Conflicts, trust, democracy in Eastern Europe



Pathology, a factor of the disintegration of social relations or a natural social phenomenon, a transgression of the rules? Conflict underlies the thematisation of the social. From Heraclitus’ “the conflict is the principle or the father of all things” to Hobbes’ “the war of all against all” researchers are still wondering whether conflict precedes society or whether it is its essence. Differences disappear in the light of the principle characteristic of our time; that modern societies are conflicting societies. Community[1] is associated with concordance, fraternity and amicability, while society is inextricably related to rivalries, contestations and conflicts. An entirely regulated society does not exist in reality and is nothing more than a totalitarian ideal. Freedom resides in this gap.

If I chose to address the issue of the State and societies through the concepts of trust and conflict, I did so for two reasons: epistemological and communicative. Thematising the social through the prism of conflicts and trust is a post-communist innovation. These two concepts were far from favoured by the communist social sciences. First, because it would contradict the ideal of a society without classes and differences. Second, it would enable the constitution of actors who could freely position their attitude towards the State and the institutions between the poles of trust and non-trust.

The internationalisation of sociology suggests multipolarity. At this conference, held in France on China I speak in a third voice; that of East and Southeast Europe. We share similar theoretical and political referents with the former and a doctrine, which had marked us for a long time, with the latter.

Communism: the omnipresence of political conflicts and the impossibility of social conflicts

Communism in East Europe was inspired by Plato, rather than by Kant. It replaced the philosopher king with a Politburo, but both figures share the same convictionof the knowledge of truth. This conviction is transformed into an argument of power rather than of epistemology. The political elite wields power, as they know where to direct the country and how to govern. Kant’s conception with his pleading of discord and rivalries as a source of tensions and change looks too modest as giving reason to all. It introduces equality and does not grant the elites privilege over knowledge and power.

Schematically, the communist vision of conflict could be reduced to two particularities:

  • The conflict is ideological and political rather than social. The former two forms are exaggerated, the third is banned;
  • The conflict is exogenic, where the communist project is concerned. It is related either to the remnants of the past (bourgeoisie, kulaks) or to external forces (imperialism).

The notion of conflict crystallises the fundamental paradox of Marxism. On the one hand it takes Heraclitus’ idea of conflict as universal, as generating everything and in its modern interpretation  (class struggle)  elevates it to the rank of the theoretical centre of its philosophy of history. On the other hand this universality loses its validity with the arrival of communism, deemed to be a society without conflicts.

Unlike democracies, which accept apathy without appreciating it and unlike the authoritarian regimes, which were imposed regardless of public opinion, communism creates social cohesion on the basis of mobilisation. This presents the second paradox. Chased from theory[2], conflict is reintroduced in political practice. The favourite way to stimulate mobilisation had a special name: “an enemy with a party membership card”.

All is politics: distinction and distancing between the economic, religious, cultural and political areas, which Max Weber describes as the fundamental peculiarity of modern society, are not applicable to communism. Communism hierarchises these areas, politicising the smallest aspect of social life, introducing itself in the private sphere and generalising surveillance. According to this logic we understand why the only conflict resolved is a political one and it is against the exterior or interior enemy.

An ambitious political regime, communism wished to eradicate the very reason for social conflicts; heterogeneity. The communist project planned to bring together workers and peasants, intellectuals and clerks, to homogenise the social corps. Society was thought of in the terms of determinism, laws and regularities. Neither theory nor social practice permitted the constitution of autonomous, different, conflicting actors. For both the exacerbation of confronting the enemy and the imposition of bans on strikes, rallies and other forms of social conflict, the goal is the same: to create a State beyond the reach of its citizens, who are reduced to subjects.

Post communism: from theatrilization to diversification of conflicts

The tens of thousands of citizens who rallied in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria and Romania showed that post-communism had arrived in the exciting form of conflict with jubilation and libidinal energy (Debry 2008).  We discovered post-communism in the form of conflict, indeed it revealed a new image of conflict.

Previously ignored or suppressed, conflict made a triumphal comeback. Tents and barricades were put in the centre of the capital and a hunger strike was staged beside the edifice of Parliament. We relished the exhibitionistic pleasure of visibility, “for conflict is a thing, which shows itself, displays itself, searching to demonstrate…” (Monroy et Fournier 1997: 89). Conflict is visible; it is everywhere. The post-communist agora is the place of the explosion rather than of discussion, of insubmission rather than of compromise.

The theatricalization of conflict liberates agonal pleasure and reinforces the festive aspect. The big rally against the communist parties in 1989 relishing in the excitement of the revolt, were provided with all the guarantees of victory. To rise against the former regime, when it had been already toppled was emotion without danger, pleasure without risk and consumption without a bill to pay.

The second form, in which post-communism discovers conflict, is opposed to the first. It is instrumental rather than political .It unwinds within circles of experts rather than in public places. It is imported rather than spontaneous. The case is about a number of training courses for experts in conflicts, financed by foreign sources. Once their expertise was applied and tempered in most spectacular conflicts, these new experts started exporting their services. Those who organised the rallies against Milosevic in Serbia contributed to the orange revolution in Ukraine.

Conflict training had an ambivalent effect: it instrumentalised them before politicising them. The positive view of conflicts as an expression of the competing interests of a heterogeneous social texture had to be legitimised.

It is desirable to distinguish two periods: apprehension of conflict over the transition to democracy and diversification of conflicts and their problematic management during the democratic consolidation.

I will illustrate the first with a seemingly anecdotic conflict, indicative of the slow and paradoxical post-communist discovery of conflict. Bulgaria was among the first countries that wished to found their democracies on a constitution. Disagreeing with some of the provisions of the Constitution Bill, 39 MPs chose an ingenious way to protest, conducting a hunger strike on the lawn in front of the edifice of Parliament. What rendered their protest unique was the fact that everybody was satisfied. The protagonists  had invented a way to to profit from both the force of the discourse of power[3] and the prestige of the opposition. Their supporters were pleased with the fact that their leaders, although starving, succeeded in not losing weight. Their critics saw a good example of the irresponsibility of the elites, who sabotaged democracy from inside, instead of promoting its rules and institutions.

Informed consensus is one of the objectives of constitutions, which R. Dahl defines as a possibility offered to the political leaders to engage themselves in negotiations, compromises and coalitions so that to facilitate reconciliation of conflicting interests (Dahl 1998). The fragile Bulgarian post-communist democracy used the debates on the Constitution to undermine the very idea of consensus.

This anecdotic example sheds light on:

  • ascendancy of politics, which continues to concentrate the energy of change and slows down the emergence of other types of conflict;
  • the ambition of the elites to assume all the roles – of the government and of the opposition, of power and counter-power, slowing down the emergence of actors of civil society;
  • theatricalization, which shows that the reasons for a conflict are less related to differences than to symbolic resources exploited by the leaders to build their images. They draw on the tradition that “humanity does not know how to create heroic images outside a conflict” (Monroy et Fournier 1997: 103).

Characteristic of the second stage is diversification of conflicts, of which we are to examine four types: social, symbolic, ethnic and ecological.

Effecting the transition to market economy, post-communism chose neither the version of “the repairing interference of the State, protecting and correcting the fractures, incurred by the market” (Laville, 2008), nor the “other economy” (Laville et Cattani, 2006), where political contest relates to the globalisation of the practices of economic citizenship, while liberalism triumphs, being presented as having no alternative.

Early post-communism adds to the dilemma between “growth without distribution” and “distribution without growth”. A version of its own neither growth, nor distribution – the communist social State is forgotten; GDP has been catching up with that of 1989 for years now.

The celebrated U-form reminds us of the ambiguous relationship between growth and equality. Initially the economic development is accompanied by a rise in inequality, this is followed by stability and then augmentation. The transition to market economy introduces a less ambiguous and less dramatic version: economic slump and collapse of equality.

Social conflicts were to be expected. Over a long period however, the new poor remained resigned rather than revolted. Occupied with their survival, they had no time to become citizens. A number of factors contributed to the aggravation of this situation. Post-communist business is often arrogant, flaunting their disdain for solidarity. An advert will proudly declare that “Some respect the rules, we create them”. A bank of American capital addresses the “wolves” and “predators”. It took the trade unions years to estrange themselves from their very active political engagement, which transformed them into political quasi parties, and to concentrate on defending the interests of the workers. For a long time the State was hesitant to interve in cases of flagrant breaches of the Labour Code committed by foreign investors.

A great paradox of the transition to post-communism was that the new poverty and growing inequalities failed to affirm social conflicts as the central ground of social mobilisation. Other types of conflicts thrive after occupying the scene. Macedonia would readily give up NATO membership to retain the name that the new country had chosen to express its sovereignty The struggle for memory and to rewrite history surges in all countries. The idea of Kosovo as the cradle of Serbian identity got the better of the political and strategic arguments in Serbian political and intellectual discourse. Bulgaria devoted all the country’s diplomatic efforts towards the permission to write “euro” on its banknotes according to the rules of its language and Cyrillic alphabet. Bosnia & Herzegovina promulgated their Constitution in three languages: Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian despite the fact that they were one language only a decade ago, making them difficult to distinguish,. Montenegro with its population of half a million aspires to forge a language of its own. The examples of symbolic conflicts are innumerable  and focus the energy of both the elites and the public.

Ethnic conflicts tend to become differentia specifica of Southeast Europe. and are congenial to the symbolic.

Communism thought of the Other in social and political terms: “bourgeois” or “internal enemy, disguised as a communist”. Post-communism chose an ethnic figure to personify otherness. In the beginning of the transition, Adam Mihnik stated that there were almost no Jews in Poland but that anti-Semitism existed. Rediscovering Sartre’s diagnosis: if the Jews did not exist, anti-Semitism would have invented them. On more than one occasion another ethnic group, the Romany people, were made a scapegoat for all the troubles of the transition: insecurity, unemployment and poverty. The negative attitude towards the Roma in post-communist countries in the wake of the 1990s was as strong as the attitude of the white men from the southern states towards the Afro-Americans in the 1960s (Kanev 1999). These attitudes are both negative and generalised. Contrary to the theory, presenting minorities as more tolerant to each other unlike the more severe view of the majority, all the communities reject the Roma. The Roma are the excluded par excellence: they are excluded physically (racism), geographically (ghettos), economically (poverty). They are also excluded symbolically as their values are not recognised. They are illustrative of all the mechanisms of exclusion (Xiberras 1998).

Ethnic conflicts are abundant. The Albanians in Macedonia resorted to all forms of conflict, including violence to obtain the status of a constitutive people of Macedonia. Even today the relationship between the Orthodox Macedonians and the Albanians, most of whom are Muslims, are far from regulated. If the solution to the ethnic conflicts was a conditio sine qua non for the accession of new EU Member States, in former Yugoslavia ethnic intolerance manifested itself in a number of forms.The return of Kosovars after the end of the strike in 1999 provoked the reverse exodus of Serbs and Roma. Vojvodina, once proud of its multicultural mosaic, now sees more contrasting relationships between its numerous communities. In Romania, the nationalist party led by Vadim Tudor, Grand Romania, maintains its stable position on the political scene. Bulgaria succeeded to conclude its transition without a nationalist party, but now such a party eloquently named Attack, proudly and loudly states its extremism.

Ethnic conflicts marked the entire long process of democratisation. Mechanisms were created for political management of tensions, but ethnic tensions, like a phoenix from its ashes, rise in new embodiments.

I conclude with ecological conflicts, the last offspring of post-communist conflicts. Often irresponsible, at times even “wild”, post-communist capitalism is disrespectful towards people, let alone towards nature. If homeless, excluded, marginalized fail to draw the solidarity and energy of the youth, birds, beaches, forests menaced by irresponsible business make them indignant and mobilize them. It is the environmental cause that captures the profoundest sympathy of the young  and is able to inspire them to rally and come with collective demands.

These four types of conflict constitute in different ways the relationship between the State and civil society. Symbolic conflicts are  orchestrated by the political parties and the State to win over public opinion, to capitalise on their support, and to distract the public from such “hot” issues as corruption, criminality and inequality. Ethnic conflicts, generating xenophobia, nationalism and extremism, are grave symptoms of the incapability of civil society to cope with the hardships of the transition, finding scapegoats instead. Environmental conflicts look promising in two respects. They create real power against business disrespectful to nature and they are almost alone in being able to capture the attention of the young, to mobilise them and fill them with enthusiasm.

The “classical” social conflicts exist and are important, but are not determinative. The symbolic and ethnic conflicts are at the core of post-communistdisputes. Environmental themes open new horizons, oriented towards the post-materialistic values of concerns for the environment, quality of life, sustainable development and solidarity between generations.

How to trust a fragile democracy and how to build a democracy without trust

To introduce the problematics of trust, I am going to quote a small excerpt of Bulgarian fiction of the early 20th c.:

”You, peasants, are cunning fellows. You complain of penury, though you drink like a fish.”

“And having good reasons to do so.”

Two discourses, two figures: a stout gentleman in a fur coat and a young villager, who carts him. The former discourse is that of the State, the latter – of an average subject, the most typical of the epoch. Arrogance and disdain on the part of the former (“Whip, Russian whip for you, to knock the nonsense out of you“). The bailiff, who had arrived to sequester the grain of a tax-dodging villager, found himself abandoned in a marsh in the dead of night. The social and discursive distance is transformed into a spatial distance. The two discourses are parallel and do not aspire to meet in the dialogue. The latter, by the way, is impossible: brutal dominance, seeking not for understanding on the one hand, and neither obedience nor revolt on the other.

The character of the young peasant is emblematic of the attitude towards power in Southeast Europe: total distrust and insubmission but evasion of open conflicts. The vision of a State disrespectful to its subjects, and of citizens disrespectful to their State, is embedded in the political culture.

It was logical after the ban on social conflict imposed by communism to expect the valorisation of trust. The reality was in fact far from this. The trust failed to be elevated to a scientific concept, nor was it made a key word in the political discourse. This distrust is due to its capacity to produce strong subjects at both poles of the relationship. Communism was reluctant for its institutions to be judged and therefore contested by its citizens.

Like conflict, trust permits us to understand the social link. Unlike conflict, trust follows the opposite evolution. It remains the great absentee of the post-communist society: this is the merciless judgement of the citizens. 60 percent of the citizens from the Baltic States had trust in the others, while now the digit is a mere 30 percent. The gap gets even wider in Southeast Europe, where three fourths of the citizens believe that trust was stronger under the former regime. Rather than a statement this is a diagnosis as public opinion apparently finds deterioration of the social link.

Two competing hypotheses explain this tendency towards distrust. The first one finds correlation with GDP, affirming that economic development tends to inspire interpersonal trust unless casualty is not inverse (Fukuyama, 1997 quoted from Brechon, 2003). Though the validity of this explanation is relatively restricted, its constructivist pathos is strong, suggesting the idea that economic development and improvement of the social link could interfere.

The second hypothesis is cultural. Trust in others is stronger in the countries with protestant cultures such as in Scandinavia. Protestantism, according to Putnam (1993) and Inglehart (1999), is prone to valorise local autonomous communities with democratic organisation. Catholicism, functioning in a hierarchical and centralised fashion, incites prudence in social relations (Brechon 2003). Orthodoxy moves even further along the axis of distrust. As a result,  low levels of interpersonal trust are observed across the countries in East and Central Europe: 26 % in Ukraine, 25 % in Bulgaria, 23 % in Russia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic, 18 % in Poland, 15 % in Slovakia, 10 % in Romania (Brechon 2003).

This distrust between people is transferred to the institutions. Government, justice, parliament, political parties, all the attributes of democracy, are subjected to strong distrust. In the case of  political parties it is almost complete: – thrice as strong as trust (Life in transition, 2007).

From the agonal pleasure of political confrontation to the positive energy of conflict and trust

“As Cosmos needs love and hatred, attracting and repulsing forces, to have a form, society needs harmony and dissonance, association and competition, sympathy and antipathy to attain a definite face” (Simmel 1999: 267). In the positive conception of I. Kant, G. Simmel, R. Dahrendorf “the function of a conflict is to test a group, institution, nation for the solidity of their links, to anticipate the construction of more consistent new sets” (Monroy et Fournier 1997: 162).

Communism omits the two resources of the positive conception of conflict. The first rehabilitates the transgression of the rules as the other visage of the rules, for freedom resides in this gap. The other resource of conflict is its capacity to unblock situations, to find a way out in a soft marsh.

Post-communism sampled the agonal pleasure of conflicts bursting out in a public place. The objective, formulated by G. Simmel, to establish rules and procedures of conciliation, so that to integrate conflicts, to regularise them, even to ritualise them, still remains to be achieved. The institutionalisation of conflicts is often replaced by conflicts between the institutions. Still, the democratic transition succeeded in developing a long scale of conflicts, social, symbolic, ethnic and ecological,  as an expression of civil society.

Post-communism came to meet with conflict. It however failed to meet trust.

“Interpersonal trust is paired with the valorisation of the social link, with individual and societal optimism, with an open and positive attitude towards the world, with the feeling to be an actor in society and be able to modify its environment, with tolerant attitude towards the others” (Brechon 2003: 414).

This trust remains to be discovered. Its two main resources, the norms of reciprocity and the networks of civil commitment, have to be built up.


Bréchon P. (2003) Confiance à autrui et sociabilité: analyse européenne comparative.- Revue internationale de politique comparée, vol. 10. N 3,  397  414.

Dahl R. (1998) On democracy. Yale: Yale Univesity.

Darendorf R. (1998) Le conflit social moderne. Sofia: Zlatorogue (in Bulgaria)

Dobry M. Les causalités de l’improbable et du probable : Notes à propos des manifestations de 1989 en Europe centrale et orientale.- Culture et conflits, 17, URL: Consulté le 13 juin 2008.

Freund J. (1983) Sociologie du conflit. Paris: PUF.

Fukuyama F. (1997) La confiance et la puissance. Vertus sociales et prospérité économique. Paris: Plon.

Inglehart R. (1999) Choc des civilisations ou modernisation culturelle du monde.- Le Débat, N 105, 23–54.

Kanev, K. (1999) Changing attitudes towards ethnic minorities in Bulgaria and the Balkans 1992 – 1997.- In: Thanasis, S. and C. Williams, Ethnicity and nationalism in East Central Europe and the Balkans, Aldershot etc. Ashgate.

Laville J.L. (2008) Etat, institutions, inégalités.- Colloque La Chine et l’internationalisation de la sociologie.

Laville J.L. et A.D. Cattani (2006) Dictionnaire de l’autre economie. Paris : Desclee de Brouwer.

Life in transition. A survey of people’s experiences and attitudes. European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (2007)

Monroy M. Et A. Fournier (1997) Figures du conflit. Paris: PUF.

Putman R. D. (1993) Making democracy work. Civic traditions in modern Italy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Simmel G. (1999) Sociologie. Paris: PUF.

Xiberras, M. (1998) Les théories de l’exclusion. Paris: A. Colin.

[1] Community and society according to the classical distinction of F. Tonnies.

[2] There are no publications and fewer specialised reviews or university courses   on social and political conflicts.

[3] By definition, in a parliamentary democracy there is no discourse more important than that of the MPs. In this particular case, a group of Bulgarian MPs preferred to make their stand vocal from tents erected next to the Parliament, rather than at its rostrum.


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