186. Eastern Europe's First Post-Communist Decade: How Liberal, How Democratic?

By
Vladimir Tismaneanu

A decade has passed since the extraordinary events that led to the collapse of the Leninist regimes of East and Central Europe. The decade has been filled by high expectations, noble dreams of justice and freedom, as well as by frustrations, neuroses, and painful disappointments. Throughout the last ten years of the twentieth century, some countries of East and Central Europe have initiated and consolidated viable democratic practices and institutions. Others have lagged behind and are still quasi-democracies with little prospects to be accepted into the much coveted and often idealized Western "club."

The struggle between residual Leninism and liberalism continues in most of the former Soviet bloc. In spite of liberal democratic official pronouncements, collectivistic visions, passions, and nostalgia continue to inspire and mobilize political activism. The once acclaimed anti-politics, considered to express the aspirations of a burgeoning civil society, is now mostly forgotten. The new anti-political movements represent in many respects the opposite of the yearning for a democratic open space: rooted in resentment, anguish, and frustration, they despise democratic parliamentarism.

Free and fair elections did take place in all these countries. But their results have not necessarily consolidated full-fledged, pluralist arrangements. The early exaltation of liberal values was followed by the rise of an array of collectivist mythologies and frequent outbursts of xenophobic intolerance. In more than one case, "velvet revolutions" were followed by "velvet restorations."

On the positive side, popular sovereignty has replaced the rule of the self-appointed "proletarian vanguards," and ideological monism has vanished. Still imperfect to be sure, the rule of law is now part and parcel of the everyday life of these societies. Prison-style societies, or better said ideological tyrannies, have been replaced by democratically elected and sanctioned governments. Yet, while the democratic forms and rhetoric are definitely there, the substance of democratic values and the genuine entrenchment of a political culture based on trust and tolerance remain questionable.

The post-communist landscape remains haunted by pre-modern ideological specters, including tribal collectivism, clericalism, and ethnocentric populism. Unleashed in the name of a "return to Europe," the revolutions of 1989 liberated democratic passions and commitments as well as isolationist, xenophobic energies and resentments. Cynicism and contempt for intellectual constructs are rampant. What political scientist Stephen Fish calls "a crisis of institutional accountability" is characteristic of most of the region. The foundation of a market economy, privatization, has often been used as a smoke screen by new (or not so new) elites to plunder existing resources and establish personal economic hegemony. Although historical memory is incessantly invoked in public debates, narratives of self-pity and self-glorification prevail over lucid scrutiny of the past. The justified yearning for a coming to terms with the communist and pre-communist past has often been perverted into blatant demagogy and new forms of historical Manicheanism. In other words, the post-communist arena is one of uncertainty, confusion, and ongoing struggle between democrats and anti-pluralist forces.

There is no need to lament about this state of affairs. The end of illusions is in fact a normal post-revolutionary situation. Historically, after each major social convulsion, feelings of discomfiture, betrayal, and despondency tend to replace euphoria and joy.

Based on East-Central Europe's experience, scholars have suggested at least two models of transition from Leninist authoritarianism to what can be tentatively called, in the tradition illustrated by Raymond Aron, Ralf Dahrendorf, Ernest Gellner, Claude Lefort and Karl Popper, "an open society." This is not to say that post-communism is necessarily a failure in some countries and an unmitigated success story in others. No transition has been completely smooth, but the differences in terms of speed and the scope of democratization processes between the "Northern tier" and the "Souther" cannot be ignored. Whatever the tribulations of transitions in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, there is little doubt that these countries have gone a long way in terms of democratic institutionalization, creating a relatively predictable party system, and preserving a widespread constitutional consensus against onslaughts from the radical extremes (left and right). Throughout the "Northern tier,"democratic procedural legitimacy is widely accepted as the only "game in town."

On the other hand, the case of Romania, where several thousand angry miners marching toward Bucharest in January 1999, created a sense of national panic, suggests how fragile, indeed highly vulnerable the democratic order remains in some parts of the former Soviet Bloc. As my recent book, Fantasies of Salvation argues, the possibility of a democratic breakdown and the rise of Peronista-style movements should figure prominently on the United States foreign policy agenda as the examination of issues related to the building of open societies.

Leninist legacies cannot be simply wished away. They are part and parcel of the existential experiences of individuals, groups and classes within these societies, and determine memories, affinities, loyalties and identities. Even die-hard anti-communists define their past and present in opposition to Leninist practices and mentalities. Righting the wrongs of the past has turned out to be a very difficult endeavor, especially because the divide between victims and perpetrators was so elusive during the last stage of communist regimes. The most adamant proponents of lustration laws against former party and secret police apparatchiks often used apocalyptic rhetorical arguments, strangely reminiscent of the early 1950s Stalinist calls for social purification. On the other hand, opposition to any form of de-communization not infrequently has produced neglect of past ignominies and the perpetuation of the old nomenklatura's hold on significant political and economic positions.

The disturbing questions thus remain with us, ten years after the breakdown of Leninism: Is the revolution over? Can reconciliation occur in the absence of genuine expressions of remorse?

Whatever the ugly features of post-communism, including consumerism, mercantilism, chauvinism, inordinate celebration of the market and contempt for values of fraternity, civic solidarity and compassion, one should not gloss over the ongoing struggle in the region. The denouement of the transitions is uncertain and nobody knows whether their ultimate results would be democratic "normalcy" or some new form of authoritarianism. The yearning for civil society, the aspiration to construct a public space in which unencumbered citizens can debate the vital questions of their community remains an unfinished part of the general revolutionary project of 1989.

Furthermore, there is a widespread temptation among scholars and journalists to insist on the presumed civilizing (geo-cultural) fault lines that would explain the different models of exiting Leninism (political roundtables versus plebeian violence). Thus, East Central Europe, with its Hapsburgian legacies of the rule of law and Western-style institutions, is often opposed to South-East Europe, summarized by the blanket, and often derogatory term of, "the Balkans." Whatever the narrowness of this condescending framework, it is hard to deny that democratic traditions matter, and therefore that democratic values and institutions are more vulnerable and beleaguered in societies where ethno-nationalism has historically played the role of a "political religion" (Albania, Croatia, Romania, Serbia). As the century ends, it is worthwhile to highlight the basic cultural and moral dilemmas of these societies and identify the main rivals to an open society, or the civic individualistic project, in post-communist East-Central Europe.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can say today that the mystique of the market - the latest Central European utopia according to Timothy Garton Ash - and the celebration of party politics made many of us oblivious to the economic, moral and psychological predicament of so many within these societies. The conventional wisdom, that needs to be challenged, is that once the Leninist pyramids of lies and repression had been dismantled, these countries would enter a democratic paradise. The "end of history" school associated with Francis Fukuyama turned this ideological shibboleth into an article of faith, announcing that democratic liberalism has triumphed for the foreseeable future. To paraphrase a line from Marx's Das Kapital: "There was history before them, not after." Looking into Russia's prolonged, post-Leninist agony and considering the dismal fate of Yugoslavia, one needs to be more cautious in terms of engaging in such grandiose historic-philosophical speculations.

If we look at the avalanche of books and studies on the post-1989 events, there are two major schools of interpretation. The first are the "Optimists," who insist on the depth of the democratic consolidation and the weakness of nationalist, illiberal movements. After all, they say, Poland is a great success story and, as in the past, it plays a pioneering role for the transitions in the whole region. On the other hand, the "Pessimists," or the second school, focus primarily on the more problematic Southern case, but not only, and sound more skeptical.

Altogether, nobody denies that the revolutions of 1989 replaced a closed universe with an open political and economic space. A world in which the future was pre-determined and the party was granted the privilege of epistemic infallibility fell apart. A new one emerged, where the individual encounters maddening choices, daunting risks, and unbearable prospects for failure. The empty idealism of communism was replaced, some would argue, by the crass materialism of naked self-interests or more ominously by ethno-centric nationalism. Was it worth all the fights and hopes? The simple fact that such questions are now vividly debated in all these societies is in my view the strongest argument for a positive assessment of the meanings of 1989. Whatever the nasty features of what Vaclav Havel called "the post-communist nightmare," one thing is now certain: the times of regimented unanimity and forced acceptance of the officially-ascribed concept of human happiness are over.

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
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant