Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Postcommunist Civil Society in Comparative Perspective

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Postcommunist Civil Society in Comparative Perspective

Article excerpt

Civil society continues to thrive as an object of study in postcommunist Europe, as in most other regions of the world. Much of the literature on postcommunist civil society, however, stresses its relative weakness, whether compared to other regions or to the high expectations of 1989-91. (1) This emphasis on weakness is especially notable given that so many observers at that time expected postcommunist civil society to become unusually strong and vibrant. (2) Indeed, although specialists of Latin America and Southern Europe were also beginning to take the concept seriously in the 1980s, (3) most scholars agree that the rapid emergence or resurgence of civil society as a major object of study in comparative politics resulted largely from developments surrounding the collapse of communism.

The finding that postcommunist civil society is unusually weak leads to a host of important questions. Yet before accepting this finding at face value, we should examine the extent to which it holds empirically. In other words, is it actually correct to assert that postcommunist civil society is particularly weak, either compared to, the expectations of just over a decade ago or compared to other regions of the world? It seems clear that the current political, economic, and social reality has not lived up to the idealistic hopes of 1989-91. The conclusion that postcommunist civil society is distinctively weak compared to other regions, however, needs more specification to be convincing.

In this article, I consider the extent to which it is accurate to refer to postcommunist civil society as being relatively weak. I start by examining the variation within postcommunist Europe, in the context of larger survey results that generally show a stark difference--or a "thick line"--between the Central European countries and the countries of the former Soviet Union. I go on to introduce the results from the World Values Survey (WVS) on a battery of questions on membership in nine different types of organizations, which show that--when focusing exclusively on postcommunist countries--the "thick line" between Central Europe and the former Soviet Union does appear to apply, with some exceptions. Then I turn to a wider cross-regional perspective, showing that compared to older democracies and postauthoritarian countries postcommunist countries have relatively lower levels of organizational membership. This finding suggests that the variation within postcommunist Europe should more accurately be viewed as a "dotted line," rather than a "thick line," since the postcommunist countries on the whole still appear to form a coherent group when compared with other types of countries.

After presenting these empirical findings, I discuss their relevance in terms of the prospects for democracy and democratic stability in the region, addressing both positive and negative interpretations. I argue that although the weakness of civil society does not necessarily mean that postcommunist democracy is necessarily in danger of collapse or breakdown it does prevent the development of the "civic skills" that are important for supporting and consolidating a democratic system, and it also ensures that many postcommunist citizens lack the institutional representation and "leverage" that could otherwise be provided by active voluntary organizations.

Finally, I speculate about the extent to which the empirical findings and trends might change in the future. Although I argue that change is unlikely to occur rapidly or decisively, given the powerful and lasting legacy of the communist experience, as well as the relative failure of neoliberal institutional "crafting," I discuss two possible mechanisms for change, and I suggest how these might occur or be encouraged to develop. Generational change presents a very gradual means for replacing older people in society with their descendants, who will have had less exposure to the original communist institutions that shaped most living adults today. …

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