Dilemmas of Justice in Eastern Europe's Democratic Transitions
By Noel Calhoun
Summary written by Eric Brahm, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Calhoun, Noel. Dilemmas of Justice in Eastern Europe's Democratic Transitions. 1st ed. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Using the cases of East Germany, Poland, and Russia, Calhoun examines the role of liberal democratic ideas in shaping how countries confront the past violations of human rightsfrom communist rule. While not dictating the means through which the past is addressed, democratic values do influence whether the approach is judged to be fair. Calhoun argues that liberal democratic ideology leads to a tendency to pursue truth and justice strategies over violent retribution or amnesia. This is because liberal democratic ideology at its core involves the social contract metaphor, the , inclusive participation, openness, and justice (Chapter 2). This strategy of truth and justice, in turn, "though highly imperfect in delivering substantive justice, can contribute to the prospects for democratic consolidation (p.2)."
Calhoun begins by reviewing the literature of transitions and the factors contributing to the selection of a strategy to deal with a legacy of human rights abuses. New governments are constrained in their approach by agreements made to end the conflict as well as by the existing balance of power between former opponents. Calhoun finds that a move toward liberal democracy further constrains choices by making violent retribution or amnesia unacceptable. In sum, "[t]he politics of transitional justice is in part about the struggle for power in a given institutional context; however, it also consists of people pondering how to resolve a complex problem, which has not only political, but also moral and legal implications (p.17)."
East Germans have intensely debated coming to term its past. In fact, like many Eastern European states, it has both WWII and the communist years in its past. East Germany's transition was a full rupture with the past. Another important aspect of the transition is that East Germany was not left on its own, but its unification with the West had implications for how it addressed the legacy of human rights abuses. The West already had a discourse established from its own coming to terms with WWII. The reunified Germany was also wealthy with strong bureaucratic and legal institutions. In fact, some in the East grew to think that the West had taken over its examination of the past. In many respects, however, there was significant continuity in the approach to transitional justice before and after reunification.
In Poland, a decade went by before its policies to address the past were in place. The negotiatednature of the transition was instrumental in explaining why things developed so slowly. Debates about dealing with the past, then, became political weapons argued for electoral gain. Calhoun argues that liberal ideology proved important in framingdebates and ultimately why a former communist president approved truth and justice measures. With lessons from early failures in 1992 and from other international examples, debates in Poland shifted to the best policy to address the past.
Russia's experience followed a very different path. In some respects, dealing with the past had already begun before the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1987. In Russia, however, debates about dealing with the past were not connected to debates about reform. Despite Russia's transition also being a rupture, demands for transitional justice quickly subsided. Although in part Yeltsin was distracted by economic problems and the dissolution of the empire, Calhoun argues that this is in significant part due to the absence of liberal democratic ideology in Russia. Unlike Poland and East Germany, the communists in Russia remained much more powerful and had no interest in such a policy. Further, many of the democrats had communist ties. As a result, Russia by and large has adopted amnesia as a strategy for dealing with past.
Calhoun goes on to prognosticate on the future of democracy in these states. Frustration may grow as truth-telling leads to no further action. Dissatisfaction with prosecutions leading to acquittals on technicalities may generate pressure. Yet, the truth and justice approach has not hampered social peace and the crimes of the past do not figure prominently in political discourse.