The Weakness of Postcommunist Civil Society
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Journal of Democracy 13.1 (2002) 157-169



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The Weakness Of Postcommunist Civil Society

Marc Morjé Howard

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Civil society continues to thrive as an object of study in postcommunist Europe, as in most other regions of the world. Much of the literature on postcommunist civil society, however, stresses its relative weakness, whether compared to other regions or to the high expectations of 1989-91. 1 This emphasis on weakness is especially notable given that, only a decade ago, so many observers expected postcommunist civil society to be unusually strong and vibrant. Indeed, although specialists on Latin America and Southern Europe were also beginning to take the concept seriously in the 1980s, most scholars agree that the rapid revival of civil society as a major object of study resulted largely from developments surrounding the collapse of communism.

The weakness of postcommunist civil society leads to a host of important questions. Yet is it actually correct to assert that postcommunist civil society is particularly weak? It seems clear that, when compared to the idealistic hopes of 1989-91, the current political, economic, and social realities have fallen short. When compared to other regions, however, the conclusion that postcommunist civil society is distinctively weak needs further substantiation.

Such evidence is provided by the World Values Survey, which shows that in a wider crossregional perspective--compared against both older democracies and postauthoritarian countries--postcommunist countries do have relatively lower levels of organizational membership. This finding suggests that, even though there is some variation among the countries of postcommunist Europe, on the whole they still appear to form a coherent group.

These empirical findings may affect the prospects for democracy and [End Page 157] democratic stability in the region. While the weakness of civil society does not necessarily mean that postcommunist democracy is in danger of collapse or breakdown, it does hamper the development of the "civic skills" that are important for supporting and consolidating a democratic system, and it also ensures that many postcommunist citizens lack the institutional representation and political "leverage" that could be provided by active voluntary organizations.

Finally, although this trend of nonparticipation is unlikely to change rapidly or decisively--given the powerful and lasting legacy of the communist experience and the relative failure of neoliberal institutional "crafting"--there are two possible mechanisms for improvement: generational change and a more active and supportive role on the part of the state. Overall, however, barring unforeseen improvements in the way new institutions and policies are implemented, we are unlikely to see dramatic changes in the pattern of nonparticipation throughout postcommunist Europe.

Weighing the Evidence

The scholarship on postcommunist Europe has increasingly concluded that there are wide differences among the countries in the region. Jacques Rupnik has even claimed that "the word 'postcommunism' has lost its relevance," and he has added that "it is striking how vastly different the outcomes of the democratic transitions have been in Central and Eastern Europe." 2 In terms of empirical data, the most authoritative comparative studies have been conducted by Richard Rose and his colleagues in the New Europe Barometer Surveys (NEBS). While still stressing the analytical and substantive importance of postcommunism as a category, they tend to confirm that there is fairly wide variation among the countries of the postcommunist region. 3 The NEBS question on civil society asks respondents to describe their levels of trust in 15 different civil and political institutions; the results show somewhat lower levels of trust in the countries of the former Soviet Union than in Central Europe, but the levels of trust are remarkably low throughout the region. The NEBS question on trust in civil society has its limitations, however, since it refers to the attitudes, rather than the actual behavior, of respondents, thus measuring trust in civil society organizations rather than membership in them.

The World Values Survey (WVS), on the other hand, is a large-scale comparative survey project that includes a wider range of countries and a battery of questions on membership in voluntary organizations. The fact that the WVS was conducted in more than 50 different societies in...