Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Can the Memory of a Historical Uprising Reduce Transitional Uncertainty? A Comparative Study of Hungary and the Former Soviet Union

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Can the Memory of a Historical Uprising Reduce Transitional Uncertainty? A Comparative Study of Hungary and the Former Soviet Union

Article excerpt

Abstract: The author explores how incumbents form their preferences when regime types change. The author juxtaposes the perceptions of the Hungarian and the Soviet Communist Party hard-liners during the transition from Communism in 1989-91. During this time, the memory of a historical uprising reduced the incumbents' misperceptions about their popular legitimacy via two mechanisms. First, historical memory functioned as a "public tolerance indicator" because it brought the opposition together and demonstrated the true distribution of political support. Second, the memory of a past uprising served as a "conservative reformer" when it opened up internal party debate about the legitimacy of the regime. The author's argument contributes to the scarce literature on actors' preferences formation under conditions of transitional uncertainty. It also provides a useful analytical bridge between actor-oriented and system-centered approaches to democratization.

Keywords: historical memory, Hungary, political legitimacy, post-Communist transition, public opinion, Russia


Political actors form their preferences on the basis of their perceptions about their public support. As the Soviet Union began to dissolve in 1989, however, the true extent of the public support for the Communist incumbents in satellite states such as Hungary was unknown because Communist regimes did not hold contested elections. Transitional uncertainty also arose from the undefined institutional rules, the fluid party structure and the unknown reaction of the Soviet Union.

Incumbents dealt with uncertainty in different ways. Some party members underestimated the importance and extent of their political legitimacy. These hard-liners stubbornly clung to the old order. Other Communist leaders appreciated the true scale of societal changes, along with the limitations of their power, early on. These politicians took timely steps to democratize and compromise with the opposition. The variance of the incumbents' preferences constitutes a puzzle. Earlier scholarship on democratic transitions has generally treated perceptions as exogenous, leaving the reasons for the disaccord largely unexamined. This study elucidates the development of actors' preferences during transitional periods.

The historical memory of a failed antiregime uprising can reduce the incumbents' uncertainty about their political legitimacy by providing those in power with a barometer of public dissatisfaction. Two mechanisms are at work. First, the historical memory of a popular insurrection opens up a debate about the party's legitimacy. During the debate, the more progressive party members criticize the conservative members for their role in defeating the popular uprising. The conservative members then resign, and the party reforms and democratizes. Second, commemorations of past uprisings reveal the strength of the opposition and show the regime's limited public support. The rulers realize that the likelihood of preserving the status quo has decreased and that the only way to preserve power is to associate with the popular historical symbols. As the demonstrations commemorating historical heroes increase, the hard-liners who hoped to embrace the progressive ideas only in words discover they need to back their new image with reforms and compromises.

In this article, I revisit the theoretical discussion about the nature of transitional uncertainty and the process of preference formation. I then specify how historical memory can impact the incumbents' perceptions about their legitimacy under conditions of uncertainty. Next, I position the argument within the scholarship of democratic transition and suggest that the proposition connects structural and actor-oriented explanations of regime change. In the first empirical part, I distinguish five episodes in which the memory of the 1956 uprising informed and moderated the incumbents' perceptions in Hungary: the fall of Janos Kadar, the rise of Karoly Grosz, the interview of Imre Poszgay, the demonstrations of March 15, and the reburial of Imre Nagy. …

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