Cashing in after Communism

Since the fall of communism in 1989, countries in Central and Eastern Europe have seen forms of flagrant enrichment, with the rise of a class of oligarchs and nouveaux riches in countries that were until then ideologically geared towards achieving social justice and the full eradication of class differences. A key factor contributing to the success of this class of wealthy individuals is that they benefited from their close connections to the former socialist system. In spite of the Marxist legacies of the previous regime they used their closeness to and intimacy with the state apparatus (especially the state security which had a monopoly over the import and export trade) to appropriate natural resources and privatize assets that had previously belonged to the state. Amongst the most successful businessmen were those who as former socialist trade (and state security) officials were experienced merchants well aware of the workings of the capitalist system across the iron curtain. Many of them earned their first million immediately after the fall of the one-party system.

In this panel we invite the participants to reflect on the various aspects of this phenomenon, particularly focusing on the continuities of these (political and business) elites from socialism to post-socialism. We invite, first of all, papers that will look at how communist party officials acquired intimate practical knowledge of capitalism, acquiring and developing skills and becoming competent capitalists, cashing in on the opportunities that regime change finally brought. We also invite papers that show how these elites succeeded in legitimating their wealth, using it as a leverage to gain power and social prestige. Other related topics that can be addressed in this panel are the effects of inequality and conspicuous consumption on the social fabric in the cities of Eastern Europe; and the incompatibilities between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ ethics, neoliberal norms of individual success and responsibility clashing with the previously dominant principles of collective well-being, social justice and redistribution. Apart from tracing the historical trajectories and continuities across two eras, the panel also invites participants to reflect on contemporary issues: do these elites contribute to generalized wealth and well-being? What do they do with their wealth, and how do they make it work for them or their children? How do they transmit wealth to the next generation and how is it translated into forms of social, symbolic or political capital? To what extent do they ‘share’ wealth through forms of philanthropy or conspicuous consumption, and what strategies do they employ to neutralize the threats caused by social inequalities? Last but not least, what kind of politics has crystallized in this post-socialist context, and to what extent has the rise in authoritarianism in the region something to do with this phenomenon?