Transition All Around

"Countries in transition." That description is typically applied to nations stretching from Poland and the Czech Republic in the West to China and Vietnam in the East, with Russia and its fringe of former-Soviet possessions in between. But it shouldn't be limited to them.

The countries just indicated, which have about one-third of the world's population, are attempting an epic journey from Communist central planning to the free market. Geography, culture, preexisting economic conditions, history - all have a role in determining how quick or smooth the journey will be, as the World Bank's recent study of the subject, "From Plan to Market," explains.

Some have come a long way economically and politically (the Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians); others, including the behemoths, China and Russia, have traveled mainly along one or the other of these tracks. A few, like Turkmenistan in Central Asia and Belarus on Russia's western flank, have barely pulled out of the station.

Key markers along the route of successful transition include privatization, smaller government, and more- tightly focused public benefits. The restructuring of education and training is also of great concern, as is the need to curb crime and corruption.

Sound familiar? Most of these items could be lifted from the speeches of prominent American politicians, beginning with Messrs. Clinton and Dole. They also demand the attention of leaders in Germany, Britain, and Japan. Transition, while a monumental and grueling undertaking for former disciples of Marx or Mao, is setting an itinerary for the capitalist world too.

Take privatization. It is a common theme in US governance today, perhaps more prevalent at the local than at the national level, but persistent nonetheless. Mayors are winning plaudits for privatizing everything from road repair to water treatment.

Smaller government is the leitmotif of Republicans, but it catches the ear of many Democrats too, starting with the president. Accomplishing it is another matter. If the nomenklatura holds onto its turf in Russia, so do the special interests in America and elsewhere. And almost everyone has a special interest in preserving some government program.

More-tightly focused public benefits? Entitlement reform plays briskly in the United States as long as it's limited to welfare and Medicaid, which serve the poor. The big middle-class items - yes, even Social Security - may yet make it to the hustings if Reform Party hopefuls Ross Perot or Richard Lamm become more than faint voices in the wilderness. Whether in the US or in Germany, workers or retirees used to government benefits will protest as those benefits are pruned back. Efforts to be a winner in the global economic competition mean belt-tightening and sometimes upheaval in labor markets. The political heat is rising.

There's little objective comparison, of course, between American senior citizens concerned about threatened cutbacks in Medicare and Russian pensioners threatened with slim food rations. But some of the emotions are shared. People see their lives changing as their governments change.

Former-Communist nations are setting course for free-market prosperity and, in many cases, freer politics. Capitalist, democratic countries are struggling to lighten the weight of the "welfare state" while maintaining the critical values of justice and fairness. These are simultaneous transitions - wholly different in many ways, but ultimately interconnected.

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