Transitional Regimes Essay

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During the mid-1970s, the third wave of democratization, a phrase coined by American political scientist Samuel Huntington, started in Western Europe; subsequently, it swept through Latin America and post-communist Europe, including republics of the former Soviet Union. Many countries affected by this wave displayed democratic features, such as regular elections and civil liberties. Some retained characteristics associated with authoritarian regimes, such as a weak civil society, lack of government accountability, or absence of the rule of law. Others were never able to democratize and returned to authoritarianism. To capture the fluidity of political systems affected by the third wave, a new term— transitional regime—was invented. It became the central concept in transit ology—an extensive body of literature that grapples with the question of why some countries democratize successfully and others do not.

Defining Transitional Regimes

In their 1986 book Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies, Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter, leading scholars of democratization, defined transition as “the interval between one political regime and another” (2). Transitions start when authoritarian regimes begin to disintegrate, and they end when some kind of democracy is created, when a country returns to authoritarian rule, or a revolution starts. After the fall of communism, Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan defined democratic transition as the time when “sufficient agreement has been reached about political procedures to produce an elected government,” when free and competitive elections take place, and when the government is capable of developing new policies (3). Most “transitologists” accept the minimalist definition of democracy implied in Linz and Stepan’s work. However, the condition when “some kind” of democracy is created is only the beginning of a democratic transition. Successful transitional regimes achieve democratic consolidation.

For democratic consolidations to occur, democracy has to become “the only game in town.” Linz and Stepan argued that consolidated democracies are distinct from other regimes because, when democracies are “consolidated,” all important political and social actors acknowledge the legitimacy of the regime and do not try to secede from it. Using the established rules and procedures resolves domestic conflicts, and the majority of the public accepts the institutions of the state as the most appropriate way to govern collective life. Throughout the territory of the state, governmental and nongovernmental forces agree to solve conflict within the laws of the state.

Major Perspectives

The literature on democratic transitions suggests that there is no one universally applicable for mula to predict how a transitional regime becomes a consolidated democracy. At least two important processes take place simultaneously in transitional regimes: changes in political structures and economic changes. These complex processes are intertwined. Overall, the literature on democratic transitions suggests that economic development is a sufficient rather than a necessary condition for successful democratic transitions. According to Adam Przeworski and colleagues, the higher the level of economic development, the more likely a democratic regime is to survive. The risk that a transitional democracy will not survive increases ten times if the economy contracts in two consecutive years. It is also important to create strong state institutions and a vibrant civil society that will hold the government accountable to the voters.

The rich and diverse literature on democratization and economic development incorporates two main perspectives. The first, called modernization, focuses on the socioeconomic structures that shape the choices made by democratizing societies. For example, Yi Feng and Paul J. Zak argue that per capita income, the distribution of wealth, education, and preferences for political rights and civil liberties are crucial variables affecting the outcomes of democratic transitions.

The alternative perspective focuses on the preferences and interactions among political agents and tries to explain their individual choices. From this viewpoint, decisions made by the elites and cooperation between different factions are especially important and can impact socioeconomic structures. For example, in 1990, a group of Russian economists linked to Gorbachev and Yeltsin tried to develop solutions to the no-longer functioning Soviet economy. Their cooperation produced a 239-page document called “Transition to the Market” as well as a draft legislative package that argued for a speedy introduction of privatization and other laissez-faire reforms. Although Gorbachev and Yeltsin initially supported the document, Gorbachev’s retreat from the program affected the dynamics of democratic transition and the scale of economic reform.

Predicting A Successful Transition

Drawing on a comprehensive survey of the former communist countries, in How Capitalism Was Built: The Transformation of Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia, Anders Åslund concluded that radical economic reform might produce better and more durable results than slow reform (i.e., transition from central planning to laissez-faire capitalism). In addition, radical economic reform is likely to contribute to establishing strong democratic institutions. In Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation, Linz and Stepan identified five supporting arenas necessary for consolidation of a democratic regime: a lively civil society (an entity with interest groups that are relatively independent from the state); a political society (where fight for political power is pursued according to legitimate principles, and actors such as political parties respect those rules); the rule of law; a bureaucracy to ensure the functioning of the state; and an economic society (a state-mediated market economy).

Studies of transitional regimes have identified other important variables that affect transition. These variables include the legacy of the past, since nondemocratic experiences in the past critically affect the path that a democratizing state takes; political leadership; and the scope of the agenda to be addressed by transition. Michael McFaul hypothesized that the wider the scope of the agenda for change, the less likely a new democratic regime is to emerge. It is extremely difficult to manage multiple complex transitions, such as the shape of emerging political institutions and the type of economic regime, at the same time. Successful transitions tend to focus simultaneously on a few problems, such as the shape of political institutions.

The Role Of International Organizations

A significant number of works explore the role of outsiders in the processes associated with democratic transitions. During the mid-1990s, when the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization considered expansion to the former communist countries of Eastern and East Central Europe, the so-called geostrategic hypothesis was put forward. This hypothesis—developed by Geoffrey Pridham, Adrian G. V. Hyde-Price, and others—suggested that in order to consolidate democracies within transitional regimes, a secure environment should be established to ensure democratic development. It was argued that a supportive geostrategic environment was a crucial variable explaining why some transitional regimes turn into consolidated democracies and others do not.

Numerous case studies exploring the impact of the EU on policies of applicant countries were conducted. According to Francis Fukuyama, the ability of the EU to make candidate countries incorporate democratic norms through membership criteria was described as “perhaps the most successful exercise of soft power in the world today” (84–86). However, attempts to promote democratization have come under scrutiny. After expansion in 2004 and 2007, the EU was not able to develop a successful strategy to deal with transitional regimes in its new neighborhood. Even the success of the EU in the new member states has been questioned—the elites may have adopted democratic norms to please outsiders for strategic reasons, without fully implementing the recommended reforms. There is an emerging consensus that successful democratization efforts should focus on local ownership and local participation.


Transit ology is criticized for comparing transitional regimes in different cultural contexts with the state model associated with Western democracies. Social and cultural reality in countries undergoing political change may be too complex to be captured by elegant theories of transition. According to Thomas Carothers, when applied in practice, the assumptions about transitional regimes (e.g., an expectation to move toward democratization through certain stages) implicit in transit ology are especially problematic. However, there is at least one important insight offered by numerous studies of transitional regimes: State building is crucial for democratic transitions, and it cannot be achieved without the willing involvement of local actors.


  1. Åslund, Anders. How Capitalism Was Built: The Transformation of Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  2. Brown, Archie. The Rise and Fall of Communism, New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
  3. Burkhart, Ross E., and Michael S. Lewis-Beck. “Comparative Democracy: The Economic Development Thesis.” American Political Science Review 88, no. 4 (1994), 903–910.
  4. Carothers,Thomas. “The End of the Transition Paradigm.” Journal of Democracy 13, no. 1 (2002), 5–21.
  5. Diamond, Larry, and Marc F. Plattner, eds. “Economic Reform and Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 6, no. 2 (1995): 101.
  6. Feng,Yi, and Paul J. Zak. “The Determinants of Democratic Transitions.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 43, no. 2 (1999): 162–177.
  7. Fukuyama, Francis. “Building Democracy After Conflict: Stateness First.” Journal of Democracy, 16, no. 1 (2005): 84–86.
  8. Huntington, Samuel P. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.
  9. Hyde-Price, Adrian G.V. “Democratization in Eastern Europe: The External Dimension.” In Democratization in Eastern Europe: Domestic and International Dimensions, edited by Geoffrey Pridham and Tatu Vanhanen. London: Routledge, 1994.
  10. Linz, Juan J., and Alfred Stepan. Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
  11. Kugler, Jacek, and Yi Feng. “Explaining and Modeling Democratic Transitions.” Journal of Democratic Transitions 43, no. 2 (1999): 139–146.
  12. McFaul, Michael. Russia’s Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.
  13. O’Donnell, Guillermo, and Philippe C. Schmitter. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule:Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
  14. Pridham, Geoffrey. “The International Dimension of Democratization: Theory, Practice and Inter-regional Comparisons.” In Building Democracy? The International Dimension of Democratization in Eastern Europe, edited by Geoffrey Pridham, Eric Herring, and George Sanford. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
  15. Pridham, Geoffrey, Eric Herring, and George Sanford, eds. Building Democracy? The International Dimension of Democratization in Eastern Europe. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
  16. Pridham, Geoffrey, and Tatu Vanhanen. Democratization in Eastern Europe: Domestic and International Dimensions. London: Routledge, 1994.
  17. Przeworski, Adam, Michael E. Alvarez, Jose Antonio Cheibub, and Fernando Limongi. Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950–1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  18. Rueschemyer, Dietrich, Evelyne Stephens, and John Stephens. Development and Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  19. Sarotte, Mary Elise. 1989:The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe.
  20. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.
  21. Tesser, Lynn M. “The Geopolitics of Tolerance: Minority Rights under EU Expansion in East-Central Europe.” East European Politics and Societies 17, no. 1 (2002): 483–532.

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