chapter  14
Seeding civil society
ByRuth Mandel
Pages 18

Observers of postsocialism have a penchant for metaphors of transportation when describing the challenges these societies have faced over the past decade. Gerard Roland has stated that ‘[T]he transition from communism to a freemarket economy is like changing the engine on an airplane while it is still flying’ (2001). Moving from the aeronautic to the oceanic, Elster et al. (1998) sub-titled their book Rebuilding the Ship at Sea. But whatever the metaphorical vehicle, there now is a wide recognition of formidable, even intractable problems. Despite critiques of the attempted wholesale exportation of Western market democracies to the postsocialist world, and the underlying assumptions of ‘transitology’, transition’ itself has became a ‘mytho-poetic concept’ and it remains ‘a near orthodoxy’ (Holmes 2001:32). However, a whole host of unexpected obstacles have presented themselves to disrupt the anticipated unilinear trajectory of change. Subsequent to the widespread privatization of state-owned businesses and the introduction of new markets, these ‘transitional’ countries were beset by economic recession, so that the increased efficiency expected from free markets never materialized. One decade after the emergence of the Commonwealth of Independent States, it is fitting to take stock of what went wrong and why, and to question the initial assumptions of transition itself. Abramson asks anthropologists to consider ‘whether the concept of “transition” is anything other than a discursive tool for recasting Cold War dichotomies such as “First World” and “Third World” or “developed” and “developing” worlds into new molds of civil and uncivil societies’ (2001:8).1