WORLD POLICY JOURNAL
Fairness Matters: Equity and the Transition to Democracy
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The postcommunist transitions in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have been remarkably successful. While the pace of change differs widely from north to south and from west to east, overall the transitions have been both faster and smoother than almost anyone expected, either inside the region or out. Most of the 27 countries that emerged from the former Communist bloc have largely privatized their economies and elected democratic governments, and most have a semblance, at least, of competing political parties and a free press. By the end of this year, ten East European states will be members of NATO, and eight will belong to the European Union. Nobody expected such rapid change when communism imploded a dozen years ago.
Despite these successes, citizens of the postcommunist states in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union remain discontented, dissatisfied with the economy, and cynical about politics, and are increasingly staying away from the polls on election day. Opinion surveys in these countries reveal that large percentages of the population in every country, and majorities in many, believe that they were better off in the Communist era than they are now.1 Both academic analysts and political pundits have tended to see economic decline and the dislocations of the transition period as the reasons why people have soured on both the new politics and the new economy. With renewed economic growth and employment, they say, the citizens of these states will increasingly support the governments and political parties. Much of the academic debate on this subject has revolved around the “egocentric” vs. “sociotropic” dimensions of public opinion, that is, whether support for governments or for a political system are due more to an individual’s personal economic experiences (egocentric) or to that individual’s sense of how the economy as a whole is doing (sociotropic).
There is, however, another factor that seems to account for popular assessments of the postcommunist transitions: the perceived fairness of the transition process. Yet the question of fairness has barely been addressed in academic discussions of the democratic transitions. There is increasing evidence, both survey-based and qualitative, that suggests that fairness evaluations (popular assessments of the fairness of political and economic systems) are a more powerful determinant of support for the new systems than either egocentric or sociotropic assessments. If this is so, it suggests that we ought to take a different approach to economic and social development in the region, one that focuses more on an equitable sharing of the costs and benefits of transition than on straightforward economic growth and privatization.
Capitalism brought with it its usual share of problems, however. Unemployment, which was nearly nonexistent in Eastern Europe in the Communist era, had reached near double-digit levels in many countries by the end of the 1990s. A World Bank study of 18 postcommunist states found that the number of people living in poverty increased tenfold between 1989 and 1996.2 Income inequality, as measured by the Gini index, increased dramatically in every country for which data is available. Increases in unemployment and poverty also contributed to declining health indicators and, especially in the countries of the former Soviet Union, increases in mortality and morbidity were without peacetime precedent.
The growing gap between rich and poor in the postcommunist states has been particularly galling for many citizens because many of the newly rich were members of the Soviet nomenklatura, and thus their former oppressors. The party elites and economic managers of the Communist era were in a particularly good position to take advantage of the rapid, mostly unregulated, privatization of big industries, and many have become millionaires doing so. In Russia, where the problem is particularly egregious, the phenomenon has been dubbed “market bolshevism.”3 Vaclav Havel, the former president of the more stable and affluent Czech Republic, complained early on in the transition period that the “nomenklatura, who, until very recently, were faking concern about social justice and the working class, have cast aside their masks and, almost overnight, openly become speculators and thieves.”4
The transition from communism has been especially hard on women. Besides suffering worse degrees of poverty and unemployment than men, they have also had to cope with problems of pornography and anti-feminism, and reductions in child-care and maternity benefits. To add insult to injury, in almost every postcommunist state, women are less well represented politically than they were in the Communist era. There are fewer women in the leadership ranks of political parties and fewer women hold seats in national legislatures.
Of course, the economic situation is worse in some countries than in others. By 1998, the GDP numbers for Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary had returned to 1989 levels (though it took a decade for them to do so even in these “success” stories). However, GDP levels in Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Russia, and Latvia in 1998 were only about half what they were in 1989. And many of the problems mentioned above—poverty, unemployment, inequality—afflicted even the more successful transitional states.
Public Attitudes and Fairness
People in Russia and Eastern Europe tell pollsters that they are worse off now than they were under communism. When individuals in six East European countries were asked in 1999 if “life in general is better or worse now than under communism,” in every country more people said “worse” than “better.” In every country except Poland and Hungary, the percentage saying “worse” increased from a similar poll in 1992.5 The British political scientist Richard Rose concludes from periodic surveys in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union that most people feel freer but poorer. This is the case even though, as Rose points out, their perceptions with respect to the latter are probably not strictly correct in objective terms, given the broader availability and possession of consumer and durable goods.6
While these “egocentric” assessments strongly influence how citizens see their political and economic systems, and voting behavior, “sociotropic” assessments of the overall state of the economy weigh even more heavily. Because of this, academics and policymakers alike have stressed the importance of economic recovery for the success of democratic transitions.
But we know from public opinion studies of social justice attitudes in North America and Western Europe, as well as in Eastern Europe, that people are also concerned with how others are doing, even if the fact that others are doing badly does not have a direct impact on their own welfare, or on that of the country as a whole. Europeans in general think that the government ought to take a strong role in regulating the economy and protecting the weak and poor, and in ensuring equal opportunity for all, but Eastern Europeans are particularly adamant in this respect.7 In Russia and Eastern Europe, support for these principles is almost universal. In the 1991 survey conducted by the International Social Justice Project (ISJP), about 90 percent of respondents in eight postcommunist states agreed that the government should guarantee everyone a minimum standard of living and provide a job for everyone who wants one. When the survey was repeated in Russia and five East European countries in 1996, these percentages had changed hardly at all.8
But because of the economic difficulties most of these countries face, full employment and extensive welfare policies are out of reach of governments. Privatization and decreased government support for industry, health care, and education have brought increasing unemployment, poverty, and alienation. People have been remarkably stoic, however, and appear willing to accept belttightening, and even privation, so long as they perceive that the burdens of transition are being shared equitably. As one Russian observer put it: “People are quite capable of enduring sacrifices for the sake of something greater, especially if they can see that sacrifices are being asked of everyone. But when the goal is unclear or seems insufficiently inspiring, and when it is also obvious that the hardships are being borne by only some, people regard their suffering as an injustice and the government engaged in ‘implementing the reforms’ as something remote and alien. At that point, people say, ‘To hell with your reforms and to hell with your democracy.’”9
The problem is that people do not see the burdens being shared equitably, and tend to blame the problem on their newly democratic governments. The negative evaluations of the new governments seen in surveys are due partly to the poor economic records of the postcommunist regimes, but even more so to the perception that the new governments are not as fair as Communistera governments were. According to the New Europe Barometer, only about a quarter of respondents surveyed in the late 1990s believed that the new governments were better at treating people “equally and fairly”; and a third thought people were being treated less fairly than during the Communist era.10 Moreover, these figures showed a decline from the early 1990s, when the same questions were asked, in the number of people who thought that the new governments were doing a good job in this respect.
For most people in postcommunist states, being treated fairly is not just a matter of due process, but of social justice more broadly considered. Most see social and economic inequality as a violation of basic human rights. It should not be surprising then, that over half of all Russians think that their government has no respect for human rights at all, or that substantial minorities in most of the postcommunist states express the same view. The authors of a study reporting these results suggest that this negativity essentially reflects concerns about lack of freedom. But in follow-up questions about why respondents felt this way, most mentioned economic hardship or crime and violence; few pointed to political issues. In fact, there is a curious division in the responses to the survey questions: those who felt that the government did respect human rights tended to identify freedom as the main reason; those who thought that the government did not respect human rights more frequently cited economic hardship or crime and violence.11
The widely shared concern about fairness, human rights, and social justice in these countries is related to another, and perhaps deeper, element of the political culture of the region: the idea of community. While most Eastern Europeans or Russians may not have supported the “real socialism” of the Communist era, many supported socialist ideals, particularly the notion of community. The spirit of collectivism and community was, and is, particularly strong in Russia, the land of the mir (peasant commune), but it is important throughout the region. Rooted in the pre-communist and pre-industrial rural traditions of Eastern Europe, it was reinforced both by socialist ideology and the propaganda of the Communist regimes.
Many East European and former Soviet citizens interviewed in the 1990s regretted the loss of the feelings of unity and community of the previous era; they thought that people were less willing to “lend a hand” to others. While they were not nostalgic about Communist-era political institutions and practices, they recalled being able to “build walls” around themselves, to ignore the political realm, and to “live a more or less happy life.”12 The Russian historian Roy Medvedev argues that, for Russians at least, collectivism, solidarity, and social justice stand higher in the hierarchy of values than freedom, democracy, or capitalism, and that capitalism is not a good fit with Russian values and traditions.13 Bronislaw Geremek, the former foreign minister of Poland, worries that the positive values of the previous era have not been replaced by any new value systems, and that this has led to a “moral vacuum” that poses “a clear and present danger to democracy.”14
Fairness and Political Stability
In simple terms, this means that popular evaluations of the fairness of the political or economic system have a strong impact on how people assess their governments and their political systems, and how they vote. Those who think that the system is fair (a Fairness Matters minority in most countries) are more likely to trust the government, express satisfaction with the political system, and vote for incumbent parties or leaders. Those who do not think the system is fair are more distrustful of government and public officials, more skeptical of democratic politics (and capitalism), and more alienated from the political system. The sense of a lack of fairness is a more important element of such feelings than an individual’s own economic experience, how that person sees the economy as a whole, or ideological orientation, gender, education, or social or economic standing.
The popular concern about fairness in the countries in transition is not just a subject for academic research and philosophical rumination, however; it has substantial implications for political stability and democratic consolidation in countries undergoing the double transition to a market economy and democratic politics. As Richard Rose and others have pointed out, the success of long-term political and economic reforms in these countries requires that the public have “political patience.”15 People must be willing to tolerate short-run economic and political troubles in the expectation of longrun gains. So far, the citizens in these countries have exhibited a remarkable degree of patience. But, with the transitions now entering their second decade, and with social and economic conditions in many of these countries still grim, this patience will be increasingly tested; promoting social and economic fairness is one way to extend it.
Scholars comparing privatization and property rights in Latin America and Eastern Europe found that both relatively equal income distribution and popular perceptions of equity helped societies weather the buffeting of transition. As one contributor to their published study put it: “Perceptions of fairness by the public at large constitute an important determinant of public policy…. The greater the sense that the costs and benefits of privatization are shared widely, the greater the likelihood that the process is viewed as legitimate and as such will be maintained.”16 This is one reason why, in Eastern Europe at least, the former Communist parties, many of them reinvented now as social democratic parties, have experienced electoral success. At the end of 2002, there were communist, socialist, or social democratic governments or presidents in power in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Albania, and the Communist Party remained the largest party in the Russian Duma. Gennady Zyuganov, the head of the Russian Communist Party, asserted that the main advantage of the Communist platform was its “firm adherence to the ideals of social justice and social equality, which are deeply consonant with the traditional values of the structure of [Russian] national life.”17
Democracy and Fairness
The Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen, writing in the pages of the Journal of Democracy, has called attention to the constructive function of democracy in the formation of values and in understanding the force and feasibility of claims of needs, rights, and duties. In Sen’s way of thinking, democracy is important because it gives citizens “an opportunity to learn from one another” and helps a society “form its values and priorities.”18Thus, political rights, including freedom of expression and discussion, are critical not only for eliciting a societal response to economic needs but for actually conceptualizing economic needs.
In the postcommunist states, both public opinion data and voting behavior suggest that people are reconceptualizing both politics and economics to include fairness as part of their calculus. They are concerned about the growing inequality in their societies, outraged at the corruption in both the political and economic spheres, and worried about the “losers” in the transition process. Cross-national public opinion surveys, including those conducted by ISJP, show that citizens of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are generally more egalitarian in outlook, more concerned about the poor and disturbed by poverty, and more supportive of a strong role for the state in addressing these problems than are their counterparts in Western Europe or the United States. If, as Sen suggests, democracy entails the societal construction of new values and the conceptualization of needs, then the newly constructed political systems of this region may turn out differently than the earlier democracies of Europe and North America.
When asked about appropriate models for political and economic development, most people in the postcommunist countries of Eastern Europe point to the Scandinavian countries rather than to Western Europe or the United States. Indeed, those countries have been particularly successful at combining democracy and capitalism with fairness and community, without sacrificing economic growth. The Nordic countries have made social welfare programs aimed at reducing socioeconomic inequality “the centerpiece of democracy promotion.”19 In contrast, many of the postcommunist governments have begun to dismantle the social welfare programs that were one of the few sources of legitimacy for the Communist-era regimes. In the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev’s evocative observation, “the postcommunist ‘farewell’ state has replaced the communist welfare state,” and the result, especially for many of the Balkan governments, has been a “legitimacy deficit.”20
These postcommunist governments have scaled down welfare programs, both because they cannot afford them and in response to pressure from Western governments and international lending agencies pushing neoliberal economic reforms. It is possible, however, and even advantageous, for governments to maintain social protection in the face of economic decline. New York University professor of politics Adam Przeworski points to the example of Spain in the 1970s and 1980s, where despite very high unemployment, the government maintained broad public support partly through an expansion of social welfare policies. This reduced the negative impact of political and economic reforms on the most vulnerable groups in society, “and convinced people that the extension of social citizenship is a credible promise of democracy.”21
If we accept Sen’s theory of the constructive dimension of democracy and know that people in the postcommunist states support a strong state that can assure social welfare, equity, and fairness, then it follows that those who support democratic transitions in the region should also support a strong role for governments in those countries. However, while the new governments in many of these countries have relaxed their control over their citizens, they have also reduced their role in society, and are increasingly unable to deliver what their citizens want most. As such, these regimes have become less democratic. As the political scientist Steven Friedman has put it, while “negative freedom”—from overt state coercion—has never been so pervasive, “positive freedom— the capacity of citizens to control public decisionmaking and to ensure policy outcomes consistent with the interests of majorities” —is absent. “Democracy’s resurgence,” he Fairness Matters 53 contends, “has been achieved only at the expense of its hollowing out—the right to political choice seems to have been won only at the expense of having little about which to choose.”22
Democracy, after all, is not simply about process—about voting rights, for example— but about being able to influence the direction of policy and the shape of society. When a democracy becomes “hollowed out,” people lose interest in political participation and become disaffected with its institutions. This has happened to a certain extent in established democracies, of course, but it is particularly pervasive and problematic in the new democracies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where large majorities distrust their leaders and have little faith in their political institutions, and fewer and fewer even bother to vote in national elections. Even in Poland, one of the success stories of the transition, voter turnout for the 2002 parliamentary elections was only 46 percent. In some of the former Soviet states and in the Balkans, political alienation is even more widespread. Corruption and apathy feed on each other: people do not participate in politics because they view the system as corrupt, but without citizen participation the field is open for corrupt officials and organized crime. “It is not,” Ivan Krastev contends, “merely the greed of politicians or their allies which causes corruption, but also the lack of a politics where enough is at stake to rouse general citizen interest.”23
The emasculation of the postcommunist state was partly a result of the deliberate efforts of radical reformers to dismantle the institutions of Communist rule and partly a consequence of the neoliberal reforms pushed by Western governments and the international lending agencies. As David Hoffman, the former Moscow bureau chief for the Washington Post, points out in his book about the new Russia, The Oligarchs, the young economic reformers assembled by Boris Yeltsin “set out to wreck the old system at any cost,” resulting in “an airless space, a vacuum without effective laws and a state so badly weakened it could not enforce laws that were on the books.”24 In Russia and other countries where “shock therapy” was applied, the reduced role of government was reinforced by the demands of Washington, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development for reductions in state expenditures and deficits as a condition for receiving economic assistance. But when political leaders in countries in transition pay more attention to the international financial institutions than to the economic and political demands of their own citizens, this further weakens the ties between state and citizen and impedes the development of democratic values and institutions.
Constructing Fairness in a Democratic Context
Social justice, equity, and fairness can only be achieved through the agency of a strong and effective government. This by no means suggests a return to authoritarianism: a strong government rooted in popular values and responsive to popular needs and demands will be a democratic one. In fact, as Adam Przeworski has argued, only a strong government can achieve this kind of fair democracy.25
A democracy that reflects the values and needs of the citizenry is not only a genuine democracy, but a stable one. For over a decade, the peoples of Eastern European and the former Soviet Union have been trying to develop enduring democratic political institutions and productive market economies. In most of these countries, the focus has been on the economic and political aspects of the transition, to the neglect of the social elements, and in the process, the issue of fairness has been mostly ignored. This does not need to be the case. It is possible to build societies that are democratic, marketbased, and fair, especially where the people highly value all three goals. Indeed, the long-term stability and legitimacy of these democratizing regimes can best be assured by the governments attending to issues of equity, and providing support for those who are most adversely affected by the transition.
As the former president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, points out, democracy is a starting point, not the finish line: “Securing democratic freedoms does not guarantee an immediate solution to the problems that afflict the population, such as poverty, disease and social inequalities. Democracy does not put an end to injustice, but it does establish the conditions that allow us to aspire to achieve effective justice, not merely as an abstract ideal, but as a value present in the everyday life of citizens.”26 Most of the citizens in the postcommunist states of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union recognize and even value the achievements of the Communist-era governments and do not want simply to replicate Western societies. To them, democracy is just a starting point for creating new systems of governance that are both free and fair.
David S. Mason is a professor of political science at Butler University, Indianapolis. He is the coauthor, with James R. Kluegel, of Marketing Democracy: Changing Opinion About Inequality and Politics in East Central Europe (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000).
1. The public opinion data in this article are drawn from a number of representative surveys, cited later in the text, that were conducted in the 1990s in Russia, Eastern Europe, and/or some of the former republics of the Soviet Union (the Baltic states, Belarus, Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia). References to the “postcommunist states” are to these countries.
2. Branko Milanovic, Income, Inequality, and Poverty during the Transition from Planned to Market Economy (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1998).
3. Dmitri Glinski and Peter Reddaway, “The Ravages of ‘Market Bolshevism,’” Journal of Democracy, vol. 10 (April 1999), pp. 19–34.
4. Vaclav Havel, Summer Meditations, trans. Paul Wilson (New York: Knopf, 1992), p. 3.
5. Janice Bell, The Political Economy of Reform in Post-Communist Poland (Northampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar, 2001), figure 2.5, p. 45. In 1992, 50 percent of Bulgarians polled said that life was “worse now than under communisim”; in 1999, 68 percent said it was worse. The percentages for the other five countries are: Czech Republic, 31 percent (1992), 49 percent (1999); Hungary, 68 percent (1992), 65 percent (1999); Poland, 54 percent (1993), 47 percent (1999); Romania, 33 percent (1992), 60 percent (1999); and Slovakia, 50 percent (1992), 69 percent (1999).
6. Richard Rose, “A Diverging Europe,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 12 (January 2001), p. 96. Rose’s conclusions are based on the “New Democracies Barometer” and “New Russia Barometer” surveys of the Paul Lazarsfeld Society, Vienna, and the Centre for the Study of Public Policy, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.
7. See Max Kaase, Kenneth Newton, and Elinor Scarbrough, “A Look at the Beliefs in Government Study,” PS: Political Science and Politics, vol. 29 (June 1996), pp. 226–28; and James R. Kluegel, David S. Mason, and Bernd Wegener, eds., Social Justice and Political Change: Public Opinion in Capitalist and Post- Communist States (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995).
8. See David S. Mason and James R. Kluegel, Marketing Democracy: Changing Opinion about Inequality and Politics in East Central Europe (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000). The International Social Justice Project was an international collaborative research project on social justice attitudes. The first survey was conducted in 1991 in 13 countries in North America, Western Europe, Japan, Russia, and Eastern Europe. It was repeated in 1996 in Germany, Russia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Estonia. Details on the project are available at www.butler.edu/isjp.
9. Mikhail Krasnov, “We Awoke in a Different Country,” Rossiiskaya Gazeta, August 18, 2001, p. 4.
10. Rose, “Diverging Europe,” p. 97.
11. Sten Berglund, Frank H. Aarebrot, Henri Vogt, and Georg Karasimeonov, Challenges to Democracy: Eastern Europe Ten Years after the Collapse of Communism (Northampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar, 2001), pp. 123–24, 141–42.
12. Interview cited in Berglund et al., Challenges to Democracy, p. 47.
13. Roy Medvedev, Post-Soviet Russia: A Journey Through the Yeltsin Era, trans. and ed. George Shriver (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), pp. 65–66.
14. Bronislaw Geremek, “The Transformation of Central Europe,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 10 (July 1999), p. 119.
15. Richard Rose and Christian Haerpfer, “New Democracies Barometer IV: A 10-Nation Survey,” Studies in Public Policy, no. 262, Centre for the Study of Public Policy, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, 1996.
16. Lee J. Alston, “Institutions and Property Rights Across Time and Space: Lessons from Eastern Europe and Latin America,” in Liberalization and Its Consequences: A Comparative Perspective on Latin America and Eastern Europe, ed. Werner Baer and Joseph L. Love (Northampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar, 2000), p. 309.
17. Gennady Zyuganov, Derzhava (Moscow: Informpechat’, 1994), p. 127.
18. Amartya Sen, “Democracy as a Universal Value,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 10 (July 1999), pp. 3–17.
19. Peter J. Schraeder, “Making the World Safe for Democracy?” in Exporting Democracy: Rhetoric vs. Reality, ed. Peter J. Schraeder (Boulder, Col.: Lynne Rienner, 2002), pp. 217–35.
20. Ivan Krastev, “The Balkans: Democracy Without Choices,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 13 (July 2002), pp. 47–48.
21. Adam Przeworski, Sustainable Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 86.
22. Steven Friedman, “Democracy, Inequality, and the Reconstitution of Politics,” in Democratic Governance and Social Inequality, ed. Joseph S. Tulchin and Amelia Brown (Boulder, Col.: Lynne Rienner, 2002), pp. 14–15.
23. Krastev, “The Balkans,” p. 49.
24. David E. Hoffman, The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia (New York: PublicAffairs, 2002), p. 6.
25. Przeworski, Sustainable Democracy, p. 110.
26. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, “Democracy as a Starting Point,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 12 (January 2001), p. 10.
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