A U. S. Army officer with considerable experience in both military and humanitarian assignments abroad, the author brings to bear the results of his current research on an area of the world significant in the ongoing shift away from communism toward what, exactly? Note that he explicitly states he does not speak in an official capacity in this research paper. Ed.
The transition to democracy in East Central Europe has brought discussion of the concept of civil society in a state-centric model, resulting in predictions that the process will not see civil society as important for another generation. This analysis fails, however, to recognized the influence of the European Union and non-governmental organizations.
The fall of communism in Eastern Europe has provided countries in that region opportunities that very fewif anywould have predicted a little over ten years ago. The road of democratic transition and consolidation has not been an easy one, but there remains little doubt that the countries of East Central Europe have established a strong bridgehead for democratic governance. This is nothing short of phenomenal, given the totalitarian history of this region over the past sixty years and the idea that these countries are indeed making triple transitions of government, economy, and society.
The entire process has given rise to a plethora of literature and theory on the various transitions. One issue that persistently arises in most discussions of the region is the emergence of a civil society or lack thereof. Civil society as a study is as open to interpretation from region to region as trying to define the color blue. The meaning, importance, and effect it has upon a government are quite specific from one region of the world to the next. So how do we define civil society for East Central Europe and more importantly, what effects have democratization had on the development of civil society within this region?
Up to this point, the literature devoted to civil society in East Central Europe has fallen squarely into two dichotomous camps. On the one side are those that define civil society in terms of the historically based dissident movements of the communist era. These movements called for an awakening of an independent society, movements that were in part responsible for the end-game with the totalitarian regimes within their countries. This camp takes a strong path-dependency approach to civil society under these regimes. That is, the toppling of the communist government also served as the end of organized civil society since the ultimate raison d'etre of these groups had been achieved. This gave way to what is referred to as the atomization of these societies. The ultimate prediction for civil society in this region: It will take several generations for the societies to come together in a democratically supporting form.
The other camp begins its analysis of civil society after the Wende. According to this group, civil society cannot be defined in terms of dissident movements because they are regime counter-productive, whereas civil society under a democratic regime is seen as a reinforcing (some might argue minimally), stabilizing factor. Because this was not the case for dissident movements under the totalitarian regimes, civil society had its first real chance to begin development in 1989. History does factor into this argument, but in several very different perspectives. Due to the residual baggage and memories of the communist era that citizens carried with them, this camp asserts that there is an inherent aversion to supporting any type of grouping outside of church and an informal network of friends. Accordingly, the ultimate prediction for civil society in this region: It will take several generations for the societies to come together in a democratically supporting form.
So is there a right answer? Are there external influences within the debate that should be addressed? Is there perhaps a middle ground and seed from which civil society might grow in less than forty years? I argue that indeed democracy has affected the growth of civil society, more through external structures and that there will continue to be growth of civil society if for no other reason than to satisfy accession requirements into the European Union. Although both arguments have strong merits, the treatment of the issue and its influences are viewed statically, monolithically, and with little regard to external influences.
In this paper I examine the effects that democracy has had on civil society within East Central Europe in the following manner: First, I briefly outline what civil society is and what factors within democracy play the largest role on its impact in a regional context. Second, I discuss the arguments from both camps on what civil society is and how they view the impact democracy has played upon it. Then, I move on to critique the arguments and offer a "third way" of looking at the issue focusing on the impact external factors such as the European Union and non-governmental organizations have already, are, and will have on its development within these countries.
Defining Civil Society for East Central Europe
Defining civil society is open to interpretation and not unlike Chief Justice Thurgood Marshalls critique of pornography, "I know it when I see it," is equally as amorphous a concept. I define civil society as the space between family and state in which citizens come together for the purpose of initiating independent action to uphold civil liberties, a bill of rights, freedom, and justice; it serves as an informal system of checks and balances on the regime.2 Civil society for this paper is understood within the European context. In this sense, it is seen as a democratic derivative that serves as an enhancement to the values of democracy and supportive of the principles therein. As such, civil society can be viewed as a sphere of social interaction existing independently from the state that serves as an arena where political socialization takes place.3 There is an intrinsic importance in East Central Europe for a vibrant civil society, as well. In a region known for its right-leaning tendencies, nationalism has served to spark conflict more than once within the past century. The intrinsic value of civil society to East Central Europe lies in the fact that it serves as a cross cutting cleavage that brings members of various economic, religious, and ethnic groups together diffusing some of the tensions that might otherwise be created.
The impact of democracy on civil society within East Central Europe should be circumscribed in both an internal (domestic) and external (international) context. The most important domestic factors lending credence to this concept are:
Internationally, I discuss below the two most crucial factors impacting civil society within the region. These are: Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the European Union.
Dichotomous Views of Civil Society
A. Civil Society as Dissident Movements
Communismand the rise of a civil societyin this region can be viewed as passing through three distinct stages: "politics first" that ensued at the end of the war and subsided in 1956, then "economics first" that consumed the greater part of the 1960s, and finally "society first" that covered the latter part of the 1960s decade through the fall of the totalitarian regimes in late 1989.4
Directly following the end of World War II, many common people and intellectuals alike were truly converted to the ideals of communism. In looking at the recent events that had consumed the entire continent for the past decade, communism and the Soviets were seen as liberators in East Central Europe. The extensive industrial growth program of centralized government planning quickly rebuilt much of the region, providing crucially needed housing andthrough the development of heavy industryjobs to the populations of this region. This was the time of a "politics first" strategy in which the citizenry and politicians of the region believed they had some control over their problems. It was assumed that political, economic, and social discourse could be brought into a political forum and changes would ensue. This idea was crushed under the treads of Red Army tanks in 1956 Hungary. Any thought from this point forward that reform and institutional change would be implemented through political dialogue with Moscow was forever lost.
It would be an understatement to say that governments and their citizenry within the region had realized by this point that there was a serious gap between communist ideals and communist realities. To deal with these issues, it was understood that direct political confrontation was senseless. This gave rise to the idea of reform through an "economics first" strategy. A strategy that focused on the economy seemed a likely means to increase output and raise the declining standards of living. Economics, it was believed, was not politically charged and did not threaten the totalitarian regimes within these countries. The idea of a "market socialism" served as leit motif throughout the 1960s, but with little impact.
It was at decades end that the strategy of "society first" began to gain credence throughout East Central Europe. The events of the Prague Spring and Charter 77 led by Vaclav Havels idea of "living in truth" and "as if," the rise of the flying universities within Hungary (dissident professors who held lectures and debates in flats across Budapest in direct opposition to government decree), or the growing strength of student and union movements in Polandall gave rise to what would become known as a rise of civil society. The entire philosophy behind this was that with the re-emergence of an "independent society" silently growing just below the surface of open revolt the party-state would have diminishing control over the populace.5 According to Aleksander Smolar:
Although it left much to be desired as a description of reality, the totalitarian paradigm played an important role in mobilizing and integrating independent circles of dissidents. The stark opposition of truth versus falsity, spontaneity versus command, voluntarism versus compulsion, and liberty versus bondage served to set apart the world of nascent opposition that called itself "civil society" from the official world of the party-state and all its works.6
Charged with this strategy, dissident groups found new motivation to carry out "anti-political" acts that fell just within the levels of what was allowed within each specific country. Each of the dissident groups was active in educating members and citizens at large while building islands of independent thought. The ideology of "civil society" not only caught on behind the Iron Curtain, but also caught the fancy of such western authors as Hannah Arendt, Carl J. Friedrich, and Zbigniew Brzezinski.7
The idea flourished in all three countries but was most noticeable to the West in activities of the Polish trade union cum dissident movement. Hailed for its opposition to the oppressive communist regime, the Solidarity movement came to epitomize what the West viewed as evidence of a growing civil society. However, this all changed once the totalitarian regime fell. Smolar points out "a civil society whose essence was radical opposition to the communist state could not survive the disappearance of that state. Civil society, it turned out, had been a historical costume; its usefulness disappeared with the times that dictated its wearing."8
After the collapse of the totalitarian regimes across the region, what was once seen as civil society and hoped to have been the seeds that would grow into a flourishing Western-style democracy found it more difficult than imagined to make a transition from the outside to inside. At this point, with the constraints of the ancien regime removed what was thought to begin the crystallization of society became just the opposite. There are many competing explanations for what was eventually termed the "atomization" of civil society. Claus Offe has attributed the fractionalization to the triple transition required to move the state from totalitarianism: political, economic, and social. To understand this fully, one must keep in mind that the nature of totalitarianism is control of all aspects of society down to the lowest level. Once this vacuum was created, these societies immediately began the process of role negotiation under democracy. The once hopeful seeds of civil society in the form of dissident movements were quickly viewed as incompetent leaders of democratic and capitalistic reform. What has become known as homo sovieticus the mistrustful citizen towards their governmentremained as a harmful residual and debilitating factor for a transforming democratic civil society. From an initial hope that dissident movements would spark this new civil society in support of democracy, the quip around the capitols of Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest soon became "You can make fish soup out of an aquarium, but can you make an aquarium of fish soup?"
B. Civil Society as Democratic Derivative
In the Journal of Democracy, Mac Morje Howard outlines most succinctly the points in support of this argument. Howard points out that most observers in the region expected a vibrant civil society to develop once the restraints of communism were shed. Those social forces suppressed during the past fifty years would now be free to operate and organize as it chose. What we see, though, is a much different story. Civil society within the region has remained relatively flat and in its infancy for three reasons, according to Howard. These commonalities are the legacy of mistrust toward communist organizations: the persistence of informal friendship networks and the postcommunist disappointment.9
Howard makes the distinction between autonomous pluralism in an authoritarian regime versus communism:
Unlike authoritarian regimes, which tolerated nonstate activities as long as they did not threaten the state or the military, communist regimes not only attempted to eliminate any form of independent group activity but also supplanted it with an intricately organized system of state-controlled organizations, in which participation was often mandatory.10
This legacy of mistrust makes citizens balk at the idea of joining any grouping as it brings too many haunting memories of mandatory participation during the communist era. This deep lasting impact of organizational membership in a former time, according to Howard, will endure within the population until that segment is reached that does not have the same negative connotations.
The second reason that civil society has remained flat in East Central Europe is the persistence of informal friendship networks. Howard notes that during the days of communism, a vibrant private network developed allowing people to express their true feelings and frustrations outside the public sphere with a small, trusted circle of friends. This network had more tangible benefits as well. In a society that lacked most everything short of tanks, planes, and iron girders, connections determined one's survivability. In a shortage economy, the informal network of friendship played a crucial role in acquiring everything from chocolates to spare parts and other hard to find supplies. The necessity for such networks did not dissipate throughout the 1990s. With governments implementing economic "shock therapy" and consumer goods being equally as difficult to come by in stores as in the former era, the informal network once again asserted its importance.
The final reason Howard points out follows very closely from this last statement. The years 1989-1991 represented an enchanted time for most of the citizens of the former Soviet bloc. Their world was changing dailysometimes even hourlyand the illusion of wealth and economic security still made the concept of democracy and capitalism a noble ideal. But, as with any honeymoon, it must come to an end sometime. The years following made the reality seem more bitter than sweet and the partial disillusionment of what had been dreamed for so many years now began to evoke public criticism and questioning. What was available for the first time, though, was the ability to discuss the disappointment publicly, with freedom of the press and free speech. Many citizens felt slighted, even cheated by the new system, and found it difficult to break with the idea of a paternalistic state. This frustration "has only increased the demobilization and withdrawal from public activities in the years since the collapse of communism."11
In the final analysis, Howard gives modest suggestions for improving the quality of civil society within the region. but is openly skeptical about success within the foreseeable future. The prospects for change that he presents are generational in nature and a re-energizing of sorts to get citizens more active in civic organizations. But he defends both of his suggestions vigorously, believing in their feasibility in producing change.
A Critique of Both Camps
Additionally, should this approach not consider the reasonable complications involved with transition from a totalitarian regime to an experiment in democracy as a type of government that this regionwith the exception of interior Czechoslovakiahad never before existed? Rome was not built in a day, nor should civil society be expected to transition overnight from a well-defined dissident movement to a regime supporting civic forum. How could this be reasonable when all of the actors involved in every arena are in the process of re-identifying and negotiating their roles within the new environment?
Conversely, if one should take the opinion that civil society actually began with the fall of communism, should there not be an evaluation of the various political and social histories during the communist era and the impact on each states transition to democracy? Although Howards argument is well constructed and indeed outlines obstacles for developing civic skills that feed into a functional civil society, there are several crucial points that are overlooked. Additionally, I do not agree that each of the countries in this region are relatively equal in their development in the civic arena, nor that they should be viewed monolithically with one "silver bullet" prescription for all.
To better understand these overlooked points, we should recall the internal and external democratic factors impacting on civil society. First, a breakdown of attitudes for each country is in order to gain more clarity on the viability of an independent, regime-reinforcing society. In an article titled "Old Political Rationalities and New Democracies: Compromise and Confrontation in Hungary and Poland," Anna Seleny points out that many analysts have fallen prey to the idea that past communist histories count for little in current political discourse. She refutes this idea by looking at two of the three countries of East Central Europe and discussing how history very much is involved with ideas such as political accommodation and informal political settlements. She asserts there have been two distinctive types of democratic regimes that have evolveda confrontational-pluralist model epitomized by Poland and a compromise-corporatist model epitomized by Hungary.12 In Polands case, there is a "higher level of political mobilization, contentious party competition around several overlapping, deep ethical-ideological cleavages," whereas with Hungary its system is characterized by "low levels of political mobilization, relatively high levels of elite consensus, and a moralistic political discourse."13 In Poland there is a greater distrust of government by the people, whereas in Hungary the government has made concessions to encourage public participation in the political arena. It may at first seem counter-intuitive that a state with high political mobilization would have more difficulty developing a viable public forum of interaction until one couples that idea with the high level of suspicion its citizens have for its actions. The hallmark thus far of Polish democracy has been a carbon copy of the former eraworkers' strikes. Without a proclivity for diversifying civic action, these protests do little more than entrench society in old habits. Within Hungary, however, the government has been remarkably free of such actions and as I will discuss later, has promoted civic action through various tax laws and legal actions.
The case of the Czech Republic stands in stark contrast to both Poland and Hungary. With respect to attitudes of the public towards its government and vice versa, both sides have shown intransigence. As one of the most repressive communist regimes of the era, Czechoslovakia was renowned for control of every facet of its population's lives. This memory indeed lives on in todays Czech society. But conversely, the attitudes of those in power today are also sparked by a memory of societys influence as a destabilizing factor.
One of the most outspoken critics of developing civil society within the Czech Republic is the prime minister, Vaclav Klaus. In analyzing this issue, Milada Anna Vachudova has pointed out that:
Prime Minister Klaus has come forward on numerous occasions in direct opposition to the idea of strengthening a role for civil society. In an interview given in 1996, Klaus stated "Citizens should manage public affairs indirectly. The advocates of civil society think that it is necessary to increase the role of direct democracy. I disagree."15 This was evidenced by his governments support through a legislative framework for nurturing and directing funding by Western organizations to aid in its development. As Vachudova asserts, "The Klaus government did the opposite, delaying legislation and refusing cooperation."16
Another set of domestic factors that either constrains or promotes civil society is government policies, tax codes, and constitutional design. Again, in neither of the two arguments was there a mention of the attempts of the new democratic governments to encourage civic growth through this venue. One is very easily led to believe that there has been no movement in this arena.
However trueas noted abovewith the Czech Republic, a very different scenario is found from the outset in Hungary. Robert Jenkins points to this fact noting that the Hungarian Democratic Forum (HDF), the first post-transition democratic government of this country "sought to pursue a social market economy which would combine elements of social guarantee with targeting and means-testing of benefits" as early as 1991.17 It managed to do this through a liberal constitutional framework and tax laws which allowed citizens to donate a portion of their taxable income to social organization not unlike in the United States. Peaking in 1992, federal subsidies to social organizations seem to have averaged about $1.1 million since 1997.18 This fact bodes well for a continued, sustained development of the social sector which feeds into Hungarian civil society. Although domestic factors have played a role in societys development under democracy, the largest influence by far have been and will remain external factors such as non-governmental organizations and the European Union.
One of the greatest success stories and concurrently gravest failures has been in the arena of international NGOs in East Central Europe. In her book, Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe 1989-1998, Janine Wedel recounts how well-intentioned donors and NGOs initially botched the entire process of aiding civil society. Wedel talks of three stages that the relation between donors and states encountered after 1989. She calls these stages "Triumphalism," "Disillusionment," and "Adjustment".19
The first stage, triumphalism, is explained as Western donors making the false assumption that countries within the former Soviet bloc would welcome them with open arms and implement their strategies in textbook fashion. The reality was that these states did welcome Western hard currency, but were less interested in advice and obscure incentives such as export credits, partnership agreements, and investment schemes.
Thus, the second stage commenced with both sides being somewhat disillusioned with the entire process of aid. Wedel asserts that for the Westparticularly here in the United Statesdonors assumed the democratic transition of these societies would be complete within five years. From the newly democratic states perspective, many of these concepts were still very foreign, with cronyism and the informal network of friends that had been developed in the former era playing heavily into how funding was distributed. This inhibited the spreading and growth of civil society that Western organizations had not anticipated. The last years of the 1990s saw a transition to the final stage, adjustment. A corporate body of knowledge had been assembled and a wealth of seasoned veterans who had worked in the area helped bring about this adjustment and a better understanding of how best to impact this region.
There is little doubt thatif taken as a simple snapshotNGOs and Western aid for civil society was an abject failure. But again, one must keep in mind that this is a continuous and unprecedented process that is still ongoing. This was not unlike the case in South Africa at the end of apartheid with their attempts to renew civil society. Writing on this topic, Wilmot James and Daria Caliguire present structural lessons that are transferable to East Central Europe. They assert that for NGOs to be most successful, four principles must be followed:
These points factored with the body of knowledge assembled over the past decade by NGOs would certainly complement the growth of civil society but is not a sufficient reason to alter behavior. This leads us to the final and most glaring oversight in literature surrounding civil societies of East Central Europe, consideration of the European Union.
Simply put, entry into the European Union is the number one priority of each country in East Central Europe. Before gaining membership, there are three criteria that must be met, set forth by the Copenhagen Council of June 1993. One precondition directly points to a viable, democratic, civil society. It holds that before membership is granted, candidates must demonstrate
a functioning democracy, with respect for the primacy of the rule of law, human rights and minorities and sufficient skills deployed to cover the justice and home affairs acquis, namely the ability to translate the rights expressed in the legal acts into practical application. 21
In another opinion put forth by the Economic and Social Committee on European Governance (Working Group 2A), the committee specifies that "civil dialogue players should also be responsible for ensuring that non-EU countries and especially the applicant countries are familiarized with the organizational structures and forms of communication of organized civil society. These countries must also be helped to form or develop similar structures."22 The committee goes on to describe how they have already been involved in the development of civil society not just by developing consultation mechanisms based on the Community model, but also by increasing the involvement of existing civil society organizations in its discussions, or in its information strategy. In this context it will also try to set up more Joint Consultative Committees.23
Through these statements, it should be clear what the European Union expectations are regarding civil society in East Central Europe before accession. Perhaps this strategy is to serve as a surrogate of some sort or a minimalist approach, while allowing for an incubation period of this concept within each country. Whatever the reason, there is little doubt that this concept is important to the EU, thus a priority for the candidate countries.
The year 1989 was many things to East Central Europe. It was a time of joy, hope, and uncertainty. What it was not, though, was a time to divorce the present and future from its history. Regardless of how difficult it was to admit or how grim the idea might have been, social conscience is not developed nor destroyed overnight. So it was with the concept of civil society. The morphology remained intact though the functionality would indeed see transformation. It was not a static concept within the state nor was it capable of being viewed as an East Central European monolith. Within each country, domestic factors such as attitudes and democratic design played greatly upon moving civil society into the arena of a functional social actor. Additionally, the transitions that were occurring could not be viewed in a traditional sense of the nation-state determining its own fate. There were very strong external influences that were brought to bear on these states in the form of non-governmental organizations andmost importantlythe European Union. Assuming both camps were correct in their arguments allowing only for the variable of the European Union, the final analysis would have to point to some immediate, quantifiable growth of civil society within the region if for no other reason than to satisfy preconditions for accession into the EU.
The debate on civil society in East Central Europe is valuable and necessary for continued democratic consolidation but in need of deeper, more dynamic analysis. It is easy to make snapshot judgments on the failures of these societies until one steps back and realizes the challenges the region has already overcome. Just as difficult to define as the color blue, civil society will not be a picture image of the West or anywhere else for that matter. Society is what makes a state or region unique. How civil society grows and what the final outcome will be is irrelevant. Important is the fact that it remains a stabilizing component and reinforcing factor for democracy in a region that has had too many nightmares ever to revert to times gone by.