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  • The Crumbling of the Soviet BlocPoland and Hungary in Transition
  • János Kis (bio)

The past 15 years have witnessed not only the rise of democracy among the authoritarian regimes of Southern Europe and Latin America, but also the birth of democratic opposition movements in the communist countries of Eastern Europe. These latter movements, however, stopped short of initiating a transformation of the political system itself. Instead, they invariably limited themselves to the task of reconstructing civil society within the bounds set by Communist Party control over the levers of state power. Yet now it seems that this era of self-limitation is ending: in Poland and Hungary, power sharing and dissociation of the state from the Communist Party are directly at issue; events in Czechoslovakia may very soon take a similar course.

In both Poland and Hungary, the Communist leadership itself has offered opposition movements legal status and a share in the government. It is crucial to understand both the motives for these gestures and their meaning. It would be misleading to view the current situation as analogous to the 1980 Gdansk negotiations. At that time, Poland's Communist rulers found themselves pushed to the wall by a number of particularly vigorous strikes, and agreed to talks because they were unprepared to use force to exclude the opposition from politics. This time, however, they offered talks in response to much weaker pressure because they deemed it in their interest to include the opposition in the political structure. At the end of the 1980s-a decade whose opening [End Page 75] years saw first the official recognition and then the outlawing of Solidarity-Polish (as well as Hungarian) Communists have recognized that they cannot rescue their regimes from continuing economic and social decay unless they share responsibility with partners who are truly independent of them. For the first time since the Sovietization of Eastern Europe, ruling parties are seeking to make room in the power structure for a legal opposition with the design of using its authority to legitimize austerity measures and demobilize social resistance.

In joining the game that the negotiation offers have started, both sides incur tremendous risks. The danger for the Communist elites arises from the possibility that the process initiated by their talks with the opposition will lead much farther than they wish. The breach thus opened in the one-party system may progressively widen until the way is cleared for the logical outcome, which is a truly competitive parliamentary democracy. Indeed, this prospect provides the only reason for democratic elements to accept the bargain. But the opposition leaders must face the danger that instead of initiating a transition to democracy, the deal may shore up Communist power-and discredit them for having gone along with it.

Being manipulated into helping to legitimize Communist rule is not the only risk with which the opposition in Poland and Hungary must reckon, however. The transition process, even if successfully launched, is likely to prove rocky. The sway exercised by both sides over their respective organizational bases will probably come under severe strain. Communist apparatchiks in strategic positions may try to upset the deal, perhaps by stage-managing outright provocations. Opposition radicals, on the other hand, may push to delegitimize any compromise with the Communists. The social contract may thus collapse before producing any tangible results.

Another danger threatening the transition to democracy arises from the economic crisis. Unavoidable austerity measures and continuing decay may convince the "silent majority" that democratization is only aggravating the trouble. The opposition might then be held partly responsible for the accumulating hardships. The Communists could see such a development as advantageous to themselves since it would seem to remove any conceivable political alternative. Indeed, it could even result in an increasingly widespread longing for order, which would favor the advent of a Stalinist strongman promising to save the fatherland from political and economic chaos. But a chain reaction of spontaneous outbursts of mass violence could also occur, prompted by a disgust with politics of all kinds, official or oppositionist.

Dangers threaten from abroad as well. Sharp oscillations in Soviet politics remain possible and could easily derail internal reforms. Exacerbated ethnic and national...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 75-78
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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