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East European Perspectives: May 30, 2001

30 May 2001, Volume 3, Number 10

By Rudolf Martin Rizman

Explaining And Measuring The Transition

The next typology, one that considerably enhances our aim to identify the distinct pattern, or "zone of transition," of our particular case of democratization (Slovenia) was produced by Bunce (2000, 786-788). The proposed analytical tool focuses on one question: how to account for the patterned diversity of post-communist democratic transitions? Much in this regard depended and depends, respectively, on the balance of power between the liberal opposition and the communists. In the first "zone of transition" are countries where the liberal opposition, either alone or in a coalition with reform communists, won the first competitive elections and had widespread popular support behind it. This enabled it to offer and carry out its own agenda and priorities in transforming the previous political regime. The results are political stability and, eventually, more or less sustained growth. As examples of such political dynamics, Bunce mentions Poland, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic.

In the second "zone of transition" are countries where the communists were strong and the liberal opposition weak, a situation that produced a clear-cut victory in the first competitive elections held to the almost unchanged former political elites. The negative consequences are visible in the continuity of former authoritarian politics, which in the short term produces some relative political stability, and a reasonable economic performance (of course, in comparison with much lower regional standards) based on "socialist" regulation of economic "laws."

The last and most common transition pattern in the region applies to those countries where neither the liberal opposition nor the former political elite (communists) were in a position to secure victory for themselves. This "softer" version manifests itself in separating economic reform from democratization (and in giving priority to the former), as was the case with Croatia and Slovakia before the most recent elections. A "harder" version of this type is seen, for example, in Russia and Bulgaria -- where one can witness the dilution of the two substantial transition processes, i.e., of economic reform and democratization.

All three suggested typology-producing attempts place Slovenia's transition pattern into the first, most advanced group, consisting of (depending on the criteria used) from five to nine countries. There is no scarcity of similar attempts (for example Ramet, 1999), which, although working under different methodological premises or expanding the list of social parameters under observation, offer more or less the same results. They may, in this regard, slightly differ; instead of focusing on "typologies," they focus rather on attempts to "measure" the progress -- or regression -- on the trajectory from democratic transition to its consolidation.

Two valuable contributions must be mentioned among the latter. The first, the Freedom House survey of civil liberties and political rights (Fish, 1999, pp. 795-796). The criteria by which Freedom House measures its "Freedom Rating" go beyond mere electoral rights to include meaningful elections, associational rights, communicative and speech rights. We should add that the applied criteria in this particular case are pretty close, if not identical, to those suggested by Robert Dahl's (1971) famous and demanding definition of "polyarchy." The highest score by which they are considered "Free" countries (the other two possibilities are "Partly Free" and "Not Free") was apportioned to the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovenia. The second relevant contribution is that of Kaldor and Vejvoda (1997), who studied 10 cases (those of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia) from Eastern and Central Europe and drawing a distinction between formal ("Schumpeter") and substantive ("Dahl") democracy, produced a detailed description for each particular country's achievements in democratization. The authors did not rank the 10 countries in this regard, although, by investing some additional effort, it is not difficult to see that some fare better than others, which more or less confirms the conclusions in the surveys earlier discussed. The conclusion of this exhaustive and highly qualified study is, however, overtly "optimistic" in the sense that the Central and Eastern European countries did not only definitively break with their communist past, but are, in substantive terms, already committed to the process of democratization. Although the authors agree with the view that the process is not linear, they nevertheless argue the tendency to measure progress or to specify overall benchmarks of success, which can often be, in their view, a misleading endeavor.

Zones Of Certainty And Uncertainty

How does one justify the explanation that the Visegrad countries and Slovenia took the lead in the democratization process? In the following, we will offer four brief answers which, hopefully, do not merely help explain the historical "why" for its having happened, but at the same time also comprise relevant parameters that (will) influence the "longue duree" of these countries' further economic and political progress. The four (of course one could easily find and add several more) relevant parameters constitute some guarantee that the trend towards consolidation of democracy and economic order will more or less continue, something that I would take a risk of terming the "zones of certainty" against the "zones of uncertainty" that will be subsequently dealt with. For practical reasons, whenever possible they should preferably be ordered according to their historical "genesis," although the purpose of the exercise is primarily sociological.

The Hapsburg Factor

The political culture of the Central European successor states of the Hapsburg Empire has been tremendously influenced by the latter's tradition of a "Rechtstaat," that is, a state obeying the rule of law (Rupnik, 1999). The countries which in the past belonged to the sphere of either autocratic Czarist Russia or the Ottoman Empire were not familiar with this legal tradition, and even today have severe difficulties in implementing the "Rechtstaat" in both legal conceptualization and practice as well as in public administration. In the former Yugoslavia, the line dividing the parts of the country that were either the successor of the Austrian empire (Croatia, Slovenia, and partially Bosnia-Herzegovina and Vojvodina) or of the Ottoman Empire was quite transparent in everyday practice in political and public administration, not to mention political culture. During the time of the Yugoslav crisis, when Western politicians conferred with the representatives of different Yugoslav republics, it took them quite some time before they could grasp, if at all, this legal and, in general, discursive schizophrenia. The rule of law is often emphasized as one of the crucial requirements -- a sine qua non -- in achieving the consolidation of democracy in formerly undemocratic countries. One should consequently be hardly surprised if the "vanguard" in this regard centers around the countries historically related to the inherited Austrian legacy of "Rechtstaat."

The Transition Zone

A number of scholars have paid much attention to the correlation between levels of democracy and levels of economic development. Lipset's findings demonstrate that the more democratic countries have consistently higher mean levels of socioeconomic development than those that are more authoritarian. Thus Lipset argued that "the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chance that it will sustain democracy" (1960, pp. 11-12). Huntington (1991, pp. 59-69) followed his lead and established that most of the 40 or so transitions to democracy after 1974 belonged to the "transition zone" of intermediate levels of economic development. Thus, Taiwan, South Korea, Spain, Portugal, Chile, and Argentina made their transitions within the range of a $5,000-$7,000 per capita income. Diamond (1999, p. 263) argued that $7,000 is equivalent to the threshold which Adam Przeworski, together with his colleagues, based on the research of the 40 years (1950-1990) of regime changes, established that "democracies are impregnable and can be expected to live forever." Even if one does not take Przeworski's formula as "gold," he nevertheless provided strong arguments and guarantees regarding, for example, Slovenia's further strengthening of democratic consolidation, since its per capita income (between $9,000 and $11,000 according to various estimates) goes beyond those threshold figures (Przeworski et al, 1996, p. 41).

The Relevance Of The Mode Of Transition

Under "mode of transition," I include both aspects involved: the potential effect of the preceding type of authoritarian regime and the effect of the final "mode" of transition to democratic rule on the type of democracy that unfolds afterwards. Slovenia is unique among former communist countries in that the Slovene Communist Party had already initiated the first processes of pluralization in the mid-1980s. As Ramet (1993, p. 869) has argued, this had nothing to do with the broader developments in Eastern Europe. In the late 1990s, the process, now under a double-strong external impact (unintentionally from Serbia and Belgrade center on one hand, and as an outcome of the general crisis and eventual breakup of international communism, on the other hand) led to the change in the regime undertaken by the local communists and the local dissidents jointly and cooperatively. The change of power thus occurred in Slovenia, to use Huntington's term, by "transplacement," which, with the benefit of hindsight, can be said to have been the factor most conducive to a smooth and sustainable progress toward democratic consolidation. Other countries in the region experienced quite diverse modes of regime change and succeeding democratic transition (consolidation). Whereas the revolutionary transformation in Czechoslovakia was imposed from below, in Hungary decisive steps were taken by the reform communist elite and the state, respectively. Poland is, however, a model case of a "negotiated transition," while Romania experienced a violent and what is (still) most commonly understood as a synonym for "real" revolution in its transition to post-communism. Neighboring Croatia and Slovakia changed their previous regimes through elite imposition, in both cases with a strong nationalist movement behind them.

Link With The European Union

Many studies of the new democracies either underestimate or ignore the international context of transitions. The Eastern and Central European countries had never before in their history faced more favorable and, regarding their democratic consolidation, a more conducive combination of international factors. These factors promote, on one hand, peace and stability, and, on the other hand, provide supranational incentives that encourage the development of democratic institutions in less developed countries. Rupnik (1999) mentions in this regard the following "proof": a weak Russia, a powerful but democratic Germany, which is at the same time integrated into EU and NATO, and the fact that, with the exception of the Balkans, there were no major regional conflicts at transition time. Until recently, these nations had always been the vassals of great powers and had to follow in the latter's paths in their domestic and foreign policy. Furthermore, -- at least from the Slovene perspective and experience -- international factors may play an even more positive role (a sort of "hot bed" effect) on democratic consolidation than on the democratic transition itself. As Huntington (1991, p. 104) emphasized, Eastern Europe presents the most dramatic version of the "snowballing" or "demonstration effect" in transitions. Of course, constraints on democratic consolidation may also come from the outside, but, realistically speaking, the facilitating factors and positive opportunities no doubt prevailed. All the Visegrad countries --including Slovakia after Vladimir Meciar's political departure, and Slovenia -- are in an advanced phase of what have until now been successful negotiations for joining the EU. Full membership, likely to come about in three to four years, will decisively determine the course and positive outcome of their democratic consolidation. This should not be read as intending to overlook the gap in social mentalities and behavior between West and East, perpetuated over more than 40 years of communist rule, which will not be easily overcome. But that is altogether another story, one which will be less heroic and rather "technical."

Besides the "zones of certainty," there are also what I would term "zones of uncertainty." The latter threaten to reverse the trajectory to democratic consolidation, although, I would argue that, in a strange and paradoxical manner, these "zones of uncertainty" often mobilize partisans of democratic change, helping to secure and improve the development of genuine democratic institutions and democratic "habits of the heart." In discussing the "dark side of the Moon" of post-communist democratization, many scholars demonstrate impatience and dissatisfaction with the democratic developments in new democracies and thus underestimate the importance of time. Robert Dahl (1991, pp. 14-15) was therefore correct when he drew attention to the fact that the democratic unfolding in mature democratic countries took several generations, a century, and, in several cases, even longer. The following brief sketch of "zones of uncertainty" should therefore be considered an agenda that will hopefully be transcended in the succeeding march of democratic development in Slovenia. It should, however, be added that my underlining assumption is that the international order in Europe and in the world will not significantly revert to the point where Europe was before World War II, or that a possible serious future economic crisis will not signal an opportunity for a new generation of "Fuehrers" and "Duces" on this continent. The ordering of the "zones of uncertainty" does not necessarily follow any particular logic.

The state under post-communism still suffers from almost 40 years of being a caricature of itself -- the "party state." In Slovenia's case, one can also speak, at least in part, of a "foreign state," since what was left of the state under communism were parts that never functioned autonomously and with full responsibility in the spheres of foreign policy, the army, policing, and financing. The collapse of communism meant, at the same time, if not a physical, then a moral and a psychological devaluation of even this minimalized state. The newly created state was immediately charged with enormous tasks, which it often was not capable and qualified to carry out. In a recent TV interview, Czech President Vaclav Havel complained that in his country political parties consider the state to be their handmaiden. This comment is equally valid for Slovenia. Party functionaries often use (abuse) the state by passing laws aimed at using state resources to create for themselves an electoral base to represent. Not only political parties, but also other groups have learned to "blackmail" the state to either preserve or acquire anew their particular unlawful and privileged position, respectively. One can only agree with Bunce (1999, p. 791) that nothing is well served by a weak state: neither democracy, nor economic reform, nor political stability, nor economic growth, etc.

The Undeveloped Civil Society

As has been already noted, after the collapse of communist power many civil society groups active in the 1980s were absorbed into the new political elite and government functions. There is often an implicit mistaken assumption that the institutions of political pluralism, once set in place, render civil society superfluous. The vacuum thus created has not yet been filled. What is missing is the new generation of civil society, one that acts under the completely new social conditions (democracy), in contrast to the previous generations, forged under the party state. Some authors warn that there are more problems with the presence, rather than with the absence of civil society, by which they mean that due to its underdevelopment and its being burdened with a traditional authoritarian mentality, post-communist civil society expresses undemocratic demands, a kind of "totalitarianism from below" (Mastnak, 1992, p. 183). In quantitative terms there is no lack of various NGOs and civil society groups that cover the areas of education, culture, leisure, community development, welfare, and, particularly recently, humanitarian activities. The deficit is rather related to the lack of those associations which would stimulate and promote democratic citizenship, inculcate into citizens the deeper values of a democratic culture (for example tolerance, moderation, the art of compromise, respect for opposing viewpoints, etc.). In addition, genuine civil societies cannot develop in the absence of both a middle class and a developed market economy.

The Inconsistent Political Culture

A number of Slovene researchers (see Bernik, Malnar, and Tos, 1997, pp. 70-72) have pointed to the inconsistencies in Slovene political culture. This is demonstrated by the fact that Slovene respondents ascribe to the political system broad prerogatives in regulating the economy, especially in the areas of unemployment and high income disparities. Their preference is for "political capitalism," i.e., capitalism which is continually supervised and curtailed by political interventionism. The new democratic system is thus burdened by expectations that go beyond its available capacities. Thus, a new democracy depends on more or less permanent mass support, which can be easily withheld in situations when the democratic system fails to satisfy mass expectations in the economic sphere.

Another negative syndrome in Slovene political culture relates to the high persistence of ethnocentric and xenophobic attitudes. It is obvious that such undemocratic attitudes potentially support authoritarian solutions, particularly when democratic solutions fail to deliver expected results. The conditional acceptance of democracy can thus lead to doubts about whether people, when troubled, would be willing to accept the democratic "rules of the game," or have a "reserve" option to place their trust in a leader who promises to bring about quick solutions.

The Unfinished Privatization

The uncertainties concerning privatization had already started at the outset of the new democratic government. The first drafts of privatization laws were prepared during 1990 (see Mencinger, 1994, and Phillips and Ferfila, 1996). On the table were two major diverging concepts for its realization. One proposal, by Joze Mencinger, deputy prime minister for the economy, envisaged a gradual, decentralized, and commercial privatization, i.e., the sale of socially owned capital to the employees and in particular to managers. The opposing proposal was devised by Jeffrey Sachs and Christian Democratic Prime Minister Lojze Peterle, and urged a mass, centralized, and distributive privatization. The conflict that afterwards emerged became more of a political controversy than an economic issue as such. The political implications stemmed from the fact that while decentralized privatization aimed at leaving control over the economy in the hands of managers -- and consequently in the hands of the old political elite -- centralized privatization implied the transfer of control to the government, and indirectly to the new political elite.

The controversy between the two divergent proposals led to a stalemate that lasted for quite some time. It was also largely responsible for the emergence of spontaneous privatization, which in most cases escaped state control and often ended in "wild" privatization. In this latter case, the old "nomenklatura" seized larger portions of property by illegal and morally controversial privatization procedures. Late in 1992, in order to escape the stalemate, a privatization bill was adopted, which regulated that privatization be attained by restitution to former owners, by debt-equity swaps, by transfer of shares to the Restitution Fund, the Pension Fund, and the Development Fund, by distribution of shares to employees, by manager and worker buyouts, and by raising additional equity capital. The resulting ownership structure is still fluid and uncertain, and the efficiency gains of the first round of privatization are rather minor or even nil. A number of economic and sociological analysts believe that the present ownership structures are of a merely transitional character, and that a general concentration of capital in the hands of managers and external capital will follow sooner or later (Adam, 1996, p. 221).

In conclusion, there is not much doubt that Slovenia, together with the other Eastern and Central European countries (Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic), has reached the stage of early consolidation. An imminent reversal to some sort of authoritarianism or economic collapse is hardly to be anticipated. Despite the above-described "zones of uncertainty," these countries have demonstrated continual progress which will eventually improve their existing and still deficient democratic institutions and historically inherited political cleavages. This is strong grounds for optimism as far as Slovenia's trajectory to ultimate democratic fulfillment is concerned. But -- to end on a humorous note -- this is probably to ignore the good advice of Seneca: assume that everything will go wrong, so that when it does, one is not upset.

Rudolf Martin Rizman is professor of Sociology and Political Science in the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts, Ljubljana University, Ljubljana, Slovenia.


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