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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

Recent Changes in Social Conditions of Countries in Transition: Eastern Europe, the Baltic States and the Commonwealth of Independent States

This report covers the countries of Eastern Europe, the Baltics and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Readers will be familiar with the economic and social collapse that in many of these countries accompanied what was called transition. Once envisaged as an orderly process of change from a centrally directed to a market economy, the process so far has been neither orderly nor as rapid as might be wished. The old was demolished in many of the countries but without much progress toward the new.

An attempt is made here not so much to describe the events of the early, disastrous, stages of transition in the beginning of the 1990s, as to ask what has happened in very recent years. Given the depth of economic decline in many of the countries in transition (CITs), improvements in the economy are probably a necessary, if perhaps not sufficient, condition of social rehabilitation. The report therefore begins with a brief account of changes in the economy and related factors such as employment, wages and consumption. The emphasis, however, is on social conditions. The questions are: how many people have how much income? How many are ill, hungry, cold, badly housed, deprived of education or threatened by criminal activity? Who are they (children, the elderly, farmers, pensioners, the unemployed)? And how is the situation changing or failing to change for the better?

It is on these issues, unfortunately, that the statistics are at their weakest. There is no lack of data in general. The trouble is that relatively few of them meet the three essential criteria: relevance, quality and timeliness. The education sector is an example. Traditional indicators include the number of schools, pupils or teachers, or gross enrolment rates, none of which have greatly changed since transition (except preschool enrolment, which has declined sharply in most of the countries). Especially in the CIS, however, the real problems go virtually unrecorded: children leaving before the end of the school year; defective maintenance of buildings; lack of qualified teachers in crucial subjects; absenteeism; lack of teaching aids, including the basics such as books, paper and pencils; absence of school meals; and the intangible, but nonetheless crucial, element in teaching—the nature and content of what is taught, and the manner in which it is taught.

Some of this paper is therefore taken up with an assessment of the data. Given the deficient statistics, an attempt has been made to fill the gaps by recourse to descriptive information taken, for the most part, from the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP’s) 25 or so annual national Human Development Reports. The data and descriptions are used jointly to reach what are hoped to be realistic conclusions on broad social trends, which suggest that even the worst-affected countries had, by 1997, begun to recover. Improvements in the sociopolitical climate helped. The civil war finally ended in Tajikistan, oil drilling was at last under way in Azerbaijan, Georgia was beginning to benefit from the construction of pipe lines to shift the oil. Democratic structures came to be more firmly installed.

In spite of some reverses since 1997 (the following year was disappointing economically) the future is more hopeful than ever it has been since 1989. Social conditions as they existed that year are still far from having been restored—in the countries of the former Soviet Union at any rate—but, with some exceptions in individual countries, they have stopped deteriorating and begun slowly to improve. The drastic rise in adult mortality in Russia and its neighbours, for example, was reversed as from 1995, infant mortality in many countries stopped rising and began a modest decline, crime rates stabilized, and so on.

Certain anomalies remain. An example is the apparent inconsistency between data on health and on poverty. On reasonable definitions of this elusive concept upwards of 60 per cent of the population in parts of the trans-Caucasus and Central Asia were recorded as in poverty. As defined, poverty of this magnitude implies incomes insufficient to procure minimum food, health care and other essentials. This degree of adversity, however, is not reflected in health and other social statistics. Mortality, especially infant and child mortality, has not been nearly as high as would be expected on the basis of the poverty data.

Of the various explanations, the most likely is the phenomenon described as “coping” within the “shadow economy”—mechanisms of survival that, whatever the name, remain largely unrecorded. Coping includes such activities as growing food for family consumption or rearing livestock on family plots; small-scale commercial activities such as selling cigarettes, loaves of bread or matches; operating kiosks or street stalls; buying and selling foreign currency; family members working abroad and remitting money; using up past savings; obtaining loans; gifts (including help from relatives); selling household possessions; prostitution; and illegal activities including trading narcotics, smuggling and arms trafficking.

Although calculations of gross domestic product or of household income used in assessing poverty normally include estimates of the shadow economy, it is likely that economic decline in the formal sectors has been compensated in recent years by the informal sector to a much greater degree than has been thought. It is difficult, otherwise, to explain some of the recent changes in social conditions described in this report.

Substitution through private means to compensate for the decline in the formal economy is also observed in other domains. Thus, kinship patterns play a similar role in the sense that the more affluent support the indigent family members; private arrangements of this kind have to some extent replaced public welfare. Similarly, the decline in fertility (in countries in transition, Central Asia and Azerbaijan excepted, to well below replacement level) is to some extent a private response to austerity.
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  • Pub. Date: 1 Apr 2000
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD