Socialization for Participation? Trust, Membership, and Democratization in East-Central Europe

By Letki, Natalia | Political Research Quarterly, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Socialization for Participation? Trust, Membership, and Democratization in East-Central Europe


Letki, Natalia, Political Research Quarterly


Citizens' involvement in politics is essential for the credibility of institutions, as well as for the citizens' articulation of their demands and the holding of their representatives to account. As such, it is of primary importance in new post-Communist democracies. The weakness of political society and low levels of citizens' involvement in politics in East-Central Europe are usually linked to low levels of social capital (weak civil society and low levels of interpersonal trust) and the legacy of cooperation with Communism. Following the approach stressing the importance of participation in group networks as a school of democracy, this study tests the impact of interpersonal trust, membership in voluntary associations, and past Communist party membership on levels of political involvement in ten post-Communist countries in the mid-1990. This approach is complemented by the analysis of the impact of the change of political and economic structures on individual-level behavior.

Citizens' involvement in politics has been a central focus in research on political systems, liberal democracies in particular, since the 1960s (Almond and Verba 1963; Parry, Moyser, and Day 1992). It is the core element of all definitions of democracy (Dahl 1989). Thus the decline of voting turnout, and disengagement in political groups is interpreted as the main malady of a modern, democratic state: "where few take part in decisions there is little democracy" (Verba and Nie 1972: 1). Political engagement is essential for institutions' credibility, but also for citizens' ability to articulate their demands and hold their representatives to account: "individual and otherwise quiet voices multiply and are amplified" (Putnam 2000: 338). Therefore, many stress that in new democracies, such as these of East-Central Europe (ECE), development of a participatory, engaged approach to politics among ordinary citizens is as important a goal as GDP growth or reform of bureaucracy, as without it democracy cannot consolidate (Barnes and Simon 1998; Krishna 2002; Paxton 2002).1

Active participation in public affairs is the main feature of the so-called civic community. Although Putnam (1993b: 88), quoting de Tocqueville (1969), stresses that "not all political activity deserves the label "virtuous" or contributes to the commonweal," activities such as voting, discussing politics, or membership in various groups and parties deserve to be called 'civic' insofar as they are oriented towards shared benefits rather than self-interest. The decline of voting turnout and interest in and discussion of politics are considered to be the main indicators (next to membership in voluntary associations) of the collapse of civic community, as they represent the general decline of interest in and consideration for the common good and the ideals of democratic government (Putnam 2000).

As 1993-94, the period under consideration in our data analysis, was an early stage of transformation, the opportunity to influence political outcomes was a relative novelty for most citizens of ECE countries. Before 1989 only protest forms of participation directed against the state (strikes, protests, demonstrations) were available for expressing citizens' opinions, and even these were significantly limited under most of the ECE regimes. Many scholars dealing with ECE transformation feared the prevalence of apathy, lack of interest and low participation in politics among citizens of post-Communist countries (Miller 1992). Others were concerned that the patterns of political engagement created under Communism, such as protests and street demonstrations, may destabilize the fragile, new democracies (Foley and Edwards 1996). It seems that while the new democracies did face strong waves of unrests and social protests in the early phase of democralization (Ekiert and Kubik 1999; Inglehart 1990), in the long term the former concern-apathy and lack of interest-was much more relevant. The democratic movements ceased to play a leading role in politics. …

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