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Liberal Democracy 20 Years after the Fall of the Berlin wall

(A synopsis of a talk by Jiri Pehe at the conference “World Apart-Worlds Together, 4-8 September 2009)

 

Introducing and building liberal democracy in former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall can be analyzed in four interconnected areas: the creation of democratic political institutions and processes; the transformation of state-planned economies into market economies; the gradual introduction of the rule of law; and the growth of a civil society.

 

The creation of democratic political institutions and processes was, in relative terms, the easiest of the four difficult tasks. There had been “cook books” in the form of the already existing democratic systems in the West and, in some cases, pre-communist political traditions. Institutional and political changes, such as staging free elections or introducing the necessary constitutional frameworks (for example, the checks and balances between the executive, the judiciary, and legislative branches of the government or the choice between the parliamentary democracy versus the presidential republic) could be achieved “from above”—by adopting the necessary legislative measures or, in some cases, government decrees.

 

The transformation of state-planned economies into market economies took on different forms, ranging from traditional methods, such direct sales of state assets to both domestic and foreign investors, to more experimental ones, such Czechoslovakia’s voucher privatization. Various post-communist states also used, in varying degrees, the restitution of assets to owners (and their descendants) whose property had been expropriated by the communists.

 

At the same time, the economic transformation was made difficult by the fact that the notion of a market economy cannot be reduced to privatization and free competition. If it is to function properly it needs to be recognized as a form of civil society based on certain virtues and rules.

 

The introduction of the rule of law took place in several stages. At first, new constitutional frameworks were adopted; later, under the guidance of the European Union, the post-communist countries reformed their judiciaries and adopted laws which followed EU standards. Just like in case of a market economy, however, it eventually became clear that good institutions and laws do not suffice to build a rule of law; law-abiding citizens are equally important. Respect for the law is directly tied to the maturity of civil society.

 

However, the growth of a civil society was the most difficult task, since a civil society cannot really be created from above—by laws, decrees or by adopting EU legal standards. It is an organism that needs to grow from below, from the grass-root level.

 

In reassessing the achievements of liberal democracy 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fact that a civil society grows at a much slower pace than the institutional framework in politics, economy and the law is of utmost importance. The gap between relatively slowly forming civil society and the historically unprecedented speed of institutional changes, achieved with the help of the EU, is, in fact, a gap between culture and institutions.

 

In other words, a robust civil society is a precondition for the internalization of democratic values by people. The proper functioning of the system of liberal democracy is based not only on the existence of democratic institutions and appropriate constitutional frameworks but also on individuals’ ability to respect democratic values and rules. On a deeper level, democracy is much more than just a majority rule exercised in free elections; it is also based on respecting minorities and human rights or on tolerance.

 

On this level, emerging democracies in Central and Eastern Europe still have a long way to go. One could use a quote from the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomas G. Masaryk, who commented, not long after the country was established in 1918, that Czechoslovakia was a democracy but there were not many democrats.

 

The newly created liberal democracies in Central and Eastern Europe are, indeed, to some extent, democracies without democrats. Closing the gap between fast-developed institutional and legal framework and the “state of mind” of society will be a long process.

 

The problem becomes more complicated if we realize that the establishment of liberal democracies in the region is taking place during the accelerating process of globalization, which calls into question the very notion of the nation state, in which liberal democracy first developed. The notions such as respect for individual rights and minorities are severely tested by immigration, while the traditional ways in which the concept of the liberal democratic state was understood for almost two hundred years are being eroded by supranational integration processes and the economic effects of globalization.

 

At he same time, we are witnessing a decline in the role of traditional political parties as well as the growing influence of the media on the democratic systems’ functioning. In some cases, the concept of liberal democracy is also severely tested by attempts to introduce elements of illiberal democracy.