Democratization and the paradoxes of history - Interview with Professor Grzegorz Ekiert – Harvard University

By Zbigniew Truchlewski | 17 June 2013

To quote this document: Zbigniew Truchlewski, “Democratization and the paradoxes of history - Interview with Professor Grzegorz Ekiert – Harvard University”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 17 June 2013,, displayed on 02 June 2023

To what extent do history and space shape the process of democratization? How to analyze the so-called transition paradigm? Grzegorz Ekiert, Professor of Government, Director of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies and Senior Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, answers Zbigniew Truchlewski's questions for Nouvelle Europe.

Zbigniew Truchlewski : Your work focuses on the process of democratization in Eastern Europe. How should we study democratization in Central and Eastern Europe? What is the problem of studying democratization by waves, as done by Huntington, Linz and Stepan, etc.?

Grzegorz Ekiert : This is a big question. It's a question about almost thirty years of research done in social sciences. The study of democratization started with an interest in preconditions for democracy. Accepting the then dominant modernization theory, scholars looked at lots of different indicators of economic and social development, arguing basically that countries which have proper conditions are able to establish and sustain democratic systems. And those countries with proper pre-conditions are also those that are the most developed economically. That is why democracy flourished in post World War II Western Europe and in the United States. This was in the nutshell the dominant thinking about democracy and democratization for almost two decades from the late 1950s to mid-1970s.

Then the regime changes first in Southern Europe in the 1970s and Eastern Europe in the 1980s shifted the paradigm of thinking about transitions away from preconditions of democratization to democratization as a process that can be accomplished in almost any circumstances and in any environment as long as the main political actors in a society are committed to democratic goals and are able to negotiate between themselves about how those goals can be reached. Any country can thus become a democracy.

The new approach to democratization also emphasized institutional choices claiming that certain political institutions are better at propping up emerging democracies and that other institutions are less likely to contribute to democratic outcomes. At the center of this debate was a choice between parliamentary and presidential systems of government. This was a way of thinking about democratization, which was very open-ended and non-fatalistic. Depending on configurations of conflicts, the nature of political actors, and their goals and normative orientations, transition away from authoritarianism could be successfully negotiated. In principle, democracy can be established in any place as long as there is an agreement among protagonists of political conflicts.

(the so-called transition paradigm)

But then, twenty years after 1989, we discovered that despite the fact that reform strategies, goals of political actors and their policies were remarkably similar, some countries in the region ended up with consolidated liberal democracies and others did not. This was the case even in the unique historical situation where democracy became “the only game in town.” This is the challenge to the so-called transition paradigm and we need to re-think what we know about democratic transitions. I think that we are now in the third wave of thinking about democratization. The first one was about preconditions, the second one was about choices and actions of actors, and the third one brings back history and space. Scholars representing the new approach take historical and geographical contexts seriously. They argue that democracy is more likely to emerge in some places and countries and that location and historical experiences matter a great deal.

(the third way of thinking democratization: location and history)

When one looks at Central and East European developments, it is obvious that the farther East one goes, the lower chances of seeing a working democracy. It would be reasonable to assume that this has something to do with the location of the country and its historical experiences. The notion of neighborhood is here very important –it is difficult to build democracy in a non-democratic neighborhood. Being on the peripheries of Western Europe has clear advantages. The closer you are to the democratic core, the bigger your chances of becoming a consolidated democracy. So that's one thing, which is very important – location matters, and this can be studied in a very systematic way. Students of economic development argued that location matters for economic outcome a long time ago.  Why are there no advanced successful economies around the Equator? Because these locations around the Equator are inhospitable to economic development for variety of reasons. Successful economic systems never took roots in those countries. Being a land-locked country has similar effects.

Thus the third way of thinking about democratization is about history and location.  History works in very mysterious ways in shaping present political and economic outcomes. The first issue that is obvious is that countries which had a democratic experience in the past are more likely to become democracies than countries which did not. Thinking about Central Europe and the Baltic Republics for example – these are all countries that at one point in their recent history were trying to construct and sustain democracy. Of course, these were all failures in the inter-war period but those experiences of failed democratization were very helpful in many ways when these countries got their second chance. First, these countries mostly resurrected their past political institutions. Their constitutional choices were constrained by tradition. For example, the structures and the names of the parliaments in contemporary Central and Eastern European countries are the same as they were before the Second World War. And many of these institutions (electoral systems, the choices of constitutional solutions for different issues, welfare institutions) do not depart much from those traditions that were developed during the first transition to democracy. This first point is very important: the more experience with democracy particular countries had in the past, the higher their chances of establishing democracy today.

The second point, that is even more difficult to conceptualize, is about long run historical developments and their impact on present political and economic outcomes.  I think this is a set of issues that requires more research. For example, the boundaries and borders, that were in place hundred or hundred fifty years ago and disappeared a long time ago, are showing up unexpectedly in the electoral geography. Those old borders somehow have influenced the ways in which preferences are shaped today. To give you a couple of examples, in Poland when one looks at the number of NGOs in the countryside, one clearly sees that in the old Russian partition, there are significantly fewer NGOs in the countryside than there are in the Austro-Hungarian or in the Prussian partitions. So you can see that the borders between Poland's partitions still have an impact. Or, to take another example, in the middle of the nineteenth century there were many dialects in Germany, and at that time the German government commissioned ethnographers to map them. A century later, some clever economists (Falck et al. 2012) asked whether these old boundaries between dialects that disappeared a long time ago still have some sort of power. They did a study of regional migrations and they discovered that today the mobility within the old dialect boundaries is higher than across dialect boundaries. These are example of old boundaries that disappeared a long time ago but still have some mysterious power to shape contemporary outcomes.


(long-term continuity beyond discontinuity)

There are a lot of stories of that kind showing some surprising stability over a long period of time. Now, let me give you one more example: it's about economic development and comes from a book by Jim Mahoney (2010). When one looks at the level of economic development of countries of Latin America in the eighteenth century and today, the ranking among countries is pretty much the same, with few exceptions like Venezuela because of oil. But the broad pattern is very similar. Now, I did a similar ranking for Central and Eastern Europe. When one looks at the estimates about income per capita in Eastern Europe starting from the eighteenth century, we have the following ranking: Czechoslovakia (or what became later Czechoslovakia) comes first, then Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania. That ranking has not changed over the last one hundred fifty years. Now think about this: there were wars, collapse of imperial powers, there were state building processes, there were changes of political systems, there were changes of economic systems, societies modernized, there were lots of policy choices of different kinds that were made, various industrialization strategies, etc. And somehow, regardless of what choices and decisions were made those countries land up in exactly the same configurations. That's the most mysterious part of the story. There is this sort of long run historical legacies that tend to shape different types of outcomes, political and economic. The paradox, to which we point in the paper with Daniel Ziblatt, is that paradoxically these long-term continuities are most prominent in places which have a lot of discontinuity.

In countries where we have seen gradual adjustments, when institutions and policies are changing in an incremental way over time, those long-term historical legacies are less visible and important. In places that experienced abrupt changes, like wars, regime change, changes to the economic system, somehow that power of historical legacies is more prominent.

Zbigniew Truchlewski: How can we explain this?

Grzegorz Ekiert: This is open to many different interpretations. One possible explanation would be that in the historical development in every nation there are very rare and critical moments that set the trajectory of this country development in a new path. So, if you think about this in the context of the region we are talking about, that critical moment was the second half of the nineteenth century. This was the moment in which those societies were literally re-made - socially, politically and economically. The traditional social structures changed, capitalism and market economy were established, there was urbanization, and lot of other changes. Big cities emerged. Budapest in the middle of the nineteenth century was composed of three small towns with no sewage, one storey-buildings and so on. Move forward to 1890, and Budapest is one of the most beautiful capitals of Europe with affluent middle class and wonderful architecture. This is the change that happened during that period. That change had a mark on everything that happened in the consecutive one hundred fifty years.

Now I think that one part of this discontinuity puzzle is that collective memories are kept intact when societies experience rapid and fundamental change. This is a little bit like the argument that social capital scholars made, emphasizing critical junctures and mechanisms of path dependent developments. When societies face periods of dramatic changes, their collective memories freeze up and become unfrozen when another period of fundamental changes arrives, that maybe one of the possible mechanisms of transmission. I remember that there were lots of criticisms of the idea of freezing and unfreezing of cleavages after communism, but I think that there is some sort of dynamic shaping the durability and the impact of collective memories. In some cases, those with deep discontinuities, the impact of historical legacies is more prominent than in other cases which experienced gradual institutional adjustment and social change.

So we are in the period now where we need to take a new look at how to study democracy and democratization, how to take history seriously, how to take space seriously. There is clearly a new paradigm emerging. There is a group of scholars in the US and Europe studying these issues in different geographical contexts and time periods. How do democracies emerge and how do they die is a politically important and intellectually exciting issue. We still have plenty to learn about it.

Grzegorz Ekiert is Professor of Government, Director of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies and Senior Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. His teaching and research interests focus on comparative politics, regime change and democratization, civil society and social movements, and East European politics and societies. He is the author of The State Against Society: Political Crises and Their Aftermath in East Central Europe (1996), Rebellious Civil Society: Popular Protest and Democratic Consolidation in Poland, with (Jan Kubik, 1999); Capitalism and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe: Assessing the Legacy of Communist Rule, (co-edited with Stephen Hanson, 2003) and editor of special issues of East European Politics and Societies on the EU Eastward Enlargement (with Jan Zielonka, 2003), on Democracy in Postcommunist World (2007) and Taiwan Journal of Democracy on A Liberal Challenge? Civil Society and Grass-roots Politics in New Democracies, Authoritarian and Hybrid Regimes (with Sunhyuk Kim, 2012). His papers appeared in numerous social science journals and edited volumes. His current projects explore civil society development in new democracies in Central Europe and East Asia and patterns of transformations in postcommunist world. He is also faculty associate of Davis Center for Russian Studies, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and Member of the Club of Madrid Advisory Committee.

Further readings:

  • Ekiert, Grzegorz. 2012. “The Illiberal Challenge in Post-Communist Europe: Surprises and Puzzles.” Taiwan Journal of Democracy 8 (2): 63–77.
  • Ekiert, Grzegorz, and Daniel Ziblatt. 2013. “Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe One Hundred Years On.” East European Politics & Societies 27 (1): 90–107.
  • Falck Oliver, Stephan Heblich, Alfred Lameli, Jens Südekum. (2012). "Dialects, cultural identity, and economic exchange." Journal of Urban Economics 72 (2–3): 225–239.
  • Mahoney, James. 2010. Colonialism and Postcolonial Development: Spanish America in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge University Press. 

Source photo: © Grzegorz Ekiert.