The Transition Debate in Central and Eastern Europe (Part 1)

 

Liberalization in Central and Eastern Europe (C+EE) in the twilight years of the 20th century sparked fierce debates between reformers on proper procedure. Removing the specter of totalitarianism from a continent ravaged by its presence for several decades was a substantial task that is strongly relevant today. The National Socialism of Adolf Hitler’s Germany and the 75-year reign of Soviet-backed International Socialism/Communism left a lasting impression that posed consequent problems for transition in C+EE.

My Introduction to Transition Studies

Reformers with the same vibrant vision of a free-market and democratic C+EE found themselves in debates following the paradox of the chicken and the egg. Should economic privatization precede or follow cultural and institutional change? Which comes first, capitalism or democracy, in lighting the path for society onward out of the dark shadow cast by long decades of totalitarianism? Economic rights? Civil rights? Political rights? These questions were debated wholly within the confines of my parents’ adult life here – a fact mostly brushed over during my American education. Different strategies were tried in different countries, providing measurable feedback on the process of ideological transition.

My writing reflects the overall debate while keeping particular experience of the Czech Republic in mind. The professor leading the course I took in Prague actively participated in the debate. At home, the last transition of this magnitude for the entire nation to be openly deliberated and then carried out (mostly) peacefully may have been the Constitutional Convention, over 200 years before my birth.  In the Czech Republic, however, people in the same room as me had been in those conversations. I hope the snapshots of this still-unfolding narrative I present reflect the gravity of the transition carried out in C+EE since the fall of the Soviet Union.

A Short Background on Transition Context

It is important to note here that while National Socialism rose and fell within a single generation, Communism endured as a dominant, hegemonic global force for 72 years and is still an active ideology even today within some C+EE nations. Communist regimes today still hold billions of people in their totalitarian clutches in places such as China, Cuba, and North Korea.

In the Czech Republic, anyone under 40 years of age at the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 had been born under a Soviet government. Czechs over 55 would have had childhood memories of Nazi occupation. This context is directly relevant for the arguments I will present going forward in this post.

Transition Question 1: Decommunization

Svetozar Pejovich belonged to a camp of reformers arguing the necessity of active decommunization in the mold of post-WWII German denazification. Václav Klaus and Dušan Tříska represented an opposing camp which saw decommunization as an inherently unsolvable problem, and in the Czech Republic their school of thought proved victorious. The roots of this debate run deep, and divisions can still be visibly bitter – think of the face-to-face conversation a northerner and a southerner might have about the civil war in 1890. That debate is not quite finished today, so not much imagination is required to think this issue may rage for another 30 or even 100 years.

While a group of active dissidents demonstrated clear and open contempt for the Communist system, they constitute a clear minority. Separating a figure in mainstream society as an active member of the communist party because they believed in its principles from a figure indifferent or opposed to the principles of communism who joined the party because it provided the sole opportunity for personal advancement in society was not feasible. Consequentially, this complicating factor is a likely function of the long period of consistent rule.

The Answer? To Be Determined

Opposite Germany’s denazification, which occurred under a much sharper time frame, decommunization lost the battle in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, separating true communists from the pack is an impossible task without the use of mind-reading due to the nature of the communist system. Whether the failure to enact wide-scale decommunization is a prudent decision or pitfall is an issue that is yet to be decided, and it will be exciting to see how evidence will unfold in the future.

In my next post in this series, I will delve deeper into the liberalization debate that occurred during the transition process in C+EE and imagine what shape this debate might take in places such as Cuba or North Korea. The lessons of the past must be studied carefully in order to create a more prosperous future. These lessons of transition will prove their worth when it comes time to rebuild those societies after the final blow is dealt to an ideology responsible for over 100 million deaths across the globe.

References

1. Pejovich, S. (2009), The Emergence of Liberal Socialism in Continental Europe. Economic Affairs, 29: 94–97.
2. POLEMIKA SE SVETO ZAREM PEJOVICHEMO TRANSFORMAÈNÍ, TEDY NEKLASICKÉ PRIVATIZA CI Václav Klaus, Praha, Dušan Tøíska, Praha note: this paper is only available in Czech, therefore my knowledge of it is exclusively based on the in-class presentation and discussion within the course of Economics and Politics of Institutional Change as taught by Professor Dušan Tøíska, one of the authors.
3. Kornai, János. “What the Change of System from Socialism to Capitalism Does and Does Not Mean.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 14.1 (2000): 27-42.
4. Klaus, Vaclav. “The Intellectuals and Socialism: As Seen from a Post-Communist Country Situated in Predominantly Post-Democratic Europe | Václav Klaus.” The Intellectuals and Socialism: As Seen from a Post-Communist Country Situated in Predominantly Post-Democratic Europe. Vaclav Klaus, n.d. Web. 01 May 2017.

 

 

 

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