Vol 2, No 6
14 February 2000
B O O K R E V I E W:
The Political Economy of Protest and Patience
Central European University Press, 1998. 197 pp.
Much of the disappointment over the current economic and political situation swelled to a crescendo during the ten-years-after retrospectives late last fall. A minority tried to remind the majority of how dark Communism really was, while the majority complained that things should have turned out much better than they had. Barely anyone stopped to consider why the past decade had not witnessed this collective despair escalating into full-scale protest or even riots that might have shaken these fragile states to their very foundations. In fact, pessimists in the early 1990s probably would have been shocked to see nearly all of the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe heading into the millennium without having experienced any real threat to their existence. Were things really not so bad or are people from this region fundamentally different from their counterparts in more rebellious lands?
That is the central question of Béla Greskovits's The Political Economy of Protest and Patience, a book published in 1998 that serves as an appropriate antidote to all the anniversary blather that engulfed the media last November. In contrast to all the hack analysts who saw the ten-years-after festivities as a chance to dust off their cliched five-year retrospectives, Greskovits asks tough, intriguing questions and does not shy away from grander investigations:
Why did Eastern Europeans protest less about the brutal social consequences of systemic change than the people of Latin America had a decade earlier? Why has a region-wide authoritarian or populist turnabout not occurred? Why has democracy in these countries proved to be crisis proof?(p 1)His work, written while Greskovits was a member of the political science and then sociology departments of Central European University (in Budapest and Warsaw), offers theories about transition that are at best highly convincing and at worst still worthy of discussion. The end result is a valuable contribution to "transitology," as the science has been called, but one that is accessible to nonacademics as well.
The subheading of Greskovits's book is "East European and Latin American Transformations Compared," a risky pledge that has derailed previous writers that have tried, unsuccessfully and overambitiously, to transpose their regional expertise to another continent. The author realizes that he is asking for trouble:
The fact that it [the Latin American analogy] led to failed predictions or exaggerated generalizations while serving the breakdown literature does not mean that it is useless per se. Rather, the problem was its improper application, as expected similarities turned out to be differences and actual similarities were overlooked... What I hope to gain from Southern analogies is mainly to know more about post- Communism.(pp 12-14)
This willingness to state from the beginning major differences (for example, that nation-building has often accompanied democratization in the East but not in Latin America) helps his case. So does the author's tone: unlike some of his colleagues, Greskovits's references to other regions of the world do not seem forced by an insecure need to prove that his theories are universal. Occasionally, however, he throws in one country comparison too many, for example to Ghana or Turkey, creating a dizzying effect on the reader, who thought that references would be made merely to two of the world's regions.
Protest and Patience starts off somewhat slowly but necessarily so, as the author defines neoliberal economic policy, its popularity among reformers, the "lonely" reformers themselves - who often act "in a kind of political vacuum"(p 35) - and the role of foreign advisors during the transition toward democracy and a free market. He then segues into the main meat of his argument: why, as he puts it, "The East has not become the South" (see below).
Greskovits then moves on to a discussion of populism, comparing this phenomenon to Latin America as well as the Communist era in Eastern Europe. One of his many fascinating conclusions is that populists in Eastern Europe may often promise populist-type solutions to economic malaise, but they rarely end up instituting major change when elected; "In Eastern Europe," he writes, "macroeconomic constraints along with a specific international context have limited policy options in general, including any tendency toward economic populism." Translation: hotheads soon find out that things such as radical income distribution won't fly with the IMF.
The last portion of the book looks at populism and democratic development, often using Hungary as a case study, as well as the compensation techniques that various governments have employed to placate those affected by economic transformation. Greskovits's central thesis is the following:
My own explanation for the relatively peaceful transformation is that Communism left behind societies lacking in the structural, institutional, and cultural factors associated with violent collective action. The lack of extreme income inequality, the smaller number of marginalized poor, the relatively lower degree of urbanization of the population, and the absence of recent, violent experiences with coups and riots may all have contributed a stabilizing influence under post-Communism.(p 85)
The first point is important and sometimes easy to forget. Unlike in Latin America, for example, many Eastern Europeans have had either savings or other resources to last out tough times; the idea of patiently waiting for an election is easier to fathom when the refrigerator is at least half-full.
There is also the paradoxical situation of unions in the region: while workers tend to be much more unionized than in South American countries, unions have not generally caused politicians to wake up sweating in the night - at least not until recently. Greskovits, similarly to other analysts, again explains this situation as "partly a legacy of the Communist past": predominantly state ownership had led to a "tradition of collusion between labor unions and management"; labor often had historical ties to the post-1989 political elite (as in the case of Solidarity in Poland); and the government officials had a history of knowing how to appease the unions, as well as how to play the divide and conquer game. The result, writes Greskovits, is that "labor protest has not significantly shaped transformation politics either."(p 86)
His analysis clearly applies to countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but it would be interesting to see Greskovits attempt a sequel to his book, in which he tackles the strikes in Romania (especially by the miners) and in Poland over the last two years. Those protests have brought these countries to a standstill - at least temporarily - and have occasionally caused reversals in policy and surely at least some slowdown in the reform process. They also may have emboldened the unions to seek greater demands in the near future.
Does the author still believe, for example, that "labor's contentious tradition in Poland was weakened or neutralized by the atomizing effect of the [early 1990s] economic crisis"(p 180)?
Largely avoiding violent demonstrations, those discontent with the current situation have, says Greskovits, channeled their anger into elections or have simply tuned out. In the first case, and this must be seen in a very positive sense, Central and East Europeans have overwhelmingly viewed democratic elections as the main instrument of throwing out those in power; notwithstanding the legacies of the Communist regime - which predetermined, to some extent, that outcome over something like a Latin American-style, military coup alternative - the development was hardly a given, something easy to forget these days.
Greskovits's conclusions on this theme also cast light on the phenomenon of political turnover that has characterized much of the region, with the Czech Republic and its former prime minister, Václav Klaus, as a notable exception until 1997. The flip-flopping of parties in power has not, therefore, been only a consequence of the electorate's political immaturity (that is, the appeal of people such as Slovakia's Vladimir Mečiar) and a necessary consolidation (political fragmentation and so on) but also stemmed from the overwhelming emphasis the public placed on using the ballot box - not the streets - to vent its frustration. In a sense, then, political instability has shown that democracy is working.
One of Greskovits's final provocative points is that "democracy and a market economy could by simultaneously introduced only because neither has been fully implemented." Full democracy - meaning, for example, the inclusion of all neglected social groups - would have meant a much slower economic transformation, while "economic transformation, in turn, has remained feasible only at a cost of its speed and radicalism, and its many imperfections are due not least to the democratic framework of change." (p 181)
Those who spent their ten-year anniversaries pontificating on the many mistakes made until now would do well to raise their future discussions to this level and consider whether much of what happened was inevitable.
Jeremy Druker is director and editor-in-chief of Transitions Online.
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