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The different worlds of everyday post-communist democracy

 Original books often share two common virtues. They reach conclusions which make perfect sense in hindsight, but which somehow no one else managed to reach before. And they ask simple, big, often-asked questions, but answer them in new ways. Both of these apply to James Dawson’s new book Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria. How Ideas Shape Publics.

 The book’s key finding – based on innovative ethnographical fieldwork – is that Serbia has a more vibrant and, to some extent, more liberal, public sphere than Bulgaria, despite being rated considerably lower on most governance and democracy indices (the book focuses on Freedom House’s Nations in Transit measures).

On a conventional reading this makes little sense: Bulgaria is a low quality democracy, made slow, but steady progress as towards EU membership in 2007, while Serbia slid into semi-authoritarianism following the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the wars of Yugoslav succession as regime and (large parts of) opposition embraced a culture of militant illiberal nationalism. Serbia began EU accession negotiations only this year and officials are carefully avoiding speculation about when it might eventually join the Union as its 29th member.

 James Dawson’s book, however, tells it differently. Most conventional measures of democracy, he suggests, are too formal and legalistic, do little to tap into the day-to-day thinking of citizens. ‘Hard’ comparative scientists are too often driven by an essentially procedurally framing of democracy leading them to overlook a multitude defects and limitations in democratic practices. As a clever dissection of a well-known survey article in East European Politics and Societies makes clear, too many insights and observations appear simply as passing comments or incidental qualifying remarks, but in the end slip out of the final analysis.

Everyday democracy

 The book addresses this gap by investigating the existence of an everyday public sphere conceived in (modified) Habermasian terms. This is investigated by examining the discourses employed by citizens in two provincial cities, Niš in southern Serbia and, Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv using an ethnographic method embracing both focus groups and more embedded forms of participant observation: following in the footsteps of Nina Eliasoph in her study of the culture of political avoidance in US civic voluntarism, Avoiding Politics, Dawson immerses himself in local associational life:

 I participated [he writes] in the activities of almost any available recreational and civic associations [in the two cities] which would accept me as a member. These included a mountaineering club, a careers office, an ‘alternative’ NGO, a sports club (Serbia), a private language school, an environmental NGO, a running club and a dance class (Bulgaria)

 to reach a cross-section of informants in terms of age, education levels and sociological types.

 The result are slices of ethnographic data, which are both vivid and revealing opening up a world of what Dawson terms (adapting the nationalism literature) ‘everyday democracy’: one serving and two retired Serbian army officers walk up a mountain talking over who lost Kosovo; Bulgarian friends pick over the corrupt municipal politics and the still dirtier (in both senses) politics of local rubbish collection, touching on issues of clientelism and nationalism in the process; a young women denies the existence of gender discrimination, but then recounts how a job offer turned out to a thinly disguised attempt to recruitment porn industry and weighs up (but does not reject) her initial proposition.

 This public sphere and public sphere pluralism Dawson seeks out is not some Habermasian abstraction but a curiously every day, workaday phenomenon, both less and more than formal, institutional civil society.

 Bulgaria’s missing public sphere

 At least where it exists. For the book’s headline finding is that while Niš does contain ‘vibrant communities of everyday debate’, ‘… the most remarkable thing about the public sphere in Plovdiv was just how rarely it was encountered’. This is especially the case for the minority of citizens in both countries who are, as Dawson puts it, ‘hard liberals’: the 10-15 per cent of the population who may be expected to develop and articulate a consistent discourse of liberal democratic citizenship, anchor democracy in both value and discursive terms, and perhaps act as focus of cultural change.

 Why should be the case? This is perhaps an unfair question. Ethnographers are focused on meaning not causation. However, Dawson permits himself a hunch –and social researcher of all kinds should surely be allowed hunches? – that the more open and liberal political culture of socialist Yugoslavia has in some ways been carried through from 1980s fed into distinct liberal public (or ‘counter public’). In Bulgaria, by contrast, despite a more peaceful, institutionally and economically patterns of development after 1989, legacies of a more authoritarian and closed form of communism have left a citizenry, whose most liberal ‘counter-public’ is still marked by illiberal nationalism and a view of liberal politics as mostly about forcing through (economic) reform.

 The interpretation of Bulgarian liberals (in the broadest) sense of term as hamstrung by conservative and illiberal nationalism – influential perhaps precisely because it has been less militantly and radically asserted than in Serbia – is a controversial one. Many liberal Bulgarians are quick to assert that their country’s biggest problem is rampant corruption not rampant nationalism. In terms of action-this-day issues, this seems hard to argue with, but there seems sufficient evidence – as in the current dispute over Turkish language TV news – that the position of the Turkish minority cannot be taken for granted. Lessons from Hungary and elsewhere in the region suggest that all bets about what ‘cannot’ happen in CEE are now off. However, this perhaps misses the argument which is, in the end, more about the subtle influence of culture and discourse, rather than a scorecard of directly traceable political outcomes.

 A similar set of question arises over the sustained mass protests in Bulgaria 2012 -13, which took place after the book’s fieldwork was conducted. If Bulgaria’s public sphere and liberal ‘counter-public’ were so weakly developed, how and why were civil society and social movements able suddenly to mobilise to hold corrupt elites to account? This issue is partly addressed in the preface and postscript (which also deals with the rise of the supposedly reformed nationalists of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).

 Here, Dawson argues that while events in Bulgaria are positive in terms of civil society development long there is still greater reason for optimism in Serbia and pessimism in Bulgaria (especially beyond Sofia). ‘[T]here is’ he writes ‘little evidence that Bulgaria’s anti-government protests aspire to any emancipatory vision approaching the philosophically consistent liberalism of the cosmopolitan anti-nationalist, feminist and LGBT movement still audible from the margins in Belgrade’ and had, in particular, done little to challenge conservative nationalist assumptions underpinning much political discourse.

 In this regard – although Dawson himself does not make this link – the reader cannot but be struck by the book’s discussion of the anti-Roma protests in Bulgaria in 2011 – triggered by an incident near Plovdiv – and his informants’ discussion of them. The account that emerges is not simply outburst of familiar scapegoating ‘anti-Gypsyism’ but of inchoate and confused anger, which (at least in the minds and accounts of some of his informants) contained social, anti-corruption and anti-elite demand distinct from the obviously racist agenda of many rioters.

It is tempting to ask whether the wave of more civic anti-government mass mobilisation that swept the country in 2012-3 – while largely devoid of anti-Roma ethnic scapegoating – drew on similarly confused mass of frustrations based on a loosely populist, anti-elite framing of politics and had little need of a strong liberal counter-public.

Accountants versus poets?

 Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria is framed as a critique of conventional, democratisation theory and a world of ‘hard’ quantitative political science reflecting – as one panellist at the book’s launch event put it – a division between ‘accountants and poets’.

 However, in many ways as book’s dissection of literature makes clear, traditional comparativists were aware of the limitations of surveys and quantitative data and keenly aware of the potential mismatch between liberal institutions and a society lacking extensive liberal values or well embedded liberal ways of thinking. Those pondering the fuzzy and much debated concept of ‘democratic consolidation’ have or years wondered whether spread of the liberal or civic culture is necessary condition of such consolidation.

Correspondingly, the book would lose much of argumentative force in the absence of the (flawed) comparative indices it critiques (although in the bigger picture such indices do show Bulgaria as a consistent ‘laggard’ which is in many ways closer to SE Europe than Visegrad states – indeed the latest Nations in Transit report shows improvement in the Balkans and backsliding in Bulgaria). Accountants read poetry, poets need the accounts to add up.

 Moreover, although written in the language of Habermasian public sphere analysis and discourse theory, some aspects of the book run comfortably in parallel with mainstream, political science thinking about liberal democracy: the existence of publics and counter-publics fits well with classic and radical notions of pluralism; the emphasis on contending philosophical notions of citizenship is echoed in the literature on party based democracy and democratic quality which emphasises the need for completing programmatic alternatives,

The sense that meaningful consolidation of liberal democracy will occur only with the embedding of a widespread liberal culture is, as noted, not controversial for many political science. And this is perhaps unsurprising given that like Cultures of Democracy Serbia and Bulgaria. Have a basic (if less clearly stated) normative commitment to liberal models of politics and citizenship.

Looking north, facing west

Despite its unusual and inventive Bulgarian-Serbian comparison, the book appears on first reading a work of South-East European studies. Questions will, however, immediately occur to anyone familiar with the supposedly more successful liberalisers of Central Europe. If indices can be wrong – or, at least, misleading and incomplete – on Bulgaria and Serbia can they be wrong elsewhere? If similar methodology was deployed in provincial cities in liberal front running countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland, liberal discourses might be found to be similarly anaemic and economistic.

 The narrowly economic, reform oriented nature of the Bulgarian liberal discourses identified might thus be more Central European than the book allows. Indeed, I wondered what kind of liberal discourses and public might emerge if similar research was carried out in the streets, sports clubs and voluntary associations of Clacton, Colchester, Wigan or Worcester. Anti-political and illiberal sentiments – and a populist desire for an out-of-the-way ‘stealth democracy’ for emergency use only, akin to a fire escape – run deep in Western Europe and North America too.

Mature liberal democracies may also have a shortage of liberal citizens. The desire of a young liberal educated Bulgarian women for a government of non-political businesspeople to sweep aside discredited and corrupt politicians is a source of mild shock and disappointment. But when asked in 2012, some 38% percent of UK respondents told YouGov that ‘Britain would be governed better if our politicians got out of the way, and instead  our ministers were non-political experts who knew how to run large organisations’.

 Despite – or perhaps even because – of its immersive sense of place and locality, it is difficult in some ways not to feel that this a book about democracy more than it is a book about Bulgaria or Serbia.

 This post is based on notes made for a panel discussion at the launch of Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria. How Ideas Shape Publics which took place at the UCL-SSEES School of Slavonic and East European Studies on 18 November 2014.

Eastern Europe’s euro-elections: from anger to apathy?

European Parliament election, 2014 (Slovakia) ballot box

Photo: Sečovce CC BY-SA 3.0

The results of the elections to the European Parliament which took place across the EU’s 28 member states last week very much as predicted – at least in the ‘old’ pre-2004 member states: driven by frustration with austerity, economic stagnation, diminished opportunities and a yawning sense of disconnect with established parties and politicians, a variety of outsider parties made sweeping gains and unignorably stamped themselves on the electoral map.

 In Northern Europe, where socio-economic malaise and disconnect were often refracted through the politics of anti-immigration, this tended to benefit right wing, Eurosceptic parties. In Southern Europe anti-austerity parties of the radical left such as Greece’s Syriza or Podemos in Spain gained most.

 The most spectacular gains were been made by parties of varying political complexions which had a long-time presence on at the political margins: UKIP in the UK, the Front National in France, Sinn Féin in Ireland. Whatever their coloration, scale of their political success underlines the potential fragility of mainstream parties in Western Europe even in states with well-established party systems previously considered immune to populist surges such as Spain or the UK.

 Many commentators have lumped in the newer EU member states of Central and Eastern with the unfolding (if exaggerated) story of a populist backlash in the EU’s West European heartlands. Anticipating the strong showing of the radical right in Denmark, Holland and Austria The Observer’s Julian Coman, for example, causally assured readers that ‘across much of eastern Europe, it is a similar story’

 But, in fact, it was not. Read More…

An ‘Arab 1989′ in 1989?

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Photo: Wally Gombetz CC BY-SA 2.0

 When the Arab Spring broke out two years ago, and there were plenty of commentaries about the Arab 1989. And, perhaps against their better judgement, many specialists on Eastern Europe – including me – piled in to muse about the lessons post communist transitions might hold for unfolding democratisation in the Middle East and North Africa.

A few of these, such as the lecture Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Foundation gave at UCL well thought through and insightful. But in hindsight  many of these pieces did not go further than juxtaposition  seasoned with a dose of speculation.

Having witnessed the academic spats of the 1990s when East European area studies got bogged down in polemics with comparative political scientists, in part driven by anguish and reproach over the failure of area specialists to anticipate the collapse of Communism, perhaps we should have known better.

The military intervention in Egypt and the brutal and tenacious resistance of the Assad regime in Syria – and the apparent internationalization of the Syrian civil war – have caught many commentators flat-footed. There doesn’t seem to be so much writing about the Arab 1989 (or even 1848) now.

  One of the biggest problems of such current affairs driven, instant cross-regional analysis is that we hardly know the beginning of the story, still less its end. To put it in the jargon of political science, we do not have a consolidated outcome.

 But perhaps, in any case, the question is the wrong way round. Rather than East Europeanists pondering what post-communist transition tell us what the unfinished story of the Arab Spring, we should asking what events in the Middle East tell us about post-communist region we actually (supposedly) know something about. Maybe we should view events in Eastern Europe in a new light.

 The tenacity of regime resistance and ongoing instability driven by poverty and conflicts  between political religion and the more secular groups in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) certainly makes what Ralf Dahrendorf anticipated would be Central and Eastern Europe’s ‘vale of tears’ look relatively quick, speedy and benign. The rapid reassertion of entrenched regime forces in the failed or failed transition in the former Soviet Union also begins to look more the norm than it once did. Read More…

Misdiagnosing threats to democracy in Eastern Europe

Littmann

Photo : diekatrin via Flikr  cc

I really don’t know why John Feffer’s Huffington Post post Hungary: The Cancer in the Middle of Europe? is being so widely shared and translated.

Its starting point that  things are going badly wrong in Hungary and that the country is taking a sharply illiberal turn under the conservative-national administration of Fidesz – and that in Jobbik it has a strong and virulent far-right party – is reasonable enough (although  it has been made many times before).  And there is indeed a climate of nationalism and anti-Roma racism on the Hungarian right, although Fidesz and Jobbik are probably as much rivals as ‘occasional allies’ especially given the stuttering performance of Hungary’s divided liberal-left.

And the transformation of Fidesz from a liberal party to conservative bloc occurred in the mid-late 1990s, not recently as some readers might assume from reading piece. Nor, being one of the major governing parties in Hungary since 1998 can Fidesz have interrupted a ‘rotating kleptocracy’ of liberal parties – the intepretation of why parties like Fidesz come to power offered in the conclusion.

But piece’s main argument that Hungary is Eastern Europe writ large or the shape things to come in the region. ‘What’s eating away at a free society in Hungary’, Feffer writes, ‘has metastasized. This same cancer is present elsewhere on the continent’.

And this is really hyperbole.  Read More…

Uncorking democracy

Photo: Davide Restivo, Lenzburg, Aarau, Switzerland. Via Wikicommons

Like a good wine or an old cheese, comparative research on democratisation is often described as a ‘mature’ academic literature and, as such, one that can lay claim to have accumulated some real knowledge about one of the central trends in global politics over last two centuries or so. Leonardo Morlino’s new book Changes for Democracy: Actors, Structures, Processes, however, warns that even such cautious satisfaction is not in order.

 There has, he suggests, been high-level theorising of institutional change and empirical research with quantitative research preoccupied with operationalization tends to produce simplistic variable-driven theories.  Regionally oriented approaches to democratisation –beginning with the ‘transition’ approaches developed by O’Donnell and other Latin Americanists in 1970s – however, get the lowest marks for offering  ‘questions but not theoretical results’ heralding a  ‘…retreat from theory or a fear of developing a theory… ’ .

 Morlino’s wide-ranging book which – sometimes rather awkwardly –  mixes literature review, empirical analysis and discusses concepts tries to correct this with an ambitious three-part reflection seeking to identify underlying mechanisms of democratisation. It takes in definitions of democracy (and illiberal democracy); phases of democratisation and democratic ‘anchors’ and the question of deepening democracy once established.

 

The book is in some ways a rather untidy and frustrating read. Parts of the discussion, seemed laboured and the book shifts frustratingly between recapitulation and revision of conventional approaches such Dahl’s minimal definition of procedural democracy to much more novel insights. In the end in its own terms, however, its does deliver  picking out three key shared mechanisms of democratisation:  learning as the main motor transition; ‘anchoring’ mechanisms as key to consolidation; and the fact that the good qualities of good democracies tend to converge, rather than being brutally traded-off.

 Set against the sheer complexity and diversity of global democratisation, however, such conclusions to me seemed a little sparse. Much more interesting were the arresting and sometimes rather brilliant linkages Morlino make between phases of democratisation which tend to be theorised and studied in isolation. Reflections on ‘anchoring’ democracy, for example, lead to an innovative idea about the nature of political crises in modern democracies as rooted to initial patterns of democratic consolidation.  His suggestion that the well-worn ‘transition’ perspective might be used to analyse shifts within democracies from one model of democracy to another is a similarly arresting insight.

 All in all while not quite a vintage work, certainly a book with some subtle and interesting flavours worth savouring for a while.

(A longer version of this review is forthcoming in Czech Sociological Review)

 

Reykjavík diary

The  decision of the European Consortium for Political Research to stage its biennial (soon to annual) General Conference in Reykjavík has resulted in one of the biggest such events ever, with some 2000 political scientists temporarily boosting the Icelandic capital’s population by around 2%.

And decending through the clouds to Keflavík  airport with fields of basalt below, mountainous coastline to the right and the Atlantic ocean to the left, it was not hard to guess why. Iceland also intrigues  as a small state with economy nearly wrecked by the financial meltdown, a highly distinct language – the closest thing you are likely to hear to what the Vikings spoke – and cultural scene ranging from crime fiction to sculture and dance music.

The influx of ECPR delegates is, seemingly, almost too much for airport shuttle bus and the capital’s hotels, full to capacity and sometimes overbooked.  Arriving at mine, alongside strip of unprepossessing low-rise office blocks and light industrial units that stretch along the sea front, we are asked to move to a hotel in a small town just South of Reykjavik with a jacuzzi and hot tub.

I get a free bus pass and a cup of coffee for compliantly agreeing, but then while waiting for a while for a taxi that never came and a certain

Photo: Jóhann Heiðar Árnason

amount of confusion, I’m told I can stay after all.  I check in, getting to keep the bus pass, and go out to admire the view of mountains and sea across the bay.

There is a garage with a shop, actually more of a kind general store, and diner serving sandwiches and burgers. I rapidly come to understand the role of the garage as local social centre that had puzzled me so much wartching Night Shift and the importance of the hot dog in Icelandic life.  And there are free coffee refills.  Too good to be true.

…….

Iceland University is a 20 minutes bus ride away on the other side of town, but our panel, where we are analyising new anti-establishment parties in Central and Eastern Europe using Qualitiative Comparative Analysis is only in the afternoon and before that we have a date at the City Hall.

Iceland’s financial and political shocks have seen the country’s voters turn to some new anti-establishment parties of their own, including the Best Party of actor and comedian – and star of the Night Shift, Jón Gnarr. Starting as a  satirical protest , the party’s runaway momentum saw it win last year’s muncipal election and Mr Gnarr (or Jón , as I should say, as he’s that kind of guy, and besides first names are the proper form of address in this country, I think) is now mayor of Rejkjavik, although the realities of office has seen his popularity fall back from 34% to 19%.

We get to speak to the Best Party’s competent and thoughful campaign manager and learn a lot, seeing a lot of unexpected parallels between Best and anti-establishment protest parties we are more familiar with in CEE.

Gnarr: The MovieAlthough mainly reported as a joke party – and having detractors in other parties and the media, who see them as incompetent showmen  – we come away the impression of serious political outfit, which has its tactics quite well thought through.

On the plane back we learn more, watching  the story of the 2010 election campaign on the in-flight documentaries , Gnarr – The Movie, and learn some more.  The party is clearly built around Jon Gnarr, whose deadpan outrageous humour totally floors Iceland’s decent but worthy party politicians.

It is also hilarous. The guy in the next seat on the plane, who is quietly reading an a collection of John Stuart Mill’s writings, seems initially disconcerted as we  degenerate into helpless laughter beside him.

….

Despite time issues – not the least with our presentation – and our panel and paper (on paths to  anti-establishment parties’ breakthroughs  in Central and Eastern Europe) went well.  The other three papers had an interesting mix of approaches and strengths and weaknesses and, I later realised, we probably had the basis  for a great workshop, rather than a 90 minute panel. Chair and discussant Carsten Schneider, however, provided a tour de force critique of all four papers in 10-15 minutes.

Some of the other panels were a bit more frustrating, as paper overload killed off any real prospect of audience questions or discussion. Even with the most efficient time-keeping, five papers and two formal slots in a 90 minutes  for discussants reduces a room full of well informed specialists from all parts of the world  to a cast of dumb onlookers.

I wondered why in one of the biggest political science conference in Europe and one of most wired countries in Europe, no one had thought of a smarter way of doing things than the traditional panel format, which seems to date from another era.  If there are time pressures and many speakers , could we not a least tweet questions and comments?

President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson - Photo Sebastian Derungs/World Economic Forum

In the evening we are bussed to Reykjavik’s newly opened Harpa concert hall to be formally welcomed by the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, a former professor of political science now in his fourth term as head of state. The President’s plenary lecture stressed that markets and economics should not take precedence over politics and that Iceland was a laboratory both for the dangers of market forces and the way politics and political consensus could avert them.

Iceland’s process of constitutional reform was a model, part of new wave of citizen-driven democratic change driven by the internet and social media, being played out against a background of shifting techtotic plates in global society. India and China were on the rise, while Iceland would become part of the New North.

Here there was plenty of tweeting and Facebook comment from those listening and – as it was intended to – the speech seems to havedown well with the mass ranks of political scientists.

But hang on.

Surely politicians, including long-serving ones such as the President himself (a man of the social democratic left, presiding until 2009 – over centre-right governments), were responsible for the lax regulation, which alloed the insane hubris unleashed by financial sector? Indeed,  Ragnar Grímsson is on record pre-crisis as praising the dynamism of the country’s unconventional (and as it turned out dangerous and pointless) financial sector.

Hard not to feel that, while perfectly OK  as democratic  counterveiling mechanism, his hugely popular stand against the Icesave Laws  –   rejected twice by voters in presidentially initiated referenda – is not altogether a principled stand against The Markets, but also one  against small savers and local authorities in the UK unlucky enough to have their money in duff Icelandic financial institutions and taxpayers like me.

 A small country like Iceland clearly cannot pay for massive losses of the crisis in toto – take a Reykjavik bus  (and with my free bus pass I took plenty) and you always see  a few people,  poorly dressed and look worn out and beaten up by life.

On the other hand unemployment, having peaked at 10 per cent, is 7.5% , similar to that in the UK, although low by East or Southern

Photo: James Cridland

European standards and  the Icesave  sums payable after assets sales are, it is reported, relatively small, suggesting that the whole Icesave has just served as convenient safety value for popular anger.

You wonder, however, whether the four-term President might have done his country a favour by perhaps his own political responsibiliy- and the malfunctioning (as elsewhere) of domestic democratic institution – stepping down to allow deeper political renewal, rather than  stoking the fires of  national grievance.

And is the rise of the internet really akin to the transition from feudalism? And the rise of the Scottish National Party part of the same New North ? I leave the Ragnar Grímsson’s address sceptical and disappointed.

Let’s hope Jón Gnarr runs for President. At least the jokes will be funnier.

….

On my last day I walk through Reykjavik again. It is the calmest and most peaceful capital city  I have ever been in. I decide to hire a bike and cycle along Seabraut taking in a view of mountains and sea.Then I get lost and end in an industrial estate beside a toilet factory.

Way out West

Cycling around the Icelandic capital is safe and easy. Laws allowing cycling on empty pavements are eminently sensible and cycle paths run beside main roads . The  view is mixed but interesting: large villas, blocks of flats small shops, mountains, small residential streets with whimical statues, a broad vista West with mountains and motorways, then mutlicoloured traditional houses.

With quite realising it, I circumnavigated the city and  done a Leif Ericson, discovering interesting places I didn’t mean to go to and had never heard of, although admittedly he had a longship while I only have a well used bike in low gear.  Appropriately enough, I finish up by the Leif Ericson statute and go for a cup of coffee.

A Czech dictator in the wings? Well, you’re the expert

Today’s daily Final Word commentary from Prague-based Fleet Sheet English news briefing service for the Czech Republic offers  a vision of the political future, which is either darkly paranoid or very tongue-in-cheek:

” For at least 40years, the West has been on a path to self-destruction, and politicians and business leaders have proven that they are unwilling or unable to take reasonable steps to reverse the trend. … in time of crisis.. [p]eople will take to the streets in increasing numbers, but the result will not be less theft by the criminal elite or better use of tax money. The political and business elite will instead respond with bludgeons, guns and, if necessary, tanks. The West is headed toward some form of dictatorship…”

V for... Very likely?

In the coming days we are promised, it’ll explore  several possibilities for who the next Czech dictator will be. Even with a rash of urban riots up and down the UK,  I don’t share that apocalyptic V for Vendetta vision, nor do I think even that the Czech Republic is a dictatorship in the making, whatever the dubious inclination of some of its political and business elites.

Still, it’ll be way to fill the ‘cucumber season’, the notorious summer hiatus in Czech political and journalistic life when nothing much goes on and overproduction of cucumbers or mushroom picking conditions force their way on to the front pages faute de mieux.

But hang on, if we’ll be hearing about the next dictator, who were the earlier ones? The Czech lands have been ruled from foreign capitals by Franz Josef II, Hitler and Stalin at various times, but do any of them qualify as Czech? The country had an communist one party regime and various communist party bosses, but power was rarely concentrated in the hands of individual ruler, more Party and nomenklatura institutions and elites.

Klement Gottwald

Klement Gottwald, Czechoslovakia’s ‘First Worker President’  is probably the best candidate, but even he had to manoeuvre between party and secret police factions and Moscow and might well have got the chop during de-Stalinisation if he had not opportunely died (of natural causes aggravated by heavy drinking) in 1953.

So what does this totalitarian history have to do with supposed authoritarian tendencies in today’s CR? The answer seem to be very little. I will, as ever, read the Last Word with interest to see who is in the frame for the El Presidente  role .

I suspect Václav Klaus and a rogue’s gallery of other, admittedly fairly dislikable figures,  will be lined up for our delectation: you can’t really go wrong bashing Czech political and business elites, even in the most hyperbolic terms.

But whatever his moral and political limitations, Klaus ain’t no Gottwald and anchored in middle of Europe and in the EU with all the democratic basic chugging along the country is not going to slide into  dictatorship, but remain marooned in  grimy and dysfunctional democratic politics.

Empty plinth in Berlin

Photo: Assenmacher

The ‘next dictator’ is thus Mr or Ms Nobody.

But, of course, all democratic systems do have authoritarian currents running through them.  And, in the CR I think the most powerful of these currents  is not populism, extremism or dodgy politicians with whacky right-wing  figures in their entourage like President Klaus or certain government ministers.

Transplant today’s Czech Republic to the middle of Latin America or some more unstable geo-political  or historical climate and  you would find that the ‘next dictator’ would be some mild mannered civil servant catapulted to power,  running a technocratic caretaker government that runs and runs.

Such  an úřednická vláda (‘government of officials’) ran the country to great acclaim under the Head of the Czech Statistical Office for , Jan Fischer (now Vice Presidnet of the EBRD) over a year in 2009-10. Admittedly he did so at the behest of the country’s political paries. Would many people have cared if he had slipped the leash and gone on? Or gone into politics with a new party?

Alberto Fujimori

As the Peruvian experience with mildy mannered agricultural expert and academic Alberto Fujimori, it’s the quiet, grey technocratic ones  you need to watch, not the big mouthed party-political bruisers who normally win elections.

Certainly, perhaps in the Czech Republic

“Vy jste ale odborník”, people often say. ” Well, you’re the expert”.

The real translation is  “Say or do what the hell you like. I’ll accept it.”

Power indeed.

>The quality of governance is not strained

>

Prof. Bo Rothstein of Gothenburg’s University’s Quality of Government Institute  is a supporter of the Glorious Blues. Not Chelsea, but sixteen times Swedish champions FF Malmo. His presentation to SSEES’s politics centred on Anti-Corruption Indirect Big Bang Approach  was, however, strictly Premier League stuff. The issue, as he explained to our medium sized but on-the-ball audience, was in fact one less one of politicians taking the occasional (or not so occasional) backhander as of institutions in much of the world delivering or not delivering basic public goods such as clean water and  health, which left some people literally dying of corruption  – and of repeated failed attempts to find a magic bullet to slay corrupt, inefficient institutions and the informal structures that underpinned them. 
Both marketisation and democratisation had failed in this role, often merely transforming the problems into slightly new guise (or even aggravating them). As Robert Putman had realised individual-level incentives  based on expectations of other people locked in corrupt (and non-corupt) behaviour – although unlike Putnam he did not think that associationalism was related to social capital., meaning there was no easy  macro- institutional fix – or even a not-so-easy cultural one. Sadly, therefore corrupt, dysfunctional institutions were in many ways the norm and well governed Weberian states in Europe and North America the exception: why it should be asked was Sweden with large bureaucracies and large welfare programmes was not (as it should be) a cesspool of corruption and patronage-driven instability ?
Rally backing Indonsia’s anticorruption committee – Photo Ivan Atmanagara .
The answer his research (and new book - forthcoming with Chicago University Press later this year) suggested he key he argued – awkwardly from a normative point of view – was, rather than (electoral) democracy,  liberal state impartiality (and/or citizens’ sense of it) constituted the most effective means of dealing a ‘big bang’ blow (over a 10-20 year timescale). Delving into the Swedish (and British/Scandinavian)  experience to find how corupt tax-farming and aristocratic rent-seeking in public office turns into squeaky clean public admininistration (Swedish foreign arms sales excepted) through historical case studies had proved inconclusive: several historians sent into the archives to do the job had (intellectually speaking) disappeared iwithout trace and drowned in the mass of documentation. It seemed, however, that an indirect strategy, partly triggered by political choices and partly by the imperatives of technological modernization was the key
Questions centred on whether his understand of democracy was not, in fact, a diminshed subtype (along the lines of Zakaria’s notions of democracy-as-elections) and whether the British colonial legacy played a role. As for patriotic Brits it did not: the new book contained a paired case study of Singapore and Jamaica in the new book (also available here as a working paper) examined how – despite seemingly better prospects Jamaica had sunk into corruption and stagnation, while ethnically divided Singapore had prospered although as one questioner suggested with a population the size of Brighton and Hove, the island state was an outlier rather than blueprint for the development of good governance.
All in all, big answers to big questions with a refreshingly wide range of cases and mehthods, rather than political science navel gazing we usually too often go in for.

>The EU: Viable or friable?

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I should know better. I should only, only read books that generate immediate research outputs, the life blood of contemporary academia and never, not ever succumb to the temptation to read things that are simply interesting, But somehow this is one New Year’s resolution I never keep. So as well as reading Scandinavian crime novels and a book about the fall of the Roman Empire – actually rather instructive on issues of statehood for your average contemporary political scientist, I thought – I’ve also a soft spot for what Giovanni Capoccia recently termed the ‘historical turn in democratization studies’ , so it wasn’t the greatest of holiday chores to have to read Andrew Glencross’s  What Makes the EU Viable?: European Integration in the Light of the Antebellum US Experience.  

The book adds to a small but growing literature comparing the emerging EU political system with the experience of US federalism. However, Glencross says, the best period for such anachronistic historical comparison is not the early constitution-making of the Founding Fathers or the functioning  of modern US federalism, but the antebellum period – ie. the decades between the foundation of the American Republic and outbreak of the Civil War – when the relationship between member states of the union and political centre was most ambiguous and contested.

Such a comparison Glencross argues, means we need an expanded concept of ‘viability’ embracing not only the formal allocation of institutional and legal powers and ‘competences over competences’, but also actors’ understandings of the purposes of the union and whether popular sovereignty is ultimately invested in the centre, the member states, or both. Applying this framework, he identifies two distinct approaches to achieving viability in a semi-federal, semi-confederal state unions like the EU or the early US: ‘1) voluntary centralization’ where the different actors negotiate their way to a stronger, more integrated state; and 2) ‘dynamic equilibrium’ where institutional and political ambiguity – far from being a problem to be solved – is the key to viability.
The viability of the antebellum US, he argues, was in the end fatally undermined by an emerging politics of ‘voluntary centralization’, while the EU has survived precisely by sticking to a pattern of ‘dynamic equilibrium’. In this light, projects to fix the European Union through various forms of democratization and constitutionalization appear best irrelevant and at worst dangerous. There are, Glencross acknowledges, important differences between the two cases: the US was created through a constitutional instrument, the EU through an inter-state economic treaty; the US had a nationwide party system with a dominant cleavage (slavery) dividing member states, the EU has only an embryonic party system with many cross cutting divides between states. Nevertheless, he argues, the parallels are sufficient to merit serious rethinking about the reform of EU governance.
What Makes the EU Viable? is, admittedly, an uneven book given, in places, to opaque and overlong and over-defensive theoretical asides as books-of-PhD-dissertation often do. It would also benefit from more simply explained engagement with mainstream EU studies literatures and the burgeoning subfield of historical democratization. However, at bottom, I thought it succeeded in its objective of asking a big and timely question and deploys anachronistic comparison to deliver some genuinely unexpected and worrying answers. Academic viability, if ever I saw it.

>Post-communist democratization: Is your name.. Rumpelputin?

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Late at night I’ve been sitting up reading: reading Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Postcommunist World (Cambridge University Press) edited high-powered US specialists on communism and post-communism. McFaul is now a senior advisor to the Obama presidency at the National Security Council. This new collection – available in paper and hardback and Kindle – basically tries to regime change in the former communist world into a new perspective by linking the collapse of one-party rule in 1989-1991 with more recent experiences of democratisation in Eastern Europe and the former USSR. As the editors argue in the opening chapterswe should think of postcommunist democratisation as three overlapping phases: 1) the breakdown of Communist Party rule in the late 1980s; 2) democratisation processes in 1990s driven by the prospect of EU membership, which stopped some new democratic states in Central and Eastern Europe sliding into semi-authoritarianism; and 3) more recent ‘coloured revolutions’ in the former USSR, which were triggered by electoral fraud in states without any clear prospect of joining the European Union.

And what’s more Michael McFaul suggests, theses three phases underline the role of the international system as a missing (or at least, under-played) variable which has shaped the different waves: the collapse of Soviet power and  its later re-emergence under Putin; the EU’s decision to enlarge Eastwards; and a growing US preoccupation with the ‘War on Terror’ after 2001. However, contributors differ in their views of precisely how – and how strongly – international influences have come to bear. Milada Anna Vachudova sees EU leverage on CEE’s more problem atic states as a key motor of liberalisation and reform, while– despite making points similar things in a slightly different language – Alina Mungiu-Pippdi at bottom claims that the EU’s political conditionalities were easily bypassed by anti-reform elites. Horizontal economic integration and broader European norms were, she claims, the important factors. Sadly, this is the type of domestic vs. European factors arguments that no one has convincing really worked out how to settle. Similarly, in his finely-researched chapter on Ukraine’s ‘Orange Revolution, McFaul is unable to conclude more than that US and international influences were indirect, although here one detects a certain politically inspired pulling of punches. There seems plenty of evidence in McFaul’s thoroughly researched chapter for arguing the case one way or other and if I was in the opposition in a semi-authoritarian state, I surely as hell would want USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy training my youth volunteers and election monitors and bunging a bit of cash to friendly NGOs.
As Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik note, changes the geo-political environments mattered because they altered the incentives of domestic actors and changed patterns of diffusion between states. Diffusion mechanisms – while always at work- evolved over time. Would-be democratic revolutionaries in Eastern Europe have been copying tactical innovations; drawing parallels between national contacts; and forming of collaborative networks since at least 1980, if not 1848. However, as various lcase study chapters on ‘electoral revolutions on  Slovakia (1998) and Serbia (2000), Georgia (2004), and Ukraine (2004) make clear by the millennium the transnational activist networks and election monitoring had become the key paths  for change.
However, post-communist authoritarians too have been learning lessons. As Kathryn Stoner-Weiss and Vitali study on Putin’s Russia and Lukashenko’s Belarus – and Lucan Way’s comparison of post-Soviet authoritarianisms – show, an effective formula for blocking democratisation is at hand:  the key ingredients are well trained, well paid security forces; regaining  Soviet-era levels ofcontrol of the media and the economy; a well organised new ruling party backed by some kind of an ideological claim to legitimacy s Nevertheless, extreme weakness of post-Soviet state institutions can be a still more fundamental obstacle to democratisation: Scott Radnitz  illustrates the point bluntly in a chapter arguing that Kyrgyzstan’s repeated ‘electoral revolutions’ are more a sign of failed statehood than social pewssures for democratisatio.
As the book shows, despite the Year of Miracles in1989 – the dominant image of regime change for Western obsevers – post-communist transition  has most often been a story of failed or partial democratisation creating semi-democratic ‘hybrid regimes’, whose closed political systems, semi-open societies and corrupt public adminstration set the scene for further democratic upheavals. The net effect of such waves, however, has been a gradual polarisation of the region’s initially weak democratisers into consolidated (if low quality) democracies (Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Slovakia) and consolidated autocracies (Russia, Belarus, Armenia).
As you would expect, Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Postcommunist World offers a wide-ranging and sophisticated overview of South East European and post-Soviet democratisation By joining up Europeanisation, ‘electoral revolutions’ and transitions from one-party rule in 1989-1991, it offers an original perspective highlighting the unfolding of a kind of Kondratievian long wave of democratisation across a single region. However, I found explanation and description in the book were too often blurred. Many of the causal factors its contributors highlight beg more questions than they answer. Why were some authoritarian elites more united in the face of opposition? Why were some security and police apparatuses more cohesive? Oil, victory in neighbourhood wars and timing all seem to be part of the bigger story. Too often, however, we are left with accounts where wily authoritarians like Putin or Lukashenka appearing Rumpelstiltskin-like at the wrong moment.  If only they would disappear as easily.
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