Tag Archive | "post-communism"

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From the Front Office to the Factory Floor

Posted on 03 November 2009 by admin

By Boyko Vassilev, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian, and Pavol Szalai

As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with unionists and managers is the fourth in the series that resulted.

MILKO MIHOV, 70, BULGARIA

Mihov is the CEO of J.W. Cappelen Bulgaria, a Vienna-based paper company. He was the representative of Lesoimpex, a Bulgarian state-owned export/import firm, in Vienna from 1972 until 1978.

In the late autumn of 1972 I met Cappelen Senior, a Swede [in Vienna]. He told me he intended to form a company to export paper to Eastern Europe. I was surprised. “Why Eastern Europe? The big consumption of paper is in the West.” He said, “Big changes are coming to the East; it has to catch up in development.” Cappelen signed a contract with Lesoimpex and started his business in Bulgaria in January 1973.

In 1989 nobody had described the path from totalitarian to market economy. We figured it out as we went. … Before 1989 you needed special authorization to export and import. The real change was to untangle the licensing and regulatory regimes. This process continues even now. The simplification of licensing requirements has evoked a new feeling of responsibility among businessmen. Here personal attributes matter. Continue reading …

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Dead Soles

Posted on 30 October 2009 by admin

By Michael J. Jordan

ulius Michnik speaks of two great loves in his life. One is his wife, Frantiska, with whom he’s spent the past 55 years. The other is the Bata shoe company, with whom he’s spent the last 66.

As a 15-year-old apprentice, Michnik recalls, he marveled at the rigorous quality control Czech shoe baron Tomas Bata’s disciples imposed in the Slovak town that bloomed around the company. This standard propelled “unbeatable, eternal Bata” upward in Czechoslovakia both before and during the communist period. At its peak the Partizanske plant employed nearly 16,000 people and turned out more than 30 million pairs of shoes a year, according to a history of the town published in 2000.

Today, that’s a distant memory. Most of the mile-long complex is a rusting hulk, with only a few signs of life on its vast grounds.

“I was very proud, and I’m still very proud, to have worked there,” says Michnik, president of the Bata “School of Work” Alumni Association. “But this would never have happened if Bata himself were here today. Or he would have shot himself.”

Twenty years after the collapse of communism, Partizanske is a microcosm of how classic one-company towns in Slovakia, and Eastern Europe itself, were devastated by the free-market transition. Blasted by Asian competitors, the city labors to recover and compete.

“Here was ‘Strong Bata’ and ‘Strong Socialism.’ Families didn’t have to struggle for anything, because the boss provided for all their needs,” Mayor Jan Podmanicky says “How do you teach people to be independent and take responsibility for themselves? People from the outside can give you advice, but you have to change yourself.”

AN OASIS FOR WORKERS

Batovany, as the town was originally named, sprouted like an oasis from a barren spot in the Danubian hills, as the shoe company branched out in 1938 and ’39 from its Czech base of Zlin. Wooden shacks were built for the first workers.

Julius Michnik landed in Batovany in 1943, a country boy fending for himself during wartime. Jobs were scarce and precious, and anyone who claimed one got a shot of prestige. Michnik enrolled in the four-year apprentice program. He rose early for mandatory exercise in the town square, donned his uniform and cap, and was taught each phase of the shoe-making process.
“The teaching discipline, the upbringing at work – I can’t describe it,” he says. “If you worked hard, you made enough money. Even enough to save some.”

He was rewarded with a bed in Batovany’s first brick dormitory. This was no ordinary workers’ housing. As some in the West bemoaned the toll industrialization had taken on labor, a clutch of left-leaning urban planners designed the “ideal industrial city” that would “underpin undisturbed rest after work,” according to BataStory.net. Inspired by Zlin, Batovany – and other “Batavilles” built around company plants as far away as India – became a prime example of architectural social engineering.

The Bata factory and rail lines sat on the northern edge of town. A buffer of green space separated them from a belt of communal buildings – town hall, cultural center, cinema, department store, church. Then came the housing, with central heating and indoor plumbing, then a rarity for Slovaks.

The Michniks – who met and fell in love at the factory – recall those days fondly.

“Man was made to work for eight hours, to have recreation for eight hours, and to sleep for eight hours,” says Frantiska, echoing a popular communist-era refrain.

Many of the red-brick buildings, especially the charming family homes, still stand today. Yet it’s the town’s unique spatial arrangement that has become the subject of significant scholarship, a remnant of a unique chapter in architectural history.

“The purpose of this ‘utopian’ project was to better prepare living conditions for the working class in a modern industrial city – and it functioned quite well,” says Henrieta Moravcikova, a senior researcher with the Institute of Construction and Architecture in Bratislava. “On the other hand, people realized that their lives were organized a little too much. Only a small part of their private life was left to themselves.”

The history of Batovany as such was short-lived. In 1949, the newly installed communist regime commemorated the legions of company men who had joined the Slovak partisans to fight the Nazis and their Slovak collaborators. They renamed the town Partizanske; the factory was reinvented as the 29 August Works (known by the Slovak acronym ZDA), denoting the day the anti-Nazi uprising began in 1944.Under the communists, Michnik says he brushed aside railings against the capitalist “enslaver” Bata, remaining loyal to the chief who’d instilled a work ethic. At the same time, Michnik was ambitious. To climb the ladder, he allied himself with new rulers.

“If you want to move up, they told me, you have to join the party,” he says. “I was a communist. You can write that. To be a director, you had to be. Every technical worker was. … But I’m not ashamed. I never did anything bad to anybody.”

By the time he retired from ZDA in 1990, Michnik had 1,500 employees working under him. His departure coincided with the decline of the Partizanske works. Robbed of the command economy’s protectionist wall, the plant couldn’t compete with cheaper labor in Asia.

LABOR PAINS

Post-Velvet Revolution privatization saw ZDA broken into several smaller pieces, including Rialto, a moderately large Italian-owned shoe manufacturer that exports primarily to Western Europe, North America, and Japan, and several smaller Slovak companies. Whereas ZDA once employed 10,000 people in Partizanske, only about 3,000 people work in the town’s shoe trade now, according to the mayor’s office. One building at the works that once buzzed with 1,000 employees is now used by only 100; several others on the campus are dormant.

Foreign investment is scant, and unemployment in the Partizanske district, which has a population of about 47,000, reached 22 percent 10 years ago. Today it’s down to 12 percent, according to Podmanicky, eased by the departure of some 2,000 local youth who have headed West in search of work.

One Partizanske 18-year-old, Peter Zavodny, says his parents both worked at the shoe factory, and he likely would have done the same. Instead he works as a car mechanic, but only part-time – they call him when they need him.

“Back 20 years ago, there were fewer things to buy, but at least I would have had a job,” says Zavodny, walking with his girlfriend. “It’s pretty frustrating to be able to work only when they tell you.”

Partizanske is but one Slovak example of a “town or region that, due to its structure of economy, has suffered – or still is suffering – a more difficult transition,” says Lubos Vagac, chairman of the Center for Economic Development in Bratislava. “This refers not only to the one-company makeup, but also to the insufficient adaptation of other sectors, including the local education system; poor cooperation between social partners and schools; failure to identify the future labor and skills demands; and the insufficient capacity of the local or regional administration.”

While Podmanicky and his staff try to lure foreign investors to Partizanske, he says they also encourage local entrepreneurs to take a risk. Andrej Svoboda, a native son, left at 18 in search of work – going first to Bratislava, then to England. He returned two years ago with a business partner from the Slovak capital to set up their own company, Art in Games, which produces visuals for computer games.

Simply coming home was a big part of the decision, says Svoboda, now 27, but he also found conditions in the town ripe for a start-up.

“If you are thinking a bit further, it is a place with good potential,” he says in an e-mail interview. “As everything here is cheaper [than] in Bratislava you can offer more bonuses to your employees.” As Art in Games grows, he adds, the firm has provided amenities like an exercise room, swimming pool, billiards table, and even a small cinema for staff, “as thanks because they work for us. We wouldn’t be able to do that anywhere else.”

While Art in Games carries on the Bata tradition of tending to employees’ non-work needs, entrepreneurs in Bata’s own field have had a harder time. One businessman started a small-scale shoe operation with a crew of 50 in the town, Podmanicky says; it thrived early on but was upended by the recent economic crisis.

“This is the hardest thing to learn about the new system. Things rise, things vanish,” says the mayor, who, like Michnik, unabashedly admits his past party membership. “This town was built on security. But today there is no Bata, there is no socialism. But we’re still here, so we have to try hard every day.”

Still, the laid-off workers populating Partizanske’s pubs are a daily reminder of what was lost.

“Work, it’s the most important thing,” Michnik says. “I see all the unemployed here, spending their last cents in the bar around the corner. When there’s no work, no money, there’s no happy life.”

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Still Comrades After All These Years

Posted on 27 October 2009 by admin

By Anita Komuves

Two pretty girls in their late teens walk arm in arm in front of a light-bulb factory in northern Budapest. Wearing red shirts and red berets, they hand out leaflets to workers coming to start the afternoon shift. Some ignore them and hurry past suspiciously, just as most Hungarians do when people try to hand them something in the street. Others stop to talk and take the flyer, which tells them how capitalism abuses workers and how the current economic crisis was caused by the wealthy but makes the poor suffer. A police officer stands across the street, watching another small group of young people, also dressed in red, handing out flyers at a bus stop. Continue reading …

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Laszlo Tokes

Posted on 26 October 2009 by admin

Dissident minister and catalyst for the Romanian revolution, 1952-

tokesarticleLaszlo Tokes became a target for Romania’s communist regime for his dedication to his flock and played a crucial role in catalyzing the unrest that led to the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime. Years later, free to practice both his spiritual and political vocation, he remains a bete noire to Bucharest over his loud calls for greater autonomy for the country’s Hungarian minority.

A Protestant minister and a prominent voice of Transylvania’s Hungarian community, Tokes became a target of the Securitate, the Romanian secret police, in 1982, after he detailed human-rights abuses in a Hungarian-language samizdat magazine. He fell afoul of the authorities again with his sermons against the government policy of relocating villagers to cities, which threatened to disperse the Hungarian population. As a consequence, in March 1989 religious authorities ordered his transfer from the city of Timisoara to the isolated parish of Mineu.

Tokes refused to leave. On 15 December, the date he was to be evicted from his Timisoara flat, members of his congregation gathered to protest the eviction in front of his flat. They were soon joined by passersby; within days several thousand were gathered, protesting the Ceausescu regime. The demonstrations spread to Bucharest, leading to the bloodiest regime change in Central and Eastern Europe’s revolutionary year.

After the overthrow of the dictatorship, Tokes became one of Romania’s two Reformed bishops. He won a seat in the European Parliament as an independent candidate in 2007 and was re-elected this past June, when he ran on the list of the newly formed Hungarian Solidarity party. Central to Tokes’ political agenda is increased cultural and territorial autonomy for Romanian Hungarians. President Trajan Basescu has rejected Tokes’ demands, saying that Romania is a unitary state which guarantees the rights of minorities.

Since the revolution Tokes has been dogged by claims that he was a spy for Hungary, as the communist-era apparatchiks believed, and a Securitate informant. He has acknowledged that he was approached by the secret police and forced to sign some documents but maintains he never actively collaborated. (He sued the Associated Press for reporting the allegation in 1998 but lost.) In 2001 the National Commission for the Study of the Security Archives granted Tokes a certificate attesting that he never collaborated with the secret police.

In June 2009, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation awarded Tokes the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom for his role in the Romanian revolution. In his acceptance speech [http://www.americanhungarianfederation.org/news_Victims_of_Communism_LaszloTokes.htm], he railed against privileged members of the old regime he said had maintained control by transferring their political power into the economic arena, and he blasted the Romanian government for a “Euro-conformist politics of window-dressing” that kept it from going beyond rhetoric in condemning communist crimes. “It is painful to observe,” he said, “that the final victory of the freedom fighters over communism has not yet arrived.”

Ioana Caloianu

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Teaching One History, Living Another

Posted on 16 October 2009 by admin

By Boyko Vassilev, Lucie Kavanova, Anita Komuves, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian, and Pavol Szalai

As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with history teachers is the second in the series that resulted. Continue reading …

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No More Low-Hanging Fruit

Posted on 14 October 2009 by admin

By Pavol Demes

This year found the Euro-Atlantic community not only busy with pressing economic and political issues but also commemorating several important milestones – the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II, the 60th anniversary of NATO’s founding, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This last opened space for unprecedented changes in the former Soviet bloc.

Two decades on, we have entered a complicated period of economic crisis, security fears, and raised expectations connected with changes in the White House and European institutions. There is a natural impulse to look back, analyze the state of affairs, and think about new strategies. Continue reading …

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Democracies Without Democrats

Posted on 07 October 2009 by admin

Why the reality of post-Communist Europe has not measured up to the expectations of 1989.

By Jiri Pehe

“Now we have a democracy,” Tomas G. Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, said of his new country upon its founding 90 years ago. “What we also need are democrats.”

These words could be applied as aptly to the post-communist countries of contemporary East-Central Europe. The problem of “democracies without democrats” is as real today as it was when Masaryk’s new state rose from the ashes of World War I. Continue reading …

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