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  • Comparing East and South
  • Valerie Bunce (bio)

Throughout the Cold War era, Eastern Europe (including the former Soviet Union) was the scholarly preserve of regional specialists and was largely excluded from mainstream social-science discourse. With the collapse of communism, however, the region has become a fashionable area to study. The change has been most evident in the burgeoning literature on recent transitions to democracy. Researchers specializing in Latin America, Southern Europe, and even Western Europe have begun to incorporate Eastern Europe into their comparative studies of democratization.

Eastern Europe’s sudden leap from the periphery to the core of disciplines like political science and sociology has sparked debate about whether the East can and should be compared with the South. On one side are those who contend that postcommunism is unique in many important respects, and that such cross-regional comparisons are therefore unhelpful at best and misleading at worst. On the other side are those who counter that the uniqueness of postcommunism has been exaggerated, that democratization as a process displays fairly regular contours that allow for comparison across diverse cases, and, indeed, that it is precisely through cross-regional comparisons that we can identify similarities and differences, test hypotheses, and thereby enrich our understanding of democratization.

Embedded in this debate is a time-honored and testy set of exchanges. Defenders of comparison are often quick to charge their opponents with being “typical area scholars.” This is a code phrase for such traits as lack of interest in theory, absorption in the “trivial” details of a given country, deficient training as social scientists, and overzealousness in the defense [End Page 87] of one’s own academic “turf.” The response is equally stereotypical. Those who engage in such comparisons, it is often implied, evince the worst sins of the social-scientific endeavor: a superficial grasp of cases, an overeagerness to code and generalize, and a taste for faddish theories that are often entertained with little regard for empirical evidence.

There will always be differences of opinion between “lumpers” and “splitters.” 1 Still, there are important intellectual issues at stake in the debate about democratization in the South versus the East. The main questions are as follows: First, how different is the process of democratization in Southern Europe and Latin America from that in Eastern Europe? Second, does that difference matter?

The Decline of Authoritarianism

At the most general level, all authoritarian states share certain common characteristics. By definition, the authoritarian states of Southern Europe, Latin America, and Eastern Europe all featured limits on civil liberties and concentration of political power in the hands of leaders who were not held accountable to the people by means of competitive elections. All of these countries also featured highly protected and inefficient economies. In many of these cases, moreover, leaders employed an economic spoils system in an attempt to attain the political support—or at least the acquiescence—of important groups. Finally, these countries all followed the same general pattern of decline, with the decade preceding the end of authoritarian rule marked in every case by the coincidence of mounting economic difficulties, growing public restiveness, and widening schisms among political and economic elites.

This overview, however, misses a number of crucial details that differentiated the political system operating in Eastern Europe from that seen in Latin America and Southern Europe. These details are not merely of historical interest. They also shaped—and continue to shape— transitions to democracy in these regions.

The first difference relates to the duration of authoritarian rule. The history of Latin America and Southern Europe is, for the most part, a history of alternation between authoritarian and democratic rule. The recent transition to democracy in these countries, then, is more accurately termed redemocratization. This terminological distinction is important, because it reminds us that authoritarianism in these states was short-lived and always compromised, even in its most despotic moments, by the memory of democratic politics, as well as democracy’s residual culture and institutions. This democratic residue also points to a fundamental advantage that these states enjoyed as they embarked on their most recent transition to democracy—not just the existence of trade unions, parties, and other building...

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pp. 87-100
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