Reflections on transition: twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall.

Author:Roland, Gerard
Position:Book review

The above titled book, published by Palgrave Macmillan 2012, brings together contributions from a conference that took place in Helsinki in September 2009. The conference involved a group of top scholars who have done research on the process of transition from socialism to capitalism over the last twenty years. Instead of looking back and reflecting one more time on transition policies from twenty years ago, as was the case for many commemorations, the conference focused instead on the long-run view of transition.

As time goes by, it seems clearer and clearer that the transition countries are following very different evolutions, not only in their economic performances but also in their institutions. Central European countries have become stable democracies and entered the European Union. Russia and most countries in the former Soviet Union have failed to become democracies. The quality of institutions also varies very strongly across countries: corruption, the quality of legal systems and the business environment differ markedly among former communist countries.

Different perspectives are offered on these questions in the book. Daniel Treisman, political scientist at UCLA presents empirical evidence showing that countries that had lived longer under communism were less successful at introducing democracy. What could explain why a longer life under communism makes a country less successful at democratizing? Gur Ofer, professor emeritus from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argues that life under an authoritarian regime has engendered more private cynicism and a lower sense of civic morality. People could only trust a narrow circle of friends and distrusted the rest. Individuals felt completely alienated from the state and were happy to bypass the laws when the opportunity arose. These attitudes remained when communism collapsed. The observation of widespread theft and corruption by the new leaders comforted people in their view that others cannot be trusted, and politicians even less. For Ofer, this legacy of the communist period explains the institutional weakness observed in Russia today. If people do not trust each other and feel justified in not abiding by the law, i.e. if the social norms do not adapt to the new institutions and legal rules, then the latter cannot be made to function well. The laws on the statute books will not be respected and there will not be rule of law.

Following on that theme, Leonid Polishchuk of the University of Maryland,...

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