Tag Archives: transitions

An Interview with Andrzej Arendarski on Poland’s Transition to Democracy

The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the bipolar international order that had dominated since the Second World War. In 1989 Eastern European countries gained the freedom to chart their own future and adopt political and economic institutions based on democratic governance and the free market economic system. In the twenty five years of transition, most states in the region have become full-fledged members of the European Union and achieved significant development milestones in their integration in Western institutions.

Reflecting on the transitional experience of Poland, Dr. Andrzej Arendarski, co-founder and president of the Polish Chamber of Commerce, was invited by the Free Enterprise and Democracy Network to share his recollections in the latest issue of CIPE’s Economic Reform Feature Service article.

Dr. Arendarksi explains the important role the Solidarity trade union played during the Polish transition to democracy and reflects on the significance of reducing barriers and regulations to promote the operation of business and encourage entrepreneurship. He describes democracy as more than a political system, “as a process in which nationals learn to be responsible for their choices,” a set of institutions and a state with free media.

To learn more about lessons emerging from the Polish transition to democracy applicable to reforms in other countries, read the article here.

Teodora Mihaylova is a Research Assistant at CIPE.

After the Soviet Union

Demonstration in the streets of Moscow during the 1991 coup d’état attempt. Photo credit Wikimedia Commons via www.newint.org

For anyone who watches the countries of the former Soviet Union, this last month has offered a tempting array of articles pegged to the events of 20 years ago. On August 19, 1991, a hard-line group of top Soviet officials staged a putsch while Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was on vacation. The poorly organized putsch quickly failed, largely as a result of the courage of Boris Yeltsin and his pro-democracy supporters. The putsch is significant today because it was one of a key series of events that led to the December 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of 15 new sovereign states.

Coverage of the 20th anniversary offers a handy report card on a vast area that is less and less often treated as a unit.  Much of the analysis includes factual examinations of the relative levels of health, wealth and freedom in the Soviet Union’s 15 successor states.

One of the most useful is a web presentation by the BBC that shows the prosperous Baltic country of Estonia on one end of the spectrum and the near-failed Central Asian state of Tajikistan on the other. Perhaps the most thoughtful and comprehensive treatment of the anniversary can be found in Foreign Policy magazine, which devoted much of one issue to the topic.

Elsewhere, some commentators use the two-decade mark to question the usefulness of the term “former Soviet Union” for understanding the vast region in any way other than historical. One essay in particular in RFE/RL captures the way in which the political and economic policies of the European Union, Turkey and China have created new allegiances that frequently have more significance than traditional ties between the 15 countries.

An overarching theme to nearly all the coverage is the contrast between the promise of those few days in August 1991 – as embodied in the iconic image of Yeltsin astride a tank sent by the putsch leaders – with the deep economic and political disappointments that have followed in all the former Soviet countries, except the three Baltic nations of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Based on Freedom House’s annual survey of world freedom, the remaining 12 countries are either “partly free” (three countries) or “not free” (nine countries).

In an essay devoted to the 20th anniversary, Freedom House argues that the region as a whole is increasingly authoritarian, partly because of the example set by Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin’s successful consolidation of power since 2000. A striking Freedom House graphic captures the ossification in top leadership in countries such as Azerbaijan, where father handed off to son, or Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where the people are lead by the same man they started with in 1991.

In general, the anniversary coverage in the Western press tends to take a big picture approach or consist of personal recollections, as did a recent op-ed piece by Gorbachev in the Washington Post.

What has largely been missing is a taking stock of what has happened in the spaces between the macro and the individual. CIPE’s experience in the region offers some insight. In Russia especially, CIPE focuses on regional efforts to fight corruption and bring about economic reform. Working through democratic institutions, groups representing entrepreneurs seek to bring about the kind of local changes that could prove key to Russia’s eventual realization of its democratic potential. In Moldova and Kyrgyzstan, too, regional associations of businesses find a voice on national policy through CIPE efforts. In all the countries of the former Soviet Union, they are approaches that, for a host of reasons, were unimaginable 20 years ago.

Greatest Failures of Transitions

We are continuing to reflect on the fall of the Berlin Wall – for previous posts, read here, here, and here.

Next Question: What do you think have been the greatest failures of transitions?

John Sullivan:

Across the board, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe faced the challenges of building functioning political systems and market economies. For most of the Central European countries strong national systems were built, albeit with significant challenges. To this day, Hungary faces considerable difficulty in creating transparent budgets and strong governments. However, it was the Balkan states, especially the former Yugoslavia, where the greatest difficulties were faced.

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The Speed of Reform post 1989

We are continuing with some reflections on the Fall of the Berlin Wall (read the previous post here).

Question: Did the speed of reforms matter in the transition period?

John Sullivan:

Yes, it most certainly did but in a quite complex way.  Those countries that put off essential reforms like freeing prices, floating the currency, granting property rights, and balancing the budget had a very difficult time.  After all, it was fundamentally the economic collapse of the Soviet system that was the trigger of the transformation (although not the only one).

So, in this regard countries like Bulgaria and Romania had a much more difficult time than the leading reformers such as Poland and Estonia.  However, the reverse is also true.  Countries that rushed into ill-considered reforms like mass privatization found that speed alone doesn’t make good reform. 

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