Eastern European Politics Research Paper

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Eastern European studies has been the stepchild of Slavic Studies, Sovietology, or a number of research centers and projects that endeavored to study ‘actually existing socialism,’ command economies, communist ideology and culture, informal markets, social movements, Marxist–Leninist theories, or other specialized topics in the political economy of the region. Prior to 1989, political scientists were likely to characterize the region as a cluster of satellite states, largely marginal to the political and economic institutions of the West, except as systemic prototypes. The fascinating histories of the region and the debates about the sources and cause of ‘backwardness’ were not widely read. The 1990s have transformed the intellectual terrain as much as the political.

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Since 1989, there has been a veritable avalanche of material—reports, evaluations, diagnoses, prognoses, disputes, re-evaluations, chronicles, and other descriptive accounts. The academic literature has expanded at least as dramatically as the popular literature, and thus far shows few signs of waning. Virtually every major journal in the social sciences has had at least one special issue entirely devoted to the demise of communism; many have had fiveand 10-year retrospectives as well. Professional associations have organized special workshops and conferences; foundations have funded seminars both here and abroad; study groups, dissertations, and research projects have proliferated. In due course, these scholarly convocations have translated, edited, and published a host of material. To this day, annual meetings include thematic panels and plenary sessions on the Transition. The sheer amount of intellectual activity and interest in and on Eastern Europe has been overwhelming. Even ignoring work that is journalistic or blatantly ideological, the research archives are flooded.

Area specialists were, of course, deeply involved in this process. Journals that focused on Eastern Europe, on socialism or communist political systems, or on the comparative analysis of institutions were deluged with requests for symposia, reprints, reviews, and manuscripts. Several new journals were established; a surge of newsletters, bulletins, and e-journals entered the scene, providing a wealth of information on current events. It is fair to say that the bulk of the work produced to date has yet to be absorbed or even thoroughly reviewed by regional specialists.

One intriguing aspect of the collapse of the socialist system was the fact that it was largely nonviolent, even harmonious—typically a ‘bloodless coup’ or a ‘velvet revolution.’ In academic circles, however, the debate has been more contentious. For Eastern European specialists, the fall of communism meant a dramatic change of government and a host of domestic problems and challenges specific to the new governments. A common response among empirical scholars was to add Eastern European and the Balkan countries to the existing pool of countries that had successfully negotiated regime change and democratization. The temptation to apply carefully crafted theories of the transition from authoritarianism to democracy, based on Latin America or Spain, for example, was nearly irresistible. For area specialists, such generalizations were clearly premature. Democratization was a fragile process, and not a foregone conclusion. Scholars with comparative interests in building democratic institutions were typically newcomers to this region; they could not claim the cultural knowledge and experience of these countries as broad and as deep as that enjoyed by resident scholars or area specialists. Moreover, Eastern Europe had produced a considerable number of homegrown activists and intellectuals as well as political commentators. After decades of repression, the crumbling Wall was greeted with a surge of publications and collaborative projects aimed at the West.

For the vast majority of Westerners, the events of 1989 were completely unexpected. The ‘man on the street’ was typically euphoric or incredulous. Political scientists were, however, shocked by the ‘embarrassing failure’ of theory to predict or explain the sudden end to the Cold War. An auxiliary issue became deciding which experts if any might have alluded to the possibility. Efforts to understand and explain the ‘revolution’ have proliferated, with the most successful involving scholars from the region working with scholars from the West. The work is largely multi- disciplinary, rather than interdisciplinary. Few analysts could ignore the implications of combining economic and political reform. Such collaboration seems to have given rise to a whole new field of inquiry, labeled somewhat facetiously ‘Transitology’ or ‘Consolidology.’

As a result, the ‘revolution’ invited a whole new debate on the most appropriate methods for studying political change. This debate centers on, ‘What questions can be fruitfully approached using comparative analysis?’ and ‘How much emphasis should be placed on unique, country-specific aspects of political change?’ These debates have tended to be louder, more vociferous, and far more colorful than is customary in methodological matters.

1. The Big Questions

Given the enormous amount that has been written about socialism, democracy, and economic development, revising social theories was a growth industry. After the seismic events of 1989, virtually all perspectives on and approaches to political theory required rethinking. Did socialism fail, and if so, why? Have markets been successfully introduced? Why have they failed to meet popular expectations? Has ‘market socialism’ proved to be an oxymoron? Is it possible to initiate ‘dual track’ transformations, modernizing economic and political institutions simultaneously? Or, to paraphrase one text: is it possible to rebuild the ship of state at sea? And where could one find an appropriate blueprint for such an endeavor? Needless to say, these questions have ignited more heat than light. They do, however, promise to provide fertile ground for future theorizing.

At least since Schumpeter, analysts have argued that modern democracies emerge from capitalist processes. There are authoritarian countries that have market-oriented economies and authoritarian countries that have nonmarket economies; there are countries governed by popular elections with market economies. However, there are no countries that have both popularly elected leadership and state-controlled economies. Although there were undeniable tensions between democracy and capitalism, the conventional wisdom linked them irretrievably.

Comparative work on the transition to democracy was well established. Beginning with Portugal in 1974, a wave of successive democratic upheavals had swept several European and then Latin American countries. Analysis and theoretical work on these countries had produced a number of exemplary comparative studies. Not surprisingly, these authors were keen to add cases and test and validate their previous conclusions with new data from Eastern Europe; to create, in short, a laboratory for studying the processes involved in nation-building, democratizing, converting economies, creating and legitimating the rule of law, and nourishing civil society.

2. Redrawing The Boundaries

When territorial boundaries change, maps must of course be redrawn; but in Eastern Europe, the very notion of what constitutes an ‘area’ or ‘region’ of the world also needs to be redefined. The collapse of communism created some 15 new nations, and still counting. Although contiguous geographically, the primary quality these countries share is 40 or more years of Soviet domination. Culturally, linguistically, and ethnically, the post-communist states are quite diverse. Moreover they seem to be differentiating rather than converging. Should the area be subdivided, merged, or treated as separate states. Creating new nations is a difficult process: new governments are formed; new constitutions are written; new treaties are made. For specialists on Europe or for political scientists generally, the number of units to be studied—whether defined as states, localities, urban centers, trading partners, electoral districts, monetary unions, or bilateral agreements—has burgeoned. Such entities, and the divisions among them, constitute the most basic elements of political and social inquiry.

The borders between East and West, both de facto and de jure, have obviously changed. But even more fundamentally, our conceptual boundaries have shifted and these are much harder to detect or to map. It is not yet clear whether the partially reborn countries of Eastern Europe and the Balkans will join (or rejoin) Europe or fall back into authoritarianism and fevered nationalism.

In almost every subdiscipline of politics, there have been calls for revising the theoretical agenda. Like other fields, International Relations had neither anticipated nor could explain the transformations underway. Both the European Union and NATO expanded. Ideally, the end of the Cold War should have signified a substantial lessening of security concerns. In practice, however, the focus moved to terrorism and subnational groups. Instead of a bifurcated world, the risk today seems to be a proliferation of nuclear weapons and regional arms’ races.

Macrohistorical approaches were also suspect. Historical materialism and the Grand Experiment had both fizzled. The world system seemed about to topple and it was all but impossible to identify the matrix of power relations in place. Eastern Europe was liberated from the Soviet Empire, decolonized, and eager to join the banquet of Europe—an altogether different place in the world.

3. Policy Issues

At the outset of transition, reforms involved moving toward a market economy and a democratic state. Two competing theories were put forth to assess the speed and effectiveness of economic reform: Gradualism and Shock Therapy. At present, there is still little agreement about which strategy works best. A host of important but less urgent policies were also reviewed. Experts in comparative law, business and management, the role of the media, privatization, nation-building, social safety nets, gender relations, and institutional reform of all sorts descended on these fledgling democracies, to investigate and advise. Specialized studies on poverty and social welfare, migration, pension reform, health care, and unemployment were conducted, some for the first time. Public opinion polling and even focus groups became very frequent occurrences.

Among academics, transitology was flourishing, even if the contours were imprecise. Was transitology a branch of comparative politics or an uncharted new field? Did it apply to all forms of change, or primarily political transitions. Schmitter traced the earliest theoretical propositions in the field to Machiavelli, who argued that introducing any new system implies that all those who profited from the former state of affairs are now enemies, while those who might stand to gain from a change become at best lukewarm allies. The fundamental premise of transition is uncertainty about the outcome; in contrast, democratic consolidation appears to develop in consecutive steps.

What many comparativists did not seem to realize was that the wall separating European Studies from Eastern European studies had disappeared long before the collapse of the Berlin wall. Political theory and comparative politics had crossed the Oder considerably before the arrival of ‘democracy,’ let alone transitology or consolidology. Efforts to locate these aspiring democracies in terms of their institutions, their standard of living, or their expectations for the future were certain to be off the mark.

A number of theoretical treatments of the course of transition seem to have promise. In comparative terms, the ‘paths’ chosen were quite different and not necessarily predictive of success. However, the point of departure tended to be enormously important. Economic and political transitions seemed to be path dependent. They were not universal, however. The legacies of socialism persisted throughout the region; however, they were mediated by unique cultural features specific to each country. Nationalism was widespread in the region; however, its effects and consequences differed enormously. Economically, virtually all of the countries have progressed; politically the future is less clear. Liberal political theory privileges concepts of citizenship that are inclusive if not universal. Yet the politics of transition seems to mean that nationalist figures were more likely to endorse democratic politics, if only for the majority. A free and unfettered market economy meant joining or rejoining the prosperous West, a prospect that European governments either shunned or deferred, a reunified Germany being the obvious exception. In short, a great many theoretical ideas have been redefined.

4. Gender

A fairly sizeable literature has developed on questions of gender and political transitions. With respect to politics, the number of females elected or appointed to public office has declined compared to the numbers during the ancien regime. Unemployment, in contrast, has climbed relative to the rate for males, excepting only Hungary. Historically, women were better educated than men on average; women were concentrated in the professions and the service sector under communism. Since these are the sectors most in demand, it is ironic that women are being displaced. In medicine, for example, one finds that men are quick to hang a shingle, while women physicians remain in depressed clinics in the public sector.

Gender inequality has become a large issue in the West; unraveling the sources and consequences receives a great deal of academic attention. Historically, communism attempted to insure gender equality through equal rights and labor market participation, although the evidence suggests these efforts were short-lived. The corollary proposition of why socialism failed to ‘liberate’ women despite the ideology and the rhetoric is still perennially fascinating. Analyzing trends becomes a method for proving or disproving macro-historic issues such as the reasons for segmented employment and gendered markets.

5. Elites

A related topic concerns the composition of elites, and in particular how to account for the persistent advantages enjoyed by the nomenklatura. Under communism, the top leadership in both the party and state enterprise were carefully screened for ideological consistency and rewarded for loyalty to the regime. A recurring critique was that class stratification under socialism was based on privileges instead of property, but that otherwise little had changed. Whether based on ideology (‘Reds’) or skills and education (‘Experts’), the communist system had certainly not banished inequality.

To date, the research suggests that in Eastern Europe, there have been changes, although perhaps not as dramatic as those that occurred immediately after World War II. In Hungary, the economic elite has changed the most; in the Czech Republic, political power has clearly shifted; and in Poland, the cultural elite is composed of recent recruits. However, in other parts of the Communist bloc, managers became owners with little need for new blood.

6. Social Protest In Eastern Europe

Despite peaceful roundtable agreements that initiated transitions, most of the countries of the region had relatively large opposition movements and dissidents who had been more or less silenced. These groups were often involved in deliberations, pact-making, and electoral victories. The origins and activities of groups such as Charter 77 and Solidarity were of considerable interest, even though neither group had been active recently.

Political activity during the early transition period varied by country in terms of both magnitude and duration. Not surprisingly, a variety of groups and/organizations contested the policies and austerity imposed by the new regime; moreover, citizens were more acquainted with protest activity than with compromise and negotiation. Comparing the patterns in East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia between 1989 and 1993, Ekiert and Kubik (1998) conclude that relative deprivation, whether measured in objective or subjective terms, was unrelated to forms of contention. The extent of protest is best explained by institutional and resource mobilization theories. Moreover, democratic consolidation was not undermined by a high degree of protest activity. In fact, when collective demands are moderate and the strategies orderly, then protest may actually contribute to the development of robust democratic institutions.

An enormous number of research questions have been turned topsy-turvy; many eternal verities have been challenged. Rational choice theorists have been forced to include civil society and social contracts to make sense of political change. Post-communist ballots tend to be long, filled with political parties that come and go; indeed, despite the ‘overthrow’ of communism, socialists and social democrats are still an organized and powerful force. Predicting winning candidates or votes cast has become difficult. With little variation in economic position, at least at the outset of the transition, it is not surprising that citizens neither recognized nor voted as their economic interests dictated. Parties were not more cohesive after successfully overthrowing the communists; in fact, this was usually the point when political fragmentation began in earnest.

7. Conclusion

The political changes in Eastern Europe have clearly opened a wealth of social science theory and data. Thus far, there has been an unprecedented number of productive projects, both theoretical and practical. Area specialists have been indispensable to this work. In the process, they have helped to refine and define the most pressing questions drawn from a venerable literature. To be sure, there are still more questions than answers, but progress is readily apparent.


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