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  • New Institutions in the Old East Bloc
  • Jan Zielonka (bio)

Setting the new rules of political bargaining is the essence of democratic consolidation. This especially involves defining the functions and procedures of democracy's three institutional pillars: the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. Unless these institutions enjoy stability, coherence, and autonomy, democracy cannot work. In the postcommunist countries, however, the entire institutional framework is now in flux, causing chaos, friction, and inefficiency. State institutions are assuming new roles and prerogatives under conditions of intense political struggle, rapid social change, and enormous legal confusion. The core rules of institutional bargaining are constantly being rearticulated and renegotiated. Institutions find it hard to acquire the public support and professional skills (to say nothing of internal coherence and adaptability) that they need to cope with the complex challenges that they face. At the same time, they often clash agonizingly among themselves over prestige, authority, and procedures. The problem has been especially acute in Russia, where institutional rivalries led to the all-out violence of October 1993 and threatened to undo democracy. But protracted and more or less intense conflict concerning the division of powers among the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary is a prominent theme of political life throughout the postcommunist world.

This does not mean that no democratic progress is taking place. Despite the many problems discussed below, democratic consolidation is occurring, and existing institutions are performing their basic functions. Parliaments in each country issue hundreds of laws per year that undo the communist past and lay down foundations for a new [End Page 87] democratic regime. The executive branches run economies in a largely new fashion, and they still manage, for better or worse, to administer their countries and to guarantee law and order. The judiciary, released from communist control and operating within a new legal framework, is making remarkable progress in creating a system based on the rule of law. Yet this progress may prove unsustainable if ongoing constitutional conflicts are not settled. In some cases, such as those of Russia and Ukraine, the intensity of the institutional power struggle points more to chaos and the possible recrudescence of dictatorship than to any early democratic consolidation.

Generally speaking, the more complex the laws that determine the competencies of major institutions, the more heated and destructive is the institutional power struggle. The problem of Eastern Europe so far has not been that this or that country has chosen a presidential or parliamentary model, but that there has been no fixed model in place at all. If the East European experience is to provide any answers with wider application, democrats should give up endless debate about optimal constitutional solutions, and focus instead on the speedy adoption of new constitutions. This is, of course, a rather risky way to proceed, which is why I recommend an interim rather than a lasting character for new constitutions, and favor concentrating on regulating the machinery of government rather than securing paper guarantees for individual rights. It also seems clear that emerging political pacts and compromises give the new constitutions a more solid basis than predemocratic legal arrangements will. Checks and balances should appear not only in constitutional drafts, but in the actual process of constitution making itself.

The Roots of Institutional Chaos

There is ample evidence that East European reformers have long realized the damaging effects of prolonged institutional instability. Why, then, the obsessive institutional power struggles in these countries? First and most obviously, because the old system has crumbled and the creation of a new one raises difficult questions about the number, structure, and prerogatives of institutional actors. Second, because institutions—unlike society, the economy, or the culture—are susceptible to "political engineering" by the young democratic elites, and are therefore their prime target. Third, because in the absence of strong parties and loyal constituencies, state institutions represent the only sure political prize. Assuming control of a particular institution and extending its formal powers becomes a new form of political contention in consolidating democracies.

The historical context is also worth considering. Although under communism the party in fact ran everything, most communist [End Page 88] constitutions made parliament the highest state organ, superior to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 87-104
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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