After Communism: Travails of Democratization

After Communism: Travails of Democratization

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 that the very possibility of democratization in the latter countries depended on what happened in Moscow. But they also had indigenous dissident movements that fought for change from below and had mobilized public opinion, creating a political counterculture that eventually triumphed: Solidarnosc (Solidarity) in Poland, the Democratic Forum and the SDS Liberals in Hungary, and Charter-77 and “People against Violence” in Czechoslovakia. These movements evoked the memories of 1956 or 1968, and their leaders, many of whom suffered persecution and prison under communism, negotiated the transition out of communism. The Soviet case was different. Even though Gorbachev’s reforms were at least partially inspired by the ideas of dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov, change was initiated from above, from within the Communist Party. Even if a more radical reformer like Boris Yeltsin finally trumped the more careful Gorbachev, it was always the former apparatchiks who eventually came to power. The Soviet Union had no Lech Walesas or Vaclav Havels. No former dissidents or prisoners became ministers or presidents in Moscow, in contrast to Warsaw, Budapest, and Prague. Instead, there was an internal bureaucratic shift in the Kremlin. “Reformers” defeated “hard-liners.” The Baltic countries and also—up to a point—Georgia were different, however, because in them dissidents did take office. In Moscow, it was a new cadre of bureaucrats that oversaw reforms.

Missing Diversity

In the triumphalist, postcommunist mood—it sometimes resembled a Walpurgis Night in which all cats are gray—observers often overlooked how diverse anticommunist coalitions were. Being anticommunist did not automatically mean being a democrat. The victorious anticommunist camps of 1989 were made up of democrats and liberals, social democrats and conservatives, nationalists and religious fundamentalists, anti-Russian chauvinists and—yes, frankly—semi-fascists and anti-Semites who sought to expiate (somewhat) their sordid pasts by posing as freedom lovers. Few, at that time, thought that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a courageous anticommunist, was also a fierce Russian chauvinist of the old school. Eventually it became clear that most countries in Central and Eastern Europe harbored their own local Solzhenitsyns.

Eastern or Central European anticommunism was also coupled with—if not dominated by—strong nationalist anti-Russian sentiments. Solidarity’s immense popularity derived partly from a deeply ingrained anti-Russian nationalism linked to Roman Catholicism. This was one reason for its enormous resonance in Polish society. Similar sentiments, though probably less radical and with different colorations, played roles in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and were also evident in the Baltic republics (especially Lithuania) as well as in Georgia.

Enthusiasm for rapid marketization obscured the impact of reforms on social strata that would suffer from the abolition of some of the safety nets provided by communism: retirees, workers in rust-belt, Soviet-style industries, provincial residents. Not everyone was a winner in the postcommunist paradise.

Finally, the chiliastic atmosphere immediately after 1989 often blinded analysts to the fact that there are no shortcuts to democracy. It does not emerge overnight, automatically, and it is not enough to have an elite committed to democracy and markets. After all, democracy in countries such as Britain and France took centuries, and the United States needed a civil war to abolish slavery and another century to enfranchise fully its black population. The political histories of Germany, Italy, and Spain show how complex, tortuous, and sometimes murderous the transformation toward democracy can be.

A New Phase

When the dust settled on the Soviet debris, it was clear that postcommunist developments were quite varied. Even if the starting point was similar (a party-state dictatorship with a command economy) countries soon took on diverse characteristics. Analysts needed nuance. Two basic typologies emerged (with variations in between). Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic developed robust multiparty systems and transformed their economies successfully. In contrast, Russia had serious problems with political as well as economic change. Boris Yeltsin dismantled the Soviet system, but produced something close to anarchy. State power seemed to have dissolved into quasi-feudal regional fiefdoms, presided over by an incompetent central government. Privatization was wild and corrupt, giving rise to robber-baron oligarchs who, with the Kremlin’s blessing, arrogated to themselves and to their cronies the commanding heights of the Russian economy. Ukraine also sank into a corrupt morass. Romania and Bulgaria hovered somewhere in-between. The Baltic states proceeded slowly toward the Visegrád model. None of the former Soviet Central Asian republics showed signs of real democratic transformation, and the picture was mixed in the three Transcaucasian republics. Yugoslavia descended into nationalist wars, reviving precommunist ethnic hostilities.

Obviously, one size didn’t fit all countries, and responsibility for disparities became the subject of political and theoretical argument. It became clear too that mere quantitative criteria (degrees of industrialization, comparative levels of urbanization, or GNP per capita) could not alone explain the differences.

At this stage, historical legacies seemed to lend coherence to postcommunist changes. East and Central European countries were coerced into Soviet models after the Second World War, but they had different histories and traditions of their own that didn’t vanish. By the 1990s, it became clear that directions in postcommunist change depended significantly on elements of civil society, pluralism, independent institutions, market economy, and tolerance deriving from precommunist times. Was there a “usable past,” both institutionally as well as symbolically? At this stage it became clear that the pre-1939 histories of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic provided important keys to their post-1989 development. Czechoslovakia, for instance, was a democratic, secular republic before the Second World War and for a short period after. It had an active multiparty system; parliamentary life; a free press; religious tolerance; and a centuries-old tradition of representative institutions, albeit of feudal character, linked to municipal autonomy and academic freedom; as well as a developed market economy.

Polish and Hungarian histories were more complicated, but both countries enjoyed forms of representative systems for centuries. They were not democracies, but they did create traditions of elections, representation, and limited government. Even though Polish and Hungarian politics were basically authoritarian before the Second World War, a remnant of parliamentary life survived. Even if they were not as industrialized as Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary did undergo significant economic modernization, did possess a fiercely independent, politically organized peasantry, and boasted academic traditions on a West European model. Despite obvious differences among the three countries, they could, after communism, claim to be “reviving” early institutions and traditions. There were even some political veterans around who managed to survive Nazism and communism. In short, there were historical models on which a postcommunist edifice could be established and legitimized, sometimes with exaggerated pride. In the Polish case, the church’s relative autonomy under communism helped create the infrastructure of a civil society. Another factor was the legacy of upheavals in 1956 and 1968. After the rebellions were repressed harshly, the regimes later relaxed and allowed a modicum of free space, economically as well as intellectually.

These elements were largely missing in Russia. Before the Bolshevik takeover in 1917, there were few elements of civil society. This was one reason for the failure to establish a liberal constitutional regime between February 1917 (when the tsar was overthrown) and October. Pre-1917 Russia was an agrarian society and was not yet emancipated totally from the long legacy of serfdom. Elected institutions did not exist (efforts to create them in 1905 ended in repression. The country was ruled from above—bureaucratically, autocratically, hierarchically; the Orthodox church was subservient to the state; religious and national minorities faced constant oppression; the university system was subservient to the state. Soviet communism, so different from the emancipatory spirit of Marxism (rooted in Enlightenment traditions) was another layer of oppression grafted upon a servile society. So, despite some courageous dissenters, Soviet reform started from above as we noted. While Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs could look back and try to emulate a real (or imagined) precommunist legacy, Russians could not do likewise. Even the historical model of modernization associated with Peter the Great was authoritarian. It was conceived as state-building from above, not democratization nor liberalization.

When the system collapsed, Russia found itself in a vacuum. Mediating institutions of civil society were missing. Yes, individuals in Moscow and St. Petersburg could talk of modeling the New Russia on Locke and the Federalist Papers or retrieve the writings of Herzen and Belinsky, but there were no institutions or popular institutional memories to serve as legitimizing tools. No real political parties emerged for presidential or Duma elections—just lists centered on personalities. The only exception is the unreformed Communist Party, which managed to retain some of its membership.

Enter Putin

This is where Vladimir Putin enters the picture, seeking to salvage Russia from the chaos and mass impoverishment of the Yeltsin era. Putin re-established central authority; reined in regional leaders; put a halt to the thievery of economic oligarchs; transformed the State Duma from a corrupt debating club into an arm of the executive; and used various repressive tactics, some of them reminiscent of tsarist and Soviet times (for example, limiting press freedom). The rise of oil prices helped him to reestablish Russia’s role in the international arena. His “Authoritarianism with a Human Face” has enjoyed great popularity, especially since “democracy” is equated with the mess of Yeltsin’s rule.

Putin’s KGB origins should not be misconstrued. There was a power vacuum when the Soviet state disintegrated and the Communist Party was dismantled. The KGB was the only Soviet-era institution that survived. There was an internal logic in Putin’s use of former KGB people to staff key positions. In the Soviet era, the state bureaucracy was weak compared to the party bureaucracy. Now, only the KGB remained (more or less) intact together with the symbolic memory of Peter the Great. The recent quasi-constitutional farce in which Putin outwardly respects the two-term ban on presidential power, yet virtually appoints his successor and then continues as prime minister—and all this without effective internal dissent or opposition—suggests how deeply ingrained historical traditions of autocratic rule continue to exist, sometimes accompanied by a sham formalism reminiscent of socialist legality.

In contrast, Ukraine lacked a coherent state tradition but its political culture contains voluntaristic, if not anarchic, elements in its Cossack legacy. This is one reason why a centralized neoauthoritarian, Putin-like system is unlikely to evolve there. Some commentators may object to this observation as too historicist. But overlooking this legacy would leave us without an explanation for the very different paths taken by Russia and Ukraine, despite an apparent common past, although it appears that neither will consolidate into democracy.

Back Again

To tackle nationalist movements, the Soviet system had a universalist ideology and repressive political centralism. With its demise, the old nationalist issues reappeared, despite having been apparently successfully repressed or “solved” by communism. Of course, this was misleading, and the most drastic result was in the former Yugoslavia, where the relative liberalism and multi-ethnic structure of the Tito regime did not dissolve the pre-1939 legacies. It is a mistake to attribute the re-emergence of ferocious nationalism solely to populist manipulations by demagogic leaders like Serbia’s Slobodan Miloševic or Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman. There had to be an infrastructure of nationalist sentiments, deeply embedded in people’s minds, for nationalists like these to exploit. Tito sometimes manipulated Serbian, Croatian, and Albanian nationalisms and occasionally suppressed them—always with care. They resurfaced after his death; this resurfacing was authentic, if brutal. The “velvet” divorce between Czechs and Slovaks also shows the salience of precommunist forces, albeit in more pacific terrain. Liberal universalism is sometimes not strong enough to withstand nationalist memories.


This brings us to the present, third stage. It was initiated by what appears to be a backlash against democratization and liberalization in countries that seemed to be success stories, as vigorous populist-nationalist parties have emerged in Poland and Hungary. Sometimes they win elections and form governments, and sometimes (as today) they are in the opposition. They draw on deeply rooted sentiments in parts of the populace. The temporary ascendance of the Kaczynski brothers in Poland and the violent demonstrations in Hungary at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 revolt exemplify the backlash. Voices of desperation and deep disenchantment were heard; politicians and academic observers began wondering if the post-1989 experiment was failing.

Although Poland is different from Hungary, some obvious similarities appeared and suggest more than an electoral slippage of parties identified with democratization. In both cases, there was populist outcry against the costs of economic liberalization. It was accompanied by anti-European Union sentiments that echo old-fashioned nationalism and a xenophobia sometimes tinged with anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice (against the Roma, for instance). Historical enmities revived, especially in Poland. Irredentist slogans were resuscitated in Hungary. The peasantry was extolled in contrast to soulless capitalism, sometimes identified with “foreign” forces. Religion was occasionally hailed as a bastion against an immoral economic system. In Poland, the issue of abortion was brought forth as a reason to fight atheism. “Secularism” was declared the enemy, and a noxious (and obviously false) link was suggested between the new democrats and the old communists. These populist-nationalist sentiments largely gave voice to losers in postcommunist political and economic developments. A comparison with fascism is perhaps far-fetched, but these backlash sentiments as well as the social composition of the forces articulating them do raise some ominous memories.


Yet dissatisfaction of the “losers” seems an inadequate explanation by itself, especially since some of it, notably the anti-German and anti-Russian animosities expressed by the PiS-led government headed by the Kaczynskis, had little to do with economic or social complaints. Nor does it make sense to speak exclusively of cynical leaders exploiting pent-up anger.

Many ideas associated with today’s PiS draw on the tenets of the old National Democratic Party (Endecija) of Roman Dmowski, which identified Polish nationalism with Catholicism, anticapitalism, and anti-German and anti-Russian attitudes. The Endecija’s anti-Semitism has been somewhat muted, due to the Holocaust and out of prudential considerations, because the PiS is pro-American. But anti-Semitism is clearly present, for example in Radio Marija. Immediately after the events of 1989, it appeared that the anticommunist coalitions would overcome more problematic historical legacies and establish a more open and “normal” political discourse. But now many of these old-style forces are back, and in some cases, they have family connections to pre-1939 elites, parties, and ideologies. Poland’s political map today resembles in various ways the country’s prewar configurations, including weak coalition governments built on uneasy alliances that try to bridge a deep left-right divide (and which in the interwar period caused the collapse of Polish parliamentary democracy and the emergence of Józef Pilsudski’s semi-authoritarian rule).

Hungary’s contemporary divisions also continue aspects of the country’s historical tug of war between urbanists and populists. Although a call to revise Trianon (the treaty that settled Hungary’s post-1918 borders) would obviously be dangerous, anti-urbanist Hungarians speak loudly about the Hungarian minorities in Slovakia and Romania. The existence of a relatively large Jewish population in Budapest, and the prominent role of people of Jewish origin among the Hungarian liberals, gives the anti-Semitic right-wing fringe a more visible target than in Poland, where the Jews were wiped out by the Nazis.

History, Destiny, Hope

In short, with the disappearance of both communism and the threat of Moscow’s intervention, the 1989 coalitions fractured and old populist-nationalist forces re-emerged. Significantly, there has not been this sort of populist-nationalist backlash in Prague where, before 1938, there was the only truly functional democracy in the region (it was far from perfect, but it did not slide into authoritarianism as did its neighbors).

These elements of continuity throughout East and Central Europe may appear at first to be discouraging and depressing: “History is destiny.” But there is reasonable scope for hope. First of all, 2008 is not 1939. There are problems today but not the sort of crises that gave fascism to Italy and Germany. Russia is not in the throes of a Stalinist dictatorship. Authoritarian and totalitarian voices were on the ascendant in smaller nations in the 1930s, from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Democracy seemed bankrupt and was even being challenged in France and Britain. Democratic ideas remain dominant today. The Kaczynski experiment appears to have failed, mainly because so many younger Poles realized it would jeopardize Polish stability.

The role played by the European Union turned out to be essential. It is true that the postcommunist countries that joined the EU (and NATO!) didn’t live up to all the entrance criteria. Still, their membership provided both an implicit guarantee against any Russian neo-imperial encroachment and something of an insurance policy against slippage back into pre-1939 semi-authoritarianism. Even if anti-EU sentiments can be heard in the mainstream right in Poland and Hungary, EU membership locks countries into democracy, liberalism, and market economics. It is different in Russia and Ukraine. East and Central Europe will, in all probability, continue on two parallel tracks: further consolidation of democracy in the Visegrád countries, anchored to some degree in their traditions of civil society and past representative institutions, despite some setbacks and a sometimes angry internal discourse. In Russia and Ukraine, those elements are lacking, and hence their developments progress along other trajectories. In Romania and Bulgaria, as well as in Georgia, the jury still seems to be out.

Historical patterns are not all-determinant. But they don’t disappear easily and strong countervailing forces are needed to transform and act against them. That is what creates fundamental change. Without them, the future may very much resemble variations of the past.


Shlomo Avineri is Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Recurring Visiting Professor at the Central European University in Budapest. His latest book (in Hebrew) is Herzl: An Intellectual Biography. Photo: courtesy of