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  • Twenty Years of PostcommunismThe Other Transition
  • Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (bio)

As I crossed into what was then the Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) of Ukraine from the SSR of Moldova, just one day after the August 1991 coup attempt in Moscow, I saw an old man by the road having an argument with a militiaman. We were near a small starving village, and the old man had tried to set up a folding table to sell some seeds that he was collecting from sunflowers that had fallen to the ground. The militiaman objected on the grounds that the sunflowers were public, not private property; that the old kolkholznik was engaging in an unlicensed commercial activity; and that one of the militiaman's superiors might drive past and discover this act of sabotage against the command economy. The old man promised to cut him a share, but the matter was by no means settled by the time I drove away.

When I returned about a week later, Ukraine was independent, the folding table was in the middle of the road, and the militiaman was proudly sitting next to it, acting as a self-appointed border guard. He was still trying to figure out at that point how much passage tax he could extort from drivers crossing into Ukraine. We were the first, so we donated five dollars to the newly independent state. The old man was nearby. He had spread his coat on the ground and piled on it corn and sunflowers gathered from the field behind. He was selling these in full freedom—no license was needed and no tax had to be paid. The two men looked to me to be strangely reconciled to the new capitalist order. Only one element was missing (particularly since it had been so prominent the week before)—the state. It had all but vanished.

The postcommunist transformation has generally been seen as a dual process: 1) the shift from a command economy to a market economy, [End Page 120] and 2) the transition from authoritarianism or totalitarianism to democracy. Some countries have fared well in both the political and economic arenas, while others have had more success in one or the other of the two domains. Behind these two formal transformations, however, a shadowy informal struggle was fought, with a determinative effect on their outcome: the battle for social control. The recent history of Eastern Europe can best be understood as a transition to a new social contract between the postcommunist state that emerged from its communist predecessor and the postcommunist citizen who evolved from the communist subject. The instant dissolution of the old communist contract was striking that day at the Ukrainian border, and eighteen years later a new social contract has yet to fully replace it in Ukraine and many other places.

Scholars of the state have largely ignored postcommunism.1 The postcommunist state is conspicuously missing from the literature on the state and society, which is hard to explain.2 Postcommunism offers an alternative set of cases to Joel Migdal's "weak state–strong society" model, as communism was defined by a strong state and weak society.3 But a strong state based on coercion alone is not sustainable, as it is not based on a social contract. Repression is costly, and once the global order of communism broke down, communist regimes, lacking legitimacy, vanished. As Ghita Ionescu observed as early as the 1960s, the people would have torn down the Berlin Wall with their bare hands had it not been defended by Soviet tanks.4 There was a permanent absence of popular consent to the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. What varied over time and among countries was the state's capacity to sustain surveillance and repression—the extent to which the state managed to control society.

It is the relationship between state and society under communism that best explains the divergent paths taken by the former communist countries after 1989. The communist state's strength and the extent to which it invaded the private lives of its citizens varied greatly across cases; so did the autonomy of the society (see Figure on p. 122). This was no simple...