This entry is part two of a mini-series dedicated to the fascinating institutional landscape found on the Eastern edge of the European Union. It deals with the dearth of the public sector and the rejuvenation of religion.

Someone must have built all this infrastructure which now lies decaying throughout Eastern Europe. It bears the signs of more than twenty years of decay, so almost certainly it was the governments of the Warsaw Pact which paved the roads to the majority of villages, laid tracks between cities, erected gargantuan grain silos and stamped huge factory complexes out of the ground.

Yet many of today’s Eastern European states have too few resources (or hardly any at all) to provide the public infrastructure necessary for success in the game of capitalist competition. And, as regards the private sector, the current mode of production knows no place for means of production accumulated under the Five-Year-Plans of yesteryear.

The new European Union member states Romania and Bulgaria show many signs that transnational institutions can catalyse the development of infrastructure; while Ukraine and Moldova demonstrate the counterpoint of the damage that lack of investment by the public sector can do. All the while, across the border between the two worlds – at least that is how the border between EU and non-EU can feel, and is locally perceived – the church consoles the post-socialist sorrows of the masses.

Street scene in Moldova
Street scene on national highway 18, Moldova. Complete with public transport, private transport and the ubiquitous rusty water tower

Roads to perdition

Many international E-roads pass along and through the Eastern edges of the European Union on their way to exotic destinations like Kazakhstan, Eastern Anatolia or Siberia. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) has set high standards for inclusion in the network, which, however, in practice have often proven flexible enough to cope with local conditions. After all, who expects an Autobahn when driving through Ukraine? As Olga found in her work on forest certification, or as Sabrina’s research on labour standards seems to be increasingly revealing, standards can be employed in order to “coax” subjects towards gradually meeting them, not necessarily to punish non-compliance. Given adequate resources, dedication and time (of which, regrettably, some governments seem to have only the latter), transport could benefit from transnational standard-setting in bringing Eastern European public infrastructure at least back into the 20th century, where it once was.

Yet while some massive decaying factories or silos may be riveting monuments to a highly industrialised past, the state of the roads poses a very tangible and serious threat to travel, trade and tourism. Even without the drivers that use them – no comment –, highways in Ukraine or Moldova spell potential disaster for their tortured users and their vehicles at every corner.


Potholes can serve drainage purposes, too!

Potholes, drivers learn soon enough, roam in packs, often lurking behind turns or on narrow bridges, each single one deep and edgy enough to break an axle, flatten a tire or cause major structural damage – and instil such fear in drivers they will rather face oncoming traffic than hit the hole. Many major roads and highways have reached such an advanced state of decay that, for long stretches, drivers will prefer to drive down dirt tracks trodden out on either side of the tarmac rather than play the high-stakes game of pothole evasion. Yet, despite (or because of) these conditions, on more than 1,200 km of driving through Ukraine and Moldova, only a single, minor roadworks was encountered.

Rules of Pothole Evasion:

  1. If you can, use the other side.
  2. If you can’t use the other side, use the soft shoulder.
  3. If you can’t do 1 or 2, use the other soft shoulder.
  4. If you can’t do 1 to 3, use a dirt track on either side.
  5. Only if 1 to 4 are not possible, slow down sufficiently to slalom around or wade through potholes.
  6. Pray.

Poor roads, risky driving, unsafe vehicles and traffic police bent on anything but enforcing road rules have afforded Eastern European states some of the worst road safety statistics in the world, especially when measured in deaths per distance travelled. Given the massive re-distribution of wealth since 1990, it is unsurprising that those funds which were in the past spent on the upkeep of infrastructure are now instead invested by a wealthy minority into vehicles which can cope with what is left of the infrastructure – black SUVs, mainly. All others must somehow abide, and pray.

Opium of the people

And for praying there is ample opportunity, perhaps more than to the West of the former Iron Curtain. Religious institutions visibly thrive throughout the East. The Church, erstwhile provider of “opium of the people” – defamed yet employed as patriotic collaborator during the harder years by the Soviets –, has seen an unprecedented revival since the end of the Soviet age. The Russian Orthodox Church is certainly the most visible transnational institution east of the EU border. As recent as 2007, its influence expanded greatly when its North American branch was re-integrated, ending a Bolshevism-induced separation which dated back to the 1920s.

Small church

Small church in the middle of nowhere in Ukraine, not quite completed

Big church

One of the many beautiful monastic churches, recently renovated, in a small village in Moldova

When entering a church in Eastern Europe, the Russian Orthodox Church community’s nearly 200 million members truly enter a different world, finding splendour wholly incongruous with the surroundings – that is, of course, assuming they have survived the trip there. While monuments and infrastructure of the Soviet age sit around rotting, new monuments to the divine are appearing in even the most unlikely spots, ornate, spacious, glorious and usually topped with golden spires.

This ostentatious display of clerical wealth may appear a paradox, even an obscenity, juxtaposed against the destitution of the state and the abject poverty of the masses. But it is also a welcome feast for sore eyes, and the church offers many people solace in the highly uncertain environment of crony/mafia/political capitalism. As explained to me by an Orthodox Serb, “Christianity is our identity.”


Lenin wuz here? Statue of Pope John Paul II in Eastern Poland

This statement definitely applies to Poland, too. Here Catholicism has worked hand-in-hand with the creation of a post-socialist national identity. Karol Józef Wojtyła, a.k.a. Pope John Paul II, is revered as a national hero, and no number of statues will suffice – even to the extent that some monuments to Lenin and other soviet leaders seem simply to have clumsily been retrofitted with crosses and seen their effigy replaced by the Pontifex.

Lacking a lacul

What sadness the near-total demise of the public sector has brought for many people in post-Soviet Eastern Europe – despite, of course, the freedom of travel, speech and entrepreneurship afforded by the new regimes – is illuminated by the fate of Valea Morilor lake (or lacul, locally).

Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, is a beautiful city, and it used to have a beautiful lake. In the past a national monument, the crown jewel of Chisinau’s municipal park (still marked on maps) was the heart of a peaceful valley near the town centre. It used to be the number one recreational spot for the city’s residents, offering 36 hectares of water surrounded by forest, and even a beach with a boat rental.

Valea Morilor

Chisinau used to have a beautiful lake, now it has this. Valea Morilor in August 2009

But, by the summer of 2006, after 20 years without cleaning, so much mud had accumulated on the ground of the lake that the aquatic ecosystem had to collapse. Over-construction of housing near its shores and dumping of excavated earth and waste into the lake surely didn’t help, either. Thus, according to the Moldovan “Exceptional Situations Department”, ten tonnes (!) of dead fish and crayfish drifted to the surface of the contaminated water, and the lake was drained for safety reasons.

Then it turned out that the mud contained tonnes of dangerous heavy metals, as hazardous as nuclear waste. Lacking funds for a cleanup, the government of Chisinau has since been unable to return the lake to anything resembling its past splendour (and when I visited, no apparent work was being conducted). Thus, Chisinau remains at lack for a lacul, depressing evidence of the deterioration of public institutions since Moldova’s shock-therapy introduction to capitalism.