Sovietisation and post-Soviet development in the Intermarium

Central europeCareful observation of Central and Eastern European history points to the fact that the two decades between the end of the First World War and the Munich Conference were critical for nation-state formation in that region due to the collapse of the two imperial hegemons – the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Tsarist Russia. In 1938 Germany and the Soviet Union, however, began to polarise the region once again. The state formation experience was, nevertheless, extremely valuable. This became apparent during the second 20-year (1989-2009) period of great “thawing,” after the USRR weakened and ultimately collapsed.


Central and Eastern European Nations (included the Balkan states) that did not develop their statehood between 1918 and 1938 had no previous symbolic traditions that they could lean on in the period between 1989 (Polish transformation) and 2008 (war between Russia and Georgia). Thus, they did not all fully consolidate their democratic systems even if they had gained independence. The Russian Federation itself, on the other hand, remained faithful to its political tradition which is inherently undemocratic. Therefore, I propose a new theoretical framework in interpreting Central and Eastern European political history – divided into two distinctive periods: the state building period (1918-1938) and the democratisation period (1989-2008). Both periods are tied to the weakening and subsequent strengthening of local hegemons. The recent reassertion of Russian power in the region and the economic crisis (which typically has an anti-democratic effect) marks the end of the second democratisation period (around 2008). It follows that countries in the region that did not become fully democratic by now are not likely to democratise in the near future.


I further hypothesise that political communities that had a symbolic memory of previous stable, modern statehood emerged from the Soviet period better prepared for building and consolidating a modern, democratic state. This can be explained by the collective symbolic memory’s ability to foster higher levels of social trust and greater acceptance for democratic institutions that are grounded within political symbols recognised by the society. In accordance with Pierre Manent's  and Francis Fukuyama’s model, the traditions of a nation state have facilitated the development of democracy.


Significantly, the post-Soviet states which were a part of the USSR in 1937, later continued to adopt the imperial methods of organising politics which placed them on the path to authoritarianism. It is also no coincidence that in many cases new institutions made direct symbolic reference to pre-war traditions. This experience is extremely valuable in the context of any comparisons between the political changes in Central Europe and the Arab Spring; especially given that many countries in the Middle East are symbolically artificial, colonial creations. At the same time the political situation in Central Europe in the 1945-1989 period can be compared to the period of colonialism in Africa, South America or South-Eastern Asia.


Exceptionalism at the Core


One of the problems with modern notions of transformation and democratisation is that the Central European states which underwent a relatively rapid regime change following 1989 are often viewed as the rule rather the exception in the process of democratisation. This leads to concepts such as the Fukuyama's “end of history” hypothesis or Norman Podhoretz's neoconservative concept of spreading of democracy.Indirectly, this also hinted that after the third wave of democratisation (as described by Samuel Huntington in 1991) a similar fourth one connected with the democratisation of postcolonial regimes was also possible and that it may well be as swift and unproblematic as the third one.


The problem with the theoretical model of global development thus construed is two-fold.First, as the latter part of my analysis will show, it fails to account for the fact that even when compared with other post-Soviet states, the core Central Europe, that is Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, were more likely to successfully democratise. Second, in the absence of two developmental patterns, including independent pre-Second World War statehood and republican experiments, most of the purported fourth wave states failed to follow Central Europe’s pattern. Therefore, Central Europe seems to display a type of political exceptionalism because their statehood, in most cases, was not fiat as in the case of many post-colonial states. It was rather a process of returning to statehood after a long interruption. Elaborating on this issue Piotr S. Wandycz, an expert in comparative history of the core of Central Europe, describes the following unique, general developmental features of the region: 1) intuitional innovativeness coupled with economic underdevelopment; 2) interrupted statehood; 3) distinction between citizenship and nationality; and 4) interaction of local peoples with relatively large Jewish and German minorities.


The experience of having an independent state was extremely valuable and significant. Indeed, if one examines the histories of the post-Soviet and post-communist states it will become apparent that only those countries which were independent between 1918 and 1938 were able to generate enough public support for their institutions and create fairly consolidated democracies after 1989.


Let us briefly describe this fascinating phenomenon. In his 2007 article, Oleh Harvrylyshyn proposed the following typology of the efficiency of democratic transformation.


The Post-Soviet world[1]:

- Sustained Big Bang (fastest): Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia
- Advance Start/Steady Progress: Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia
- Aborted Big-Bang: Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kyrgyzstan, Russia
- Gradual Reforms: Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Tajikistan, Romania
- Limited Reforms (slowest): Belarus, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan


The sustained Big Bang and steady progress indicates very successful liberalising reforms and swift democratisation after 1989. All the other states on the list with the exception of Bulgaria and Romania are essentially semi-authoritarian regimes. All the states listed in the first and second group were independent between 1918 and 1938 with a democratic period. Four states (Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) from the first group were a part of the already-mentioned republican Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and their political elite participated in the institutions and procedures of that state. Whereas the Czech Republic and Slovakia under the collective name of Czechoslovakia were actually one of the few full democracies that remained on the map of Europe up till the tragic events of 1938 and 1939. This consistent path dependency pattern refutes Podhoretz’s neoconservative argumentation, suggesting that democracy in Central and Eastern Europe was a fiat event enticed by the West and that this effect can be easily replicated in post-colonial states such as Iraq, Afghanistan and other North African of Middle Eastern States.


The suggestion that post-colonial development is to a large extent path-dependent is clearly visible in the research of James Mahoney. In a large study of the post-colonial patterns of development Mahoney notes that divergent paths of politico-economic development of South American countries are conditioned by the type of colonial rule that was exercised over them. In short, even a partial or interrupted period of a relatively liberal colonial rule (mercantilist and aristocratic Habsburgs versus the more liberal Spanish Bourbons) correlates with higher levels of post-colonial development. A similar hypothesis can be created regarding the level of Sovietisation given that most countries (with the exception of the Baltic states) that experienced independence in the 1918-1939 period became satellite states of the Soviet union as opposed to the territories that were subject to stronger Sovietisation. The results can be summarized with the below table:


chart kuz2

The preliminary research shows that states that were not a part of the Soviet Union and experienced independent statehood in the 1918-1939 period are now classified as flawed democracies with relatively high scores (on average 7.04 – according to the Economist index of democracy). In this group Albania is the only exception with a score of 5.33 that labels it as a hybrid regime. They are also classified as cases of economic “big bang”. The states that did not create an independent state in the 1918-1939 period and were a part of the Soviet Union have lower democracy scores and are all classified as authoritarian or hybrid regimes (average score of 3.6). Surprisingly, in spite of strong Sovietisation in the the democracy scores and economic development indicators of the Baltic states are high (7.58 on average). This seems to confirm that the history of independent statehood in the 1918-1939 period has had a pivotal impact on the politics of the Intermarium region.


Michał Kuź is an assistant professor at department of government studies at Lazarski University in Warsaw. He also taught at the University of Warsaw and Collegium Civitas. He specialises in history of European political thought, comparative politics and transatlantic relations.


This text is part of the series titled: “Intermarium in the 21st century” based on the conference held on July 6-7 2017, Lazarski University in Warsaw.

[1] Havrylyshyn’s typology focuses only on clear cases of post-Soviet transformation. He excludes several South Eastern Europe countries from his analysis: “because political instability meant that the start of their transition only took place in the late 1990s. Those countries include Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina”. This work will be fateful to Havrylyshyn’s typolology and follow him in excluding the said countries. However in the future and expanded analysis will encompass the said states.