Foreign Policy Program

August 2011

Policy Brief
Modernization: The Forgotten Strategy of Social Transformation
Post-Communist Lessons for the Arab Revolutions
by Ognyan Minchev
The Arab Spring — as the Middle Eastern revolutionary movements of the past six months have been labeled — needs all the support it can get in order to pass through the Scylla and Charybdis of the status quo into more friendly waters of democratic development. Arab societies need to cope with a unique agenda of political and societal change complicated by the dramatic diversity among their respective countries. Yet there is a pattern of recently accumulated experience in peaceful transformation, that of Central and Eastern European countries over the past 20 years, that could provide food for strategic thought in order to bypass some major obstacles on the road of democratic transition. Like Eastern Europe under Soviet domination, most Arab societies have never experienced democratic government. Even those societies in Eastern Europe — like the Czechs, the Bulgarians, and the Poles — that have a history of democratic political systems in the first half of the 20th century faced a tremendous struggle to develop systems of democratic representation and economic freedom, departing from a sterile totalitarian system of strict control over state and society. Political strategist and Soviet expert Zbigniew Brzezinski defines this struggle with a picturesque metaphor: “We all know how to make omelet out of an egg,” he admitted, “yet no one has tried to do the reverse — to make an egg out of an omelet.” Communism destroyed the natural bonds between humans and their society, and it was not evident where to start rebuilding them. This was one major reason why post-communist transition started with a very general, and quite simple, recipe for transformation. This paradigm of transition involved two major tasks for the revolutionaries trying to dismantle communist dictatorships: first, develop the constitutional and institutional system of democratic representation of the peoples’ will and add guarantees for human rights and citizens’ equality; and second, immediately start the “invisible hand” of the market by quickly privatizing the major assets controlled by governments, reducing government spending, and letting the market go its own way. With all their diversity, Arab countries are unlikely to ever experience Soviet style economic control. However, we need to explore some visible similari-

Summary: Like Eastern Europe under Soviet domination, most Arab societies have never experienced democratic government. Arab countries are unlikely to ever experience Soviet style economic control. However, there are similarities in the nature of the centralized oligarchic control over the economy that was practiced in the Soviet system and the one dominating the Arab hierarchies of power. The economic system of Arab societies shares significant similarities with the centralized oligarchic feudalism underlying the Soviet societal system, and which proved to be a successful strategy for recapturing economic and political power after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Can the post-communist oligarchic capture of state and society be avoided? Yes, if a strategy of modernization prior or parallel to the strategies of democratization and market reform is adopted. The views expressed here are the views of the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the stance of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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ties in the nature of the centralized oligarchic control over the economy that was practiced in the Soviet system and the one dominating the Arab hierarchies of power. Soviet communism was largely a system of state capitalism based on Eastern models of deep, centralized, “feudal” types of control over society. Eastern feudalism had nothing to do with the dispersed milieu of Europe’s West, but rather represented a hierarchy of centralized political and clientelist control over the instruments of economic development and distribution. This legacy of oligarchic feudalism seems to be much stronger and more deeply rooted than the system of ideologically based central planning claimed by communist ideology. While dismantling the communist system, the reformers of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) had no insight into this deeper layer. The reformers’ aims were to destroy the political tools of economic control exercised by the communist parties in their countries. They believed that once free markets were established, all of the communist powers’ sources of ideological and political support would dry up. However, the communist elites had chosen another strategy for their survival: sacrifice the direct political control over the economy in favor of shifting to the traditional Eastern format of centralized feudal/oligarchic control over society. dealers — carved out of the former party and political police apparatchiks — immediately took advantage of the new and fragile democratic institutions by starting to buy political support. Political brokers emerged and widened their control over the decision-making process, both in representative institutions and in the public administrative system. The economic system of Arab societies shares significant similarities with the centralized oligarchic feudalism underlying the Soviet societal system, and which proved to be a successful strategy for recapturing economic and political power after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. It is very likely that the present day Arab oligarchies, shaken by rebels in Tahrir and other squares, could evolve in a similar manner out of the governing ideologies of traditional Arab nationalism and authoritarianism. They will adapt in formal terms to the values and ideas of the young revolutionaries or of the older Islamists, only to get the opportunity to seize economic and political power back in a new — democratic — environment. Why is it so easy to “change horses” in an ideological revolutionary swing and remain on the top? Democratization and radical market reform are strategies for transforming sufficiently modernized societies out of a dictatorial regime. As we look at the experience of post-communist Europe after 1989, we clearly identify the division between modern societies of Central Europe (the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland) and the other countries of Eastern Europe hosting a mixture of traditional and modern patterns of life. Central Europeans had a relatively strong urban middle class, and an experienced dissident movement that became a successful political elite opposed to the ex-communist establishment. Most important, Central Europeans had an efficient public administrative system inherited from the Habsburg Empire, which survived the communist rule, and stood in the background of post-communist reforms following the “velvet” revolutions of 1989. The post-communist countries of Southern and Eastern Europe did not share those Central European assets of modern society. The urban middle class was fragile and heavily oppressed throughout the decades of communist rule. Dissident movements — where present — were small groups of heavily persecuted individuals with a limited capacity to transform into political decision-makers. Eastern societies were dominated by a working class of
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The legacy of oligarchic feudalism seems to be much stronger and more deeply rooted than the system of ideologically based central planning claimed by communist ideology.
Communist elites embraced the rhetoric of the free market and took advantage of democratic institutional transformation in order to transfer centralized state assets into selective private hands, re-emerging as the new corporate elite of transitional societies. This transition, known as the “great criminal revolution,” was only the first part of the ex-communist elites’ strategy of reasserting their power in the new transitional environment. The new corporate

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peasant origin representing the culture and lifestyles of a traditional society. The institutional system (public administration included) was heavily dependent upon the old statist model of oligarchic feudalism re-imposed as a communist hierarchy of power. The strategy of direct democratization, combined with a radical market reform, practically impeded the functioning of institutions and opened an enormous grey space for the illegitimate control of national economic assets. The result was a state capture through the great criminal revolution after communism. The dual strategy of rapid democratization and swift market reform was aimed at cutting off the capacity of old communists to regain power after Gorbachev’s perestroika, and after the velvet revolutions in the Soviet bloc. Yet the old communists successfully bypassed the revolutionary limits and re-emerged as the new corporate-oligarchic rulers of post-communist societies. Can the post-communist oligarchic capture of state and society be avoided? Yes, if a strategy of modernization prior or parallel to the strategies of democratization and market reform is adopted. Modernization was the dominant strategy of post-colonial nation-building throughout the third world. The priorities of institution-building used to be the core of a modernization strategy in the newly born states, states that had to govern and transform traditional societies at different stages of development.1 A modern state with strong and efficient institutions could undertake further strategies of development in education, social welfare, the economy, etc. Why did the democratic reformers after communism forget this? First, the need to cut off a counter-revolution back to Soviet-communist rule by implementing democratic and market reforms took precedent over a slower modernization strategy. Secondly, “post-modern” Europe and the United States influenced the post-communist transition. Modernization is a strategy that presumes a particular hierarchy of cultures: less developed societies evolve up to modern levels. The ideological template of post-modernism imposes a politically correct vision of universal equality of cultures — no culture is superior to any other cultural identity. Modernization proved a concept that brought discomfort. Most Arab countries in the mid 20th century were deeply traditional societies. Post-colonial revolutions were driven by modern Arab nationalism. These Arab nationalists were based in a narrow elite of young officers and nationalist intellectuals, who would later establish populist revolutionary dictatorships. This is how regimes of the Nasser — Assad — Boumediene type emerged, contributing to Arab modernization at the expense of political freedom. In Arab countries today, democratic revolutions are being carried out by relatively numerous communities of young, educated, and urban professionals and intellectuals, claiming democracy and freedom as established norms of ordinary life in the contemporary world. This marks a significant departure from the Arab nationalism of the mid 20th century. Yet, we still associate modernization with the revolutionary agenda.

Modernization proved a concept that brought discomfort.
Young — modern — Arab reformers filled Tahrir Square, yet they represent a minority among masses of traditional society, poorer classes on the margins of urban life and the peasantry. Those masses would rather support a conservative version of Islamic rule (possibly involving Sharia law) rather than a modern individualist political project of democracy and pluralism in all sections of public life. This is the dilemma: how to run an efficient democratic system without risking a counter-revolutionary slide towards an oppressive Islamist regime or an old dictatorial oligarchic takeover? Drawing on the lessons of post-communist Europe, democratic reform should reflect the levels of societal modernization. Arab revolutionaries need not open grey areas where old oligarchies or radical Islamists could exploit democratic enthusiasm within the revolutionary chaos. Western democracies developed over the course of two centuries, opening the space for universal suffrage step by step. We live in an age where the principle of democratic access to the communities is universal, yet we must be conscious of their potential to utilize that access to democracy. Combining strategies of democratization and modernization could require different steps and instruments in different countries of the Middle East. Some potentially important instruments are as follows:

1 The famous book of Samuel Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies, used to be the “Bible” of post-colonial modernization together with the programs for development of the UNDP, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and European Developmental Agencies. Soviet bloc assistance to the third world was also based on instruments for economic-industrial development together with the efforts to establish socialist-like dictatorial systems in the newly created states.

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1. Arab revolutionaries should try to establish a stable alliance of empowered reformist elites at the top of the state before carrying out broad elections. In Egypt and Tunisia, this alliance most likely represents the reformist sectors of the army elite, together with the young intellectuals and professionals, the urban middle class, etc. In Libya, the process may require a new balance of tribal elites, organized around a program of modern development, and power de-centralization. In Syria, an interethnic balance within the potential new power block will be crucial for the country’s transformation. Different institutional designs could be chosen to integrate new political coalitions of transformation. In post-communist Europe, we had the “round tables” format of power transition. Yet round tables in different countries reached different results. In Poland and Czechoslovakia, round tables were organized as a means of power transition from the old communist governments to the movements of democratic reformers. In Bulgaria, the relatively weak democratic coalition chose to negotiate with the reformist wing of the Communist Party rather than the government itself. 2. All major reforms toward democracy and free markets should be undertaken by a strong governmental, institutional system. When we transform institutions, they lose parts of their capacity to operate efficiently. Therefore, reforms carried out under weak institutions will likely result in powerful oligarchic takeovers rather than free markets, establishing a social-Darwinist jungle rather than a competitive marketplace. Strong political order and strong institutions necessarily precede efficient market institutions. Failure to first establish strong institutions in Eastern Europe resulted in weak democracies and strong oligarchic monopolies on the economy and governments of the region. 3. Economic and institutional measures should be undertaken to prevent disintegration and pauperization of the modern middle class. The Tunisian revolution started as a consequence of the regime’s inability to utilize the potential of the young and educated people of the country. The result was humiliation for the regime. Many post-communist and post-Soviet societies suffered a powerful process of de-modernization as a consequence of the middle classes’ disintegration, a process triggered by economic hardship and mismanaged economic reforms. Simplified ideological claims
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for free market took precedence over careful and pragmatic policies to tap into national intellectual potential and expertise within the post-communist transition. Arab revolutions should not neglect this problem, given the crucial political and economic importance of the middle class for the success of democratic transformation. 4. Successful public administration reform is the key to efficient institutional transformation. Representative democratic institutions remain hollow shells of citizens’ representation without a real contribution to good governance unless an efficient public administration system is present, capable of delivering services to the people. A strong institutional-administrative system is a major obstacle to a potential oligarchic takeover of the institutions of government. Developing the formalized rules and procedures of administering public life must be the key priority of institutional transformation in order to give democracy a chance to function.

About the Author
Ognyan Minchev is a scholar-professor of political science at the University of Sofia, and a policy analyst heading the Institute for Regional and International Studies (IRIS). He is a leading commentator on political developments in the Balkans and the Black Sea region.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has six offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.

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