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How Different are Postcommunist Transitions?

From: Journal of Democracy
Volume 7, Number 4, October 1996
pp. 15-29 | 10.1353/jod.1996.0062

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How Different Are Postcommunist Transitions?

Transitions toward democracy in countries once ruled by communism almost invariably are described as “troubled” or “painful.” However appropriate such adjectives might be, and however much legitimate doubt might persist about the degree or quality of democracy in these lands, we should not underestimate the sheer significance of their desire to claim the title of “democracy.” Whatever arguments students of democracy may have about its definition, peoples and governments today assume that 1) “democracy” means something universal and general, and 2) the best models of it are to be found in the West. Their understanding of democracy may often be vague and superficial, but some level of understanding is there. Everybody knows, for instance, that under democracy you are supposed to have competitive multiparty elections, that parties must be free to take their messages to the voters, that some independent media and associations should be allowed, and so on. Superficial or not, this vision is indeed derived from the Western democratic experience.

Postcommunist transitions, however “troubled,” may still be regarded as transitions to democracy—if only because leading political actors recognize that there is nothing else to make a transition to. Even those who come closest to openly rejecting the Western model of democracy, such as President Alyaksander Lukashenka of Belarus or Russia’s unrepentant communists, can offer no real alternative vision. They may do a lot of harm, but cannot challenge the centrality of the democratic project. Even if we exclude Belarus or the Central Asian states, where transitions seem hardly to have begun, there remains a vast swath of [End Page 15] post-Soviet countries whose governments do recognize the compelling character of the democratic project, and do comply with at least some of its rules.

Although mainstream, empiricist political science tends to explain political life by reference to material interests, personal ambitions, and the libido, none of these things is enough to give us a full understanding of politics. To gain that full understanding, one must take into account the primary role of ideas. Certainly, political actors are driven by their desire for power and their other passions, and they are greatly influenced by economic interests. Their behavior, one may add, is also significantly determined by the cultural traditions of their societies. Granted all that, however, there is also a world of ideas that are not merely subjective, “personal” notions, but are “out there,” exerting immense influence over human behavior and creating the basis of political legitimacy. What is on the minds of political actors, what ideas are popular or fashionable in a society (on elite or popular levels), is of tremendous importance. Political leaders set their agendas or create their projects on the basis of such ideas. Whether or not they really believe them is secondary in defining the nature of political regimes. If political leaders recognize the compelling power of the idea of democracy and the values and rules that come with it, and see the need to accept—or at least to give the appearance of accepting—those values and rules, then the strength of the idea of democracy is manifest. The resulting regime is eligible to be regarded as democratic—which does not detract from the importance of scrutinizing how “authentically” democratic it really is.

An analogy can be drawn between the crafting of democratic transitions and the art of shoemaking. Shoes may be produced in different fashions, from different materials, with different tools, for different markets, and by different shoemakers, who can vary widely in skill, motivation, work habits, and so on. In the postcommunist situation, the quality of the “shoes” may be so poor that they barely deserve the glorious name of shoes. Someone familiar with the customs of the communist economy might suspect that the shoemaker has been cheating, that he has used the wrong materials and put them together badly, so that the shoes will come apart very soon. Perhaps he has only been making a show of producing shoes, having in mind not consumers, but the prospect of loans from the International Monetary Fund. If the shoemaker is cheating, he needs to be watched carefully (election monitoring). Or he may...