Political experiments in Eastern Europe: Civil society

Essay, 2003

18 Pages, Grade: Honours


Despite the fact that during the recent Hungarian plebiscite regarding the country's accession to the European Union (EU) 83.76 per cent of the votes were in favour of joining the EU, the low election turnout of only 44.13 per cent of all Hungarians entitled to vote was considered "shameful"; an important political and economic decision has been taken with the official approval of only two fifth of the eight million Hungarians with voting rights.1 This and other somewhat disappointing examples raise the question of how committed Eastern Europeans are in terms of forging their own post-communist future.

This paper will attempt to analyse the role civil society has played in the democratisation process of the region since 1989. As effects can generally only be properly assessed with a mid- or even long-term perspective, looking at isolated events, which took place during the last slightly more than thirteen years, does not suffice to come to a reliable conclusion about the strength or weakness of civil society. For this reason, I will focus in my analysis on tendencies and their possible historical explanation; where possible, survey data will be provided which should facilitate a broader understanding of current trends.

Since - due to the individual countries’ very distinct historical characteristics - in many instances it does not seem appropriate to evaluate "Eastern European civil societies" as a whole, I will adopt Attila Ágh’s model differentiating at times between "East Central European (ECE) civil society" (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia) and "the Balkans civil society" (Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia) taking into consideration regional similarities (Ágh, 1998: 5).

The structure of this paper will be as follows: Firstly, I will look at the concepts of civil society in general, post-communist civil society in particular as well as democratisation in Eastern Europe. This will be followed by an examination of two areas, which tend to be closely associated with civil society: the strength of civic associations in terms of density and intensity as well as the relationship between civic associations and political institutions; the second area includes an evaluation of the concept of trust. Lastly, I will offer a general judgement as to whether I think that the civil society of the region can rightly be considered "the great disappointment of post-communist democratisation".

Civil Society, Post-communist Civil Society, and Democratisation

As outlined in the introduction, the first section of this paper will deal with the concepts of civil society, post-communist civil society as well as democratisation in Eastern Europe.

Generally speaking, civil society is neither defined the same way nor given the same importance in the relevant literature. Some authors, such as Derleth, argue that civil society is not discussed much in United States because its existence is simply taken for granted (Derleth, 2000: 4). In contrast, Carothers states that civil society everywhere is a "bewildering array of the good, the bad, and the outright bizarre" (Carothers, 1999-2000: 20). However, a more balanced and informative definition - such as the following - seems more helpful for the purpose of this essay:

By civil society we refer to that arena of the polity where self-organizing groups, movements, and individuals, relatively autonomous from the state, attempt to articulate values, create associations and solidarities, and advance their interests (Linz and Stepan: 1996: 7).

Hence civil society consists of organised citizens operating somewhere between the state on the one hand and the realm of the family on the other. Nevertheless, an important connection with the state exists as civil society is also expected to participate in policy formulation, help with policy implementation and lobby activities (Kopecký et al., 2003: 8). Although civil society groups do not aim to occupy the role of the state, they hold the crucial function of supporting and monitoring it by providing checks and balances against power misuse. This intense cooperation between state and citizens was however by no means possible under communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and even after the demise of communism, the apparently much weaker forms of civil society that have emerged - if at all - have usually been perceived as acting rather in opposition to the state (Bideleux and Jeffries, 1998: 18).

Whereas in the West cooperation and consensual relations between civil society and the state prevail, the East generally carries the stigma of combative and antagonistic relations.

A civil society whose members support not only the negative freedom from oppression but also the positive freedom to participate in public affairs and contribute to the common good is a 'sine qua non' for democratic consolidation. This orientation-cum- practice is very much missing in post-communist ECE societies where civic apathy is widespread (Morawska, 2001: 186).

Yet has the communist regime really created a powerless, resigned society consisting of timid and morally corrupt individuals as described in Václav Havel's essay "The Power of the Powerless"?2 Which lasting effects did regimes such as Husák's - the "President of Forgetting" who proclaimed to forget you were once citizens with rights and duties in exchange for a safe life - have on citizens (Garton Ash, 1990: 56)? Will people who have suffered severe humiliation through oppressive governments ever be able to stand on their own feet again? Living the "institutionalised lie" understandably led to widespread apathy towards the government and political issues in general, but on the other hand informal channels and social networks became absolutely vital for the day-to-day existence of virtually all Eastern Europeans during communism. Did those social networks together with dissident movements form a solid basis for a new civil society? Dissident movements such as Solidarity, Charter 77 or the Budapest School of Humanist Marxism spread an anti-political ethic in favour of democratic values trying to mobilise people. Garton Ash argues that the revolutionary experience of 1968 (Czechoslovakia) and of 1980-81 (Poland) showed how suddenly a society that seems atomised, apathetic, and broken could be transformed into an articulate, united civil society (Garton Ash, 1990: 63). In my opinion, this statement is exaggerated. Firstly, revolutions or social movements - though they are a clear sign of Corazon Aquino's understanding of "people power" - should not be confused with a stable and constructive civil society and, secondly, - with the exception of Poland where the resurgence of civic participation has involved a broad base of farmers - only a negligible elite tended to be involved in such activities. In Hungary, for example, ecological movements - like the Gabcikovo-Nagymkaron dam project - started to carve out a limited public space, but, as the vast majority of civic activities, they were largely confined to Budapest involving only a relatively small group of citizens. The rest of Eastern Europe looked even bleaker, and the Balkans are still considered to lag far behind East Central Europe both in terms of democratisation and the creation of civil society. Clive Tempest even argued in 1997 that civil society never existed in Central and Eastern Europe, only ties between families and with the church (Berglund et al., 2001: 150). This snapshot of the post-communist problematic exemplifies the idiosyncratic situation in which Eastern European societies have found themselves since 1989. In later sections of this essay I will provide a more detailed evaluation of the extent to which the communist legacy is still noticeable nowadays covering areas such as democratic culture, participation in civic associations as well as the public opinion of post-communist governments and parties.

However, let us first look at the remaining concept of democratisation, which will be complemented by some information on democratic culture.

The process towards democracy entails much more than the minimalist approach of decision- makers being selected in free and fair elections by universal suffrage. As Ágh argues, it is "both a structure of institutions and minds" (Ágh, 1998: 9). This paper focuses on the "minds" of society, which are influenced not only by the way institutions work but also by previous democratic and non-democratic experiences as well as by the current political and economic situation. In terms of democratic experiences, East Central Europe - and particularly the Czech Republic - has a clear advantage, whereas some Balkans' state do neither avail of positive democratic experiences to draw upon nor does the current political, economic and even ethnic situation help to build it; those negative preconditions will most certainly slow the Balkans' democratisation process down substantially.

One of the most striking features of democratisation in Eastern Europe overall has been the relatively low level of political participation and overall reluctance of the newly empowered citizens to join parties. It almost seems as if for Eastern Europeans democracy entails the right not to participate as a reaction to the obligatory mobilisation under communism.

Organisational membership is much lower in Eastern Europe than in other democracies. This statement is underpinned by the World Values Survey 1997, which lists the following rating of the average number of organisational memberships per person (Morjé, 2000: 2):


1 SPIEGEL online: Ungarn stimmt für den Beitritt, http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/0,1518,244631,00.html (accessed on 14 April 2003)

2 Vaclav Havel – President of the Czech Republic, http://fmv.vse.cz/cz/cz/havel.html (accessed on 19 April 2003)

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Political experiments in Eastern Europe: Civil society
Dublin City University
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Political, Eastern, Europe, Civil
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Iris Schoenauer-Alvaro (Author), 2003, Political experiments in Eastern Europe: Civil society, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/112834


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