Mikhail Minakov

This column is based on research that is to be published as a chapter “The Transition of “Transition”: Assessing the Post-Communist Experience and Its Research” in the following book: Kushnir, O., Pankieiev, O. (eds.). Meandering in Transition. Lanham, MA: Lexington Books (forthcoming).

1. Even though the post-communist transition concept relied on transition studies of Latin American, South Korean, and Taiwan societies, it had some novelties that changed the concept significantly. Among the specific features of the concept initially were:

  • The political development was seen in terms of the transition from totalitarian politics toward pluralist democracy.
  • The economic development was seen in terms of the transition from a centralized, autarkic administrative-command economy toward a free-market open economy.
  • The socio-cultural dynamics was viewed in terms of Europeanization and overcoming the Cold War rivalry with the West.

More specifically, each of the elements of post-communist transition included:

  • Democratization was measured in terms of stronger consolidation around the liberal, electoral, and participative democratic practices; creation of pluralist politics and ideological pluralism; establishment of nation-states.
  • Marketization included elements of fast privatization of the post-communist state-dominant economies, their opening to international trade, creation of legal and administrative conditions for the fair economic competition, creation of private owners’ class, and establishment of rather “small government”.
  • Europeanization was first seen as some merger of legal and political systems around core values of the Council of Europe, and, later, as accession to the EU and/or NATO.

2. Based on the analysis of post-communist transition publications in 1989-2021, I conclude that the concept has gone through at least three stages:

  • Idealist, non-critical construction of the transition concept as “deep and comprehensive transformation” during and soon after the transition started.
  • More critical and humbled transition concept as democratization and marketization that had their achievements and some drawbacks (nationalism, etatism, corruption etc.).
  • Critical transition concept aware of specific common post-communist political, legal, and economic dynamics with its own patterns of state-, nation-, and economy-building, understanding of democracy and rule of law.

3. Living through the Change (1989-94)

Since 1989-91, the political imagery of peoples living in CEE has changed dramatically. Tony Judt has called this alteration of spatial perception in post-communist Europe a “rediscovery,” providing a new map to the new reality [1]. After some period of interpretative chaos, the need arose for the crystallization of some overarching imagery, which ended up in the all-encompassing post-communist transition combining democratization, marketization, and Europeanization.

The public statements of intellectuals and political leaders from 1989 to 1991 highlight a mixture of concepts that the people living through the Change used to describe the surrounding chaos and their aims of development.

3.1. For left intellectuals (predominantly non-communist and post-Marxist), the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the USSR was an existential issue. From the left perspective, Europe’s East and West were to establish a common space where the best of the two would create a region of peace, shared values, and political cooperation – an agenda institutionalized by the Council of Europe. However, in the idea of progress through transition, the left also sensed a danger to their cause: the anti-communist revolution of 1989-91 was hostile to non-communist socialism as well, it promoted a conservative orientation toward the past, and lacked any positive objectives which could guide post-communist social development.

3.2. If the leftist intellectuals watched the events in the East with hope and fear, the liberals and neo-liberals saw huge prospects for their cause there. For them, European integration was less important and too abstract as an objective. Instead, they sought for the shift toward free economies, open societies, and pluralist democracies. Liberal ideas of that time were hastily translated into neo-liberal practices due to the growing hegemony of the “Washington Consensus.”

From the outset, the neo-liberal economists looked at CEE through the lens of transition toward a capitalist, free-market economy.

3.3. Thus, in the first five years post-communist transition concept was constructed through a combination of the elements of transition (internally oriented economic and political processes) and Europeanization (a multilateral externally oriented process). Both elements of the concept radiated confidence that a new era had come, and the new progress would improve life.

4. Humbled conceptualization (1995-2003/6)

The great expectations connected with the initial concept of post-communist transition soon met with the brute reality of poverty, conflicts, disorganization.

4.1. The left scholars and intellectuals were among the first to review critically the beliefs connected with the transition. They witnessed that in the course of the post-communist transition, hegemony was achieved by neo-liberalism in the economy and nationalism in politics, while the social democratic alternative lost its influence in all parts of Europe.

4.2. The critical approach towards the all-encompassing concept of transition was later shared by the neo-liberals. By 2003, the academic studies of the post-communist transition saw their partisan affiliations dwindling. The researchers of the regional processes went through their own, disciplinary “transition.” As Richard Sakwa rightly pointed out, “[t]he actual course of transformation proved more complex than was assumed in the early post-communist days. The reform process itself generated new phenomena that raise questions about the received wisdom of the political sciences and economics” [2]. This self-critical turn can be described as a gradual dropping of the all-encompassing transition concept and moving toward a reality check on where democratization and marketization have led the post-communist societies.

This tendency is especially evident in the change of tone, vocabulary, and subject of publications. More and more publications were looking into nationalism and Euroskepticism, as well as “systemic corruption.”

Finally, by the time of the “color revolutions” and authoritarian turn (2003-5), the academic community swayed from its initial post-communism enthusiasm to the collection of data, critical analysis, and reflection on its own conceptual apparatus.

Around 2002-3, the heated debates started over the issue of whether the transition paradigm had any scholarly value at all. The harshest critique of this paradigm came from Thomas Carothers who dared to call for the review of the core beliefs of the transition theory. [3]

5. Questioning post-communist progress (2003/6-2021)

The wave of “color revolutions” provoked events that were probably decisive for the evolution of assessment of the post-communist transition. These revolutions mainly failed the chance to rectify the wrongs of the post-communist developments; revolutionary enthusiasm did not last long as revolutionary promises sank in the political struggle among the winners, in the endemic corruption, and in the authoritarian reaction in Russia and other non-revolutionary countries. This short cycle from hope to disenchantment was therapeutic for the transition scholars: the numerous publications on the “color revolutions” demonstrate how fast enthusiasm was supplanted by balanced analysis.

Simultaneously, the enthusiasm of those post-communist countries becoming an integral part of the European Union was outbalanced by concerns as conservative and populist parties showed their grip on power in the region. The crystallization of Euroskepticism, growing evidence of the informal links between the CEE and Russian corruption, and the vibrancy of right-wing ideologies became the center of attention for the new transition studies. In 2009, Vladimir Tismaneanu bitterly acknowledged that — in spite of the wealth differences, belonging to different geopolitical networks, and depth of reforms — the post-communist region remains united from the Visegrád to Russia. [4]

5.1. So, a new transitology of disenchantment came in the picture: the post-communist societies were sliding into new political regimes founded partly on original and partly on old political-economic elements. Socialism and capitalism were not seen as mutually exclusive anymore.

5.2. First, the new transition studies evaluated political and economic processes less in terms of democratization, and more in terms of illiberalism, authoritarianism, and patronalism.

5.3. Second, the concept of Europeanization was also revised. The focus is on how “European integration” has changed its forms and contents after thirty years of developments in the East. Some of the forms of Europeanization have lost their liberal democratic meaning. [5]

5.4. Finally, a greater role in the new understanding and assessment of transition is being played by the researchers outside the West. This limits the Western dominant narrative in understanding the post-communist processes.

6. Today transition studies appear to be a vibrant transdisciplinary academic field, where scholars face two constantly changing yet interrelated subjects — progress and regress in post-communist societies and in transition theory itself. The societies continue dealing with challenges of local, regional, and global significance, just like other communities around the world. And the concept of transition has turned into a reliable academic practice that is quite critical with regard to its subject, methods, and concepts.


  1. Tony Judt, “The Rediscovery of Central Europe,” Daedalus 119, no 1 (1990) 23.
  2. Richard Sakwa ed., The Experience of Democratization in Eastern Europe (Berlin: Springer, 1999) 7ff.
  3. Thomas Carothers, “The End of the Transition Paradigm,” Journal of Democracy 13, no 1 (2002): 7ff.
  4. Vladimir Tismaneanu, Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy, Nationalism, and Myth in Post-Communist Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009) ix.
  5. See, for example: Richard Youngs, “The New Patchwork Politics of Wider Europe,” Centre for European Policy Studies website, October 28, 2019, https://3dcftas.eu/publications/the-new-patchwork-politics-of-wider-europe.

В оформлении использована картина Юрия Соломко из проекта “Уроки географии” (2009?; источник).