No one, or almost no one, expected in the mid-1980s that the Eastern European countries, which had been under authoritarian communist rule for half a century, would be, a decade later, working democracies with a cabinet form of government. That there should be many problems is no surprise but that the polities of the area should have transformed their political life so profoundly and, by and large, so smoothly, is one of those happy accidents which rarely occur in world politics.
This accident is particularly happy since the region scarcely had a tradition of liberal democratic government, not only before 1989, but also before 1939. At the end of the nineteenth century, only three of the sixteen countries of East-Central Europe and the Balkans were independent, all three indeed in the Balkans, Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia, while Hungary was substantially autonomous but in the context of a much larger ‘half’ of the Austro-Hungarian empire which incorporated many ‘nations’. The rest of Eastern Europe belonged then to one of four empires – German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish. As a result of the peace treaties which ended the First World War, the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Albania did become independent, Yugoslavia incorporated, alongside Serbia, parts of the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires, and Bessarabia (much of which was to become Moldova) became part of Romania. But, if Czechoslovakia succeeded in maintaining a working parliamentary system for the next twenty years, all the other polities sooner or later were to be run in an authoritarian manner before being forcefully absorbed by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or the Soviet Union. 1
What occurred in the area in the last decade of the twentieth century was thus a complete transformation, where authoritarianism, imported or indigenous, had prevailed in the past, a working liberal democracy has emerged