States that have already undergone some economic and social modernisation under previous authoritarian regimes are likely to fare better in the transition to democracy.
So argued Hans-Jeurgen Puhle, professor of contemporary history and politics at the University of Frankfurt, Germany, as he opened a round-table session on transitions from authoritarian rule.
Professor Puhle said the current post-1989 wave of democratisation was the fourth this century - following those in the aftermath of the two world wars and the South European and Latin American transitions of the mid-1970s.
He said: "Spain had already undergone some liberalisation, particularly in the economic sphere, before Franco's death. This meant that some of the conflicts that occurred in Portugal were less acute and more readily contained in Spain."
He argued that Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland had fared better than other post-communist societies. Citing political scientist Barrington Moore's study of authoritarian regimes he argued that there was possibly a "minimum line" of social and economic requirements for the successful development of democratic systems.
"It is particularly important that there should be no unfree labour and that basic personal liberties should be safeguarded."
Professor Puhle said that historians could bring a longer term frame of reference to a field that had largely been dominated by political scientists and sociologists, He said some of the apparent exceptions to this rule might be explained by long-term factors. "Bulgaria's transition has been more successful than you might have expected, but I suspect this has something to do with the characteristics of the former regime and democratic peasant traditions."
Greece too progressed well following the downfall of its military regime, in spite of being less economically developed than Spain and Portugal. "Greece had very few large land owners and large numbers of small-scale entrepreneurs. The egalitarian nature of Greek society, and of course the centuries-old democratic tradition, helped to compensate for the lack of modernisation."
Professor Puhle said: "It appears to be easier to democratise minds and political systems than it is to modernise economic and social systems. "