Jacob Poushter: Redefining the East-West Divide

Pew Research Center, a US non-partisan ‘fact tank’, released a report* in October “European public opinion three decades after the fall of Communism” based on a survey in 17 European countries. Aspen Central Europe interviewed Jacob Poushter, one of the main researchers behind the report.

ROBERT ANDERSON: Pew did a similar survey in 1991 and 2009. What are the biggest changes you can see—and the most surprising ones—over that period?

JACOB POUSHTER: Overall one of the biggest changes we see is that people are much more confident that the changes in 1989 and 1991 led to an increase in standards of living in their countries. The economic situation of the changeover is much more positively seen than it was in 1991 when we did the initial survey. In addition, we also saw a pretty big jump in overall life satisfaction—those saying on a 10-point scale 7 to 10, that their life is doing well. We saw a significant jump in most of the Central and Eastern European countries from the teens in percentages up to 40% or 50% saying ‘life is good’ in those countries. We saw rises in Western Europe as well but it was not as substantial as in Central and Eastern European countries where there was a changeover in terms of the system in government and economics.

What’s got worse over the last 10 years or the last 30 years?

There was a bit of a negative decline in the approval of the changeover in 2009 from the 1991 survey in a couple of countries in Central and Eastern Europe. That’s actually bounced back up in 2019. In 2009 the economic situation was starting to deteriorate across Europe and we saw people respond- ing by being a little less approving of the movement to capitalism and a market economy, and that’s picked up a bit since. You also see economic conditions have improved in Europe in the last three or four years much more than what we saw in the Euro crisis and the immigration crisis.

Still, there are some countries that aren’t as keen on EU membership or as likely to say that EU membership has been a good thing for their country—only 40% of Czechs say that it has been a good thing for their country. But that’s even more so in places like Bulgaria, there’s just not a lot of economic confidence or confidence overall.

In terms of looking at the differences between Central and Eastern Europe and Western Europe, how marked are the differences? Does it still make sense to talk about the ‘East-West split’ or is this an outdated comparison now?

It really depends on the data. There are some questions where there are pretty large gaps between those in the West and those in the East. One of the starkest ones is views on the acceptance of homosexuality. There those in Western Europe are much more accepting than those in the East.

On the other hand, there’s actually more economic optimism about the future in the Eastern half of the continent than in the West.

That also applies to the view of Muslims. Those with favorable views of Muslims tend to be located more in Western Europe than in the East, with the exception of Russia and Bulgaria where there are more Muslims in the population. That separation also exists to some extent in views of Roma, where those in the West are a little bit more accepting than people in the East.

On the other hand, there’s actually more economic optimism about the future in the Eastern half of the continent than in the West. We asked a question, ‘will children be better off than their parents?’ On that question majorities in Ukraine and Lithuania say they will be but in Western Europe—especially in France, where only 16% say children will be better off in the future—there’s less optimism about children’s financial future.

What were the outliers in this region? Which were the countries that were more Western than Eastern, so to say, those that didn’t fit this picture of a divided Europe?

People in Poland are quite satisfied with how the country’s doing and the economic situation, with democracy, similar to that in Germany and more so than many of the Western and Southern European countries, so that’s definitely a country that stands out in many cases as being much more positive and closer to its Northern European counterparts.

The Czech Republic stands out for being a country that is less positive on the EU. In fact, they are similar to France in many cases in terms of their not overwhelming favorability to the EU or not feeling that being in the EU has strengthened their economy.

Looking at the countries in Central and Eastern Europe, is it fair to say that Russia and Ukraine are a world apart, very different from what you see in this region?

Certainly, they are much less happy with the changeover to a multi-party system, to a market economy. Less than 40% of those in Russia are happy with that changeover. They are also economically not doing as well and that shows in their satisfaction towards democracy, which is pretty low. Even in Ukraine—which actually has seen an increase in those satisfied with democracy since the presidential election—they are still on balance not happy with what is going on in that country and in terms of satisfaction with the democratic system.

Russians are also unhappy and they also have a really poor view of the EU, which wasn’t always the case—they actually had an on balance favourable view of the EU until 2013–14—while Ukrainians actually have a very positive view of the EU, though there are obviously differences within Ukraine by language, with those who speak Russian being a little more pro on the Russian side, versus the European side.

We also asked in Russia whether it was a great misfortune that the Soviet Union no longer existed and about 60% there say that’s the case. So there is a bit of nostalgia for the past in Russia, where you don’t see that so much in many of the other countries.

One thing that struck me from the survey is that Bulgaria seems to be very much part of the Russian-Ukrainian attitude that you have described, rather than the Central European picture. Is that fair?

Yes, in many aspects Bulgaria is much more pessimistic, much more along with Russia, Ukraine on the state of democracy, the economy. They are much less accept- ing of homosexuality. They are positive about Muslims actually; relative to many of the other Central and European nations they are actually more favourable to Muslims. There are a lot of Muslim Bulgarians who live in the country and, as we know from our other research when you have an association with Muslims, when you know a Muslim personally, you are much more likely to have a favourable view overall.

Let’s talk about the generational divide. We have read a lot about how the older generation is nostalgic for the former regime—even in this country [Czechia], which is obviously one of the more successful since 1989, let alone in the former Soviet Union, where the picture is very different. But the argument is often that the younger generation has a completely different view, and that in time societies’ attitudes to the past will be completely transformed. What does your survey show on this?

Older people are nostalgic for the past, in the way that those who are 60 plus are less likely to say that ordinary people have benefited from the changes of society. Younger people in the survey are also more positive towards the EU—when we asked about their favourable feelings towards the EU, in the Czech Republic there is a 20-point difference between young and old people. So they are more pro-EU and they are a little less likely to say that people haven’t benefited from the changeover in the past. They also tend to be a little more optimistic about children’s future, what will happen when children grow up, will they be better off financially.

That seems to be something that is very different from Western Europe, where of course we read a lot about how the young are quite negative about their future. They obviously have problems with buying a house, with paying for education, in Southern Europe especially with getting a permanent job. Is there a big East-West split on this, that as Western youth turns pessimistic, Eastern youth is resolutely positive?

There are still more positive young people than old people in most of the countries. The differences are more across countries than within on most of these questions. In other words, the overall sentiment of the country is a better indicator of how young people feel. So when you look at the overall number of people in France who are optimistic about their children’s future, the young might be slightly more optimistic but in the end, everyone is fairly pessimistic.

That’s pretty much true of all the questions we asked. The thing that people are really pessimistic about is inequality. It’s a fact that reducing the income gap between rich and poor is something that worries a lot of people and they are pessimistic about it, regardless of whether they are young or old, in all the countries we surveyed.

Let’s focus on populism, which seems to be the topic of the moment. Can you detect a ‘populist mentality’, and in which countries do you see this, in what kind of people do you see this?

Generally, those who support right-wing populist parties tend to be more anti-Muslim, that’s something that’s clear across the surveys that we do. In many cases they also tend to be more anti-EU.

There are some countries that aren’t as keen on EU membership—only 40% of Czechs say that it has been a good thing for their country. But that’s even more so in places like Bulgaria.

Those are two areas where it’s clear that the populist divide exists. It’s not so clear that on many of the other issues we talk about it’s the same. A lot of these populist parties are less unified and pan European, they’re more about that specific country and the issues within that country. So it’s hard to actually look at it in totality and I think we are going to have to look at it a little deeper as we go through the survey.

Which of the countries you surveyed are the most hostile to the EU?


When you look at it overall actually half or more in all the countries we survey have a favourable view of the EU. So there’s not a lot of overwhelming unfavorability towards the organization. There’s a little bit more variety when it comes to whether a country’s membership is a good thing. In the Czech Republic, only 40% say that it’s been a good thing—that’s the lowest in the survey. But when it comes to whether the economic integration of Europe has strengthened their economy, we see more negative sentiments in Italy, in Bulgaria, in Greece, places where the economy really has done pretty poorly in recent years and that association is pretty clear. When we ask about the issues on what the EU does, people will say—this is from our 2018 survey – that it promotes peace, they are very positive on that aspect of it but they are less positive on some of the other issues that the EU handles. They are pretty negative about how it handled the refugee issue and the Brexit issue. These kinds of things make the EU a little less positive.

Your survey came out with some quite worrying findings of disillusionment with democracy and willingness to embrace authoritarianism. In which countries are you seeing this phenomenon?

We asked about satisfaction with democracy and there is variation across the countries we survey in terms of dissatisfaction. For example in Sweden, Germany, the Northern European countries, Poland as well, people are more satisfied with democracy than a lot of the other countries we survey. The countries that are more dissatisfied with democracy are Greece, Bulgaria, the UK, Italy, Spain. Our prior research on this shows that the two biggest factors that go into views of democracy and satisfaction are economic attitudes—if the economy is doing well, people tend to be more satisfied with democracy—and the other factor is whether the party that they like is in power.

Another thing we found was that people are likely to say that democracy gives them a say but that politicians don’t really care what ordinary people think. When we ask them, a majority say that politicians don’t care about people like them. But when it comes to democratic rights, people are clear that having a fair judiciary is very important to them, being able to have free speech, a free media are all things that people find very important in their lives. It’s less so when it comes to civil society, allowing human rights organizations to operate—in the Czech Republic only 46% says it’s very important, and in Italy 35%.

What does your survey show you about how people in this region have become sceptical of political elites, as well as economic elites? Have people become much more disillusioned with their political masters?

We ask who has benefited from the changes in 1989/91 and here people are more likely to say that politicians and business people have benefited and fewer people say that ordinary people have benefited from these changes. But in fact, since 2009 more people say that ordinary people have benefited. So even though that gap still exists, it has narrowed a bit.

When we ask whether politicians listen to ordinary people, most people disagree, and that’s true about attitudes to the EU as well, people think they are not listening.

Robert Anderson

was the Financial Times correspondent for the Czech and Slovak Republics between 1997-2007. He is currently the managing editor of intellinews.com, a business news website covering the CEE region. He tweets at rjanderson8.

Jacob Poushter

is an associate director at Pew Research Center. He is an expert in international survey research and writes about international public opinion on a variety of topics, including the international image of the United States and perceptions of global threats. He is also responsible for designing survey questionnaires, managing survey projects, analyzing data and developing topics for the annual Global Attitudes Survey. Jacob received a master’s degree in international affairs from American University and a bachelor’s degree in history from Williams College. He is also an author of studies on global attitudes of cultural change, views of the American-German relationship, and contrasting opinions among elites and the American public. He regularly talks about the Center’s findings in print and broadcast media and has been featured on Bloomberg TV and CTV, as well as in other international media outlets. He has also travelled to Canada, Europe and Asia to explain the Center’s work and has participated in numerous presentations and panels in Washington, DC.

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