Understanding Post-Communist Transformation: A Bottom up Approach

May 21, 2009

On the eve of the 21st century, the Soviet Union and its satellites went through the last of the convulsions that had characterised their history: the proclamation of glasnost and perestroika in 1987 set the collapse of the whole system in motion. In quick succession, the satellites asserted their independence, the Soviet Union fell apart, the Communist institutions withered away and new public bodies were created to manage the transform-ation from socialist to market economy, from one-party politics to free elections and parliamentary government. This is the subject of Richard Rose's impressive book, a text written in language accessible to the political science student and the layperson alike.

Searching for an understanding of the uncharted process of post-communist transformation, Rose bases his research on nationwide surveys by the Centre for the Study of Public Policy. Between 1991 and 2008, he has collaborated in more than 100 surveys interviewing 120,000 people in 20 countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Following the KISS principle - "keep it simple, stupid" - this is the most comprehensive attempt to monitor mass behaviour and attitudes of the population of this once seemingly unitary political entity.

The transformation of the most advanced countries - Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic - proceeded more or less as expected. Along with the other seven East European states, these countries are now members of the European Union, an unimaginable outcome in so short a time, but one that is understandable given their desire to escape from Russian domination and Europe's desire to consolidate their new status. Russia apart, the successor states of the Soviet Union have not followed that path, but have instead achieved a conditional sovereignty that requires beneficent toleration from their ex-Big Brother, which has itself been defined by Prime Minister Putin as a "sovereign democracy".

The national aspirations of Chechnya and Georgia have witnessed the limitations of such toleration, and Ukraine's Westward orientation has been checked by Russia's supremacy as the default supplier of gas and oil. Russia itself has probably endured the deepest psychological shocks of the transformation. Having been the "other" superpower since the end of the Second World War, Russia has watched the shrinkage of the Russian/Soviet empire; the humiliating withdrawal of its armed forces from their East European bases as the Warsaw Pact dissolved; the devastation of its agriculture and the overnight seizure of its manufacturing assets by a few men who were given the opportunity by Yeltsin to take over its chaotically privatised industry - "You are appointed a millionaire", as one of them has said - and its dependence on the world price of oil and gas. All of these features figure in Russia's own transformation, while many of the actions of the Government headed by Putin (as President and then Prime Minister) can be seen as an effort to regain Russia's former international stature.

In the case of East Germany, the idea of a successor state does not apply, because its transformation was accomplished by its absorption into the Federal Republic, analogous to the incorporation of states into the American union. East Germany's living standards had been thought superior to the rest of its "fraternal" neighbours, even allowing for distortion thanks to the large number of family relations in the West. Reunification, as expected, raised the eastern Germans' living standards far above those of the rest of post-Communist countries, and Rose's surveys show that the majority of the population confirm this.

Rose's book is a valuable and highly readable analysis of the momentous transformation of the post-Communist world.

Understanding Post-Communist Transformation: A Bottom up Approach

By Richard Rose. Routledge, 240pp, £80.00 and £22.99. ISBN 9780415482189 and 2196. Published 15 December 2008.

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