Transition: A Splintered Picture

According to Daniel Treisman, the closer a transition country was to the West the more they liberalized and the more they achieved. Photo courtesy of Eric Fischer.

Written by Stephen Krafcik

Adapted from a larger paper written for the “Transition and Changing Face of Europe” travel course

Two decades and change after the dissolution of communism, we look to the transition countries – those once communist countries that transitioned to market-based economies post-1989 – and notice something strange: while some of these countries have seen outstanding success, others have been gripped by economic malaise and social upheaval and still more have been subject to an almost infinite variety of highs and lows– in short, not what we expected.

Most experts and academics expected the classic combination of democracy and market-based economics to routinely unleash progress and prosperity to all the transition countries. As it goes, few indeed were surprised at the tremendous economic and social performance made by the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Poland; these countries were supposed to improve. Yet what about Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Romania, and Bulgaria – countries which too were supposed to improve but have instead staggered out of the gate, taken missteps, and in some cases reverted back to an authoritarian system? What explains this disparity in the success of certain transition countries and the failure of others? As the (Western) world in the 21st century deals with the inevitable stumbling of the Middle East and Africa into modernity, the answer to that question is of the utmost importance. And, as we’ll see, the answer is frightening.

Perhaps the most intuitive explanation for the diverse results of the transition countries is the different speeds at which they liberalized. Certain countries opted for economic “shock therapy,” which refers to the sudden release of price and currency controls, withdrawal of state subsidies, immediate trade liberalization, and large-scale privatization of previously public-owned assets. Other countries decided to adopt a slower, more methodical approach to liberalization. That said, when measuring the pace of reform using indicators constructed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), it is clear that speedy ‘shock’ reformers achieved the best results.

But speed of liberalization can’t explain everything. For example, take Bulgaria, a country that sprinted towards democracy and liberal markets but ended up doing far worse than the successful transition countries. The correlations that exist between speed of liberalization and other variables, which may carry more significance must be taken into consideration.

Daniel Treisman, an eminent scholar of the post-communist transition, looked into these correlations by running regressions based on data from the Polity project (the Polity project evaluates countries annually on the authority characteristics of their political regimes). What he found was that by far geography – not necessarily speed of liberalization – accounted for most of the variability in the democratic and free market attitudes of the transition countries in the long run. In other words, the closer a transition country was to the West the more they liberalized and the more they achieved.

Closeness to the Western world might matter for a variety of reasons. For one, it might increase the diffusion of democratic attitudes and ideas from the West. But even more important is that the farther a transition country is from Western Europe, the greater the chance that it will be predominantly Muslim; Treisman found that a Muslim tradition constitutes some sort of overwhelming obstacle to liberal democracy.

It’s a result echoed by many other experts, such as M. Steven Fish, who have long studied democracy in a variety of countries. For his part, Fish argues that the correlation between Islam and illiberalism is explained in part by the greater prevalence of patriarchal gender relations in the Muslim world, as well as the unusual prevalence of clan and tribal relations. That said, his research is far from complete, and many scholars continue to work on the issue. Whatever the reason, 15 years into the 21st century, it’s clear that Islam and liberalism are at odds. It’s also clear that an alarming majority of human failure – genocide, civil war, religious intolerance etc. – has occurred in Muslim regions over the past couple of decades. In the case of the post-communist transition countries, a microcosm of the world at large, the picture is nearly black and white: the predominantly Muslim countries failed together and the predominantly Judeo-Christian countries liberalized and succeeded together.

All of this bodes poorly for the coming decades. Today, the world is tasked with peacefully bringing the Middle East and Africa onto the global stage, to be equal participants in progress and prosperity. For all intents and purposes, this ‘modernization’ has to include some form of political and economic liberalization. Yet what the post-communist transition countries show us, and what religious scholars have long stressed, is that liberalism faces daunting challenges in the corners of the Earth where Islam and fundamentalism reign – as they do in both the Middle East and a significant portion of Africa.

Violent enforcement of liberal principles on these peoples and places is not a viable option. Therefore, it’s up to us – the current generation of Westerners – to adapt our precious liberalism and modern society to other ways of life. How we can do so remains an unanswered, yet most important question.

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