The Dynamics of Democratization:
Civil Society in East Europe, 1996-2002
March 9, 2005
Staff-prepared summary of the EES discussion with Christian Haerpfer, Reader in the Department of Politics, University of Aberdeen and 2004-2005 Wilson Center Fellow

Having collected survey data in postcommunist transition countries since 1989, Christian Haerpfer has witnessed the uneven development of civil society throughout the region for more than 15 years. This experience has led him to assert that, metaphorically, transition is not like getting on a train, which will go from one point to another, perhaps at various speeds. On the contrary, transitions are risky and the end destination—as well as the path to it—are not well defined. Therefore, Haerpfer asserted that beginning a transition from authoritarianism is more like a ship leaving a harbor: hopefully each ‘ship' will end up with democracy and market economy, but this is not always the case.

Haerpfer's research focuses on the process of democratization focusing on the micro level—the citizens. His surveys try to determine who is a democrat, what influences the creation of democrats and how people become integrated into civil society and thus create social capital. Social capital is measured by calculating the level of participation in social institutions and organizations, the level of trust in formal political institutions and the level of participation in informal networks. Data collected in the 1996 World Values and 2000 European Values surveys were used in this study.

The first part of the project involves evaluating the strength of democratic values. This is based on the thesis (presented by Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan) that a strong majority of the population supporting democracy is a critical condition for democratic consolidation. Haerpfer found the largest group of strong democrats in the Czech Republic, where 90 percent of the population supported democratic values, of which 40 percent were strong supporters of democracy. The Baltic states and the Balkans also scored high, with around 70 percent support for democracy. Somewhat surprising is the distinction between Central European countries, where large proportions of the populations are strong democrats, and the Baltic states, where large proportions of the populations are only weak democrats. More surprising is that Estonia was the only country in which the level for support of democratic values fell between 1996 and 2000.

The second part of the study, based on the assertion that a strong civil society is good for democracy, measured the extent to which people were engaged in civil society. Some disparity between country clusters was expected, since it was assumed that countries that had been part of the Soviet Union, where there were low levels of trust in institutions, would have a harder time building social capital. Respondents were questioned about not only the types of activities in which they engaged, but also whether their participation was active or passive. Levels of civic participation in Central European countries were used as a benchmark: roughly one-third of the population participated in social organizations. In the Baltic states, participation levels were only half that of other countries—averaging at 15 percent. By contrast, participation was surprisingly high in Romania and Croatia. Most importantly, the data reveal that there is a significant correlation between civil society and the strength of democracy in the countries surveyed, though it remains to be seen how strong this correlation is as well as the directionality of the correlation.