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  • After LeninismWhy Democracy can Work in Eastern Europe
  • Giuseppe Di Palma (bio)

The revolutions of 1989 may have rung down the curtain on communist rule in Eastern Europe, but did they also set the stage for the establishment of stable multiparty democracies? Can the nations of Eastern Europe imitate the successful transitions to democracy that have taken place in southern Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere over the past two decades? What lessons might these earlier instances of democratization hold for scholars and East European political practitioners in the 1990s? Most analyses of postcommunist Eastern Europe have dwelt more on doubts and fears than on the grounds for hope. It may be useful, therefore, to balance the picture by taking a second and more hopeful look.

Students of democracy have recently been faced with a series of unprecedented and momentous events. Yet even when there were clear signs of impending change, we have been unable to see these events coming. Every time, we have played down their significance and counseled prudence in assessing their novelty. When called upon to forecast, we have repeatedly opted for pessimism or taken refuge behind qualifications and "on the other hand" disclaimers. Almost every time, things have worked out differently—and generally better—than we had expected. And every time our pessimism was confounded, we have discovered new reasons why the next stage in the unfolding of events should not be as easy as the last.

In defense of this persistent pessimism, it might be argued that the transitions in Eastern Europe face greater difficulties than those that have [End Page 21] taken place in southern Europe and elsewhere. But of course, these earlier transitions were also greeted with a great deal of pessimism. We should not let our memory be tricked by their eventual success. It is also worth noting that what is now cited as the main impediment to democratization in Eastern Europe (the double conundrum of how to "marketize" collectivist economies and how to privatize communist parties) was being cited little more than a year ago as the reason why there could not be a crisis of communism tout court. Yet the crises have occurred—and that was by far the most difficult (and important) step.

The grounds for this misplaced pessimism about transitions have not changed much over the years. With all due regard for the specifics of the East European case, the litanies of what could and would go wrong—in southern Europe in the 1970s, in Eastern Europe in the 1990s—are essentially variations on certain classic themes derived from an established literature about democratization.

The first theme is that attempts at rapid changes of regime are invariably traumatic, and prone to backfire. Even if democracy initially emerges, the trauma surrounding its birth can hamper its legitimacy and performance. Democracy is a matter of rules for mediating plural and conflicting interests; when it is introduced abruptly and against the wishes of some of the players, the "losers" will resist it and the "winners," lacking tested democratic organizations and personal experience, will be less than fully at ease with its methods. Thus consolidation is placed in doubt, while backsliding is an ever-present possibility.

The second and overarching theme is that the historically best, yet no longer available, path to democracy has been both gradual and linked to the emergence of favorable social, economic, and cultural conditions.1 These typically include economic prosperity and equality; an economically diversified yet culturally, ethnically, and nationally homogeneous society featuring a large independent middle class; and a national culture which, by virtue of a penchant for tolerance and accommodation, is already well disposed toward democratic ways. By their very nature, accelerated transitions violate the double prescription: because they are fast, and because they occur in response to political contingencies that may have little to do with the self-propelled, slow-motion rise of auspicious conditions.

A related theme, which focuses on the importance of civil society, applies to the specific problems of postcommunist transitions. Most East European countries had little tradition of civil society before communism—they never developed the liberal, bourgeois class of citizens commonly associated with the flowering of civil society in...