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Between Past and Future

Sorin Antohi

I. Meanings of 1989: Present Significance of the Past

2. On Two Models of Exit from Communism: Central Europe and the Balkans

Jacques Rupnik

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1Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet empire one thing seems clear: the word “postcommunism” to describe the variety of its off springs has become almost irrelevant. What indeed is the common denominator of Hungary and Albania, the Czech Republic and Belarus, or Poland and Kazakhstan? The fact that they used to share Soviet-style communism is hardly relevant for understanding the vastly different itineraries of the democratic transition in each. Indeed, if one looks today at the landscape after the battle, one is struck by how different the outcomes of the democratic transitions have been in Central and Eastern Europe. Among these situations, certain patterns, however, do appear. A new political geography of formerly communist Europe is emerging: Central Europe is back (the so-called Visegrad group, the Baltic countries, plus Slovenia) as the real “success story” of the democratic transition; the Balkans have often been “derailed” by the priorities of nation-state building or undermined by the legacies of communism and economic backwardness; Russia, in search of a post imperial identity, is teetering on the brink of economic disaster and an impossible restoration of the ancien régime.

  • 1 Ralf Dahrendorf, Essoy on the Revolution in Europe (London: Chatto, 1990).

2In his Essay on the Revolution in Europe,1 published shortly after the collapse of the communist system (and still the best guide to the decade that followed, compared to the hundred volumes of “transitology” that western political science tried to placate on the unfamiliar realities of the “other” Europe), Ralf Dahrendorf identified three interlocking areas of change with different “time tables”: political democracy and the rule of law (six months), the conversion to a market economy (six years), and the emergence of a civil society (sixty years). One of the major challenges of the transition is precisely the management of time—the combination of three mutually interdependent areas of change with very different time spans. It can be argued almost a decade later that in Central Europe this management of time by the new political elites has on the whole reached its prime goals. Parliamentary democracy has been established as the only game in town—that is, the creation of a constitutional framework and political institutions that are seen as legitimate by all political actors; the formation of a relatively stable party system that allows for smooth alternation in power—everywhere in Central Europe. A market economy has been established with more than half of the gross national product produced in the private sector and over three-quarters of trade now conducted with Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development countries. A civil society is developing with both its economic dimension (emerging new strata of entrepreneurs) and its networks of nongovernmental organizations (for example, over twenty thousand voluntary associations were formed in Poland in the 1990s).

3This picture contrasts not only with that of the former Soviet Union (the Baltics being the exception to the rule), but also with the Balkans, the most extreme case of a “derailed” transition being, of course, former Yugoslavia (the most advanced in the reform of communism before 1989 and the last in the democratic exit from communism after 1989) because of the war and the break-up of the federation into several successor states, the legitimacy and the viability of which are still being questioned. The legitimacy of the territorial framework clearly remains the first prerequisite for a democratic transition. The redefinition of the role of the state also concerns the capacity to implement the rule of law. In this perspective, to speak of a “crisis of the state” is a euphemism for describing the situation in Albania, torn between conflicting regional and political factions. Just as President Berisha was forced to step down by an armed insurrection in 1997 only days after his reelection, so his successor and rival Fatos Nano resigned in 1998 after Berisha mounted a campaign of violent unrest.

4To be sure, the situation in the Balkans should not be seen solely through the prism of the Yugoslav war and ethno-nationalist conflict. And there have been encouraging developments over the last two years in both Bulgaria and Romania. In the former, the winter of discontent (1996-97), culminating in the ransacking of Parliament, forced the incompetent and corrupt ex-communist government to step down and call an early election that opened the way for much delayed economic reforms. In Romania, a belated yet smooth alternation in power (“We have lost seven years,” said President Constantinescu when taking over from Iliescu) saw the ex-communists replaced by a right-wing coalition, which after three years in power has produced little in terms of reform—a wasted opportunity (unlikely to return) to use the trade-off between political gains and economic losses for giving the democratic transition a fresh start.

  • 2 F. Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracies,” Foreign Affairs 1 (1988). François Fejtő was the (...)

5If the contrast between Central Europe and Southeastern Europe can be summed up as that between democratic consolidation and the rise of “illiberal democracies”, then Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia are in an intermediate position, moving from the latter to the former.2 This differentiation through the transition process (rather than through geopolitical design) has important foreign policy implications. The double enlargement process of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and of the European Union (EU), both of which stress democratic conditionality, imperfectly reflect this differentiation. One can, of course, point to the inconsistencies of leaving Slovenia or the Baltic countries out of the first round of NATO enlargement or be concerned that Slovakia or Romania have the possibility to rejoin the “first circle” of EU enlargement if the recent departures from authoritarianism are confirmed. But it is the outcome of a decade of democratic transition and the related differentiation between the “ins” and the “outs” of enlargement of Euro-Atlantic institutions that is shaping the new political geography of post communist Europe.

6There is, of course, no single causal explanation to account for this process. We can only point to a combination of factors, explanations or hypotheses that can be helpful in making sense of the current state after a decade of democratic transition. It is only if the six hypotheses proposed here produce a convergent picture that one might be in a position to suggest a correlation between them, a common denominator.

The Legacies of Communism

7More than the actual character of disintegration of the old regime and the transfer of power in 1989 (gradual or sudden, negotiated from above or imposed from below and from abroad), which is important in the early stages of the transition, it seems that in a long-term perspective it is the legacy of communism, the nature and depth of its imprint on society, that is relevant. One can, in this respect, point to the fact that some of the harshest and longest periods of totalitarian domination in the post-war period concerned the Balkans—Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania— whereas a greater degree of reform and accommodation was characteristic of the post-1956 regimes in Hungary and Poland. The contrasting case of Yugoslavia since the 1960s and that of “normalized” Czechoslovakia since the 1970s show the limits of such a generalization.

  • 3 Barrington Moore, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University (...)

8The contrast between Central Europe and the Balkans is relevant, however, if one examines the nature of the crisis of the communist regimes. Communism in Central Europe experienced three major crises— the 1956 Hungarian revolution as well as the events in Poland, the 1968 Czechoslovak reform movement, and the 1980-81 Solidarity movement in Poland—that posed in different ways the issues of democracy and civil society; and only in a second phase (under growing external constraint), that of national independence. The three major crises of communism in the Balkans (Tito’s break with Stalin in 1948, Hoxha’s swing in allegiance from Moscow to Peking in 1961, and Ceauşescu’s 1968 bid for independence) all stressed the autonomy of the national communist apparatus vis-a-vis Moscow while reinforcing the totalitarian features of the regime.3 The origins of the rebirth of civil society in Central Europe go back to these three major crises as well as to the dissident movements of the 1970s and 1980s. The origins of “nationalism as the supreme stage of communism״—to use Adam Michnik’s phrase—in the Balkans owes a great deal to the legacies of Ceauşescu, Hoxha, and Tito. Similarly, the emergence of alternative political elites during and in the immediate aftermath of 1989 in Central Europe owes a great deal to the existence of organized democratic opposition movements that were lacking in Southeastern Europe, where all of the first free elections were won by the ex-communist parties.

Market and Civil Society: “No Bourgeoisie, No Democracy”

  • 4 Adam Michnik, “Le nouvel évolutionnisme,” in Varsovie-Budapest 1956, la deuxieme révolution d’Octo (...)

9Barrington Moore’s famous phrase concerning the social origins of dictatorship and democracy4 provides a second clue for a comparative assessment of the democratic transition in Central and Eastern Europe. There were, of course, differences due to the uneven level of economic development dating back to the procommunist period (Czechoslovakia ranked in the top ten in gross national product per capita after World War II) or due to the degree of economic reform pursued in the decaying phase of communism (Hungary and Poland were clearly the frontrunners, while Bulgaria and Romania, for reasons of ideological orthodoxy, lagged behind). But the most striking contrast is between those that after 1989 embarked on radical market reforms (known as ”shock therapy“ in Poland) and those that chose gradualism or simply the postponement of market reforms and privatization (Bulgaria and Romania).

10The results are fairly clear in terms of the size of the economy in the private sector, but they are also evident in foreign trade, in growth rates, and last but not least, in the level of foreign investment (nearly half of direct investment in Central and Eastern Europe went to Hungary alone; ninety percent to Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland). There are almost one million registered private entrepreneurs in the Czech Republic and over eight hundred thousand in Hungary, both countries with populations of ten million. The emergence of new middle classes is also related to the breakthrough of the ”information revolution“ and the formidable expansion of the service sector—that is, areas where ”human capital“, or levels of education and ability, are rewarded. (Before 1989 less than a third of Czechs considered that education was related to success. They are almost two-thirds today.) The development of these middle strata as well as the conversion, through the privatization process, of part of the old nomenklatura into the new bourgeoisie provided the backbone for market-oriented changes in the economy.

11They are also related to the development of a civil society without which, as Dahrendorf argued, the democratic transition would not be sustained. The term has undergone numerous definitions in Central and Eastern Europe over the last twenty years. It emerged in the late 1970s in the dissident movements’ attempt to shift their approach from the powers that be and their ideology to the self-organization of society. But this concept of an alternative society (the “new evolutionism” as Adam Michnik called it in 1976, or a “parallel polis” as Vaclav Benda put it in 1978) under the circumstances had more of a moral and political content: a unifying moment for society’s opposition to totalitarianism.

12After the collapse of communism the concept acquired new meanings relevant for the democratic transition. Two main definitions seem to have developed. The first, prevalent in Central Europe among “liberals on the right”, tended to identify the concept with the above described economic revolution. This is civil society as Bürgergesellschaft. The market economy is the priority from which everything else will follow. Indeed, in Václav Klaus’s thinking there was simply no place for the notion of “civil society”—between the individual and the state there is need for little else except the market.

13In the second definition of civil society, prevalent among “liberals on the left”, the term is almost completely divorced from the market economy and is largely identified with the so-called “third sector”—that is, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). This is a view of civil society as distinct from both the state and from the market, and much closer to the old dissident discourse on the subject. The NGO is by definition almost doubly pure: it is corrupted neither by power (that is, politics) nor by the market (that is, money). Civil society, according to the former concept, is more developed in Central Europe; the NGO sector has been relatively more important to the transition in Southeastern Europe, where it often compensates for the weakness of both the middle class and the political opposition to semi-authoritarian rule (Romania under Iliescu or the former Yugoslavia). The case of Slovakia, which since 1993 seemed to drift away from the Central European model, has recently shown how effective the “third sector” can be in mobilizing society and helping the opposition to overcome the “democratic deficit”.

The Rule of Law and the “Habsburg Factor”

14The development of the rule of law is no doubt a crucial element in the success or failure of the democratic transition. Whatever the various other merits or policy implications of the recent debate about “illiberal democracies”, this much has been established by the last decade in post-communist Europe. Again, even though generalizations are also exaggerations, the rule of law, constitutionalism and the existence of an independent judiciary are undoubtedly more developed in Central Europe than in the Balkans. In searching for an explanation we can, of course, take into account political circumstances or the degree of openness and adaptability of the new elites to western models of the separation of powers.

15There is one factor, however difficult to use, that deserves to be mentioned in this connection: the legacy of the Austrian (as opposed to that of the Ottoman) empire. The Habsburg empire was certainly not a liberal democracy on the British model, but nor was it an autocracy like tsarist Russia. It was a Rechtsstaat—that is, a state run by the rule of law. Indeed, the whole of Austrian turn of the century literature (from Musil and Roth to Broch and Kafka) is dominated by the question of law, the tension or conflict between legitimacy and legality. This tradition of the rule of law that has been shared by several Central European successor states has survived (albeit in a distorted and transformed manner) the demise of the empire in terms of legal scholarship, administration, and more generally, political culture. It was rediscovered already in the last phase of decaying communism by self-limitation of the powers that be and by the opposition challenging their rule not in the name of the ruling ideology but in the name of accepted domestic and international legal commitments. The 1990s have largely confirmed the trend that acquired major significance in the European Union’s assessment of accession prospects: the capacity of the candidates not just to adopt EU norms in their legislation, but also to implement them and enforce them. The contrast between Hungary and Romania with regard to the rule of law is an obvious case in point. The cases of Slovakia and Croatia are toned down, but do not invalidate the general argument.

Nation-state Building and “Homogeneity”

  • 5 István Bibo, Misère des petits États d’Europe de L’Est (Paris: l’Harmattan, 1988), 128

16The return of democracy in 1989 was inseparable from the return of the nation: popular sovereignty and national sovereignty became indistinguishable. In this, 1989 followed in the footsteps of 1848 and 1918—the idea that the nation-state is the natural and most favorable framework for democracy. The demise of federalism inherited from communism (Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia) seemed to confirm this conviction. But the link between national sovereignty and democracy can work both ways, as we have seen in the former Yugoslavia. This is a classic dilemma described by the Hungarian political thinker István Bibo at the end of World War II in his essay The Misery of the Small Nations of Eastern Europe: “Fascism exists in germ everywhere where, following a cataclysm or an illusion, the cause of the nation separates from that of freedom...”5 This fear to see freedom and democracy “threaten the cause of the nation” has been historically one of the major impediments to the democratic graft in the area between the two wars and has no doubt been an important factor in the sidetracking of the democratic transition after 1989 in the Balkans and in Eastern Europe (in former Yugoslavia and in the former Soviet Union; less so in the Czechoslovak divorce, where there were no conflicts between the two protagonists over borders and minorities). Nation-state building takes precedence over the democratic transition and the rule of law.

17One hypothesis concerning the lesser importance of the national question in the democratic transition in Central Europe is that it is relatively more homogeneous than Southeastern Europe (and where it is not, as in Slovakia, is precisely where we saw the single most important failure of the transition in Central Europe). Poland today is a homogeneous state (compared to the prewar situation, when a third of the population was composed of minorities). The dream of the nationalist right of the Endecija came about with the help of Hitler and Stalin under communism. The same is true in the Czech Republic, without Jews, Germans, and now even Slovaks. Alone at last! Slovenia is the only ex-Yugoslav successor state where the democratic transition fits into the Central

  • 6 Ernest Gellner, Conclusion to Le Déchirement des Nations, ed. Jacques Rupnik (Paris: Seuil, 1995).

18European pattern; it is also the only one that does not have a significant minority problem. In short: What is the difference between Central Europe and the Balkans? Fifty years. The major difference between Central and Southeast Europeans is not that the former are more tolerant and pluralistic, but that their “ethnic cleansing” was completed half a century ago, whereas in the Balkans the process of “homogeneous” nation-state building is still under way (after Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia, making the viability of Bosnian democracy a dubious proposition, the Albanian question is on the agenda, as the conflict in Kosovo tragically reveals). This, as Ernest Gellner put it, is meant as a description, not a prescription6. It would be absurd to suggest that ethnic “homogeneity” is a prerequisite for democracy. Yet the contrasting situations in this respect of Central Europe and the Balkans account, at least in part, for the different fates of the democratic transition in the two areas.

The Cultural Backbone of Democracy

19This has been one of the oldest—and also one of the most used and abused—arguments about the cultural factors of democratic polity. It goes back, of course, to Max Weber’s classic thesis about the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. The question therefore would be: Looking at the balance sheet of the democratic transition in Central and Eastern Europe, is there a case for pushing the thesis one notch further— is there a correlation between the success of democratic transition and consolidation and western Christendom (Central Europe) or, conversely, between the difficulty of democratic (and market-oriented) change and Orthodoxy? The argument revolves around the issue of the separation of the spiritual and of the temporal in Central Europe—the merger or subordination of the church to the state (and the close identification between religion and ethnicity) in the Orthodox lands as a major handicap in the emergence of a democratic public space and of a civil society.

  • 7 Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Affairs 72 (Summer 1993): 22-49

20The Weberian question has however become loaded since Huntington’s thesis concerning the “clash of civilizations” (which has many ardent disciples in the Balkans), which has been used and abused in the interpretation of the recent war in Bosnia and more generally in discussing the western democracies’ international agenda after the cold war. Fortunately, we had Slovakia and Croatia (as well as encouraging developments in Bulgaria and Romania) to disprove Huntington’s thesis7. Yet Slovakia is returning to the Central European model since Meciar’s defeat in September 1998, a possible source of inspiration for Croatia as it comes to the close of the Tudjman era. All one can do in the face of a politically very loaded debate is both to refuse cultural determinism (especially reduced to its religious dimension) as misleading or politically dangerous and also to avoid, out of moral concern or political correctness, turning Max Weber’s classic sociological question into a political taboo.

The International Environment

21The international and regional environment also helps to account for the different fates of the transitions to democracy in Central Europe and in the Balkans. It can be argued that, in a historical perspective, the post-1989 Central European environment thus far has been exceptionally favorable to the democratic transition (although it remains to be seen how long this environment will last):

  1. Russia is weak and inward-looking, and its sphere of influence is shrinking. (How near is the near abroad? is the question Central Europeans ask concerning Russia.)
  2. Germany is reunited and economically powerful, but democratic and anchored in two western institutions, NATO and the EU, both of which create an appropriate, more balanced framework for Germany’s relations with its eastern neighbors.
  3. There are no significant regional conflicts between states in the region, a major difference with the interwar period marked by what Hugh Seton-Watson called a “private civil war” over the legitimacy of borders or the fate of national minorities. Hungary has signed treaties concerning these issues with its two neighbors, Slovakia and Romania. Poland was prompt to recognize Ukrainian and Lithuanian independence and acts as a stabilizing and democratizing actor vis-a-vis its eastern neighbors. Even the Czechoslovak divorce (unlike the Yugoslav breakup) was a velvet one. All three factors are unprecedented in the modern history of Central Europe and contrast with the relative instability of the Balkans connected with the wars of succession in the former Yugoslavia, the collapse of the Albanian state at the very moment when war and ethnic cleansing returned to Kosovo, not to mention the latent Greek-Turkish rivalry in the region.

22These differences are reinforced by the prospects of “Euro-Atlantic” integration, the Central European code word for the double enlargement of NATO and the EU, which has been the prime foreign policy objective of the new democracies. Both institutions insist on democratic conditionality and, as the Slovak case showed, they mean it. Paradoxically, it is NATO that tends to be perceived in Central Europe as a “value-infused institution” (A. Smolar) whereas the European Union tends to be identified primarily with economics and a legal framework. However, when looking for inspiration as far as institutional design is concerned, it is mainly in Western Europe that the new democracies tended to find plausible models. The conversion to the market economy was largely influenced by American free marketers (such as Jeffrey Sachs, the mentor of Poland’s Leszek Balcerowicz, or Milton Freedman for the former Czech prime minister, Vaclav Klaus), but the German political model seemed most influential in Central Europe: the constitutional court (Hungary or the Czech Republic owe a great deal to the Karlsruhe model), the parliamentary system (preferred to presidentialism French-style, which has many disciples in Southeastern Europe), and the electoral system (proportional representation or a mixed system). Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall it seems that for both major institutions identified with western democratic values, the priority toward Central Europe is integration, whereas toward the Balkans it is intervention (or containment). No Balkan country features in the planned enlargement of either NATO or the EU. A possible second wave of NATO enlargement could concern Slovenia, Slovakia, and—who knows?—Austria, thus giving further geopolitical coherence to the process. It remains to be seen, on the other hand, what the impact of nonen-largement will be on the democratic transition of countries “in between,” such as Romania and Bulgaria. Clearly, the differentiation between the “ins” and the “outs” of the enlargement process is a consequence of the democratic transition so far, but it is also a factor that could contribute to undermining it precisely where it is most fragile. The Central European success story should not be helped by a new “iron curtain” built vis-a-vis Eastern or Southeastern Europe. It is therefore of utmost importance for the future of Central Europe’s integration in the EU that Europe’s democratic project shapes the borders of the union, and not that preconceived historical or cultural borders shape the project.


1 Ralf Dahrendorf, Essoy on the Revolution in Europe (London: Chatto, 1990).

2 F. Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracies,” Foreign Affairs 1 (1988). François Fejtő was the first to point out the paradoxical attempts at emancipation from the Moscow fold among the most hardline regimes in his Histoire des démocraties populaires II (Paris: Seuil, 1969), 1953-68.

3 Barrington Moore, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971).

4 Adam Michnik, “Le nouvel évolutionnisme,” in Varsovie-Budapest 1956, la deuxieme révolution d’Octobre eds. P. Kende and K. Pomian (Paris: Seuil, 1976).

5 István Bibo, Misère des petits États d’Europe de L’Est (Paris: l’Harmattan, 1988), 128

6 Ernest Gellner, Conclusion to Le Déchirement des Nations, ed. Jacques Rupnik (Paris: Seuil, 1995).

7 Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Affairs 72 (Summer 1993): 22-49


Jacques Rupnik is research director at the French National Foundation of Political Science and is a professor at the Institute of Political Studies, Paris.

© Central European University Press, 2000

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