Democratization in Eastern Europe

fall of the Soviet Union witnessed a wholesale change in governmental styles in Eastern Europe. In an area that had been accustomed to monarchial and authoritarian style governments for several centuries there was a sudden shift toward democracy. This shift is considered by many historians as the most important political trend of the twentieth century (Diamond).

The first wave of democratization occurred in America in the late 18th century and continued through the end of the First World War in 1918. During this time nearly thirty countries adopted democratic ideals and formed governments based on such ideals. This trend came to a standstill with the coming of the Second World War and by the end such War there remained only 12 democracies in the world.

The world democratic movement began in the American colonies. The theoretical concepts supporting a democratic form of government had been circulating since the ancient Greeks and the Romans had adopted a rough form of democracy but it remained for colonial America to actually organize a government based upon democratic thinking (Tocqueville).

The unique history of how colonial America was settled made the colonies an ideal location for the formation of a new form of government. The individuals who ventured to the New World from Europe were of a different spirit from those that they left behind. The settlers who settled in the colonies were seeking religious, economic, and political freedom from the oppression that they felt while in Europe. Because they were living 3,000 miles away from the King and Parliament, the colonists soon learned to govern themselves. Although technically still under the authority of both the King and Parliament, the colonies very rapidly became accustomed to ruling themselves. The colonies were willing to swear their allegiance to the King and to pay a certain measure of taxes but as the years passed they expected less and less interference from England in how they handled their day-to-day affairs. In fact, it was when England attempted to place more and more restrictions on the colonies that true problems began to develop. There is some chance that if England had allowed the colonies to continue as they had for many years instead of raising taxes and attempting to control American trade that the Revolution would have never occurred and the formation of the modern world's first attempt at democratic rule would have never happened.

The process of democratization in the American colonies was a gradual process. There were events along the way that planted particular seeds that evolved into broader and more encompassing concepts. For instance, the trial and acquittal of John Peter Zenger on charges of libel in 1734 set the stage for the concept of freedom of the press in the colonies. Subsequent to Zenger's acquittal, the newspapers in the colonies adopted a much different method of reporting the news. Such reporting was much broader and penetrating and was not limited by controls from the Crown as newspapers in England were. By the time of the American Revolution four decades later, the press had developed into a viable force in colonial culture and when it became time to form a new government the press was certainly not willing to relinquish any of its power or influence.

The freedom of religion concept was unique to the American colonies. Several of the colonies had been formed entirely on this basis and several others had adopted policies that allowed open and free practice of most religions. This was a concept that was totally foreign to most locations in Europe and yet it was always the case in the American colonies. Freedom of religion was accepted as the norm in the colonies and, of course, once the Revolution was over it was only natural that such concept would be incorporated as part of the national government.

As important as these freedoms and several others were to the formation of the American democracy what was more important was the fact that the colonies had become accustomed to self rule. From the very beginning the governments that were organized in the colonies were based on participation by all white property owners on both the local and colonial level. This participation became an important part of colonial life and in many small towns throughout New England and the Middle Atlantic colonies the citizens took part in nearly every aspect of the town's management.

The concept of self-rule had a long tradition in the American colonies with said self-rule beginning even before the colonies were organized. The Mayflower Compact, prepared by the Pilgrims before they even landed in the New World, recognized the need for a government based on majority rule and the idea of a social contract. The Mayflower Compact, although a short and not a very detailed document, set a precedent for how governmental types matters would be conducted in the Americas and the precedent remained a part of the American framework.

The development of democracy in Eastern Europe occurred in a much different fashion and under much different circumstances (Diamond, Democracy's Third Wave Today). In America, democracy was a fairly new concept and it developed among a people who were relatively free to do what that wanted when it came to government. The world was a much different place. Communication was slower. Transportation was much more burdensome and there was no long history of prior regimes and other governments in the Americas. In some ways, the situation in the Americas was like a blank slate. The American colonists were largely free to adopt whatever form of government they wished. The only controlling entity, the British government, was 3000 miles away and burdened with other problems. Concerns over how the colonies were conducting their affairs were low on the priority of the British government in the 18th century.

In Eastern Europe at the time of the democratization that occurred there was no history of such procedure. Eastern Europe had suffered through centuries of governments dominated by either one-party systems, military regimes, personal dictatorships, or monarchies. Democratic rule was completely foreign to the people living in this region. It was something that they had read about but never experienced.

Moving from these other forms of government to a democratic form of government was not an easy transition for Eastern Europe. For those living in Poland, Hungary, the Czechoslovakia region, Romania, and Bulgaria, all they had ever known was rule by a monarch or, later, an ideology and rule imposed by the Soviet Union. There was no concept of a political party or a tradition of differing points-of-view. The state had always dictated how the citizens thought and acted. To think differently or act differently was an act of treason and punishable by severe methods (Rose-Ackerman).

For several of the nations of Eastern Europe the move toward democratization created other, more drastic, problems. Nations such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union, did not possess long, historical traditions (Freeman). Each of these nations had been created under ideology lines and the only unifying factor was the political ideology (Communism) under which their governments operated. Once the ideology was removed, the people in these regions reverted to their historical roots and began to re-identify with their traditions and the weak ties that were Yugoslavian, Czech, or Soviet suddenly became Bosnian, Serbian, and Ukraine. This movement toward traditional identities led in some cases to warfare and, in extreme cases, to genocide but, in all cases, led to a breakup of the old governments of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union.

When democratization occurred in America there was no prior ruling authority. America was settled in small waves and each individual colony developed its hierarchy piece by piece. There was no history of a ruling class or a political ideology. There was a monarch but it was thousands of miles away and part of the reason why many of those settling in America were present there was to escape the rule of the Monarch so it was only natural that they set up a government that did not include the Monarch. As Eastern Europe began its transformation into democratic rule this was not the case. The individuals who had participated in the Communist governments, military regimes, and dictatorships that existed in Eastern Europe prior to the democratization process did not simply disappear. They remained behind and began to use the rhetoric of democracy to re-establish themselves in the new government and to participate in the process that would determine what course the new government would take. As would be expected, there were those who opposed democratization, those who advocated radical reform, and those who adopted a more moderate approach. Unfortunately, for a people who were not accustomed to balancing these conflicting interests this process could be quite confusing. The result early in the democratization process was the formation of governments that were largely organized by those who had been in power under prior regimes and this reality slowed down the development of true democratization…