After the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the countries in the region moved in the direction of democratization, or so it seemed at the time. Almost thirty years later, the outcomes of transition proved to be quite diverse. Some countries did live up to the general expectations: they democratized and even consolidated those democracies. Other countries established semi-democratic regimes, whereas still others consolidated their authoritarian rules instead. One of the countries that until recently was considered by many as an exemplar of successful transition from authoritarianism to democracy is Poland. Belarus, a former Soviet Union’s republic, on the contrary, is a country that completely defied democratization. Unlike its neighbors, Belarus did not want to secede from the Soviet Union, and when the USSR was dissolved on December 8, 1991, for the majority of the population in the republic independence came as something unexpected and unheralded.
This presentation considers the post-communist development of Belarus and Poland and suggests an answer to the question of why the former failed to democratize. Employing the modernization theory, the presentation analyzes the connection between economic development and democracy, and between civil society and democracy. Additionally, it explores the idea that the absence of a strong national consciousness might have contributed to Belarus’ inability to become a democratic state. The presentation also considers whether consolidated democratic regimes still possess their irreversible character. In Poland, for example, the right-wing populist party Law and Justice (PiS) has enacted various measures aimed at increasing political influence over state institutions since it took power in 2015. In 2019, after the parliamentary elections, the party regained its majority in Sejm. According to Freedom House, the developments that are currently taking place in Poland threaten to reverse its democratic process.
The analysis of Belarus’ and Poland’s post-communist development trajectories confirms that economic growth alone is not a sufficient condition for a successful transition from authoritarianism to democracy. It finds that Belarusian civil society is weak and unable to impact the decision-making process and public policy in the country. It also suggests that one of the important reasons that explains Belarus’ failure to establish a vibrant civil society and democratize is an extremely weak national identity of the country’s citizens. On the other hand, the analysis poses a question whether a strong identity (as is the case in Poland), when perceived as not being given adequate recognition by other societies, can lead to what Fukuyama called ‘the politics of resentment’ and explain, to an extent, the support the ruling PiS is currently enjoying in the country.