Communist Legacies and Democratic Survival


By Walter Wasacz
Nov 05, 2008 Bookmark and Share

As we near the end of the second decade of newly established democracies in Central and Eastern Europe, innovative methods are being used by scholarly researchers to bring the changing socio-economic picture into focus.

Professor Michael Bernhard, of the Department of Political Science at Penn State University, along with his colleague Timothy Nordstrom of the University of Mississippi, have used a survival framework to test whether a communist legacy is a positive or negative factor in sustaining these new democratic states and which factors promote their survival.

Bernhard brought his findings to the University of Michigan recently for a talk as a guest of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies. The center, which is part of U-M’s International Institute, was opened earlier this fall with a special inaugural lecture by former President of Poland Aleksander Kwasniewski.

Bernhard's talk was called "Communist Legacies and Democratic Survival: Liability or Advantage?" Survival was a key word used throughout the presentation, which included statistical information about dozens of countries, including Poland. Bernhard uses the survival model as a framework for his research, not the typical focus on negative behavioral factors like the notion of a Leninist legacy that left a "weak society" in countries where communism reigned for decades.

Other researchers have pointed to the closeness to the west and the amount of resources available to each nation as differences in post-communist democratic performance. At the same time, scholars are looking at aspects of the communist experience that enabled the attainment of relatively high levels of development and socio-economic equality, which appear to be advantages. There has also been recent movement of many post-communist states to electoral authoritarianism and democracy.

But Bernhard says the current literature on these developments does not capture what allows these countries to attain democracy.

U-M Professor Michael Kennedy, director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies, said that Bernhard's "expected and controversial findings inspire discussion for refining his analysis and considering its practical implications."

Kennedy said one of Bernhard's most surprising discoveries was that being a net energy exporter does not appear to have an independent effect on the likelihood of democracy's breakdown.

"Central to this discussion was the classification of post-communist, and post-Soviet, societies themselves," Kennedy said, "and whether one might instead examine that Leninist legacy by number of years, and in more subtle comparison to other forms of one party, or authoritarian states across the world."

Kennedy said that his study, "in practical terms, based on this research and other studies, Professor Bernhard cannot say that variations in democracy's institutional design matters. By contrast, if he were to give advice to any who supported democracy's survival, he would emphasize the importance of figuring ways to keep inequality in check and assure basic welfare."

Kennedy concluded that it could also be "linked to the question of keeping extremism at bay, and assuring that turns toward fascism and Nazism in mid-20th century don’t find their 21st century approximations."

Reprinted from Polish Times, November 5, 2008.