- Eastern Europe a Decade LaterThe Postcommunist Divide
Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet empire, one thing is clear: The word “postcommunism” has lost its relevance. The fact that Hungary and Albania, or the Czech Republic and Belarus, or Poland and Kazakhstan shared a communist past explains very little about the paths that they have taken since. Indeed, it is striking how vastly different the outcomes of the democratic transitions have been in Central and Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, certain patterns do emerge. A new tripartite political geography of formerly communist Europe is emerging: a new Central Europe (the so-called Visegrád group, the Baltic countries, and Slovenia) as a clear “success story”; the Balkans, where the democratic transition has often been derailed by the priorities of nation-state building or undermined by the legacies of communism and economic backwardness; and Russia, in search of a postimperial identity and teetering on the brink of economic disaster. (The fate of democratizaton in Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova will to a large extent depend on what happens in Russia.)
Shortly after the collapse of the communist system, Ralf Dahrendorf identified three interrelated areas of change with different “timetables”: political democracy and the rule of law (six months), the conversion to a market economy (six years), and the emergence of a civil society (six decades). Almost a decade later, it appears that so far the new political elites in Central Europe have successfully met the challenge posed by the disjunctive time spans of these three processes of change. They have established parliamentary democracy as the only game in town, creating a constitutional framework and political institutions that are seen as legitimate by all political actors; moreover, the formation of a relatively [End Page 57] stable party system, allowing for smooth alternation in power, by now has taken place everywhere in Central Europe. A market economy has been established, with more than half of GNP produced in the private sector and over three quarters of trade now conducted with the OECD countries. A civil society is developing, with both its economic dimension (emerging new strata of entrepreneurs) and its networks of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
This picture contrasts not only with the former Soviet Union (the Baltic states excepted) but also with the Balkans. The most extreme case of a “derailed” transition, of course, is former Yugoslavia, because of the war and the breakup of the Federation into several successor states whose legitimacy and viability are still being questioned. The legitimacy of the territorial framework clearly remains the first prerequisite for a democratic transition.
To be sure, the situation in the Balkans should not be seen solely through the prism of the Yugoslav war and ethnonationalist conflict. There have been encouraging developments over the last year or two in both Bulgaria and Romania. In the former, the winter of discontent (1996–97), culminating in the ransacking of Parliament, forced the incompetent and corrupt ex-communist government to step down and call for an early election, opening the way for much delayed economic reforms. In Romania, a belated alternation in power (“We have lost seven years,” said President Constantinescu when taking over from Iliescu) saw the ex-communists replaced by a right-wing coalition, although after two years in power it has produced little or no reform. If the contrast between the Central European and Balkan models can be summed up as that between democratic consolidation and the rise of “illiberal democracies,” then Romania and Bulgaria (as well as Slovakia) are in an intermediate position.
There is, of course, no single factor that accounts for this process of differentiation. One can only point to a combination of factors, explanations, or hypotheses that can help make sense of the uneven progress of the democratic transition in the region.
1) The legacies of communism. More important than the manner of the changeover in 1989–91 (gradual or sudden, negotiated from above or imposed from below) in influencing the longer-term prospects for democratic success are the nature of the old communist regime and the depth of its imprint on society. The harshest totalitarian domination in the postwar period tended to be in the Balkans...