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4 Program on Central and Eastern Europe

Democratic Transitions: Puzzles & Surprises from West to East

1990 – Giuseppe di Palma


Recent communist crises in Eastern Europe seem to have caught many analysts by surprise. They also show features that set them apart from contemporary crises of right-wing dictatorships. The paper analyzes the reasons for the surprise in the light of theories of communism and of civil society under communism developed since the death of Stalin. It also examines and tries to account for the special features of the crises: their sudden acceleration •. the regimes' loss of a will to rule, the mobilization of large popular strata. Explanations focus on the goal-oriented nature of communist regimes as an alternative to the Western order. It makes the issue of self-identity and self justification crucial to these regimes-more crucial than for right-wing dictatorships. Therefore, the announcement by the Soviet hegemon itself that the goal has failed removes those tenuous shreds of self-justification to which the regimes desperately cling. This also makes possible and explains mass mobilization and the revival of civil society as a cathartic exercise. The paper concludes with an analysis of the prospects for democratization in Eastern Europe in the light of recent transitions in Southern Europe and Latin America. Democracy may develop-theoretical pessimism notwithstanding--as a matter of calculus and through an accelerated process of learning.