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East/West: Analysis From Washington -- Liberalization And Democratization

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 25 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The failure of elections in many post-communist countries to give populations control over their governments has led ever more analysts to argue that societal liberalization must precede political democratization.

The latest to make this argument is Jack Snyder, a Columbia University political scientist. In a newly-published book, he suggests that economic growth, a middle class, and a civil society are necessary preconditions for democratic governance.

And he sharply criticizes groups like Human Rights Watch, which call for public debate and free elections in countries which lack these institutional arrangements. Such an approach, Snyder writes, have made many problems in these societies even worse.

In some respects, Snyder's argument is both compelling and unanswerable. As he points out, there have been few genuine elections in places where at least societal liberalization has not taken place.

In fact, even those individuals and groups most committed to the institutionalization of the electoral process, in countries which have not known democracy before, freely acknowledge that voting requires certain social preconditions.

But Snyder's analytic insight contains within it a policy prescription that could lead to a situation in which democracy in some of these countries might not only be delayed, but even put off altogether.

Indeed, arguments of the kind Snyder makes are likely to be used by those who -- for whatever reason -- want to reduce pressure on the post-communist elites to democratize, or who believe that economic forces alone will transform these countries.

And such arguments are also likely to be welcomed by some post-communist rulers who already are insisting that their people are "not ready" for democracy -- or at least, are not ready for its complete version.

There are three reasons such a convergence of attitudes and ideas between Western governments and post-Communist regimes could postpone the democratization of the latter.

First, the incomplete liberalization of these societies has created a new class of vested interests against whom the democratic process may be the only effective weapon for most of the population.

The nomenklatura privatization that has taken place in many of these countries has created a class of powerful oligarchs. The only time most leaders are prepared to take this group on is when they are forced to win support in elections.

The elimination or reduction of such pressure will thus have the effect of allowing the oligarchs to continue to control post-communist transitions and thus make them much longer than might otherwise be the case -- even in the economic field.

Second, societal liberalization may or may not produce democracy, for as Snyder himself shows, such liberalization may be hijacked by nationalists of one kind or another.

The freeing up of resources through liberalization, Snyder notes, gives elites the chance to mobilize the population frequently along nationalist lines. Indeed, that is the basis of the title of his monograph, "From Voting to Violence."

Snyder argues that four kinds of nationalism have occurred in democratizing countries: counterrevolutionary, revolutionary, ethnic, and civic. And he notes that three of the four have often generated violence and undermined any hope for liberal democracy.

But he does not stress that the one exception to this discouraging pattern -- civic nationalism -- has emerged where democratization and liberalization have developed together, rather than one racing ahead of the other.

It is precisely that linkage, that need to keep the two working together, that Snyder's compelling argument may lead some in both the post-communist world and the West to ignore.

And third, any lessening of Western pressure on these countries for greater democratization will almost certainly lead leaders there to conclude that they need not move in a democratic direction to attract Western support.

Such a development not only will reduce the amount of freedom people in those countries will have anytime soon, but could in many cases create the condition for instability and violence during transitions from the current generation of leaders to the next.

Obviously, the relationship between liberalization and democratization is complex, but both logic and the historical record suggest that one will not necessarily produce the other. Even more, they indicate that assuming the contrary may in the end preclude the emergence of either.