End of Communism Cheered but Now with More Reservations

Nov 02, 2009

Nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, publics of former Iron Curtain countries generally look back approvingly at the collapse of communism. Majorities of people in most former Soviet republics and Eastern European countries endorse the emergence of multiparty systems and a free market economy.

However, the initial widespread enthusiasm about these changes has dimmed in most of the countries surveyed; in some, support for democracy and capitalism has diminished markedly. In many nations, majorities or pluralities say that most people were better off under communism, and there is a widespread view that the business class and political leadership have benefited from the changes more than ordinary people. Nonetheless, self reported life satisfaction has risen significantly in these societies compared with nearly two decades ago when the Times Mirror Center first studied public opinion in the former Eastern bloc.

 The acceptance of – and appetite for – democracy is much less evident today among the publics of the former Soviet republics of Russia and Ukraine, who lived the longest under communism. In contrast, Eastern Europeans, especially the Czechs and those in the former East Germany, are more accepting of the economic and societal upheavals of the past two decades. East Germans, in particular, overwhelmingly approve of the reunification of Germany, as do those living in what was West Germany. However, fewer east Germans now have very positive views of reunification than in mid-1991, when the benchmark surveys were conducted by the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press. And now, as then, many of those living in east Germany believe that unification happened too quickly.

One of the most positive trends in Europe since the fall of the Wall is a decline in ethnic hostilities among the people of former communist countries. In a number of nations, fewer citizens say they hold unfavorable views of ethnic minorities than did so in 1991. Nonetheless, sizable percentages of people in former communist countries continue to have unfavorable views of minority groups and neighboring nationalities. The new poll also finds Western Europeans in a number of cases are at least as hostile toward minorities as are Eastern Europeans. In particular, many in the West, especially in Italy and Spain, hold unfavorable views of Muslims.

Concern about Russia is another sentiment shared by both Eastern and Western Europeans. A majority of the French (57%) and 46% of Germans say Russia is having a bad influence on their countries; this view is shared by most Poles (59%) and sizable minorities in most other Eastern European countries. The exceptions are Bulgaria and Ukraine, where on balance Russia's influence is seen as more positive than negative.

As for the Russians themselves, there has been an upsurge in nationalist sentiment since the early 1990s. A majority of Russians (54%) agree with the statement "Russia should be for Russians"; just 26% agreed with that statement in 1991. Moreover, even as they embrace free market capitalism, fully 58% of Russians agree that "it is a great misfortune that the Soviet Union no longer exists." And nearly half (47%) say "it is natural for Russia to have an empire."

These are among the major findings of a new, 14-nation survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project that was conducted Aug. 27 through Sept. 24 among 14,760 adults. The survey, which includes nations in Eastern and Western Europe, as well as the United States, reexamines many of the key issues first explored in the 1991 survey conducted by the Times Mirror Center, the predecessor of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Read the full report End of Communism Cheered but Now with More Reservations on the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project Web site.

Also explore an interactive map Public Opinion Two Decades After the Fall of the Berlin Wall showing European responses to key survey questions, and a slideshow of findings with audio commetary by Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

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