Central Europe Is Not over the Hill: The Long and Slow Transition from Post-Communism to Consolidated Democracy

By Riegl, Martin | The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Central Europe Is Not over the Hill: The Long and Slow Transition from Post-Communism to Consolidated Democracy


Riegl, Martin, The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs


When the American political scientist Samuel Huntington published a book called The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century in 1991, democracy in post-communist Europe was on a victorious campaign. Communist regimeswere quickly crumbling in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and other countries. Although many experts at the end of the eighties and beginning of the nineties refused to accept the possibility of a communist collapse in the USSR, centrifugal tendencies have long undermined the foundation of Imperia. Francis Fukuyama veiwed the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe to be the end of history as liberal democratic values overcame the utopian ideologies of communism and Nazism.

Europe has without exception become a place where citizens can freely run for public office and express their electoral preferences according to principals of general, equal, personal, and direct electoral law. In Eastern and Central Europe, we have applied the principles exhibited in consolidated Western democracies. Having done so, electoral turnout has oft en proved higher in these new democracies than in the West. But are regular elections, constitutional civic freedoms and political rights, respect towards newly adopted constitutions, creation of partisan systems and gradual integration into Euro-Atlantic structures necessarily a sign of consolidated democracies? Societies in post-communist Europe began their path to democracy from different starting lines. They differed in geopolitical position, historical (in)experience with democracy, political culture and societal characteristics. The question is now: Were these liberal democratic projects fated to fail from the very beginning because they lacked national unity and legitimate state structures? In retrospect, this seems more than probable twenty years later.

It became gradually evident that the individuals who received mandates in the first free elections were not willing to gamble their post away in subsequent elections. As Vaclav Havel pointed out, democracy became a restrictive force for those who meant it seriously, but an advantageous force for pseudo-democrats. The free media began reporting surprisingly indiscriminately, candidates were blocked from registration, and sometimes, political competition was even intimidated. While these initial elections did happen in accordance with democratic procedures, they oft en occurred under unequal conditions. OSCE monitors hesitated, in fact, to call them free and fair.

The Indian-American political scientist Fareed Zakaria is currently writing an analysis about the succession of non-liberal democracies throughout the global political spectrum. In the introduction of his article for Foreign Affairs in November 1997, he pointed out the fears of Richard Holbrook, an American diplomat who negotiated the end of the Bosnian War. Holbrook feared that the free elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina were controlled by radical chauvinists responsible for the war in the first place.

Despite his pessimism, Holbrook could not have imagined how close he was to the truth.

In 1996, the political unrest from the early nineties returned to Bosnia: three nationalist parties, which were decidedly opposed to the political scene, received 86 percent of the mandates with a high electoral turnout. The general election of 1996 actually gave political legitimacy back to those individuals who, having received the reputation as gangsters and war criminals, were directly responsible for the war. As analysts from the International Crisis Group wrote, it was a major mistake to organize elections so soon after the war. As Zakaria pointed out, democracy and liberalism were at odds with each other in the newly democratized states. The nineties saw the rise of Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia, Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, and Franjo Tudjman in Croatia. Democracy had definitely lost the battle in states like Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia, etc. …

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