respects, Scotland was, until the 80s and 90s, culturally and institutionally, more socialist than countries such as Hungary. The scale of municipal power was particularly comprehensive in Scotland where the local council still owned three quarters of the housing stock, 90% of education and most of the local services - including buses. Only health and social security escaped its control: these were handled by Central Government.

Local government simply could not cope with such massive responsibilities (although such a view was rejected at the time). This was particularly evident in the larger housing estates in the West of Scotland which had been built for low-income "slum" dwellers in the immediate post-war period -

·       there were few services in these areas

·       employment was insecure

·       schools in such areas had poor educational achievement and were not attractive to teachers/headmasters

·       local government officials treated their staff in a dictatorial way

·       who in turn treated the public with disdain

The contemptuous treatment given by local council services seemed to squash whatever initiative people from such areas had. They learned to accept second-class services. Behind this lay working and other conditions so familiar to people in Central Europe

·       the culture was one of waiting for orders from above. There were few small businesses since the Scots middle class have tended to go into the professions rather than setting up one's own business

·       work was in large industrial plants

·       for whose products there was declining demand

·       rising or insecure unemployment         

·       monopolistic provision of local public services

·       and hence underfunding of services - queues and insensitive provision

·       hostility to initiatives, particularly those from outside the official system.

·       elements of a "one-party state" (the Labour party has controlled most of local government in Scotland for several decades).

I’m thinking now of updating the “In Transit” book but thought it would be useful first to plot how western and eastern European authors have deal generally with developments in their respective parts of Europe.

How english-speaking authors from Eastern and Western Europe have tried to make sense of each other’s societies developments since 1990


Western Europe authors

Eastern Europe authors

On Western Europe changes


A lot of Western European writers have covered developments in West Europe since 1990

eg Empire of Democracy – the remaking of the West since the Cold War 1971-2017 by Simon Reid-Hendry (2019)

Ivan Krastev – “After Europe” (2017) Bulgaria’s best-known intellectual argues that the democratic ideals that were promoted beyond Europe’s borders have now been undercut within the European polity itself.

Ryszgard Legutko – a right-wing Polish philosopher argues in The Demon in Democracy – totalitarian temptations in free societies (2016) that the more the cause of liberal-democratic equality progresses, the more indignantly the remaining instances of inequality are felt. Thus “equality resembles a monster with an insatiable appetite: regardless of how much it has eaten, the more it devours, the hungrier it becomes.”

 I would be interested to hear about other publications

On Eastern Europe changes


The Great Rebirth – lessons from the victory of capitalism over communism ; Anders Aslud and Simeon Djankov (2015) which is one of the very few books which tells the story from the view point of some of the key actors in most of the eastern countries at the time – with all the strengths and weaknesses that genre involves

Although most historians find it easier to focus on individual countries, From peoples into nations – a history of Eastern Europe; by John Connelly (2020) reviewed here and with an interview here

Aftershock – a journey into Eastern Europe’s Forgotten Dreams 2017) is based on interviews with people the author, young American journalist John Feffer, met in the early 90s and then, 25 years later, went back to interview. The interviews can actually be accessed here  

SO NOT MANY covering the Region as a whole. Most westerners concentrate on a particular country. As Romania is the country I know best, I have selected a few texts which throw light on that country’s development

- Romania Redivivus; Alex Clapp (NLR 2017)

- Robert Kaplan  - In Europe’s Shadow – two cold wars and a thirty-year journey through Romania and beyond; (2016) a fascinating book by an American journalist who has had a soft spot for Romania since the beginning of his career. Great breadth of reading

- Tom Gallagher - Romania and the European Union – how the weak vanquished the strong; (2009) great narrative by a Scottish historian; and Theft of a Nation – Romania since Communism (2005) powerful critique

Ivan Krastev and S Holmes – “The Light that Failed – a reckoning” (2019) which is one of the few books to assess how Eastern Europe has fared after 30 years.

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi - Europe's Burden - promoting good governance across. borders" (2019) which looks at the nature and impact of European technical assistance on the development of institutional capacity in central europe and "Neighbourhood" countries

SO NOT MANY covering the Region as a whole. East European social scientists and journalists cover their own countries eg Vladimir Tismaneanu and Marius Stan's Romania Confronts Its Communist Past: Democracy, Memory, and Moral Justice (2018) – both Romanians. The first who left Romania in the 1980s and returned briefly in the early 2000s to chair a Presidential commission into the impact of communism on the country, the second who still works in Romania. The book is a very personal take on how that Presidential Commission fared. 

Cornel Ban - Ruling Ideas – how global neoliberalism goes local (2016) a left-wing Romanian critique of how neoliberalism got its grip on countries such as Romania and Spain

Romania – borderland of Europe; Lucian Boia (2001) Very readable and well translated study by a Romanian historian



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