Determining when one period gave way to another or, in fact, naming a period is always a tricky matter. This is especially so when it comes to contemporary events. Processes are still going on and it is not yet evident what conclusive outcome, if any, is going to take shape. Nonetheless, it is already possible to look at postcommunism in Central and Eastern Europe with some perspective, and to reach some tentative conclusions. The first is that three periods or stages have unfolded. In the opening phase there was near-messianic enthusiasm and redemptive hope. Then came a time of differentiation when views became nuanced. The third period is characterized by introspection mixed with disenchantment.
The first stage, roughly 1989–1995, was inspired by the astonishingly rapid collapse of the communist systems. What appeared to be a bold attempt at reform embodied in Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost and perestroika turned into a tsunami of change. Within a few years, the Soviet party-state was disestablished. Moscow-supported puppet regimes in Eastern and Central Europe were replaced by reformist and democratically elected governments headed by former dissidents. German reunification symbolized, perhaps more than anything else, the demise of the Soviet ideological and strategic hold on postwar politics.
All this was achieved with hardly any violence (Romanian and Yugoslav developments apart). Communist hegemons bowed out of power, sometimes even elegantly, promoting the belief that a world historical development was under way, heralding the ultimate victory of democracy and the free market over anachronistic totalitarianism. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History articulated an almost messianic belief in the march of history. He gave an intellectual, quasi-Hegelian veneer to deterministic notions of what was happening and reversed Marxist determinism while sustaining some of its methodological assumptions. At the same time, less sophisticated views of a universal march of democracy were articulated by political actors, scholars, and journalists in both the West and in former communist countries. They shared the belief that, absent communist totalitarianism, each “liberated” country would develop toward Western-style democracy with a multiparty system, free elections, a free press, and market capitalism. There would be ups and downs, surely, and not all countries would develop at the same speed and with equal success. But there was hardly any doubt about the outcome.
Initial developments gave sustenance to these beliefs: elections did bring to power leaders committed to Western democracy. Far-reaching reforms did privatize, in different ways, state-run economies. Yet few people paid sufficient attention to signs of troubles ahead.
Basic differences between developments in the Soviet Union and such countries as Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia were often ignored. It is obvious th...
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