The transition from communism in Europe and the former Soviet Union has only sometimes produced a transition to democracy. Since the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, most of the twenty-eight new states have abandoned communism, but only nine of these have entered the ranks of liberal democracies. The remaining majority of new postcommunist states are various shades of dictatorships or unconsolidated "transitional regimes." This article seeks to explain why some states abandoned communism for democracy while others turned to authoritarian rule. In endorsing actorcentric approaches that have dominated analyses of the third wave of democratization, this argument nonetheless offers an alternative set of causal paths from ancien régime to new regime that can account for both democracy and dictatorship as outcomes. Situations of unequal distributions of power produced the quickest and most stable transitions from communist rule. In countries with asymmetrical balances of power, the regime to emerge depends almost entirely on the ideological orientation of the most powerful. In countries where democrats enjoyed a decisive power advantage, democracy emerged. Conversely, in countries in which dictators maintained a decisive power advantage, dictatorship emerged. In between these two extremes were countries in which the distribution of power between the old regime and its challengers was relatively equal. Rather than producing stalemate, compromise, and pacted transitions to democracy, however, such situations in the postcommunist world resulted in protracted confrontation between relatively balanced powers. The regimes that emerged from these modes of transitions are not the most successful democracies but rather are unconsolidated, unstable, partial democracies.


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pp. 212-244
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