Transnational Networks, Domestic Democratic Activists and Defeat of Dictators: Slovakia, Croatia and Serbia, from 1998 to 2000

November 5, 2008

Staff-prepared summary of the seminar with Valerie Bunce, Aaron Binenkorb Professor of International Studies and Professor of Government, Cornell University and Sharon Wolchik, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University

From 1998 to 2000, Slovakia, Croatia and Serbia experienced dramatic electoral changes, in which semi-authoritarian leaders were deposed through the empowerment of the democratic opposition and mobilization of civil society. The elections, which ended the era of ‘dedemocratization' in each of these countries, were characterized by high electoral turn out, high youth participation and a sophisticated campaign strategy by the opposition. Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik argued that these campaigns brought about a change in power by diffusing information through trans-national networks.

While neighboring states were working to consolidate their nascent democracies, the parties in power in Slovakia, Croatia and Serbia in the 1990s went in the opposite direction, by instead consolidating their power while retaining the appearance of a democratic state. Thus, despite routine elections and the existence of opposition parties, they were poorly organized, were not ambitious and did not conduct national campaigns. Civil society organizations were well organized by comparison, but did not participate vigorously in politics, did not actively engage with opposition parties and instead operated on a parallel political track, which impaired their ability to be politically effective. Moreover, incumbents enjoyed clear advantages, not only because they could adopt policies to help ensure their tenure, but also because they were able to win support of an electorate that viewed the incumbent as a ‘known quantity.' The seeming impossibility of effecting change caused voters to be generally apathetic, since they had no reason to assume that anything would change.

Despite these obstacles, each country was eventually able to depose its semi-authoritarian leader by employing the so-called "electoral breakthrough" model, the roots of which are complex. Bunce and Wolchik have traced this paradigm to the Philippines in 1986 and Chile in 1988. While critics have denounced the model as a U.S.-funded conspiracy aimed at deposing undemocratic leaders, Bunce and Wolchik's study found that foreign funding of opposition parties was a relatively small piece of the puzzle. Rather, in each of these cases, the incumbent regime was already vulnerable, a condition which enabled local actors to seize electoral opportunities to challenge and vote the current leaders out of power. By working together, civil society groups and opposition parties were able to share strategies, collaborate on voter registration and turn-out drives, as well as to promote a unified slogan for reform, thereby expanding their reach to non-traditional political actors.

Martin Sletzinger, Director, East European Studies, 202-691-4000