Breaking the Postcommunist Liminality: The Transformation Process in Eastern Europe

By Melich, Jiri S. | Demokratizatsiya, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Breaking the Postcommunist Liminality: The Transformation Process in Eastern Europe


Melich, Jiri S., Demokratizatsiya


Abstract: With the understanding that any setting of boundaries for completion of the postcommunist transformation can be, to a large extent, only arbitrary, this article attempts to discuss and analyze major factors and issues in determining the temporal dimension of the transformation process in Eastern Europe. It focuses on several conditions in the longer-term developments in the postcommunist constellation, namely, the sociopolitical and sociocultural ones. These conditions are understood as imbedded psychosocial matrices working as the factors that underlie changes in the political and economic spheres.

Key words: Eastern Europe, Eastern European society, generational turnover, liminality, postcommunism, transformation

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Postcommunist culture is constantly in the making and is always a "work in progress."

Merging Theories of Postcommunist Change

No one can prevent us from comparing apples and oranges; (1) both are fruits, and it may be convenient for some to devise a theory of how similar or different they might be, but can these fruits turn out to be kangaroos under certain conditions? There is a potential danger that such comparison might be simplistic and fruitless: we know that apples and oranges are fruits that differ in several recognizable features. The question then arises: Is it not more challenging to better understand apples (or oranges or kangaroos for that matter), to discover what makes an apple an apple, and to explore why, in the natural world, an apple could hardly become an orange than it is to endlessly compare them? Many theorists of postcommunist transformation in Eastern and East-Central Europe (EE/ECE), namely, "transitologists," insist that both apples and oranges are noticeably similar fruits and one can obtain a higher knowledge in comparing their suspected common features) Fortunately, following Bunce, students of the momentous change in the region started to grasp that the postcommunist transformations differ from most other cases of political transitions in at least two aspects. First, they are more complex than other transitions in question (i.e., Latin American and South European transitions), as they contain efforts to completely overhaul the old economic system. Second, they possess specific sociocultural and normative dimensions, which include anything from the unique political, social, and cultural (both communist and traditional) legacies to the effects of the deep disruption of the old social, ideological, and normative systems. In other words, the past in the region had produced very specific characteristics that became firmly embedded in society, culture, and people's minds.

In a sense, since human history consists of countless transformations of societies at each level, the postcommunist transformation offers an opportunity to be compared with other great transitions or transformations (i.e., the French Revolution, the Meiji Restoration, or England's "Great Transformation"), namely due to its broad sweep, uniquely national and historical features, grand combination of continuity and discontinuity, and complexity. Such comparisons might have a very limited value, however, unless they focus on general historical contours or on carefully selected individual (and comparable) features, but even here such comparisons might be more meaningful from the perspective of history than that of comparative politics. (3)

But let comparatists have their piece of fruit pie. We assume that in the real political world, after the process of democratization and marketization reaches a certain critical mass, apples may be in the process of becoming oranges and comparisons may take place on a level field. We are not quite there yet, however. My question here is rather broad: To what extent can we still talk credibly of "Western European" and "Eastern European" politics after the nearly complete economic and strategic inclusion of most of Eastern Europe into the structures, or at least the orbit, of the Western world? …

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