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  • Promoting Pluralism in Eastern Europe
  • Monika Agopsowicz (bio) and James Landon (bio)

Five years ago, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the onset of its fatal crisis in what was then the USSR raised hopes for the dawn of a wholly new political era in the region. Whatever the difficulties of total political and economic transition, societies in these regions had clearly rejected communism and actively brought about its downfall. Today, however, a backlash at the polls has returned to power numerous renamed and reconstituted successors to the old communist parties. In 24 out of 28 countries in Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, ex-communists dominate either the legislative or the executive branch, and sometimes both. In some countries, the communists never left, simply changing a few externals to suit the times. In other countries, former communist organizations have bested a divided and weakened opposition in legislative elections. This reemergence of former communist organizations has been accompanied by the reappearance of such communist-era hallmarks as widespread corruption in politics, economic affairs, and society at large; an attitude toward the law that holds it to be merely an instrument for achieving short-term political goals; and vast, often subterranean, influence for the old nomenklatura and state-security networks, especially as regards the allocation of resources and property that once belonged to the state. [End Page 155]

This backlash has several causes. Communism’s economic collapse could not be reversed through superficial reforms that left the infrastructure and methods of the state-run economy mostly intact and rendered most people even worse off than before. Moreover, fledgling democratic parties and leaders were often unprepared or unsuited for the exercise of political power. Most important, however, is the sheer destruction that decades of communist rule wreaked upon social and political life.

Societies typically draw on a continuous history of social and cultural development to maintain traditions and a way of life. They rely on a strong civil society, meaning the complex network of institutions and social organizations that allows citizens to take an active part in shaping their own lives as well as the future of their communities and their nation. Communism systematically—and often brutally—uprooted or twisted traditions and civic structures for the sake of “building socialism.” The party-state created organizations from the top down, and then closely managed their activities to suit the political needs of the moment. Citizens had no right to form their own groups, or even gather privately on a regular basis to converse or solve a problem. Churches, charitable organizations, historical associations, and even groups as innocuous as folk-music ensembles were controlled, watched, or infiltrated in a variety of ways, or sometimes just suppressed outright. Political and social life, such as it was, was dominated by “activists” who as a rule remained passive until ordered to do something.

The legacy of this misrule is gravely disabling. It is now evident that postcommunist societies cannot easily shuffle off the burden of the past. Their isolation from the West, the lingering effects of communist ideology, and the pervasive mistrust and social atomization that communism bred have combined to produce a great number of politically and socially handicapped citizens. Suspiciousness and passivity are widespread, as is evident from the abysmal voter-turnout rates in general and local elections. A general lack of legitimacy bedevils nearly all institutions, but is especially severe when communist-era institutions persist and remain under the control of former communists. Despite their sagging legitimacy, these institutions all too often remain important determinants of people’s lives, especially their social activities and benefits, and thus continue to underwrite ingrained social practices and norms. Because they retain such extensive manipulative powers, these institutions have not been—and cannot easily be—reformed.

Somber as this picture is, it is not unrelievedly grim, for there is a revival of civil society under way in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Timidly, and despite a plague of difficulties made worse by a paucity of experience and resources, thousands of grassroots associations, organizations, and groups have formed since the downfall of communism. Many have had assistance from Western organizations...

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pp. 155-164
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