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The Handbook of Political, Social, and Economic Transformation$

Wolfgang Merkel, Raj Kollmorgen, and Hans-Jürgen Wagener

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780198829911

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198829911.001.0001

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Dilemma of Simultaneity

Dilemma of Simultaneity

(p.471) Chapter 45 Dilemma of Simultaneity
The Handbook of Political, Social, and Economic Transformation

Ilyas Saliba

Wolfgang Merkel

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The theory of the dilemma of simultaneity is empirically based on the transformations of post-socialist states in Central and Eastern Europe. The transformations after the collapse of the socialist bloc were without precedent with regards to breadth and depth. The dilemma of simultaneity consists of three parallel transition processes on three dimensions. The first part of this chapter explores the three dimensions of the transitions: nation building, political transformation, and economic transformation. The second part discusses the three levels of transformation: (1) ethno-national identity and territory, (2) polity, and (3) socio-economic distribution. The third part highlights the complexity and challenges of multidimensional simultaneous transformation processes. The fourth and fifth parts discuss the role of international actors and socio-economic structures on the transitions in Central and Eastern Europe. The chapter concludes with an account of Elster’s and Offe’s critics and their response.

Keywords:   simultaneity, nation building, multidimensional transformation, temporality, post-socialist transition, economic transformation, political transformation

THE theory of the dilemma of simultaneity developed by Jon Elster (1990) and Claus Offe (1991) is intimately linked to the transformations in the post-socialist states of Central and Eastern Europe. The transformations after the collapse of the socialist bloc were historically without precedent in terms of breadth and depth (Offe 1991, 59). The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Empire took most observers by surprise, so that very few groups and interests were organized within the societies of Central and Eastern Europe. The challenges posed by the simultaneity of questions of statehood and territory, paired with the simultaneous transitions of the economic and political systems, account for the uniqueness of the post-socialist transformations. As Elster and Offe pointed out, the difficulty consists in the interconnectedness of these parallel transition processes. They theorized the problematic effects of the respective transition processes on each other that led to damaging consequences for the transition process as a whole (Elster 1990, 313).

The dilemma of simultaneity comprises three parallel transition processes on different levels. All three processes (nation building, and political and economic transformation) are intertwined in a complex web of interdependence. In the first part of this chapter, we will explore the three transitions in order to assess the accompanying problems. The three dimensions of transformation in Eastern Europe are:

  • State and nation building (national dimension);

  • Regime transformation (political dimension);

  • Economic transformation (economic dimension).

State and Nation Building

After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the Central and Eastern European states faced multiple issues with regard to territory, nationhood, and identity. These issues had a dangerous potential for instability and conflict, as the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s revealed. National borders, migration, minorities, and secessionist movements as well as violent (p.472) struggles over identity and nationhood aggravated the already difficult conditions for the transformations of these countries.

Unresolved issues concerning territory, irredentism, and the existence of minorities in the newly independent states in the region were especially problematic. Processes of identity formation, which create shared perceptions of national belonging, are normally the result of long and enduring struggles. In many post-socialist transition states, however, these processes had to unfold within a very short period of time and in parallel with political and economic transformation processes. The territorial and nationality problems that surfaced during the Central and Eastern European transition processes were not solved in all countries undergoing tremendous changes in the 1990s. Some of the binational or multinational states, such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, ultimately fell apart under the pressures of secessionist movements. In regions where the national question was not dissolved—as in the Caucasus—ethnic and territorial tensions retained an inherently destructive potential during the transitions. This held true particularly in areas home to minorities from former imperial powers, which carried a high potential for conflict and violence.

Regime Transformation

The starting point for the political transformation of the former socialist states was the dissolution of one-party rule through the introduction of party competition, multiparty elections, and the separation of powers. For a successful democratization, furthermore, principles such as participatory rights, the rule of law, and fundamental liberties had to be accepted by the relevant political actors. Due to state control and homogenization of social and political organizations under the previous regimes, there was almost no or only scarcely developed pluralistic or independent civil society structures in most post-socialist transition societies. Therefore, political entrepreneurs were often tempted to create and mobilize their constituencies on the basis of ethnic and nationalist ideologies. The only states that did not experience these difficult conditions and problematic processes during the transition were those that had powerful external actors guiding them through the transformation. The prime example here is the reunification of the two German states. In Central European states, the role of the European Union was crucial in this regard (Pevehouse 2005; Schimmelfennig and Scholz 2005).

During the democratic consolidation in the post-socialist space only five states were able to keep their territorial integrity intact (Albania, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria). Few states had experienced previous periods of democracy (Poland, Hungary, German Democratic Republic), whereas most other states lacked any historical experience with democracy.

Economic Transformation

The transformation from a planned economy based on state property to a capitalist economy based on private property was the third dimension of transformation in Central and Eastern Europe. The three crucial components of the economic transformation were (p.473) (1) privatization, (2) price liberalization, and (3) economic stabilization after the shock triggered by the systemic and extensive changes. The main problem with the economic transformation consisted in the political transfer of the means of production into private hands in order to create a class of entrepreneurs and owners in a formerly state-controlled economy and thereby overcome a state of ‘capitalism without capitalists’ (Eyat et al. 2000). Such a transformation of the economy was unique to the post-Soviet transitions. During no other wave of democratization (Huntington 1991) did the states in question have to cope with such a fundamental economic change on top of the political transition process. In addition to the reorganization of the means of production and matters related to ownership, acute shortages of basic goods needed to be addressed in order to ensure stability for the transition process as a whole.

On the one hand, experts proclaimed that a market-based organization of the economy was the path to greater efficiency and wealth. Despite the initial economic crises, the transition to capitalism as a means to achieve prosperity was widely accepted by the populations in Central and Eastern Europe. On the other hand, many of the political decisions regarding the reorganization of the markets and the creation of an entrepreneurial class did not put the common good first. Instead, it often served the interests of a select few who were able to take advantage of privileged access to information or political and economic capital to enrich themselves during the transition process. The opportunities for personal enrichment during the economic transition period contributed to a high level of corruption in most transition states that in some cases still poses a problem today.

In theory, democratization should have been a prerequisite for the economic liberalization of Eastern Europe in order to ensure a fair transition of the economy. Historically, however, the capitalist market economy preceded democratization. Based on this experience, some experts at the time argued that capitalism realizes most of its potential in terms of growth and prosperity in a non-democratic environment. According to this view, cutting back on democratic rights in order to ensure a comprehensive economic transformation may be a useful strategy. Otherwise, political actors and organizations can hinder economic transformation by making use of their political veto rights to avoid the short-term negative consequences or to put protectionist measures in place. In the same vein, a market economy is also seen as a precondition for a pluralist organization of interests in the form of political parties, civil society organizations, independent trade unions, and other organized groups. Furthermore, state regulation of prices and markets needs to be dismantled, which usually triggers high inflation rates leading to devaluation and negative economic effects for the population. The problems of a parallel political and economic transformation are worsened by the initial economic shock that leads to calls for protectionist political measures obstructing the economic transformation process.

Interdependence and Obstruction Effects

The problems and obstruction effects stemming from the unique circumstances of these three synchronous transformation processes, which took decades and even centuries in (p.474) Western Europe, posed the main challenge to the transitions in the former socialist republics of Central and Eastern Europe. The mutually opposing interests and logics of the three transformation processes put tremendous pressure on decision makers and inherently created conflicts. The mutual dependency, coupled with the reciprocal inhibition of the three transformations, is indicative of the dilemma of all-encompassing transition processes. This dilemma, in turn, follows from the simultaneity of the three parallel complex transformation processes that at times block each other’s progress while, at the same time, being highly interdependent.

The Three Levels of Transformation

The three aforementioned dimensions of post-socialist transformations play out in parallel on three analytical levels. Historically, the transformations on the three levels occurred on different temporal scales. Again, due to the multidimensional nature of the transformations in Central and Eastern Europe, the processes here took place on all three levels simultaneously. The three levels on which the transformation processes occurred are:

  • Ethno-national identity and territory;

  • Constitutional and institutional framework (polity);

  • Economic distribution.

Ethno-national Identity and Territory

The transformation processes on the territorial and identity level are ultimately questions of territorial integrity as well of citizenship and belonging as a national community. In a number of previously socialist states, minorities were discriminated against and were not granted the nationality of the newly formed states. This was particularly prominent in contexts in which the minorities in newly formed nation states were placed in collective association with a prior occupying power. This is still the case today in the Baltic states, where discrimination against Russian minorities remains widespread.

On the path towards democratic consolidation, conflicts about territorial integrity, national identity, and citizenship are disruptive factors that contribute to instability. However, withholding citizenship rights from some of the people living on a state territory due to their ethnic belonging is not only problematic during times of transition, but can also lead to undemocratic enclaves in otherwise democratic polities. This remains the case in Estonia and Latvia, for example.

Personal attachment to a certain political or national community develops historically. Transformations on this level naturally unfold over generations and are culturally rooted. The speed with which political decisions affecting issues of national identity and belonging were taken during the transformations in Central and Eastern Europe presented an additional challenge for those seeking a peaceful transition to democracy.

(p.475) The Level of the Constitution and the Institutional Framework (Polity)

Historically, transformative changes to constitutions often have undemocratic roots. Paradoxically, even in cases where constitutional changes laid the foundations for a more democratic polity, they were frequently the result of rather non-democratic procedures. A crucial question is what kind of restrictions on future amendments to the constitutional order are established. On the one hand, the possibility of constitutional amendments ensures that the polity is sufficiently adaptable. On the other hand, however, changes to the constitutional order should be subject to a threshold higher than simple majoritarian decision making in order to guarantee that such changes are beyond the easy reach of opportunistic political actors and are accompanied by vertical and horizontal controls (Elster 1990, 5). Especially during parallel transformations on the constitutional and the regime level, political actors might exercise their influence over the constitutional order to rig decisions in their favour.

The Level of Economic Distribution

The level of economic distribution and market structure encompasses all processes and decisions during transition processes that are situated below the polity level—in compliance with the constitutional procedures—and are concerned with the distribution of material resources and political authority. Decisions on this level regularly take the form of legislative, judicial, executive, and administrative decisions or elections. Governments and laws, in turn, changed within a few years in the course of the transition and thus only possess limited consistency.

Problems of Multidimensional Simultaneous Transformations

Temporal and Multilevel Problems

Problems on the national-territorial level can impede transformation processes on the constitutional and the economic distributive levels. On top of that, transformation processes on the constitutional level can hinder necessary decisions on the distributive level. Through these obstruction effects across the three levels (usually top-down), the causal interdependence between the simultaneous transformations entails additional challenges in comparison to one-dimensional transitions. Normally, the different temporal rhythms of the transformations on the three levels render intentional manipulation of processes on one level by political actors’ strategic decisions on other levels impossible. During the post-socialist (p.476) transformations, however, the changes took place simultaneously on all three levels and temporal barriers were thus non-existent.

Political actors who take decisions on the constitutional level decide on the institutional framework and the rules of the game that, in turn, determine their own room for manoeuvre within the new polity. The parallel transformations on multiple levels and strategic calculations of actors allow for cross-level effects that have the potential to obstruct the transformations on other levels. The unprecedented simultaneity and multilevel nature of the transformations in the post-socialist republics constituted the fundamental dilemma for the Central and Eastern European transition states.

The transformations on the three identified levels historically tended to follow their respective evolutionary temporal logics. If happening simultaneously, however, the parallel decision-making processes bear the potential to obstruct each other due to the incompatibility of transformations on several levels in multiple dimensions.

The simultaneity of the transformation processes also hampers the evolutionary learning processes of the actors involved. Moreover, the potential for intentional manipulation by the actors involved bears negative implications for the transformation on the different levels as temporal barriers and restraints are not able to hinder strategic decision making.

The would-be success of parallel transformation processes on all three dimensions (state, regime, economy) presupposes a high degree of patience, confidence, and civic ethos on the part of the population in question. For the consolidation of the multiple transformations, a quick economic recovery is crucial in order to increase popular acceptance of the transition processes.

International Actors

International actors can influence economic recovery during transformations through investments and financial support; they can subsidize the economies of the affected populations in order to ensure the latter’s support during the critical phase of transitions. Furthermore, if such external financial support is made conditional on the progress of political reform, this can provide an additional incentive for the elites to implement the steps necessary for a comprehensive transformation. The simultaneous implementation of a market economy and democratic political system can be overseen by an external power, as happened after the Second World War in Italy, Japan, and Germany.

On the other hand, a transformation that is imposed by a foreign power also bears inherent risks. First, the necessary financial commitment to ensure a positive economic development in the transitional state(s) could exceed the capacity of the patron countries and thus lead to conflicts between the donor countries and the transition state(s). Second, a strong external involvement of foreign actors could be regarded as imperialist domination by the donor countries and be rejected by relevant parts of the population in the subsidized transition state(s). Third, substantive subsidies can have unintended consequences. Most importantly, external financial support could lead to reduced pressure for the comprehensive economic reform necessary for ensuring a successful economic transformation. Reduced pressure to reform the economy due to foreign rents can lead to the persistence of old monopolistic structures.

(p.477) In the case of the post-Soviet transformations, there was no victorious occupying power (such as after the Second World War, as already mentioned) involved. However, the perspective of joining regional organizations, especially the European Union (EU) and NATO, had a significant effect on at least the Central European transition states. The prospect of gaining EU membership and the expected economic benefits from joining the European common market after a successful transformation proved attractive for the elites and populations in Central Europe during the post-1989 transition period. Due to the conditionalities involved, the immediate support and the prospect of membership in the European Union had a positive impact on some of the transitional states in Central Europe (Schimmelfennig and Scholz 2005). However, this positive effect has not been evenly distributed among the transition states of Central and Eastern Europe.

The extent of credibility of EU membership as an attainable goal in the medium term and the differing structural conditions (education level, economic performance, and societal homogeneity) among the transition countries as well as mere geographical proximity to the EU were crucial constraining or enabling factors for the ability of the EU to affect the transformation process (Merkel 2008; Offe 2011).

Societal Structure and Economic Transformation

Another problematic characteristic of the post-socialist transformations was the lack of pluralist societal and social structures. The socialist republics, with their tight grip on their societies and especially the state-dominated civil societies, prevented the formation of autonomous civil society organizations. Civil society organizations, however, fulfil the important function of critiquing and guiding the transformation processes. During the Central and Eastern European transformations, there was a high risk of the opposition movements breaking up after they had accomplished their goal of deposing the incumbent socialist one-party governments, a risk that was magnified by the lack of an independent civil society structure. After the ousting of the governments, the movements lost their common point of reference. As a result, many social movements in the transition states lost steam as the absence of an organized civil society and the lack of experience with organizing as such became more obvious.

On the one hand, a political transformation is a prerequisite for the successful and fair transformation of the economy, as the necessary processes of liberalization, privatization, and opening of the markets do not in themselves serve the common good and well-being of the people, but follow a logic of patronage and enrichment of the elites who are involved in the relevant decision-making processes, as they have an inherent information advantage. Thus, the transition from a planned economy to a capitalist market economy is not a natural evolutionary process but primarily a political project. Moreover, during a parallel economic and regime transformation, the room for manoeuvre on the part of the actors involved is greatly enhanced, far from being constrained, by an established system of checks and balances. Ideally, therefore, both the actors involved and the decisions should be legitimized by democratic procedures such as elections or direct votes.

On the other hand, a majority of the population could easily obstruct the economic transformation out of fear for personal material losses or the abuse of power by the elites. (p.478) Hence, an economic transformation prior to the establishment of democratic institutions could be favourable for the establishment of a capitalist market economy.

The paradox of a simultaneous political and market transformation, therefore, is that it can lead to either a democratic legitimacy deficit due to a lack of democratic decision making or an economic legitimacy deficit as the result of a (politically) blocked economic transformation process and the associated worsening of living conditions for the population.

However, this dilemma can be avoided to a certain degree through internal economic redistribution. Economic losses due to the initial collapse of the economy during the transitional period could in part be absorbed through social redistribution in order to avoid a fundamental economic legitimacy crisis. Nevertheless, it is important that the redistribution not suffocate the constructive potential of the inevitable economic shock (Deacon and Szalai 1990; Offe 1991, 291).

Critique and Response

According to one of the fundamental criticisms of the ‘dilemma of simultaneity’, the proponents of this theory—especially Claus Offe and Jon Elster—base their assessment of the post-socialist transformations on an exaggerated generalization about the very much heterogeneous Central and Eastern European societies and polities. The generalization was criticized especially on the basis of the broad scholarly consensus on the importance of structural factors such as education levels, economic development, and historical experience with democracy as well as the obvious variance across the transition states (Merkel 2008). Regional experts and other transitoligists pointed to the extensive differences, especially in administrative capacity and education levels among the countries lumped together under the label of ‘post-socialist transition states’ in the analyses of Offe and Elster. According to critics, the considerably varying starting points among the states undergoing transition in the aftermath of the breakdown of the Soviet bloc were not sufficiently accounted for. Furthermore, others pointed out that the economic conditions in the Central and Eastern European states were comparatively favourable for a restructuring and modernization of the economy.

In the beginning of the 1990s, Offe and Elster made rather grim forecasts regarding the probability of successful transformations for the former socialist republics, primarily based on the dilemmas identified earlier. These gloomy predictions seemed, however, to have been proven wrong to a significant extent with the accessions of multiple Central European states to the European Union in 2004 and 2007 after fulfilling the acquis communautaire requirements. The importance of the international environment was indeed somewhat underestimated by the initial authors, which Offe also acknowledged in his later work (1997, 2011). Nevertheless, twenty-five years after the beginning of the transitions in Central and Eastern Europe, the consolidation of democracy has turned out to be a fragile, even fleeting stage. At the time of writing, the most successful transformation states of the first two decades after 1989, Hungary and Poland, have backslid onto the path of democratic deconsolidation. However, whether this is due to the dilemma of simultaneity or to a lack of civic culture and a rebirth of nationalism under the supranational roof of the European Union remains to be investigated further.

(p.479) Bibliography

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