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  • Is East-Central Europe Backsliding?

Since its very first issue back in January 1990, the Journal of Democracy has devoted extensive coverage to the transformation in East-Central Europe that began with the sudden fall of communist regimes in 1989. Though many of the articles that we published on this region emphasized the problems and difficulties which lay in the path of democratic transition, they also recounted the undoubted advances that were being achieved. Our last systematic look at the region was published in January 2004 under the heading "Europe Moves Eastward." As that title indicates, the focus was on EU and NATO enlargement, which seemed to represent the culmination—a decade and a half after the fall of communism—of East-Central Europe's march toward democracy. Though the essays in that cluster were not without their notes of caution, the deepest concern they expressed was over the fate of those postcommunist states that were stranded "beyond the new borders" of the European Union.

The fortunate states that were scheduled to attain EU membership seemed thereby to be gaining a secure foothold in European institutions that would keep them reliably on the democratic path. Indeed, we even wondered whether they should not henceforth be regarded as "advanced democracies" like their West European brethren, and therefore no longer be the subject of regular articles tracking their political development. It did not take long, however, before it became clear that such a determination would be premature. Election results and other political events in the region over the past two years indicated that the health of democracy in East-Central Europe was not necessarily assured, though there was great uncertainty about how serious the problems might be. Consequently, we decided to ask a number of experts on East-Central Europe to contribute short essays evaluating the situation of democracy in the region. Our invitation to the authors appears below:

The global "third wave" of democratization has produced a remarkable number of transitions from authoritarian rule, but so far relatively few of these have led to democratic consolidation. The region that seemed to be most successful in this regard was Central and Eastern Europe. By 1998 the former Warsaw Pact countries, despite confronting difficult obstacles, had progressed to the point where they all had been designated by Freedom House as Free countries. Whatever danger remained of their reverting to authoritarianism seemed to be removed by their entry into the European Union—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia in 2004, and then Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. Yet today, all are beset by sharp political conflict, and there is growing concern about the solidity of their democracies. [End Page 5]

We invite you to write a short essay expressing your view of the health of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, and ask that in responding you consider the following questions:

  1. 1. Is the perception that democracy is increasingly precarious in these countries well-grounded or is it overblown?

  2. 2. In either case, what has changed to create the impression of democratic weakening? To what extent are the relevant factors country-specific or common to the region as a whole?

  3. 3. What is the greatest source of danger to democracy: Populism? Extremism? Failure to break sharply enough with the communist past? Failure to deliver good governance (e.g., by controlling corruption)? Disappointing economic performance? Other factors?

  4. 4. What has been the effect of entry into the EU? Is the EU part of the problem? Part of the solution? Or both? To what extent is the EU still a source of scrutiny and pressure for improved governance, now that these countries have become members?

  5. 5. To what extent is the current political malaise specifically tied to the region and its communist past? And to what extent is it a manifestation of Europe-wide problems or of even broader, global problems facing new (and not so new) democracies?

The essays that we received in response to these questions appear in the pages that follow. A brief recounting of some of the disquieting political developments in the region is provided in the opening pages of the first two essays, by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi and Jacques Rupnik...


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