Why did Eastern Europeans leave after 1991?

Millions of Eastern European people upped and left their villages, towns, families friends and homes in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, they are dotted all over the world. In Ireland, the émigré community from the former Soviet Union continues to grow as Ukrainian workers, fleeing the decimation of their country at the hands of EU-US backed neoliberals continues to decimate the country. As somebody born in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Union into the dystopian hellscape of neoliberal democracy I would summarize the main reasons for the mass exodus as follows:

  • Mass privatization of all public infrastructure such as hospitals, factories, industries, orphanages, health clinics led to the closure of many of them
  • Immediate unemployment for many state industries that were privatized, leading to anti-social issues
  • Cessation of construction of public housing, leading to a homeless epidemic that was never seen before in that part of the world
  • Releasing of people with mental illnesses to cut the budget costs around health clinics and mental institutions
  • Closure of orphanages and child/teen homelessness
  • Collapse of all law and order and streets descending into war between rival gangs, often composed of military trained men
  • Decimation of pensions through currency inflation and speculation, leading to wipe outs of decades of pension savings for many older Soviet citizens
  • Revival of far right nationalism, notably in the Baltic Countries, Poland and Ukraine
  • Misinformation about a higher standard of living in the West

These are but some of the reasons, but the majority of them are regularly overlooked when we discuss why people migrated West. They also rarely come up in conversation with Eastern European émigrés. Although having said that, on the odd occasion that I have attended a CYM stall and been confronted by an angry Eastern European person about the Soviet flag, we did come to a mutual agreement that we were both migrants as a product of the failures of neoliberalism. Similarly, when I an article for Russianireland on the need for trade union representation among Eastern European, the telephone conversations I had after with people ringing me up had a lot of commentary regarding the poor working conditions found in Ireland and the exploitation that Eastern European migrants suffered.

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein is essentially a repackaging of what is already understood commonly understood by Marxists, but it does offer a useful guide in understanding what exactly occurs when an economy collapses, what actions the state takes and who do those actions benefit. In summary, the best way to understand what happened in Eastern Europe is to look at the economic changes made to Chile after the US supported fascist dictatorship took power.

The first prime minister of Estonia, who began his term in 1993, dubbed himself a “disciple of Thatcher” and was even awarded the Milton Friedman Prize. So you can generally guess what followed his term in government reflected exactly what Margaret Thatcher brought to the UK. If you commence a cursive Google search, you will find article after article talking about the “miraculous” transformation of the Estonian economy. These articles aren’t so far apart from the articles that came out about Ireland “coming out of the recession” and how much of a miracle it was. The main metrics for measuring success of course were not orientated around key social issues like homelessness, hospital beds, quality of work and cost of the living standard, but around the success of private enterprise. Is that beginning to sound familiar?

The 1992 Estonian parliamentary election paved the way for the first Republic of Estonia election. The winner of these elections was the ‘Fatherland Bloc’, a merger between multiple “conservative” and “nationalist” parties. This party promised to make a complete break with the socialist past and transform the Estonian economy into a market economy. In the case study “Estonia’s Way Into the EU” published by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs the point is made that the government needed to provide a “balanced budget”. When we hear this in Ireland, we know what that actually means. The government immediately targeted the State and it’s many services and cut. Unemployment exploded to 30-40% of the population while international capital, gobbling up newly privatized sectors of the economy, flooded the country. What did the Estonian state do? Well, the glossy eyed author of Estonia’s Way into the EU states that they froze unemployment benefits to “stimulate people to work” and began to finance initiatives that helped people set up their own businesses. This is again, comparable to the DSP’s programmes where they either throw money at employers through schemes like JobsBridge or actually provide funding for people to come off Jobseekers Payments in order to set up a small business. The next big task that the Estonian government did was begin an informal blockade of the Russian economy by refusing permits and licenses for barter and trade with Russian enterprise. All eyes on the West was the mantra.

The Estonian economy, like the economies of many small capitalist countries, including Ireland, began to be restructured away from manufacturing and industry, towards a service style economy. On this road, they then implemented the wet dream of libertarians everywhere, flat tax rates. This meant that whatever you earned, you were just taxed a flat rate on that amount, so whether wealthy or poor, you paid the same. This of course ties neatly back into the oft shouted ‘taxation is theft’ slogan that rebukes the right and role of the state to tax those on higher income brackets, a higher percentage. It perversely took the idea progressive taxation and inverted the Marxist concept of the labour theory of value to do this — you are entitled to your wealth, is what the Estonian government said. What this actually meant was the wealthy would keep a greater share of their wealth and continue paying dogshit wages.

One of the main think thanks that contributed to these early reforms was the Heritage Foundation, a self-identifying conservative think tank. Indeed, it is also on their page that you’ll find the analysis of the first Prime Minister of Estonia on this “Estonian economic miracle”. As he himself repeats, “radical cuts” were needed, and indeed, radical cuts were made. Cuts to state industry and the civil service, as well as a mantra of opening the Estonian economy, made Estonia the highest recipient of foreign capital in central and Eastern Europe in the late 1990s. All this rhetoric of miracles, balancing budgets and democracy would send any liberal into a tizzy.

The human cost of all these economic reforms is summarised in the bullet points at the beginning of this piece. Mass unemployment, rise of drug addiction, mass importation and distribution of heroin, the explosion of organised crime, a drop in the standard of living and of course emigration. When confronted with what was going on with the country they had lived in, ethnic Estonian and Russian-Estonian people began to pack their bags and leave. It is estimated that 20% of the Estonian population of 1.5 million left the country within the space of a few years. This is not so different to the waves of emigration in all other post Soviet countries which saw huge chunks of their people just up and leave. The position that these countries put out is that this is because of Communist rule rather than neoliberal shock therapy, but I would argue, that it is in fact, in reverse.

The chronic destruction of industry and social institutions lived up to the ‘disciple of Thatcher’ statements made, and this led to our families leaving. When many of these migrants first arrived to their country of destination they thought they would live out the American dream. Indeed, this illusion played a small role in why people fled West. They thought that once they got to the UK, Ireland, America and others, they’d be able to own their home, drive a nice car and never have to relive the horrors of neoliberalism again. I think that since 2008, for many Russian speaking migrants living in Ireland, this illusion has long been shattered. The austerity measures introduced to Ireland since 2008 virtually mirrored the austerity of the 1990s in Eastern Europe and that’s what it should always come back to when a discussion is had about Eastern European emigration to the West.

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