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East European Perspectives: August 6, 2003

6 August 2003, Volume 5, Number 16


By Monica Ciobanu

The collapse of the communist system in Eastern Europe in 1989 represented one of the most important events in contemporary political history. It signaled the end of the Cold War and the reconfiguration of the international balance of power in favor of Western liberal democracies resulting from the collapse of one-party states and centralized socialist economies. Right after 1989, these countries began to undertake several tasks, among them the creation of democratic institutions and free markets. In the case of the former Czechoslovakia and East Germany, state formation became a priority. Romania also was brought face-to-face with the questions of democracy and markets but, besides that, had to confront and absorb the violence of its own break with communism. The abruptness of the transition after 1989 immediately raises questions concerning the initial and continuing need of the new regime to manufacture and maintain its legitimacy. In turn, a positive value orientation towards democratic legitimacy per se among the public seems to be a requirement for ongoing stability.

The Specificity Of Democratic Transition And Consolidation: Empirical And Theoretical Considerations
Social and political theorists of democratic transitions were very quick to envision scenarios and strategies of institutional, constitutional, and economic changes for these countries. Based on previous experiences of transitions to democracy (those of Southern European countries: Greece, Portugal, Spain -- and of Latin America: Argentina, Chile), they began to examine the requirements for a fully democratic society and the prerequisites for consolidated democracy: political, economic, civil, and legal (the rule of law). However, a close look at the socioeconomic and political situation of these countries, 12 years after the 1989 revolutions, suggests that these theorists underestimated the consequences of the interaction between several key elements. These are geography and associated political historical relations, political culture, and democratic legitimacy.

In respect to the geography of East Central Europe, of particular significance is the varying proximity that each of these countries has to Western Europe and the extent to which one of the three empires of the 19th century -- Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian -- exerted its influence in these countries.

First, while Romania and Bulgaria, along with Greece, Albania, and the former Yugoslavia geographically belong to the Balkan Peninsula and have always existed in relative isolation from Western Europe, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic share common borders with some of the main countries of Northern Europe. Second, as P. Nikiforos Diamandouros and F. Stephen Larrabee point out (Diamandorous and Larrabee, 2000) in Bulgaria and Romania the historical legacies of the Ottoman Empire represented, both during communist times and after 1989, serious obstacles for the process of modernization and successful transition. These legacies primarily refer to the weakness of the state in the context of a generally peasant structure of society. Peasant societies promote in-group solidarity or primary ties of family, clan, neighborhood, village rather than impersonal or professional solidarity more characteristic of urbanized and diversified societies. The state structure tends to be despotic, remote, and focused on administration through conservative mechanisms of patrimonial bureaucracy. This was true of Romania whether under communism, monarchy, or periods of military rule. Moreover, such historical experiences are likely to teach people of this region the art of survival that includes conformism, dissimulation, and a fatalistic attitude towards life (see Shafir, 1983). In contrast, the countries of Central Europe "as part of the Habsburg empire...were politically organized under a variant of Western absolutism...and thus the relation between rulers and subjects was mediated by powerful intermediate bodies, such as aristocracy" (Diamandorous and Larrabee, 2000, p. 29). This suggests the possibility for a developing public sphere or civil society as an essential condition for later democratization.

As far as political culture is concerned, its importance lies in the extent to which it overlaps with, or differs from, political institutions. Particular agents, whose political or official positions entitle them to undertake the project of political change, can design political institutions at one moment in history. In contrast, political culture, which embodies the common voice of an ethnic group or of a nation, a voice that expresses the collective experiences, memory, and positions of that group, may help or hinder a process of political development. When modern democratic political institutions do not find their equivalent in the political culture of the country that they were designed for, it is very likely that their substantive meaning and organization will be altered.

In the context of East Central European societies undergoing the transition to democracy, this relationship between political institutions and political culture becomes even more complex, since external influences are at the same time playing a major role. Paraphrasing Adam Pzevorsky's description of a consolidated democracy, Jacques Rupnik emphasizes the importance of the international context: "NATO and the European Union have become the only game in town.... Joining both institutions, has been identified in most of postcommunist Europe as the prime foreign-policy goal that requires internal (legal and institutional) democratic changes as a precondition" (Rupnik, 2000).

Here, the contrast between Romania and Bulgaria on the one hand, and Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic on the other is also striking. While the three Central European countries were accepted into NATO in 1997 and are included in the projected first wave of admission to the EU in 2004, it is very unlikely that Romania and Bulgaria will become integrated into the EU at an early date. The fact that in the new context of the war against terrorism led by the U.S. and its allies after 11 September 2001, the American administration pushed Romania's and Bulgaria's admission into NATO is again another indication of how important international factors are for the fate of the region. Issues of internal political development in these two countries are heavily focused on admission to these organizations, attempting thereby to present plausible images as prospective candidates. Occasionally, actions perceived as satisfying the requirements of external agents lead to contradictory results. In lining up with the United States in 2002 on the issue of American peacekeeping personnel and the International Criminal Court in the hope of enhancing its prospects for joining NATO, Romania has run afoul of these very European countries in whose good graces it is desirable for it to remain.

Having indicated the importance of geography, political culture, and the international context for the outcome of democratic transition in post-1989 Eastern Europe, the issue of democratic legitimacy may now be analyzed. This is an interrelated and important indicator for the institutionalization of democracy in the region in general, and for Romania in particular. Before, pursuing a more empirical analysis of Romania, some theoretical aspects of the concept of political legitimacy need to be considered.

From an empirical standpoint, legitimacy can be defined as the mutual relationship between a political authority and its subjects or citizens in which the political regime uses a wide range of methods in order to achieve, and stay in, power (from coercion to manipulation), while the subjects of political authority have various means to endorse or restrict support for it (expressed consent, tacit consent, passive acceptance, or discontent). In the case of communist societies "negative legitimacy" has typically prevailed -- the passive acceptance of authority as a result of fear or in exchange for certain benefits. Power derived from the authority of the one-party state (the Communist Party), which relied on a bureaucratic officialdom that was loyal to it. Legitimation was at best minimal.

In contrast, the citizens of democratic societies are more positively accepting of political authority. Essentially this means that they support governments in power on both rational-legal grounds and the endorsement of democratic values that governments claim to embody. Bureaucratic personnel that rely on the rules of competence, rationality, and legality sustains the former while the practice and appearance of democracy sustains the latter. So there are two dimensions of the new type of democratic legitimacy that East European postcommunist societies have to resolve and implement. The first is legal or procedural legitimacy and the second is socio-cultural or normative legitimacy.

Procedural legitimacy was accomplished in these countries by a new constitutional order guaranteeing free and democratic elections, free institutions, individual rights and liberties, and the separation of powers. However, there has been a marked contrast between how this procedural legitimacy was achieved in Central Europe -- via the maintenance of legal continuity -- and in Romania where there was a sharp legal rupture with the past. This difference was a consequence of the quite different nature of the revolutions in these countries and in Romania.

Normative legitimacy, "which requires the keeping open of social channels of communication between rulers and ruled" (Arato, 2000, p.34), has to rely on the existence of a strong civic culture or on a system of beliefs that acknowledges that differences of interest and opinion have to be reconciled. This type of legitimacy has proved to be the most difficult to accomplish and it is also the most difficult to grasp since the preference for democracy is not necessarily rooted in deep democratic beliefs. It can also overlap with the perceived performance of the government, with the memories or experiences of people in Eastern Europe regarding the communist period, or with the idea that there is no other acceptable alternative to democracy.

This problem is acknowledged in the literature of democratic consolidation, which, although it considers preference for democracy to any other type of political regime ("diffuse legitimacy") as a prerequisite for democratic consolidation, points to the methodological difficulties of grasping it. This refers to the confusion that may arise between the perceived efficacy of the government and democratic beliefs. However, the issue of the legitimacy of the new democratic regime has to be addressed because of its crucial importance. As Geoffrey Pridham points out, "consolidation is invariably a lengthier stage of requires ultimately the full institutionalization of the new democracy, the internalization of its rules and the dissemination of democratic values" (Pridham, 2000, p. 63).

One has to admit that normative legitimacy is problematic in Western societies as well. Declining or low rates of voter participation are indicative of this. But for Eastern European societies, the lack or thinness of normative legitimacy raises more problematic questions, since the process of democratic consolidation is still under way rather than being already in existence. In a crisis situation this may pose real threats to democratic stability. The episodes of unrest and violence, especially during the miners' riots in Romania in 1999, or in January 1997 in Bulgaria are relevant in this sense.

Democratic Legitimacy, Political Culture, And The Crisis Of Performance In Romania (1996-2000)
As for the present state of affairs in Romania, it may be argued that the existence of procedural legitimacy (preference for a multiparty system and free elections) is not consistent with socio-cultural or normative legitimacy. This means that democracy is not accepted on the basis of its performance, since the level of satisfaction with democracy is low, but because of the lack of available or realistic alternatives. So the electorate, rather than sharing in the attributes of civic culture, is rather characterized by apathy and resignation. There are three interrelated factors that support this claim, which are further discussed: 1) a crisis of democratic institutions, in the sense that political culture functions at a different level than a legal one; 2) a crisis of performance of the successive governments elected in 1990, 1992, and 1996 and; 3) the return of ex-communists to power through the elections of 2000.

The first aspect to be examined is the weakness of democratic institutions whose functioning is not fully embedded in a legal culture, that is, the acceptance on rational-legal grounds of the rule of law established within a democratic constitutional framework. Instead, one deals here with a political culture that tends to operate at a more subjective albeit collective level. This discrepancy between political culture and legal culture lies in the perpetuation of the same attitude towards authority that existed during the communist regime in Romania and even before communism. Political authority in general and office holders in particular do not represent the impersonal expression of binding principles, laws, or regulations, but rather specific individuals who have the power and interest to dispense patronage and privileges.

During Ceausescu's regime in the 1980's, an underground economy developed in Romania as a result of the economy of shortages that was generated by a policy of forced industrialization. Individuals began to rely heavily on a barter system and on cooperation between members of extended families residing both in rural and urban settings. As a result, Romania retained some of the features of an agrarian society, or a status-oriented society, in which "personal and not impersonal relations are the norm in this type of society" (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2001).

After December 1989, there were two groups that had the ability and knowledge to appropriate economic power and political influence in society. One was composed of former state enterprise managers and of former secret services agents -- the Securitate -- who used the process of privatization for their own benefit. The second were former communists who were in power during the first six years (1990-96) of the transition. This former political elite, transformed into a new one, supported the new entrepreneurial class by granting them access to preferential bank loans and by shielding them from the law.

In fact, the powerlessness of state and legal institutions charged with investigating and prosecuting such illegal activities continued to exist after 1996, when the elections were won by the opposition the Democratic Convention of Romania, a coalition of right-wing parties that also included the Social Democratic Union (USD) led by Petre Roman, the former prime-minister between 1990-91. The story of Valerian Stan, chief of the prime minister's control department, who was dismissed because he revealed the abuse of power that some members of the ruling coalition engaged in, is relevant here (Stan, 1997). This incident and many others that followed it, indicate that the political elite did not undergo a fundamental change at either the attitudinal or behavioral level. On the contrary, the same practices that characterized the previous communist elite were retained. This could only impede a deeper attitudinal and behavioral change at the mass level.

Another indicator of the existence of a status-based society that tolerates the corruption of the political class, and one which is not made accountable for its misdeeds, is the weakness of the judicial system. Article 16 of the Romanian Constitution, states that "citizens are equal before the law and public authorities" and Article 123 requires that "judges shall be independent and subject only to the law." However, these constitutional provisions are seldom put in practice and, in many instances, the judiciary's actions are determined by the interference of the executive power, the reaction of public opinion, or the judge's feelings (Macovei, 1998).

But this kind of subversion of the rule of law, the practice of giving, denying, or requiring preferential treatment, is not only to be found at the top levels of political authority or among the new economic elite. It can also be observed at the lower levels of bureaucratic officialdom and among ordinary citizens themselves. A study conducted by the Romanian Academic Society and Freedom House in participation with the World Bank Institute in 2000 reveals that people feel a sense of distrust, deference, and powerlessness towards state authorities. So there appears to be a general acceptance of mistreatment by civil servants and a sense that citizens should use personal means of persuasion to get the service that a citizen is entitled to.

This attitude of ordinary Romanians towards public administration and the judicial system, an attitude of passive acceptance and even willingness to participate in a game of minor and occasionally major proportions, is further amplified by the inability of these institutions to protect citizens from fraud or compensate them. This was the case with numerous banks such as Dacia Felix and the National Investment Fund, the collapse of which stripped thousands of their savings, that was not promptly addressed by the judicial system.

The second element to be analyzed, the crisis of performance, refers to the inability of successive governments to implement social and economic reforms, to successfully negotiate agreements with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, to attract foreign investments, or to pass effective or progressive legislation.

Regarding the work of the first government, which came to power in elections in 1990 and governed until 1992, this has to be seen within the context of the immediate needs of the newly democratic regime. The priorities were focused around the creation of a new constitutional order. Due to a variety of circumstances -- the need for support from its constituency mostly made up of the working class and the rural population, the type of convictions and background of the leaders themselves, and dubious alliances with ultranationalists and xenophobic parties -- the performance of the second government was unsatisfactory. It was unsatisfactory because the halfway reforms, the corruption of the new political elite discussed before, and the climate of social and political violence that characterized these years, led to a decline in the standard of living in the country and, equally significant, to a poor image abroad.

Since the 1996 elections represented a turning point for Romanian democracy, in the sense that the right-wing opposition, which was thought of as being dissociated from the communist past, was capable of achieving power through elections, some analysis of its performance is necessary. From the beginning it has to be acknowledged that this was a heterogeneous coalition made up of political actors with different memories, histories, and political convictions.

If the two historical parties, the National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (PNTCD, the core of the coalition) and the National Liberal Party (PNL), were linked to a precommunist past and some of their members possessed a record of opposing the communist regime, the leaders of the Democratic Party (a social-democratic party that emerged in 1991 as a splinter of the National Salvation Front, FSN) were connected to several controversial actions of former governments and were also linked through family ties with the former communist nomenklatura. In addition, some of the members of the PNTCD held monarchist views that later on were to create tensions within the coalition and between the party and Emil Constantinescu, the new president. Specific interests, particularly the interests of the Hungarian minority, primarily preoccupied the other component of the coalition, the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR). This diverse composition of the Democratic Convention of Romania generated during the period 1996-2000 inter- and intra-party conflicts.

The coalition chose to divide portfolios within the government on the basis of the percentage of votes that each of the parties won in the elections. This procedure could not, however, reconcile the tensions generated by the desire of coalition members to get access to those ministries that offered important political resources and could generate specific policies. For this reason, the procedure of appointing three governments, succeeding each other between 1996-2000 and drawn from the same Democratic Convention, was rather lengthy (Stan, 2002).

But at the procedural level, the major weakness of these three governments was their practice of passing legislation through emergency ordinances. This created the image of an executive that assumed legislative powers. As a result ,the basic principle of the separation of powers was not maintained. In these four years no fewer than 684 emergency decrees were issued, which was more than the number of laws adopted by the parliament (Stan, 2002). The inefficiency and weakness of the legislative process is also the result of constitutional provisions that "often force the government to take matters into its own hands and adopt legislation as emergency government ordinances or to tie it to no-confidence votes. The two houses [of parliament] are often at odds and ratify contradictory versions of the legislation that must be then reconciled ("East European Watch", 2000).

Important pieces of legislation were passed through emergency decrees including liberalization of price controls on agricultural products, amendments to the law on land restitution, and executive control of the State Privatization Fund, which had previously been under the control of parliament. This practice of governing through emergency decrees makes particularly vulnerable those governments that do not enjoy a stable parliamentary majority. This was the case with all three governments.

Moreover, because of the often widely different agendas of the coalition parties' legislation promised during the electoral campaign -- for example the law on restitution and the law regarding the opening of the Securitate files (the former office of secret services under communism) -- legislation was endlessly postponed or adopted in compromised versions. Sharp controversies between PNTCD and UDMR parliamentarians were also generated by amendments to the 1994 education law, which in the end was imposed through a government ordinance.

The constitutional principle of the separation of powers was threatened not only by this practice of passing legislation through emergency ordinances, but also by the undemocratic way in which major institutions were conceived, for example, the Supreme Council of National Defense (Consiliul Suprem de Aparare a Tarii, CSAT). This organization, created one year before the constitution was passed in 1991, gives excessive powers to the president, who is also the president of the council, while the prime minister, as vice president, finds himself in a subordinate position (Marculescu, 1997). The CSAT has the power to make mandatory decisions for all citizens and "for all institutions to whose activity it refers" (Marculescu, 1997, p. 284). Between 1990 and 1996 the CSAT used its discretionary powers and operated without much transparency, and following the change of head of state there were no indications that President Emil Constantinescu had any intention to correct this imbalance, i.e. the council's presidential prevalence over the legislature.

Besides this weak legislative performance, the ruling coalition performed poorly in two other essential areas: economic performance and the pursuit of integration with the West. This further decreased its popularity as these had been among the most important electoral promises of the Democratic Convention of Romania. The failure to pursue economic reforms was partly the result of the heterogeneity of the coalition and partly the outcome of violent means used by labor unions to express their dissatisfaction with the continuous deterioration in living standards.

From the beginning, the new coalition lacked the necessary political will to act as a unified body and support Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea, who embarked on a program of "shock therapy." This lack of support led to Ciorbea's removal after only a year. The next cabinet, led by Radu Vasile, was as fragile as the previous one and unable to handle the miners' riots of January 1999 and the collapse of the National Investment Fund. The new prime minister, Mugur Isarescu, governor of the Romanian National Bank, could not recover the coalition's image and gain International Monetary Fund support within the year.

A brief analysis of President Constantinescu's own performance also shows how it contributed to the decline in popularity of democratic institutions. The Democratic Convention of Romania chose Constantinescu as its presidential candidate because on the one hand, as a former member of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR), he could not be suspected of intending to pursue witch-hunts against PCR members (a category comprising over 4 million members of the electorate fearing revenge), and because, on the other, as the president of the University of Bucharest, he had shown sympathy with the anticommunist demonstrations in 1990. Moreover, his lack of a formal affiliation with any of the political parties that made up the rightist opposition was thought to be an electoral advantage. It was believed that he would redefine the role of the presidency away from the authoritarianism characterized by Ion Iliescu's terms in office (1990-96).

However, these assumptions did not translate into reality. During the four years of his presidency, Constantinescu turned out to be a weak president, incapable of balancing the struggles within the ruling coalition or to increase the stability and strength of the executive branch. He further surrounded himself with advisers who were recruited not on the basis of competence but on personal loyalty and friendship. The appointments of Sorin Moisescu, one of his former advisers, as president of the Supreme Court of Justice, and of Lucian Mihai as chairman of the court ("East European Watch," 1998) illustrate that the character of political authority was guided by personal rivalries, loyalties, and interests and not by impersonal, rational, and legal criteria for appointments. The battle against corruption, which Constantinescu undertook, was not able to target the real networks it was intended for. This failure gave the opposition (Iliescu and his party) the opportunity to claim that the measures undertaken were tantamount to political purges.

What was worse was that his reputation as a clean politician badly deteriorated as a result of the scandal known as "Tigareta 2" (a cigarette racket) when the police seized an illegal shipment of cigarettes, an operation supervised by the commander of the presidential guard who attempted to deposit this contraband in the backyard of the presidential palace. Although he was arrested, public confidence in the government and other political institutions was sharply undermined.

The results of Constantinescu's foreign policy were equally disappointing. In June 1997, Romania was not nominated to be among the first wave of countries to join NATO. The rejection of admission to the European Union in June 1997, as well as the EU's refusal to grant visa-free travel in Europe to Romanians, were perceived as additional blows for Constantinescu's prestige. At the end of his mandate, Constantinescu appeared as a loser and a poor one at that. He refused to run in the next election and blamed everybody else for his failure-- the media, the secret services, and the mafia.

After having summarized the lackluster results of these four years that had been politically dominated by a self-proclaimed anticommunist opposition, results that were equally disappointing within the country and in the eyes of the international community as well, the dramatic decline in the support for democratic institutions in Romania should not come as a surprise. However, it was the first time in the six years of the country's postcommunist experience that alternating governments were elected. If one goes back to the communist and precommunist periods, it was almost 60 years since this had happened. But four years later, the polls showed a dramatic decline in the public's trust in democratic institutions and in the judicial system.

The author is a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, New School University, New York.


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