Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Eastern Europe After Communism

Determining when one period gave way to another or, in fact, naming a period is always a tricky matter. This is especially so when it comes to contemporary events. Processes are still going on and it is not yet evident what conclusive outcome, if any, is going to take shape. Nonetheless, it is already possible to look at postcommunism in Central and Eastern Europe with some perspective, and to reach some tentative conclusions. The first is that three periods or stages have unfolded. In the opening phase there was near-messianic enthusiasm and redemptive hope. Then came a time of differentiation when views became nuanced. The third period is characterized by introspection mixed with disenchantment.

The first stage, roughly 1989–1995, was inspired by the astonishingly rapid collapse of the communist systems. What appeared to be a bold attempt at reform embodied in Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost and perestroika turned into a tsunami of change. Within a few years, the Soviet party-state was disestablished. Moscow-supported puppet regimes in Eastern and Central Europe were replaced by reformist and democratically elected governments headed by former dissidents. German reunification symbolized, perhaps more than anything else, the demise of the Soviet ideological and strategic hold on postwar politics.

All this was achieved with hardly any violence (Romanian and Yugoslav developments apart). Communist hegemons bowed out of power, sometimes even elegantly, promoting the belief that a world historical development was under way, heralding the ultimate victory of democracy and the free market over anachronistic totalitarianism. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History articulated an almost messianic belief in the march of history. He gave an intellectual, quasi-Hegelian veneer to deterministic notions of what was happening and reversed Marxist determinism while sustaining some of its methodological assumptions. At the same time, less sophisticated views of a universal march of democracy were articulated by political actors, scholars, and journalists in both the West and in former communist countries. They shared the belief that, absent communist totalitarianism, each “liberated” country would develop toward Western-style democracy with a multiparty system, free elections, a free press, and market capitalism. There would be ups and downs, surely, and not all countries would develop at the same speed and with equal success. But there was hardly any doubt about the outcome.

Initial developments gave sustenance to these beliefs: elections did bring to power leaders committed to Western democracy. Far-reaching reforms did privatize, in different ways, state-run economies. Yet few people paid sufficient attention to signs of troubles ahead.

Basic differences between developments in the Soviet Union and such countries as Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia were often ignored. It is obvious that the very possibility of democratization in the latter countries depended on what happened in Moscow. But they also had indigenous dissident movements that fought for change from below and had mobilized public opinion, creating a political counterculture that eventually triumphed: Solidarnosc (Solidarity) in Poland, the Democratic Forum and the SDS Liberals in Hungary, and Charter-77 and “People against Violence” in Czechoslovakia. These movements evoked the memories of 1956 or 1968, and their leaders, many of whom suffered persecution and prison under communism, negotiated the transition out of communism. The Soviet case was different. Even though Gorbachev’s reforms were at least partially inspired by the ideas of dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov, change was initiated from above, from within the Communist Party. Even if a more radical reformer like Boris Yeltsin finally trumped the more careful Gorbachev, it was always the former apparatchiks who eventually came to power. The Soviet Union had no Lech Walesas or Vaclav Havels. No former dissidents or prisoners became ministers or presidents in Moscow, in contrast to Warsaw, Budapest, and Prague. Instead, there was an internal bureaucratic shift in the Kremlin. “Reformers” defeated “hard-liners.” The Baltic countries and also—up to a point—Georgia were different, however, because in them dissidents did take office. In Moscow, it was a new cadre of bureaucrats that oversaw reforms.

Missing Diversity

IN THE triumphalist, postcommunist mood—it sometimes resembled a Walpurgis Night in which all cats are gray—observers often overlooked how diverse anticommunist coalitions were. Being anticommunist did not automatically mean being a democrat. The victorious anticommunist camps of 1989 were made up of democrats and liberals, social democrats and conservatives, nationalists and religious fundamentalists, anti-Russian chauvinists and—yes, frankly—semi-fascists and anti-Semites who sought to expiate (somewhat) their sordid pasts by posing as freedom lovers. Few, at that time, thought that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a courageous anticommunist, was also a fierce Russian chauvinist of the old school. Eventually it became clear that most countries in Central and Eastern Europe harbored their own local Solzhenitsyns.

Eastern or Central European anticommunism was also coupled with—if not dominated by—strong nationalist anti-Russian sentiments. Solidarity’s immense popularity derived partly from a deeply ingrained anti-Russian nationalism linked to Roman Catholicism. This was one reason for its enormous resonance in Polish society. Similar sentiments, though probably less radical and with different colorations, played roles in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and were also evident in the Baltic republics (especially Lithuania) as well as in Georgia.

Enthusiasm for rapid marketization obscured the impact of reforms on social strata that would suffer from the abolition of some of the safety nets provided by communism: retirees, workers in rust-belt, Soviet-style industries, provincial residents. Not everyone was a winner in the postcommunist paradise.

Finally, the chiliastic atmosphere immediately after 1989 often blinded analysts to the fact that there are no shortcuts to democracy. It does not emerge overnight, automatically, and it is not enough to have an elite committed to democracy and markets. After all, democracy in countries such as Britain and France took centuries, and the United States needed a civil war to abolish slavery and another century to enfranchise fully its black population. The political histories of Germany, Italy, and Spain show how complex, tortuous, and sometimes murderous the transformation toward democracy can be.
Full-text available, click here.
*Shlomo Avineri is Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Recurring Visiting Professor at the Central European University in Budapest. His latest book (in Hebrew) is Herzl: An Intellectual Biography.

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