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  • The Persistence of Postcommunist Elites
  • John Higley (bio), Judith Kullberg (bio), and Jan Pakulski (bio)

A precondition of democratic consolidation is what Giovanni Sartori calls the “taming” of politics so that it “no longer kills” and stops being a “warlike affair.” 1 This is first and foremost a question of relations and perceptions among political elites—senior governmental, economic, military, professional, media, religious, and other leaders, including the leaders of opposition parties and movements, who participate in or directly influence political decision making. A nation’s politics is “tamed” only when broad support for democratic procedures and institutions, as well as a shared acceptance of norms of accommodation and cooperation, develops among political elites.

The collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe has involved dramatic changes among political elites from the relations and behaviors of Soviet-style politics to those of at least nascent democracy. Under communist rule, especially in its early phase, politics was a zero-sum game: winners took all, and losers lost everything, often including their lives. By examining the extent to which consensual elite support for democratic rules, values, and behaviors has emerged from the inhospitable soil of communism, we can refine ideas about the importance of elites in democratization and make firmer judgments about democracy’s progress in the major countries of Central and Eastern Europe. [End Page 133]

Many analysts think that the elite patterns necessary for democratic consolidation are produced by deep and wide changes in societies: economic development that gives both elites and mass publics a stake in democracy; the rise of a civil society that channels elite power-wielding in a democratic direction; the flowering of a civic culture that shapes elite and mass behavior alike. Analysts who take a more elite-centered approach to democratic development concentrate instead on continuities and changes in the composition, relations, and behaviors of elites that may or may not be associated with broad economic and social trends. They focus on contingent, explicitly political circumstances and the ways in which previously divided elites may “settle” their most basic disputes or “converge” toward more accommodative relations that make restrained but free and fair democratic contests possible. 2

The scenarios in which such elite settlements or elite convergences occur are complex. Generally, they take place only after periods of long, costly, and inconclusive conflict reach a crisis that threatens a worsening of strife and induces the leaders of opposing elite camps to look for some better way of conducting politics. If these leaders enjoy enough freedom from cadre and mass pressures, as well as enough authority to drag their followers along, they may be able to settle basic disputes secretly and speedily and thus usher in more cooperative relations and restrained competition. Dramatic historical instances were the sudden and deliberate coming together of Tory and Whig elites in England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688–89, and of Hat and Cap elites in Sweden’s constitutional revolution of 1808–09; a contemporary instance was the settlement negotiated among Spanish elites in 1978–79. 3 Alternatively, where no settlement has occurred but an unstable democratic regime has nonetheless emerged, the imperatives of electoral contests may over time induce elites to converge toward the shared relations, behaviors, and sense of security that are essential if the new democracy is to be consolidated. 4

A Gradual Evolution

As in previous historical movements toward democracy, the path of democratization in the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe began with a desire among elites for greater security. Under Stalinism, elite status did not confer security; on the contrary, it exposed elite members to the vicissitudes of intraparty strife and to ever-present threats of demotion, purge, arrest, imprisonment, and death. The desire of Soviet elites to achieve greater security after Stalin died in 1953 resulted in a tacit consensus to rein in the internal-security apparatus, to attempt to rule collectively, and to institute a rough “socialist legality” that placed some checks on the use of power. This lowered the stakes of factional struggle in the post-Stalin era: rather than [End Page 134] imprisonment or execution, losers faced the comparatively mild penalties of forced retirement or demotion. These changes...

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