Life satisfaction in eastern Europe resilient despite crisis

By Anthony Williams

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The people of eastern Europe have shown remarkable resilience in the face of huge personal sacrifices caused by the global economic crisis and remained broadly committed to democracy and the free market despite severe hardships, a major new report shows.

The Life in Transition Survey II, conducted jointly by the EBRD and the World Bank in late 2010, surveyed almost 39,000 households in 34 countries, mainly in the former communist east, the region of the world that suffered most severely from the crisis.

This new survey follows a similar report from 2006 and provides a vivid picture of how lives were affected by the crisis and its aftermath. To put the answers in context, the same questions were asked in five western European countries – Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Sweden.

One of the most comprehensive surveys of its kind, the report captures people’s expectations for themselves and their hopes and fears for future generations. It polls their attitudes to political and economic systems, to authority, towards the corruption that pervades many of their societies and also examines their relationships with fellow citizens.

The survey reveals in stark terms the human cost of the crisis and the coping mechanisms that people in this region had to resort to as a western financial crunch turned into the worst economic downturn in the region since the collapse of communism.

In more than half of the countries surveyed, the majority of respondents said the economic crisis had affected them ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’. This was true of only one of the western comparators – Italy.

In transition countries, 70 per cent of households who reported being affected by the crisis had to cut back on staple food purchases and spending on health care – twice the proportion of crisis-affected households in western European countries.

But despite this dramatic deterioration in material well-being, life satisfaction levels were remarkably resilient – 43 per cent of respondents reported themselves ‘satisfied with my life now,’ as against 44 per cent in 2006. Optimism about the future eased back but on average it remained much higher in transition countries than in western Europe.

There were noticeable, but not dramatic, declines in some transition countries in support for democracy and the market – and a decline in trust in banks, financial institutions and foreign investors. Yet trust in financial institutions remains higher than in western Europe.

Meanwhile, despite a belief that levels of corruption had not improved, general trust in other people grew across the region, as did satisfaction with government services.

The economic crisis did not, apparently, lead to much nostalgia for past regimes. But while support for market economics and democracy has held up well compared to 2006, there has been a fall in support in some countries, including in virtually all the new regional entrants to the European Union.

Across the region, unequivocal support for democracy is higher than unequivocal support for the market – at 45 and 40 per cent respectively. More than a fifth of respondents said the political system of their country was not important to them, and almost a quarter said the same of the economic system.

This second Life in Transition Survey broke new ground by assessing attitudes to minority groups. Although such responses should be treated with caution, the report showed that people generally seem not to mind if their neighbours are of a different religion. However, there are stronger feelings about immigrants and those of a different race.

The report also looked at gender differences and found that women in transition countries are today far less likely than men to be in paid employment compared to communist times. Despite disadvantages, women are generally as satisfied with their lives as men, if not more so, and as likely to support democracy and market economics.                                                                                                                                    

In a section on corruption, the survey found that, in general, people do not believe corruption has fallen in the past four years. And in most countries, the reported prevalence of corruption is in fact higher than it is perceived to be.

There is virtual unanimity in the region about which institutions are the most corrupt. Top of the list are traffic police, followed by health care officials and the civil courts.

However, despite the economic crisis, satisfaction with public services is relatively high, and higher than in 2006 – but it remains much lower than in western Europe. The public education system received the most favourable ratings on average in the region, with the civil courts and traffic police ranking lowest.

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