345. Understanding State Weakness in Postcommunism

Venelin Ganev

Venelin Ganev is Professor of Political Science at Miami University. He spoke about his new book Preying on the State: The Transformation of Bulgaria after 1989 at an EES meeting on January 31, 2008. The following is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report 345.

Among the many unanticipated developments in the former Soviet world, the decay of infrastructures of governance was one of the most visible. By the late 1990s, the assertion that the capacity and organizational integrity of postcommunist states had declined considerably did not engender serious dissent. That the state was weaker than before, that it was weaker than it should have been, were among the very few empirical and normative propositions around which a genuine consensus coalesced.

At the same time, however, this universally recognized trend never became the focal point of careful empirical research, serious analytical inquiry and sustained theoretical reflection. The reason for this neglect is easy to explain. The hegemonic trope in the discourse on postcommunism throughout the 1990s was "neo-liberal reforms," and the analytical texture of this trope almost effortlessly yields a straightforward account of the postcommunist states' malaise. At the core of this account lies the claim that the problems afflicting East European societies were caused by the neo-liberal reforms pursued by newly empowered political elites. Once catapulted in power, those elites began to design and implement austerity measures inspired by the so-called "Washington consensus" and permeated by a strong anti-statist, pro-free-market animus. It was the ideologically-driven reformers that proceeded to dismantle the state in order to open room for markets. They were aided and abetted by various representatives of international financial institutions that made the flow of much needed financial assistance contingent upon strict conformity with the devoutly laissez-faire orthodoxy. In sum, the state was weakened because this is what local neo-liberal zealots and their international capitalist mentors wanted.

Preying on the State: The Transformation of Bulgaria After 1989 is a book that challenges this account and offers a new interpretation of the fluctuation of stateness in early postcommunism. It situates the phenomenon of state weakness in a broader analytical framework grounded in the historical sociology of state formation. It identifies the institutional and social processes that crucially and negatively affected the organizational basis of effective governance. And it demonstrates how the causes and manifestations of state weakness can be explained in terms of the structural factors and modes of elite agency that constitute the historical specificity of postcommunism as an episode of state transformation: the institutional legacy of state socialism; the incentives facing powerful elites; the dynamic unleashed when fundamental social relations underpinning the collecting, managing, husbanding and distribution of resources were convulsively altered. The empirical evidence presented in the book is culled from a hypotheses-generating study of a rarely examined, but fairly intriguing case: Bulgaria. This is an important country for those who study postcommunist politics in general and for those interested in state weakness in particular. To begin with, singling out Bulgaria for special consideration seems a worthwhile endeavor in view of the fact that no former Soviet satellite in Eastern Europe has posed so many problems for those willing to systematize and explain the outcomes of postcommunist transformations. Suffice it to say that while for some scholars, such as Carol Skalnik Leff and Gerardo Munck, Bulgaria exemplified the failures of democratic reforms in the region, other analysts, such as M. Steven Fish, depicted it as a "backslider" that attained a level of democrtatic-ness in the early 1990s only to lose some of it later on. Still others, such as Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, unequivocally praised it as a democratic over-achiever. Preying on the State sets the record straight and shows that by the mid-1990s Bulgaria did indeed acquire all important attributes of a consolidated democracy and hence the setbacks experienced by Bulgarian society cannot be attributed to the failure of democratic reforms.

Furthermore, the Bulgarian case contradicts the conventional narrative about state dysfunctionality in postcommunism—a narrative that assigns to neo-liberal reformers causal centrality. Simply put, during most of the 1990s, the role of pro-market politicians and neo-liberal ideas were minimal in Bulgaria. During the first eight years of Bulgaria's "transition," an unreconstructed communist party retained its hegemonic position in the political domain and proudly championed policies intended to preserve, rather than radically alter, the economic structures of the ancient regime. Relations with international financial institutions were either cut off (e.g., in the aftermath of the last communist government's decision to declare a moratorium on the payment of the foreign debt in 1990) or kept in a state of suspended animation. The intellectual milieu remained thoroughly dominated by a left-leaning intelligentsia that bravely exposed the cruelty of markets and tearfully reminisced about "the good old days under Zhivkov." Whatever the ‘vices' of Bulgarian policy-makers and media pundits, allegiance to the magic of the market, free capitalist enterprise and economic liberty were not among them. In sum, until 1997 local neo-liberals and the IMF were a non-factor in the country. And yet, during that period the symptoms of dysfunctional governance were most conspicuous. The evidence thus strongly suggests that explanations of state weakness should be detached from the ideological critique of neo-liberalism.

Preying on the State offers such an explanation. The main analytical insight behind it may be summarized in the following way: in order to understand the decay of postcommunist state structures, we have to employ a state-centered view of the fluctuation of stateness in postcommunism. This proposition is not tautological. It builds upon the commonsensical premise that massive short-term fluctuations of stateness are not brought about by ideological "inputs"—such as the reformist visions or policy preferences of temporarily empowered elected winners—or by the realignment of broader social constituencies. Behind such logistical ebbs and flows lies a dynamic autonomously generated within the state itself. Nor does the proposition imply that the state is a unitary actor. In fact, the opposite is true. The state-centered view encourages the intellectually curious to dissect the non-unitariness and the multi-faceted nature of postcommunist states. It is precisely under the analytical gaze of analysts willing to conjure up basic questions about modern state structures in the context of postcommunist studies that the apparently unitary character of postcommunist state is analytically decomposed.

What the state-centered view does entail is a particular conceptualization of the legacies of state socialism and a novel understanding of the transformative processes that affected the infrastructure of governance in the aftermath of 1989. From an institutional point of view, the legacies of the ancient regime should be construed as an array of sensitive positions in proximity to flows of resources, strategic sites where various assets are stashed, elite networks privy to scarce knowledge about what is to be found where in the numerous niches of the public sphere, and cadre loyalties that permeated the l'esprit de corps of the civil service. The weakening of the state is the aggregate result of the dynamic yet patterned way in which sensitive positions were reconfigured, strategic sites were reconstituted, elite networks were reassembled and cadre loyalties were redefined.

The heuristic potential of the state-centered approach to state dysfunctionality is demonstrated through a detailed examination of three developments that have been duly noted but somewhat superficially discussed in the literature: the separation of party and state, the conversion of political power into economic influence, and the rise of postcommunist "winners"—the powerful private conglomerate that quickly accumulated all kinds of valuable assets. The book accentuates the statist implications of such processes and the ways in which they affect bureaucratic structures, administrative apparatuses and the organizational foundation of governance. Thus, from a state-centered perspective, the separation of party and state might be construed as an intense conflict over the redistribution of various resources stockpiled in what was until then a unified power base. Having relinquished their political monopoly, party cadres in Eastern Europe launched a systematic effort to reconsolidate their power in non-state domains. Given the intertwining of state and party structures, however, the attempt of state-entrenched actors to create power positions outside the state had as its downside the atrophy of the very patterns of institutionalized interactions that formed the infrastructural fundament of statehood. The logic guiding the reproduction of logistically well endowed party networks was incompatible with the logic of maintaining the robustness of state structures. The clash between these logics explains why the withdrawal of the communist party from the state decreased levels of governability in the democratizing polity.

The conversion of political influence into economic clout triggered a similar dynamic. Such conversions have been widely discussed in the literature and the popular press, but the emphasis has invariably fallen on their generic aspect—on the timeless plot about how the powerful became rich. What has been overlooked is the sui generic intertwining of economic change and state restructuring in postcommunism. It cannot be refuted that, in the immediate aftermath of 1989, the most important form of entrepreneurship was the large-scale effort by state officials to re-deploy and appropriate resources hoarded into the immense public sphere previously guarded by the party/state. It is also important to grasp, however, that such modes of agency revamped the public domain. To put it in a formulaic fashion, from a state-centered perspective, resources converted by self-interested entrepreneurs were resources siphoned off state structures. Under the structural conditions of postcommunism, the surfeit of opportunities for conversion rendered much more difficult the task of sustaining the logistical wherewithal necessary for effective democratic rule. Conversions of power directly affected the capacity of the state to regulate economic transactions and thus added a momentum to the tendency towards organizational anomie.

Preying on the State also demonstrates how postcommunist "success" is inextricably linked to the transformation of state structures. This insight is conveyed by means of a novel concept, "The Dorian Gray Effect," that refers to the way in which newly acquired control over economic and logistical resources impinges upon the effectiveness and coherence of the machinery of government. While "winning" in early postcommunism undeniably involves redistribution of national wealth, this contextually-specific form of redistribution differs from redistributive conflicts in societies where powerful actors use state agencies in order to appropriate assets held by other social groups. What the evidence from Bulgaria shows is that the relations established between postcommunist winners and their changing counterparts within the state are prone to disruptive reversals, and the shocks attendant to such reversals drain state apparatuses of their capacity to design and implement policies. What the Dorian Gray effect reveals, therefore, is that from the vantage point of the historical sociology of state formation, the distinct behavioral characteristic of successful predatory elites in early postcommunism is that they have an incentive to act as state-breakers, not state-makers.

The case study of Bulgaria thus sheds analytical light on the readily observable syndromes of state weakness in postcommunism: the lack of information about what was to be found where in the public domain, reduced levels of transparency within administrative apparatuses, the acute organizational incoherence, and lack of administrative tools that would make possible salutary state interventions in largely spontaneous processes of social and economic change. But the book also proposes that it is precisely the syndromes of state weakness that constitute the most important feature of the context in which constitution-making and institution-building unfold. In other words, the fragmentation of the infrastructure of governance shapes the results of ambitious efforts to use constitutions and laws in order to design new political institutions. In that regard, Preying on the State advances two specific claims. First, it depicts the outcome of the Bulgarian constitutional experiments of the 1990s as weak state constitutionalism, an institutional configuration characterized by a relatively high degree of functionality of newly created constitutional structures and a much lower degree of functionality of pre-existing, non-constitutional tools of governance. The complexity of these and other hard-to-classify outcomes may be adequately conceptualized only if detailed surveys of constitutional norms and practices are superimposed on state-centered accounts of the spontaneous organizational overhaul of the public arena. The second claim is that given the matrix of predatory opportunities in postcommunist Eastern Europe, "exotic" institutional transplants, such as a Constitutional Court, stand a better chance of survival than more traditional institutions such as an independent Central Bank. Why and how political elites who possess the power to derail constitutional experiments choose to do so is a context-specific issue, and the evidence from the Bulgarian case may help us understand why predatory networks may tolerate the presence of an autonomous Court while attacking and destroying the Bank.
The interlinked analyses of separation of party and state, conversions of power and winning offered in Preying on the State suggest that inquiries into the causes of state weakness in postcommunism converge on the following question: What are the analytical ramifications of the fact that the transformation of state structures in postcommunism takes place simultaneously with the disintegration of a state-owned economy? Conceived as the most important aspect of the structural legacy of state socialism, the state-owned economy is important to the study of state transformation in three distinct ways. First, this structural legacy makes inevitable the rise of a qualitatively new dominant elite project most aptly described as "extraction from the state." Powerful elites involved in this project prey upon the wealth accumulated in the state domain. Second, since these elites are fully capable of manipulating flows of resources within the existing institutional edifice of the state, they have no incentive to develop strong state structures, i.e., structures that penetrate society and regularize the extraction of resources from the population. Quite to the contrary, undermining key institutions from inside is necessary for the success of their project. Finally, this form of predatory behavior does not pit elites against large groups of title-holders, which in turn means that (at least in the short to the medium run) the dominant elite project is not likely to encounter popular resistance and therefore to reckon with formal and informal constraints. These three empirically grounded analytical propositions comprise an analytical matrix which, in honor of the foremost authority on state formation in Western Europe, is labeled "the reversed Tillyan perspective." In Charles Tilly's account, elites create a web of institutions in order to channel resources in the treasury and are forced to negotiate the terms of their predatory projects with mobilized social groups. The outcome is robust state structures. In postcommunism, elites weaken existing state agencies in order to extract resources from the state; they do not have to reckon with societal counterparts and to fear the enforcement of rules and conventions imposing nominal constraints on their projects. The result is decomposition of state structures.

The main intellectual message of Preying on the State is that scholarly debates about postcommunist stateness—and much else!—should move beyond the passionate but ultimately stale discourse on the virtues and vices of neo-liberal capitalism. The turn to historical sociology is one possible analytical strategy in that regard. Hopefully, future participants in the on-going conversation on the postcommunist political condition will offer even better alternatives.


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