The gap between rich and poor is widening in countries in southeast Europe, where the middle classes are threatened by social decline.
To poor to be rich, to rich to be poor: That's the dilemma facing Romania's middle class.
The middle class - a mainstay of western societies - was almost an unknown entity in the country in the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989. And by 2008, only about 20 percent of Romanians were considered to be "middle class."
But since then, the financial crisis has further shrunk salaries and, in the process, nearly halved the number of middle class citizens in Romania. By comparison, almost two-thirds of Germany's population is middle class.
The situation in Romania is similar to that in other countries in southeast Europe. Around 10 percent of the population in Serbia and Croatia are classified as middle class. The middle class in Bulgaria is often referred to as the "invisible" class, making up just four to eight percent of the total population - that amounts to only 100,000 to 200,000 people among a population of 7.5 million. They are mostly well-paid employees of foreign businesses, banks and insurance companies. But their social status hinges on their employers remaining in Bulgaria.
Different views of middle class
The middle class isn't defined solely by economic criteria. "The concept of the middle class includes an understanding of a social group that forms a supporting layer of democratic order and political and economic rivalry," says Wolfgang Höpken with the Southeast Europe Society. Despite some exceptions, a strong middle class is basically interested in establishing and maintaining stable democratic and economic conditions, he adds.
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In southeast Europe, the middle class existed only rudimentarily before World War II. The spread of communism led to the disappearance of the bourgeoisie.
"During the communist era, the middle class was characterized by the so-called 'intelligentsia,' consisting of academic professionals and bureaucrats," says Höpken. "But that is something entirely different from our view of the middle class in central Europe."
One attribute of the middle class in central Europe is civic engagement, for instance, in the form of citizen initiatives, according to Gabriella Schubert, a professor of Slavic Studies at the University of Jena. "This is an area where the Balkans are still very underdeveloped," she says.
The huge political changes in the 1990s altered the economic and social order of the former communist countries, but didn't lead necessarily to the rise of a middle class. Bulgaria's first non-communist president, Petar Stojanow, admits today that his government made some mistakes in his program of privatization in 1989.
Mistakes in the past
In a recently published interview with a Bulgarian newspaper, Stojanow conceded that the privatization money landed in the former power circles, which retained their influence after the political changes. Former party officials and intelligence service employees seized the opportunity to get rich, essentially becoming "capitalists" overnight. All this gave rise to oligarchic structures in the economy and in politics.
This "new middle class," viewed purely from an economic perspective, has not come to wealth through education and entrepreneurship but rather "has made its money in a gray legal zone," notes Höpken. It is not interested in a well-functioning state but rather "in patronage and political structures that enable it to continue operating as it has." So, in this respect, the middle class in southeast Europe is only partially comparable.
This is also reflected in a particular attribute of the Balkan countries, according to Schubert. "While the city dwellers are fond of the latest technology and the newest fashions and trends from the West, they still cling to the traditional patriarchal values and symbols," she says. Sexist images of femininity are widespread in the region, she adds.
The continuing brain drain to the West is a threat to the middle class in the region. Well-educated, dynamic and creative young people are leaving the country to pursue careers abroad. "This is a substantial loss in terms not only of human capital but also of social stability," says Höpken.
As negative as this development may be, Höpken believes it could also have a positive impact on society in the long term - when, for instance, people return from abroad and share their experiences and values or when they establish economic ties to their homeland.
But without help, the Balkan countries will struggle to bridge the transition to a modern civil society in which a broad and stable middle class will play a key role. That's why a European perspective is essential, according to Schubert. "For these countries, being a member of the EU is the only possibility to establish a level playing field to improve opportunities for young people." All countries in the region are aware of this - EU membership is high on their priority list. In July 2012, Croatia will become the 28th member of the European Union.