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Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe: Accomplishments and Open Questions

February 06, 2009 // 11:00am12:00pm
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In his presentation, Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe: Accomplishments and Open Questions, Dr. Andrei Marga, rector of the Universitatea Babes-Bolyai in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, discussed the challenges that post-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe face twenty years after initiating their transition to democracy. Marga asserted that while all new democracies have developed the key institutions necessary for that transition, establishing a liberal democracy is not simply a matter of holding free and fair elections and instituting a representative form of governance. According to Marga, the concept of democracy needs to be revised beyond a form of political representation to become a way of life. Only then more profound changes in Eastern European politics and society can take hold.

Marga outlined two approaches towards a definition of democracy – the minimalist (set of minimum conditions necessary) and the relativistic (historization of concepts) approach. Discussing the minimalist definition of democracy, Marga stated that despite implementation of EU-mandated institutional reforms, democracies in Eastern and South Eastern Europe still face major shortcomings. They include increased "political apathy" caused by a generally weak political body, concentration of economic, political and, occasionally, media power in the hands of a few individuals; appointment of incompetent officials; and reduced quality of legislation.

Marga argued that in the case of East and Central European democracies, the interest of a "certain public" is advanced at the expense of the "public interest." In Romania, he suggested, until the most recent elections in 2008, parliamentary officials were elected based on party lists, and once in office became representatives of the party alone, what he described as an "imperative mandate," rather than representing the interests of their constituents. The recent change in Romania from a party list to the uninominal vote was, Marga argued, only "partially successful" since candidates were vetted and supported by the party and represented the party platform.

Political apathy and personalization of power added challenges to electoral legitimacy, even when processes are carried out legally. In the 2008 parliamentary elections in Romania, Marga stressed, less than 40% of the electorate voted, and no party obtained more than 33% of the votes. The personalization of power had roots in the "old regimes." Democracy in the region, while acting at times to prevent the full concentration of power in the hands of one individual, has also brought about neutralization of responsibility. Proceduralist democracy, Marga argued, would best serve to diminish the personalization of power.

In his final remarks, Marga identified key problems that students of democracy should be aware of. He suggested that a clear distinction should be drawn between pluralism and democracy. The concepts of public and private interest should be delineated. He stressed the need to differentiate between legality and legitimacy, especially with regard to election results and underlined the necessity of proposing "real alternatives" during elections. Political engagement and professional competency, in Marga's terms, constituted another challenge to democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. He also stressed the need to improve the quality of current legislation and the need to transcend the narrow notion of democracy as a representative form of governance.

Despite the multiple challenges that democracies in Eastern Europe face, Marga stressed that democracy's potential has not been exhausted. Rather than view democracy from a legalistic standpoint, Marga argued that Central and Eastern European societies need to adopt democracies as a way of life through the evolution of political culture.

Drafted by Mircea Munteanu, Program Associate, History and Public Policy Program
Christian Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program
Director, West European Studies Program

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • James Person // Deputy Director, History and Public Policy Program; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Pieter Biersteker // Editorial Assistant
  • Laura Deal // Catalog Specialist
  • Charles Kraus // Program Assistant
  • Evan Pikulski // Program Assistant
  • Roy O. Kim // Program Assistant

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