During my visits to Central and Eastern Europe, I gradually discovered that no communist regime had been able to provide decent shelter to its people. By Western standards or should I say capitalist standards, the huge and ugly buildings in the suburbs of the cities are people unworthy. They have been build without enough space in between, there are often no trees or lawns around. The vast, dimly lit hallways of apartment buildings resemble those of a prison. Everywhere you see peeling paint and makeshift repairs of rusting pipes. You can not control the temperature of the central heating system of one apartment, let alone of one room. It is on or off. If you find it too hot, you should open a window, whereby precious fired heat flies out the window. This is a sheer waste of energy.
|Our first flat tire on the road from Vilnius to Riga. The highway between the 2 capitals was still empty. On the right Amrita Sietaram of CNV, in the middle the driver and on the left Kristoff Dowgiallo, vice-president of WCL.|
We left Vilnius in the Moskwa to Riga, capital of Latvia. Between Vilnius and Riga lies a large, modern highway of about 300 kilometers. The motorway was as good as deserted. The first flat tire could still be easily changed thanks to a spare tire. At the 2nd flat tire, there was nothing else we could do than to repair it ourselves. It proved to be a primitive form of vulcanization with gasoline from the tank of the car to heat the mess. The third flat tire, there was nothing else to do than to look for a farm at the roadside. We were well received and helped.
Meanwhile Kristoff had explained to me the principles of the Communist industrial production of cars. First comes the army. Since the army always has enough money, costs do not matter. The Moskwa was built as a military vehicle and only then adapted for civilian traffic. Therefore it is a heavy car with thick metal plates that slurps to much gasoline and moves like a tank.
|The second flat tire we had on the border between Lithuania and Latvia. On the right Kristoff, in the middle Daiva of the LWU and next to her myself.|
Ford's invention of efficient, inexpensive and yet useful people's car (T-Ford) had remained nearly unknown in Russia. Of course, Western car models were copied, with or without help from the West, like for example Fiat in Russia (Lada) and Renault (Dacia) in Romania. But if you copy something that does not mean you understand completely why it is made that way. This requires insight and especially a lot of experience. The same principle also applies for democracy. You can copy it with candidates, parties and elections, but that does not mean that it works.
Democracy is a political lifestyle, requires mutual trust and tolerance, willingness to compromise, experience with working in coalition etc. It takes many years to develop this in a society. This means that a lot of patience is needed with the development in former communist Europe and Russia. The question is whether the coming decades the citizens of East and West will have enough patience with the transformation of their societies. For example in financial terms, expenses for the reunification of East and West Germany (1990) were about 75 billion Euro a year for more then 10 years. Until the present day Eastern Germany depends on funding from West Germany.
Over the years I saw that working conditions in former Communist countries were just as bad as most of the products. The factories were dangerous, very poorly lit with very unsafe and unhealthy working conditions. The word Medieval often came to my mind when I visited another hopelessly outdated factory, even though there were in the Middle Ages, of course, no factories. During such visits I was often asked if I could find investors so that the factory could remain and the workers keep their jobs. I had to disappoint them. Their products could never compete with Western products, not technologically nor with prices. The result was that over time many factories in the former communist countries were closed, resulting in a growing number of unemployed.
|When we had a flat tire for the third time we needed the help of a farmer along the road.|
By evening we arrived in Riga. We had been on the road all day long. Later in the evening we had a meeting with some union leaders in a caravan converted into a coffeehouse. We exchanged names and addresses and promised once again in Brussels to contact with proposals for further cooperation. That was our first and only contact we ever had in Latvia. Besides, also the LWU never joined the WCL, despite the good contacts with the help of Solidarnosc and Kristoff Dowgiallo. A few months later I would meet the president of a more Christian-oriented Lithuanian confederation at a seminar in Budapest, that became a member of the WCL.
The next morning we left for Moscow with a full schedule of appointments with new leaders and a member of parliament. I already knew Moscow from a visit as a student with a group of students of political science in the year 1969. At that time many students saw communism as a humane alternative to capitalism, not to mention imperialism. It were indeed the sixties of the student protests against the Vietnam War, for democratization of universities, sexual liberation, faith in the Cuban revolution and the so-called revolutionary liberation movements in Latin America, the Chinese cultural revolution etc.
|In 1969, during our visit to Moscow we students joked with a statue of Lenin in front of the House of the Union of Writers.|
It was therefore hilarious to discover that communism meant in practice an old-fashioned conservative dictatorship without freedom of speech, no freedom of association, no right to strike or holding a demonstration. We saw how a young Georgian was discriminated. We were not allowed in some restaurants because we had no jacket and tie. Our Russian colleagues whined about records of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. Women asked even for nylons. Many students wanted to swap clothes with us, so fond they were of our jeans and denim jackets. The black rate of the Russian ruble was four times lower than the official rate.
So I was wondering what it would be now under President Boris Yeltsin. At least we could freely walk in and out the Kremlin, that dark center of power in the times of Communism. A strange sensation, like the many new (Western) cars, the shops with luxury Western products, the new cosy western style restaurants and of course the free and open conversations. However, we quickly discovered that after 70 years of communism, post communist Russia was in a supreme state of confusion. We spoke union leaders from giant Soviet Factories with thousands of workers who produce tractors, aircraft parts, etc. and accused each other fiercely of betrayal, lies, working with the secret service (KGB) or the worst of all, being still a communist.
To be continued
The above story is a personal testimony of what happened at the end of the last century and the beginning of the new millennium in the international trade union movement, in particular in CLAT and the WCL.