It is hard to think of any one of the major questions concerning democracy and democratization that is not raised, in one way or another, by what is happening in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union at the time of writing. 1 History’s turning-points are also its learning points. A new order is unfolding in Europe which is already straining our existing concepts and taxonomies. As we strain to discern the future, our analysis of a constantly shifting present necessarily raises questions about past assumptions, reminding us that the past, no less than the future, is a kaleidoscope that can be shaken to reveal surprising patterns. This chapter makes no forecasts for the future, but presents the process of change in Eastern Europe in a way that casts light back upon a communist past which yesterday seemed so familiar, but on which so much remains to be said.
The final collapse of the Russian empire at the close of the 1980s, and of the communist system which had assured an incongruous extension to its life after the fall of the Romanovs, will force a rethinking of almost every aspect of European political life. Coming as it did when a neo-conservative tide in Western Europe was challenging current thinking about the role of the state, the crisis encountered by one of the major strands of socialism raised more sharply than ever before the fundamental questions about socialism and democracy. Moreover, the implosion of communism in Eastern Europe has offered a quite exceptional laboratory for the political scientist in which to study a process of democratization in progress. What is on offer to him or her, be it said, is democratization as a process, rather than any new or confirmed model of democracy itself. Nothing guarantees that the process will remain on track to a final democratic destination.