Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History. Lecture 23: Social and economic change in the Balkans

Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Twenty-FIve Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). List of lectures. – Humanities Commons (

Lecture 23: Social and economic change in the Balkans


Significant changes from longstanding norms are easier to find in the area of Balkan socio-economic development than in the world of politics. No matter how discouraging the repetition of Balkan crises and nationalist enthusiasms appears, one must remember that the inhabitants of the Balkans today [in 1995] have access to better food, transportation, industries, health and personal goods than at any time in their history. There is room to hope that the satisfaction of basic human needs and wants can help blunt political discord.

We can measure socio-economic progress in several ways. One is to compare contemporary achievements against historical statistics. Another is to compare production figures among the Balkan states themselves: when we do so, we can cautiously draw comparisons between change in the various socialist states and change in Greece, which went through a totally different “Free World” experience during the forty years of the Cold War. Finally, we can look for signs of fundamental change in social structures and practices. There are few more striking measures of social change in the Balkans than changes in the status of women. This lecture will spend some time on each of these three topics.

Two questions can help us assess the degree of social and economic change in the Balkans since 1945:

  • First, have changes in industry and agriculture had a real effect on persistent problems: rural poverty, poor health, industrial weakness and economic dependency?
  • Second, did the socialist states achieve more or less than Free World Greece during the era of the Cold War?

Scholars’ observations and statistical comparisons can help us decide.

Socialist industrical development

World War II in the Balkans left 3.5 million people dead and destroyed perhaps half of all farms and industries. In the Soviet states, national economic recovery was guided by Communist ideological preferences for heavy industry, and by Russian efforts to build a unified regional economy to support socialism but especially to support the needs of the post-war Russian economy. With the coming of Communism, each state followed the Soviet pattern: nationalization of major enterprises, state direction of investment and production through a series of Five-Year Plans, emphasis on heavy industry and collectivization of agriculture. Pre-Communist trends often paved the way for these measures.

In Bulgaria, financial institutions had already been nationalized during the war: this step made it easy for the new Communist regime to take control of banking and credit. In December 1947 Communist Party operatives entered 6,000 private businesses simultaneously and announced their nationalization. Even small firms were included: the average plant had only 23 employees. Most available capital and labor was directed to electric power stations and steel, cement and chemical plants. In the decade 1948-58 Bulgaria’s economy was transformed: the industrial labor force more than doubled in size with most of the growth occuring in heavy industry.

De-Stalinization and awareness of economic problems led to modifications in Bulgaria after the middle ’50s. The Third Five-Year Plan (which actually lasted from 1958-60) addressed shortfalls in production and high rates of urban unemployment among rural workers who hd been displaced by collectivization of agriculture. Compared to 1948, industry’s share in the economy had risen from 23 percent to 48 percent by 1960; the role of farming was reduced by half.

In Hungary, state control became state ownership as mines, then steel works, and then power plants were nationalized. By the end of 1946, 46 percent of labor worked in state-run plants. The major banks followed in 1947. In 1948 all enterprises with more than 100 employees were nationalized, amounting to 83 percent of all industrial jobs. After 1947, heavy industry got the greatest attention under joint enterprises suiting Russian needs. Excess demands on the workforce and shortfalls of needed goods were one cause of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

After 1956, the restored Hungarian Communist government tried to use exports within Comecon (the East Bloc economic community) to improve its economic situation. When this proved insufficient, the Party leadership introduced a sweeping reform in the 1960s, known as the New Economic Mechanism. In 1968, central planning was replaced by limited autonomy for enterprises and recognition of market forces in setting prices. To bring in hard currency, the state invested in higher quality exports such as clothing, furniture and microelectronics. Half of Hungary’s trade came to be with the West. The state also permitted an increased role for private firms. By 1986, officially sanctioned private firms accounted for 7 percent of national production, and the unofficial “Third Economy” was estimated to account for 16 percent of production.

Romania, on the other hand, continued to embrace central planning. By 1965 production of metals was five times its 1948 level, and tripled again between 1965 and 1980. The urban population, only 23 percent of the total in 1948, rose to 41 percent in 1970 and 51 percent in 1987. To extend modernization, an unpopular program began building new cities in selected rural areas in 1974: this involved the destruction of thousands of villages and resettlement of their inhabitants in sterile new industrial towns. In the 1960s Romania tried to build economic bridges to the West and borrowed heavily from Western banks. To repay a massive $13 billion debt, most of Romania’s consumer goods and foodstuffs had to be exported after 1976, placing terrible burdens on the population.

Yugoslavia followed its own path. In the middle ’50s, worker self-management teams began setting their own investment and production goals. To pursue economic self-sufficiency and Western trade, Tito built a diversified economy producing fertilizer, petroleum, plastics, food processing, textiles and similar light industrial goods. The absence of central planning also led to uneven industrial growth from region to region. The northern and western republics, Croatia and Slovenia, ended up with superior industrial resources and this created disparities in wealth. In 1986, real income for Slovenes was 124 percent of the national average; that of Macedonians was 80 percent. Unemployment was 2 percent in Slovenia and 8 percent in Croatia, but 18 percent in Serbia and 27 percent in Macedonia. Residents of the southern regions resented the wealth of those in the north; residents in the north resented paying taxes to subsidize social assistance programs in the south.

Industry in Greece

Greece of course followed a very different course. Through the Civil War years of 1947-49, resources flowed to the military. After 1950, Marshall Plan aid allowed industrial output to double by 1955. Without any central direction pushing for heavy industry, light industry continued to dominate. In 1953 industries like food processing and clothing were accounting for over 61 percent of industrial output; in 1979 their share was still 46 percent. Large steel, chemical and petroleum plants accounted for only 6 percent of Greek industrial output and most were controlled by foreign firms. Economists described Greece’s industrial growth as a failed “take-off” in which industries remained small, weak and dependent on protectionist policies.

Socialist agriculture

In the socialist states, agricultural collectivization as a remedy for dwarf farms and rural backwardness was one of the first steps taken by the post-war socialist governments.

In Bulgaria, the Communist regime began to collectivize agriculture in 1946 using existing state controls and the old cooperative system. By 1959, 98 percent of the country’s farmland was involved. Because so many workers had been shifted to industrial work, the country’s 800 collective farms were reorganized into 161 “agro-industrial complexes” in the early 1970s, as a way to share scarce rural labor. Each complex comprised some 60,000 acres and 6,500 members.

Collectivization increased production of crops like grain that could be handled with machinery, but didn’t work well for vegetables and other labor intensive crops. Without profit incentives, peasant production of these crops fell. As a result, starting in 1957 peasants were permitted to lease land from their collective farms for private production. About 10 percent of available land eventually came into private use (not ownership), but produced 30 percent of the country’s milk supply, 40 percent of its vegetables, fruit and meat, and 50 percent of its potatoes and eggs. For obvious reasons, the government could not cut off this source of production and it endured until the end of the Communist regime.

Hungary, unlike the other Balkan states, still had large private estates at the end of World War II and the first actions of the Communist regime were intended to rid the country of these feudal remnants. For the first time, Hungary had a real land reform which distributed 5 million acres to 640,000 families. But in a sign of things to come, another 2.5 million acres were allotted to model state farms. Once the Communists were firmly in power in 1949, the effects of this land reform were abruptly reversed by collectivization. The result was a drop in agricultural production due to peasant dissatisfaction and insufficient investment in agriculture by the state. Collectivization had to be suspended in 1953: when given the chance, half the peasants on the collective farms chose to leave.

After the 1956 Revolution, there was a second collectivization drive. The state offered better support this time and members of collectives gained a voice in decision-making. 90 percent of the nation’s farmland went to cooperative farms, of about 7,000 to 8,000 acres each. Under the New Economic Mechanism of 1968, residents of each farm gained real autonomy to decide what to grow and how to invest proceeds of sales, and it became legal for private individuals to lease land on which they could grow crops for sale. Most such private plots were managed on the side by farmers, but they soon produced about 30 percent of overall farm output, making them an essential part of the national economy.

In Romania, the first round of collectivization began in 1949 and was an obvious failure by 1951. Only 17 percent of farmland had been collectivized and 80,000 resisting peasants had been arrested. The country had too few tractors to equip the large new farms, and production fell. The state then tried a different tactic. Peasants were allowed to keep their land, but had to sell their produce to the state at unattractively low prices. This slow squeeze gradually drove peasants off the land and into industrial jobs, while their land was transferred to cooperative farms. By 1962, 77 percent of arable land and 90 percent of farm output was in state hands; by the 1980s, 90 percent of land was under state control. Grain production rose dramatically, now that tractors and modern methods could be used efficiently on the larger consolidated parcels of land. The annual grain crop had been only 5 million tons in 1950, but reached 30 million tons in the 1980s.

Romania never supported the idea of private plots. Little land became available for private lease, and the state required one third of any private plots to be planted in wheat. Such rules defeated the market mechanism and kept private farmers from producing as much as they could have. Even so, half the mutton, 40 percent of the beef, 28 percent of the pork and 63 percent of the fruit in Romania came from privately managed land in 1987, grown not only in rural areas but also urban parks, which became vegetable patches as city dwellers engaged in a daily struggle to find adequate food. Despite obvious problems, Ceausescu planned further reductions in private farming and the creation of enormous farm-factories. The failure of agriculture was a leading cause of discontent with the Ceausescu regime on the eve of 1989.

In Yugoslavia, 2 million peasants were forced into collective farms in the 1940s, but the program was cancelled in 1952 because of low output. In the 1980s, 82 percent of farmland was still owned by 2.6 million peasant families on farms averaging about 9 acres in size. Rural productivity remained low but the problem of rural overpopulation was solved by industrialization. In 1948, 67 percent of the population was still engaged in agriculture; this figure fell to 17 percent by 1984.

Agriculture in Greece

In Greece, state action focused on assistance to small farmers. The average size of Greek farms remained around 9 acres, typically in several scattered plots. Successful inter-war programs continued after World War II, such as price supports for wheat.

Greece prefers to be self-sufficient in wheat: to boost acreage devoted to that crop, the state has paid a guaranteed price for wheat since 1927. By the 1950s, domestic farmers were growing 100 percent of what the country needed. Another holdover program was the Agricultural Bank of Greece, running cooperatives and offering loans for equipment. After Greece joined the European Economic Community in 1981, weaknesses in Greek agriculture became apparent. Greek farm productivity is about half that of West European farmers, implying a reduction in agriculture’s role in the nation’s economy. However, subsidies that shore up inefficient farms are common in many EEC states for political reasons: there is no reason to think that Greece will depart from the pattern.

Comparing progress

Can we compare the success of the Communist and capitalist systems? Statistics are deceptive. These average household income figures for five Balkan states (and the United States for comparison) for the early 1980s …

Bulgaria   $8,410
Yugoslavia   $4,300
Hungary   $4,200
Greece   $3,777
Romania   $3,500
United States $30,000

… imply that Bulgarians were twice as well off as Greeks. However, the events of 1989 showed that popular satisfaction is often a matter of what consumer goods one can buy with one’s money, to say nothing of political and social freedoms. By those measures, the Communist states certainly finished the development race far behind Greece and the West: they lost the Cold War.

Women and Marxism

This is a good time for some comments about the position of women in the Balkans. Under both socialism and capitalism alike, modernization, industrialization and urbanization have vastly changed the status of women. Communist doctrine included special claims regarding women but it is not clear whether women really gained  more social, economic or political power in the Communist states.

Traditional Balkan life was patriarchal in the simple and literal sense. Women played a subordinate role with few opportunities in the economic realm and virtually none in the political. Liberal ideas and economic modernization in the nineteenth century did not necessarily help women. While traditional Balkan women were confined to certain roles in their families and villages, their position was at the same time secure, stable and respected. Women controlled certain traditional village guilds such as cloth-making, and in the south Slav zadruga (or commune) women were in charge of the domestic economy of their multi-generational household. These conditions did not confine women to their own regions: for example, Bulgarian women travelled substantial distances in organized work groups during the harvest season.

Guilds and zadrugi broke up in the face of modern economic forces and imports. Modern law codes imitated Western models in which women were legally disenfranchised and thus deprived women of their traditional rights to own or inherit property without introducing compensating rights.

Many of the new jobs in factories went to women, but these jobs had low prestige and low pay, offered no chance for advancement or ownership, and disrupted domestic life by attracting women to distant towns where they lived in dormitories. In Bulgaria, a third of the industrial workers in 1911 were women: women workers were concentrated in textiles and tobacco processing, where over 70 percent of the workers were female. Their wages were only about 40 percent of wages earned by male industrial workers. Existing trade unions did not organize labor in the industries where women worked, a decision that later created opportunities for the Communist Party.

Not all new jobs were industrial: the rise of the urban middle class created a demand for domestic servants. In late nineteenth century Hungary, the typical servant girl was a rural migrant who came to the city in her late teens, worked for 5-10 years to build a dowry and then returned to her village. Such jobs offered women alternatives to village life but kept them in marginal, subordinate roles in the modern economy.

World War I briefly permitted women to step into better jobs vacated by men gone to war and to organize complicated relief organizations. The end of the war cut short these advances. In the interwar period, women returned to factory work but still earned rates of pay that were only a fraction of what was paid to men.

Karl Marx and other Communist theorists treated the economic subordination of women as an aspect of class oppression that would be eliminated by socialism. In The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Friedrich Engels postulated a primeval classless society in which women had enjoyed a position of equality with men. The goal of socialism was to restore women to an equal role in public life and to end the capitalist situation in which they were confined to private and domestic functions. To free women from household obligations, socialism was expected to provide not only education and jobs, but also child-care centers, communal kitchens and household conveniences. The Left also consistently demanded women’s suffrage and liberalized access to divorce, contraception and abortion as women’s issues.

The actual interwar record of Communism was mixed. For example, the Yugoslav Communist Party catered to women by sponsoring magazines and organizations, and used women as underground couriers and as political organizers in the universities. Communist practice fell short of its rhetoric, however. The official membership of the Yugoslav Communist Party remained 99 percent male; in Bulgaria in the ’30s, perhaps a quarter of the official Communist membership were women. In no Party organizations were women found in positions of authority. It also was difficult to overcome the traditional mindset of male Communists, who found it personally difficult to overcome Balkan social habits. After an early flirtation with a “free love” plank, the Yugoslav Party platform moved back to official puritanism and an unofficial double standard about sexual behavior. In 1940, Tito felt it necessary to deliver a speech in which he advised Party members that it was politically incorrect to beat their wives.

During World War II, economic niches for women opened up again due to wartime shortages of labor. In the Yugoslav Partisan movement, the Yugoslav Anti-Fascist Front of Women (AFZ) was especially successful in coordinating women’s contributions. Some 2 million Yugoslav women took part, 100,000 of them as combatants and the others as nurses and auxiliaries in charge of supplies, communications, education and hospital care. Over 250,000 women Partisans died during the war, including 25,000 guerilla soldiers. For the first time, women began to hold positions of authority in the YCP but the rate of participation among women was still disproportionately low, especially in the higher ranks. At the end of the war much of the progress ended as the AFZ was pushed aside by other, male-dominated Party organizations.

Cold War comparisons: Women

During the Cold War period, women under socialism made some gains but fell short in other areas. It is not clear that they did better than women in Greece with its Western-style economy and political system. To make comparisons, we can look at four areas:

  • political rights,
  • access to education,
  • access to employment, and
  • access to health care including birth control and abortion.

Politics: Women got the vote in most of the Balkan states in 1945 or 1946 (as early as 1938 in Bulgaria, as late as 1958 in Albania); Greece enacted women’s suffrage in 1952. The proportion of women in parliamentary bodies was higher in the socialist states than in Greece: 40 percent in Hungary in 1970 (101 of 251 legislators), 24 percent in Bulgaria and Romania (78 of 322 and 66 of 275 respectively), and 15 percent in Yugoslavia (13 of 86). These levels tended to fall after the 1989 revolution. Between 2 and 4 percent of Greek legislators were women (7 of 293 in 1970; 12 of 300 in 1987). In 1990, only 8 out of 352 Greek mayors were women, and only 1 of the country’s 117 ambassadors (I have not seen comparable figures for the socialist states). On paper, then, women played a larger role in governing the socialist states, but voting and political life of course was constrained or even meaningless under Communism.

Education: Across all the Balkan states, women made up between 45 and 51 percent of university students, a clear departure from traditional discrimination and under-representation. Greek figures are little different from those of the states under socialism. Women students were concentrated in certain fields. In Hungary in 1987, women made up three quarters of the university students in education (that is, teacher preparation) but only 33 percent in the sciences and 10 percent in engineering. Figures for Greece were comparable: women made up 75 percent of university students in education, 41 percent in the sciences and 18 percent in engineering. In general, women in all the Balkan states had equivalent (and improved) access to education, which did not always translate into jobs.

Employment: The number of employed women went up all over the Balkans during the Cold War era, but this did not mean that women held jobs with high pay and prestige. Looking first at the socialist states, we find that men held most of the jobs in the heavy industries that enjoyed official Party favor. In Yugoslavia, women were filling 47 percent of industrial jobs in 1948 when labor was in short supply, but this figure fell to 25 percent by 1954 after decentralization replaced intense development. Women instead made up the majority of workers in service sectors like education and health. A higher proportion of women worked in all the Bloc states (except Yugoslavia) than they did in Western Europe; Yugoslavia had a rate of 37 percent, comparable to the level in France. The number of working women rose during the Cold War years: it was 48 percent in Romania in the ’60s, and reached 74 percent in Hungary in 1986.

We should not assume that women’s access to work always translated into personal advantage: many women in the Bloc states had to participate in the pseudo-private “second economy” just to make ends meet. In 1986, a Hungarian survey found that in 75 percent of families, one parent held a second job of up to 12 hours/week, and 12 percent of working women said they had no “free time” except for sleeping. Women under socialism still had second-class economic status. They were concentrated in clerical jobs, health care and elementary education. Women also performed a disproportionate share of agricultural laborers’ jobs. Even professional women earned less than their male counterparts: in Hungary in the 1980s, women earned from 65-80 percent of wages paid to men; in Yugoslavia, from 85-95 percent.

In Greece, by comparison, fewer women worked outside the home. About 34 percent were members of the workforce in 1987 (comparable to Western European levels). Greek women too were concentrated in agriculture and in service jobs (each with about 40 percent of employed women) rather than industry (18 percent). Greek women too were underpaid, earning at an average rate only about 60-85 percent of pay levels for men. More Greek women than men were unemployed (in other words, many women wanted work and couldn’t find it, and many others settled for part-time jobs). Unemployed village women who followed their husbands to big cities like Athens often found themselves isolated in their apartments and cut off from informal but meaningful public activities that were traditional in villages, such as helping with farming or small businesses.

Some aspects of the employment picture for women were fairly uniform on both sides of the Iron Curtain: women’s wages and access to specific careers. More women in the true Bloc states found work (since under socialism, employment was usually guaranteed) than in the market-oriented economies of Greece or Yugoslavia.

Health care: health care became dramatically better for women (and everyone else) in the Balkans after World War II. The Bloc states offered free state health care and Greece moved from private insurers to a state medical system in 1983. All the Balkan states offered full paid maternity leaves.

The infant mortality rate is one measure of the positive results for women and their families. In the socialist states, rates of infant mortality in the 1930s averaged 150 per 1000. During the Cold War era, this figure fell, to a level between 16 and 24 by the 1980s in most countries but remained as high as 39 in Albania and 52 in Macedonia, compared to 10 in Slovenia. Before World War II, rates in Greece were better than in the other states and remained better after 1945. The rate was 99 out of 1000 in 1930; in the 1980s, this figure fell to 11 per 1000, the same low level found across Western Europe.

Access to contraception is another measure of women’s status. In most of the Communist states, women’s health care included access to both contraceptives and abortions: because of consumer shortages of contraceptives, abortion rates were sometimes high. The Bloc states reported figures ranging between 734 and 1,015 abortions per 1,000 live births in the 1980s (the U.S. rate was about 440). In Greece, contraception is legal. Abortion became legal there in 1986: the reported rate is low, about 96 per 1,000 live births.

Romania pursued a contrasting policy on reproductive rights. In the early 1960s, Romanian families reacted to shortages of housing and consumer goods by having fewer children. After state planners predicted a future labor shortage, Romania banned both abortion and contraception in 1966. The birth rate doubled in 1967, then gradually returned to low levels by 1983 as women turned to illegal abortions. Romania’s officially reported abortion rate in the 1980s was only half of the figure for Yugoslavia (522 versus 1,015 per 1,000 live births), but Romania’s maternal death rate was almost 10 times higher, reflecting the dangers involved in illegal abortions.

Health care is tied to general levels of modernization. Variations in the Balkans seem to reflect general development more than political systems: thus Greece has retained its lead, despite occasionally adopting health measures a little later.


All of the Balkan states made significant economic progress after World War II. Damaging interwar problems associated with underdevelopment were much curtailed, except in a few regions like Albania and Macedonia.

Can we say that people in the socialist states did better or worse by comparison with Greece, or with the unconventional socialist state, Yugoslavia? Measuring popular satisfaction on the basis of economic statistics is questionable, especially given the events of 1989. Consumer discontent (measured against the standard of the West) played a visible role in the 1989 revolutions in the northern parts of Eastern Europe and even in Hungary; in the Balkans only Greece, with its Western ties, escaped revolution in that year. But as we will see in subsequent lectures, other issues (based on political rather than merely economic content) were just as important in most of the Balkan revolutions. Economic change alone did not avert unrest in the 1980s any more than it did during periods of reform activity in the nineteenth century. Differences in political systems in the Balkans rarely seem to translate into socio-economic differences that stand in sharp contrast to conditions in neighboring states, at least in the short run.  

We might say the same about the status of women. Greece shows few strong contrasts with its socialist neighbors, despite contrasting views about the role of women found in Marxist as opposed to Western thought. Modernization and general prosperity seem to be the keys to breaking down traditional limits on women, whether under socialism or capitalism.


This lecture is a portion of a larger set of texts, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). 

This page created on 27 November 1996; last modified 17 January 2023.


Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards

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