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Ambassador Basora examines how the twenty-eight formerly communist countries of the old Soviet Bloc are doing. What factors help promote effective democracies and market economies in these countries and are these factors parallel in important ways from one country to another? He believes substantial progress has been made. But will it continue? What will the region look like in 2026? Assoc. Ed.

by Adrian A. Basora

Fall 2006 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. It is thus fitting that we renew our focus on the history and geopolitics of Europe and on the role these factors should play in Western strategy. The transatlantic strategic consensus that guided foreign policy in Western Europe and North America during the Cold War has largely dissolved. Once again, it is easy for policymakers to succumb to the temptation to focus on the present and the politically expedient. given popular concerns with terrorism, energy prices, immigration, and other sources of insecurity. Accordingly, Western leaders tend to focus on Iraq, counterterrorism, and short-term cures for political and economic instability. And yet it is as essential today as it was fifty years ago to ensure that American and European foreign policies are firmly based on the lessons of the history, geopolitics, and political economy of the past fifty years.

The Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution epitomized the broad reach of communism throughout Europe. Life behind the Iron Curtain was grim, and Cold War tensions characterized not only the 1950s but also much of the three subsequent decades. During that period democracy seemed fragile in most of continental Europe. where a few non-democratic regimes were viewed as essential allies in the West’s attempt to halt the spread of communism. The authoritarian governments of Greece. Turkey, Spain, and Portugal have since become a distant memory, but as recently as twenty years ago, the communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union still seemed firmly entrenched. Even as late as 1986 it would have seemed wildly optimistic to predict that in less than a generation Eastern Europe would be largely democratic and integrating rapidly with the West.

Yet today, in the landmass once controlled by just nine Marxist-Leninist dictatorships (the nearly monolithic Soviet empire—the USSR. Poland. Czechoslovakia. East Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria—plus Yugoslavia and Albania), there are 28 noncommunist states. many of which are either emerging or consolidated democracies with prospering market economies and a high degree of association with Western institutions. This is a remarkable historic achievement involving a profound set of transformations.

In the space that had been the western phalanx of the Warsaw Pact (plus a sliver of what was once Tito’s Yugoslavia), there are now eight fully consolidated democracies: the three former Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), four Central European countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia), and the one former Yugoslav republic left relatively unscathed by the civil war that erupted in the early 1990s (Slovenia). All are now stable democracies with prospering market economies, and all are established members of both NATO and the EU.

Close behind these eight frontrunners in the transformation process are five other emerging democracies—Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia. Serbia (from which Montenegro just gained independence this year), and Macedonia—that seem likely to move towards full democratic consolidation within the next few years. Bulgaria and Romania are already members of NATO and will become EU members in 2007; Croatia is an EU candidate. Serbia and Macedonia are somewhat further behind, partly as a result of the prolonged warfare that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia. Nevertheless. while the democracies of these two countries are less robust than the others, Belgrade and Skopje have entered negotiations with Brussels, and both countries seem headed in a positive direction.

Five additional countries have also made significant progress in creating pluralistic societies and more open economies. This group, rated by Freedom House as “transitional governments,” includes most notably Ukraine and Georgia, whose Orange and Rose revolutions make reversion to full authoritarianism unlikely. The other three—Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Moldova—also appear to have good momentum. While each has a considerable distance to go before attaining a fully functioning and stable democracy, major regression is unlikely.

In sum. 19 of the 28 formerly communist countries of the region are either solidly democratic or at least well along the path to pluralism and unlikely to revert to authoritarianism.

Lest this tour through the former Soviet and Eastern European communist space seem too rosy, however, it is important to discuss the nine remaining postcommunist countries. which Freedom House rates as either semi-consolidated or fully consolidated authoritarian regimes. These include Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the five Central Asian republics (Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan, Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan). While all of these countries are now officially noncommunist and some have taken important steps towards pluralism, several have recently manifested serious regression toward stronger authoritarianism. An antidemocratic trend has taken hold over last few years, perhaps most blatantly in Belarus, but also in Russia. This should not be surprising, given the antidemocratic “counter-waves” that Samuel Huntington documented in his study of democratization trends.* But the fact that this reaction now includes and is abetted by Russia is ominous. This underlines the need for a concerted strategy to protect the gains in democracy and stability achieved since 1989 and. we can hope, to build upon these gains over time.

There are two fundamentally divergent perspectives as to whether lessons of post-authoritarian transition learned in one country can successfully be applied in another. One view holds that each country is unique, and thus that attempts to transfer successful approaches from one country to another are misguided. The contrary view, to which we at the Project on Democratic Transitions generally subscribe, is that both the challenges and the keys to success in building effective democracies and market economies are parallel in important ways from one country to another. These parallels are particularly striking for the postcommunist transitions of countries in Europe and Eurasia because of their similar communist legacies and experiences. Since 1989. when the West initiated a policy of systematic support for these countries’ political and economic transformations, they have also been subject to similar influences from the West and from international financial institutions.

As one looks more closely at the consolidated and emerging democracies of Eastern Europe and their transition experiences, several similarities emerge. A few of them are worth noting in particular.

BREAK WITH PAST. The countries that have made the transition successfully managed to engineer a sharp break with the past. This has generally involved episodes of mass mobilization and/or “electoral revolutions” sufficiently powerful to oust the prior communist ruling elite at least temporarily. Breakthroughs of this type have in most cases been critical in accelerating the pace of democratization and in helping to anchor its sustainability.

ELITES. New or reformed elites have played major roles. These “counter-elites” have both helped to instigate the key mass mobilizations and electoral movements that produced a break with the past and themselves been further shaped by these movements. In some cases, the new reformist elites had their origins in splits within the former communist leadership. In other cases, the popular emotions that drove mass protests brought forth new champions or empowered older leaders who had previously languished after earlier dissident movements were suppressed.

FORMER COMMUNIST PARTIES. Some former communist parties have played a positive role, most notably in the case of Hungary. While in some cases communists have remained unreconstructed and marginalized. in others they have changed tack and evolved into Western-style social democratic parties. Thus, one important phenomenon throughout much of the region is the reshaping of the former communist parties and their leaders through elections. An electoral loss that leaves open the possibility of a comeback in the next election can thus produce a healthy transformational dynamic.

MEDIA. The rapid emergence of free and diverse media is important, particularly in the early stages of transition and in the consolidation phases. However, maintaining sufficient readership and relatively neutral sources of financial support has often proven to be a challenge in the later, “post-euphoric” stages of democratic consolidation.

CIVIL SOCIETY. While an essential underpinning of a strong democracy. the emergence of the not-for-profit, nongovernmental sector has generally proven a slow and difficult process in this region. Developing an independent and well-rooted civil society where none existed before is inevitably an arduous task. A few countries that had been able to retain or regain some degree of domestic pluralism during the communist period, such as Poland and Hungary, had an important head start. Others, such as Romania, Belarus, or other post-Soviet states, inherited much less of a foundation to start with. Given the extent to which their societies had been atomized by harsher communist regimes.

POLITICAL PARTIES. As with the NGO sector, durable political parties have in most cases developed only slowly and tend to be consolidated only in the later phases of transition. Often they have been built up from the fragments of the prior regime: mass movements, splits within prior elites, and defeated communist parties. External assistance, while sorely needed, is hard to deliver effectively.

EARLY ECONOMIC REFORMS. While economic reforms are not of themselves sufficient to ensure democracy’s success, a society that enjoys some degree of private ownership, entrepreneurship, and individual wealth is better able to support free media and a vigorous civil society than a society based upon a state-dominated economy. Conversely, continuing government control of the economy and the absence of privatization and other economic reforms can severely undercut prospects for democratization. Belarus and the Central Asian republics are notable examples of the latter phenomenon, and over the past few years Russia itself has taken several significant steps backwards in this area.

NO ESSENTIAL PRECONDITIONS. Democratization can move ahead reasonably well even in states lacking prior democratic legacies or a strong middle class. While Western cultural, religious, and historic traditions and prior democratic experience are helpful, they are not essential preconditions for democratic consolidation if other factors are propitious. Romania and Bulgaria exemplify promising transitions involving largely Orthodox countries that had long been a part of the Ottoman Empire; Albania and Bosnia are largely Islamic countries that also offer promising examples.

INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY. The international community can play a crucial role in fostering successful transitions to democracy and viable market economies. The lure of NATO membership has been a powerful factor in accelerating Eastern Europe’s reforms, particularly so in the 1990s. By the latter part of that decade, as Brussels gradually geared up for its eastward expansion, the EU became an even more powerful magnet than NATO, and prolonged EU accession negotiations became an effective source of leverage for accelerated reform. Even now, with the EU suffering from “enlargement fatigue,” the United States and Western Europe are still able to exert considerable influence by promptly recognizing and rewarding effective steps towards democratic reform.

“STICKINESS.” A further positive conclusion is that democracy has proven quite “sticky” once the transition has moved past a certain threshold. Regression towards authoritarianism has occurred mainly in countries where the initial reforms were inadequate. In countries where the conditions outlined above have been largely met. the democratic trajectory has so far proven difficult to reverse. Vladimir Meciar’s attempt to do so in Slovakia is a case in point.

These lessons are encouraging. Unfortunately, however, experience to date has also produced important lessons on the negative side. Two of these merit particular comment.

DOMINANT PRESIDENTS. As the cases of Russia and Belarus vividly demonstrate, regression towards authoritarianism can move ahead quickly where there is a president with strong powers and an absence of any strong counterbalance in the legislative or judicial branches of government, or in civil society. Similar dynamics are apparent in the Central Asian and Caucasian republics. The threats to success of the Rose Revolution represented by a strong concentration of presidential power. Therefore, in promoting enduring democratization, it is important that firm constitutional limits on presidential power are set and that strong legislatures are established.

MINERAL RICHES. Excessive mineral riches in the hands of the state can prove a strong negative factor. Not surprisingly, autocracy seems to thrive particularly well in countries with rich oil or gas reserves or other extractive wealth that is easily controlled by the state. Russia, Kazakstan, and Azerbaijan demonstrate how ample flows of easy cash into the state treasury can be used to consolidate increasingly autocratic rule.

On balance, however, there is a good case for cautious optimism, particularly if reformers in the postcommunist countries themselves, and those in the West who wish to aid them, apply the lessons derived from the best practices of the past decade and a half. Numerous promising opportunities for further democratic consolidation remain, particularly in “hybrid cases”: countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Croatia, Macedonia, and Serbia, which are not yet consolidated democracies but do have regular elections, some degree of press freedom, emerging civic sectors, and openness to outside assistance and advice. Even the region’s more entrenched autocracies offer opportunities for gradual evolution, particularly if both domestic reformers and Western governments and NGOs play their hands carefully.

It is clearly in the strategic interest of both the United States and the EU and its member states to continue to work systematically to foster democracy and open economies throughout postcommunist Europe and Eurasia. However, for some of these countries the timeframe will be a very long one. Just as democratic consolidation has taken nearly a generation even in frontrunner countries such as Poland, Hungary, Slovenia. and Estonia—and much work still remains to be done even in these countries—so it is likely that countries in the region that are much further behind in their transitions will require at least another ten, fifteen or twenty years to consolidate.

Focusing the attention of policymakers in Washington, Brussels, and other Western capitals on such a prolonged project will be a challenge. But success would have enormous potential strategic benefits. Just as the West is dramatically better off today than in 1986 when it still faced massive Warsaw Pact armies based in Eastern Europe, so in 2026 it could be distinctly better off than is the case today. especially given the economic and strategic importance of the transatlantic relationship to both Europe and the United States. Even though democracy is not a cure-all, the combination of democracy with a viable security system and open-market economies that we have nurtured over the past fifty-plus years in the transatlantic space has worked remarkably well. Within the next twenty years it seems quite reasonable to project the emergence of stable, responsive governments and viable market economies in Ukraine, Belarus, the Balkans, and the Caucasus. To the extent that this endeavor proves successful. one can also imagine progress in Russia and the Central Asian republics over the coming decades.

However, even if democracy were to be consolidated only in the European and Caucasian regions of the former Soviet Union, there would be major benefits to the stability, security. and prosperity of Europe and the entire transatlantic region. A less direct, but no less important, effect would be the spread of greater political stability and prosperity, through the process of democratic diffusion, to the next concentric circle of countries. This could well include important parts of the greater Middle East. In sum, U.S. and Western European persistence in long-term support of the post-communist democratic transitions would make an important contribution to addressing many of the problems that currently most concern Europeans and Americans. End.

* Samuel Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).

This article is republished with the permission of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, PA 19102-3684.


The author had a distinguished career as a U. S. Foreign Service officer, including an assignment as ambassador to Czechoslovakia and stints in the White House as National Security Director for European Affairs.


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