17 January 1997 - 19 January 1997

Nations in Transitions to Democracy: The Management of Radical Transformation

Chair: The Rt Hon The Lord Callaghan of Cardiff KG PC

This was a conference remarkable even by Ditchley standards - a former Prime Minister in the chair, a Head of State taking active part throughout, and participants in all from fifteen nations and two international organisations. We wondered at first whether our span was too ambitiously broad, and the diversity was indeed remarkable - experiences ranged from African example, seeking to leap whole stages in state development with a community historically lacking a middle class; through Latin American recovery from the political and economic distortions of authoritarian rule; to the distinctive stories - themselves with widely different starting- points - of Central and Eastern European emergence from the straitjacket of Communism; and to the encouraging success of Spain. But as our discussion progressed we came to see common strands of analysis and action, alongside divergences that were in themselves illuminating.              

One such strand was the need for patience - successful transition must often be a matter of decades rather than years, and initial expectations about pace were almost always over-sanguine. This often put severe strain upon new political cultures still learning the habits of civil discourse, of respecting opposition and of conducting disagreement on policy without excessive heat or suspicion of malign purpose. There were occasional signs of sliding back, for example into semi-authoritarian patterns where the proper sharing of power - and still more its proper transfer if electorates so willed - was impeded. Risks    of these kinds were compounded where new governing élites were - as was often inevitable where an entire preceding system had been renounced - of limited experience. Even where élites had high competence, they might be stretched by the tensions of making radical changes while still retaining understanding and trust from publics which had hoped to see more rapid benefit and now found - as was often the experience in post-Communist states - that for many (perhaps indeed most) individuals things seemed to get worse before they got better.

We were clear that no one set of prescriptions about political structure came near to fitting every case and we reminded ourselves that majoritarian electoral democracy was by no means a sufficient universal condition of real liberal democracy. Especially in countries where electoral minorities were shaped more by some sense of particular identity rather than by policy inclination, even orthodox-seeming party structures might be little help (as, we were healthily reminded, United Kingdom experience in Northern Ireland might illustrate). In Africa one-party structures might indeed be the least divisive route to power-sharing. Much stress was laid in our discussions on the merits of decentralisation and devolution of political power and public services; in the right circumstances, these could be important aids to defusing the problems of “identity” minorities, and they were moreover a valuable help towards building up the sense of local bottom-up involvement and responsibility that was needed to instil or revive the habits of a healthy citizenship and civil society. There remained aspects of government, like fiscal management, which in technical terms were best controlled centrally; but the arguments of efficiency must often yield to some trade-off with wider ones of political and social health.            

Tackle the economy first, or the political system? We knew that there were past instances of attempting either answer, but most of us believed that experience showed the choice to be a false one - the interactions in most settings were so strong that effective transition must tackle both themes together. In Africa, for example, the broader opening of markets - including, where possible, in the region-wide dimension - might often be a key force in shifting political and social perspectives away from tribalism towards a more liberal framework. We acknowledged that transition to effective market-based systems, for all that overall it was bound to take a long time, would generally need some elements of abrupt change and shock; privatisation, just for example, could scarcely be achieved by gradualism - there had to be a clean surrender of state control. But it was then all the more necessary that processes should be open and transparent, and that reasons (and costs) should be carefully, candidly and intelligibly explained to the public so that there was some sense of ownership rather than mere imposition.

Nothing in our discussions challenged the economic importance of the privatisation drive. We noted however the need to partner this by a strong and relevant regulatory framework. Beyond this we were not wholly agreed on the continuing role of government in the working of markets. Some participants were deeply sceptical of the concept of “industrial policy”, as requiring a discerning wisdom of which governments were not dependably capable; but we were reminded of experience seemingly to the contrary (as in parts of East Asia) and of the fact that for both political and social reasons governments could not simply stand aside from the near-collapse of “smokestack” or defence-dependent industrial sectors. On either view, however, there was wide agreement on the importance of market-opening by the established democracies in the developed world not least in the intractable field of agriculture. (We noted, without attempting to resolve, the conundrum that full free-market operation might intensify rather than lighten the special difficulties facing the world’s poorest countries.)

The need was evident to build and spread business skills - both those of entrepreneurship and those of industrial management The best external contribution in communicating the latter, we heard, was less through advisory effort than by the practical route of joint ventures and fully-involved investment. The need for intelligent investment was a recurrent theme; and we recalled that international financial institutions, though they must beware of force-feeding advice, could in some areas or respects - like environmental concern - still play an invaluable role, especially where they could give it a decentralised focus.

As so often when Ditchley addresses conference subjects like this one, the call for building an effective civil society echoed through our sessions. The growing of fresh citizen cultures was inevitably a slow affair, not easily responsive to precise action programmes either by government or by external action. It was made the more difficult when the interval since the cultures had last existed was a long one, and when (as often happened) the activists who had previously kept the civic approach alive had had to be largely conscripted to form the new governing élite. None of the “transition” countries whose voices we heard felt that there was other than a long way yet to go; but the development of a sense of personal participation and influence, and of responsibility for oneself, had somehow to be fostered as a cardinal component of mature democracy.

One of the gravest impediments to a civil society was a continuing sense of personal insecurity, often accompanying a general want of trust in key institutions. An upsurge of crime and corruption was a serious threat in several countries, yet a re-created police state could not be the right response. The habit of obedience to the law as the social norm was as yet often patchy; and its fostering needed a judiciary and a legal system on whose probity and efficiency citizens felt they could rely. Free-market business needed similar confidence in relation to such matters as contract, tax and stock-market systems, property rights and bankruptcy law. We found it easier to see the need for improvement in all these matters than to suggest how it might best be secured; but we underlined the importance - in which counterpart Western institutions could play a part, by experience- sharing and encouragement - of strengthening professions such as accountancy or the law in independent ethics as well as in modern technical competence.

We saw a significant role, partnering these needs, for efficient watchdogs - whether public or private - to sustain standards and expose breaches. The media were plainly crucial to that end; but we heard discomfort expressed about over-concentrated or politically-loaded ownerships with ulterior agendas, and also in some countries about media attitudes still apt to draw too little distinction between objective reporting and opinionated populist commentary.

We recognised that, virtually by definition, all the countries which we were discussing faced a massive and neuralgic problem about how to handle the discredited and unacceptable past. There was no one prescription apt for every case; the nature of the past, the origins of its discarding (for example, post-war or post-political-overturning) and the national culture were all key variables. We heard successful experiences and unsuccessful ones of both main approaches - closing the books and locking them away, or holding their contents up to the light. It was clear that the basic aim must be to choose, in each country’s circumstances, whatever path would best enable the community to come most speedily and fully together in looking forward to the future. A vengeful pursuit of past fault might be corrosively harmful, especially where involvement had been widespread (and where too sweeping a disqualification of individuals might leave the practical working of institutions bereft of needed professional experience) - a relinquishment of pursuit à I’outrance might be part of the price to be paid for a better future. But genuine reconciliation and laying of ghosts (and perhaps the assurance of irreversibility) might well require at least an element of candid facing-up to the past, of acknowledgement by wrongdoers to victims; approving reference was made to the model of a Truth Commission, as in Chile and South Africa. The nearest we came to consensus about method was perhaps in scepticism about the general utility, whether nationally or internationally, of formal litigation and trial as the main instrument of catharsis - and also in recognition that this, above almost any other, was a field in which outsiders must not seek to prescribe.    

We were reminded that high-quality education - a key component in successful transition, though we lacked time to do it justice - could make a special contribution to managing the past, by teaching an honest yet not avoidably temperature-raising understanding of what had gone amiss. We heard a concern expressed that reform or re-orientation of attitude might not always have reached far enough yet into universities.

Perhaps surprisingly, we did not find a great deal to say about the management of military establishments during democratic transition. We were of course aware that in Russia the massive ex-Soviet structure was undergoing painful change, and that the habit of intervention in politics had in Latin America a persistent history; but even there there seemed little current sense of a direct threat from this direction to democratic principle. The careful design of civilian control, and the incorporation of armed forces into the community without alienation, nevertheless continued to deserve sensitive attention.

Throughout our discussions we regularly asked ourselves what contribution outside efforts had made or should make. The first requirement, we came to suspect, was a certain humility - a sense that the prime tasks could only be done from within transition countries themselves, and that help from others was secondary and must moreover be based upon trouble taken to understand the realities and subtleties of the particular setting, not upon doctrinaire assumptions. There were matters in which established democracies could properly, and should, stand in resolute support of strict standards, such as electoral propriety; but in general quick-visit didacticism was little help - and so, often, was aid tied to paying for the services of the donor’s own citizens or organisations. An equal-terms dialogue and sharing of experience without necessary prescription was a better approach, along with the provision of ready opportunity to travel abroad and see the working of established democracies and civil societies. Special value, meriting special support from external donors, might attach to the contribution made by the exchange of experience between transition countries, for example between a country well advanced in aspects of the journey and one less so.        

Many of us were struck by the evidence of stoic general acceptance of the disagreeable reality that the changes we were examining bore hard on the personal circumstances of very many people. We were salutarily reminded that recognition of that widespread acceptance should not shade into permanent acquiescence in the human damage this did to the well-being and dignity of individuals, especially in the widespread and often dramatic rise in unemployment. The prime long-term remedy had to lie in economic growth; but meanwhile gross disparity between winners and losers, or policies which failed to recognise that regulation of the former should partner succour of the latter, risked feeding populist demagogy and extremism, to the peril of democratic stability.

Overall, the conference mostly discerned an encouraging leitmotiv, with manifest successes registered in (for non-comprehensive example) Poland, Nicaragua and Chile; we knew, too, that building liberal democracy was not a finite task with a settled or perfect end-point. But a great deal remained to be done almost everywhere, and momentum to achieve it and to sustain the key ingredient of hope still required sustained and many-sided effort.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chair: The Rt Hon The Lord Callaghan of Cardiff KG PC
Prime Minister 1976-79; Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 1974-76


Mr John Coleman
Director for Canada and Morocco, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
Dr Kevin Davis
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Toronto
Mr David Malone
Foreign Service Officer, on sabbatical at Magdalen College, Oxford
Mr Gerald Robinson QC
Member, The Provisional Election Commission, OSCE Mission to Bosna and Herzgovina

HE Señor Mario Artaza
Ambassador of Chile, London

Mr K Srinivasan
Deputy Secretary General (Political)

Dr Roman Ceška
Deputy Minister, Ministry of Privatisation and Chairman, National Property Fund

Dr Jacques Rupnik
Director of Research, Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, Paris
Monsieur Erik Veaux
East European specialist, Centre d’Analyse et Provision, Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, Paris

Dr Heinz Buhler
Director General, Deutsche Stiftung fur Internationale Entwicklung, Berlin
Professor Dr Hans-Hermann Hoehmann
Head of Research and Head of Economic Department, Bundesinstitut für Ostwissenschaftliche und Internationale Studien, Cologne
Professor Dr Dr Dieter Oberndörfer
Professor of Political Science and Director of the Arnold Bergstrasser Institute for Political and Social Research, University of Freiburg

Dr Peter Hack MP
President, Chirman Committee on Constitutional and Judicial Affairs, Budapest

Mr Kazuyuki Kinbara
Group Manager, European Group, Keidanren      

Dr Antonio Lacayo Oyanguren
Leader, Proyecto Nacional; Minister of the Presidency (1990-95)

Professor Grzegorz W Kolodko
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance

Mr Marie Yuryevich Umov
Member, Presidential Expert Council      

Mr Pavol Demeš              
Foreign Affairs Adviser to the President  
Ms Brigitta Schmognerovà
Vice-Chair, Economic Affairs, Party of the Democratic Left

Ilmo Sr D Joan Clos Matheu        
First Deputy Mayor and Mayor-elect, City of Barcelona

HE President Yoweri Museveni

Sir Michael Angus
Chairman: Whitbread pic; The Bools Company pic; Unilever pic 1986-92
Sir John Birch KCVO CMG            
Director, British Association for Central and Eastern Europe
Sir Rodric Braithwaite GCMG
Chairman, Morgan Grenfell Securities (Moscow); Ambassador to Russia, Georgia and Armenia1988-92              
Sir Michael Burton KCVO CMG
Ambassador to the Czech Republic
Mr Stephen Cox
Chief Executive, Westminster Foundation for Democracy              
Mr Peter Harborne
Ambassador to the Slovak Republic
The Rt Hon The Lord Howe of Aberavon CH PC QC           
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affaire 1983-89
Mr Bryan Magee
Visiting Professor, King’s College, London
Lord Marlesford DL        
Life Peer (Conservative); political consultant, farmer and journalist
Professor James Mayall
Professor, Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science
Dr Edwina Moreton        
Diplomatic Editor and Deputy Foreign Editor, The Economist
Mr Quentin Peel              
Foreign Editor, Financial Times
Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky
A Governor, Westminster Foundation for Democracy; Senior Research Fellow, Brunel University
Professor Adam Roberts              
Montague Burton Professor of International Relations, University of Oxford         
Mr Mark Robinson MP  
Member of Parliament (Conservative) Somerton and Frame; Vice-Chairman, UN Parliamentary Group
The Rt Hon Baroness Williams of Crosby PC
Director, Project Liberty, Harvard University

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA                   
The Honorable Rick Barton         
First Director, Office of Transition Initiatives, US Agency for International Development
Mr Carl Gershman
President, National Endowment for Democracy
Dr Jerrold D Green          
Associate Chairman of the Research Staff, RAND
Ms Tamar Gutner
Research Fellow, The Brookings Institution
Mr Stephen B Heintz
Executive Vice-President and CEO, Institute for East-West Studies, Prague
Dr Christopher Joyner    
Professor of International Law, Department of Government, Georgetown University
Mr James LeMoyne
Chief Political Adviser, United Nations Development Program
The Honorable William Luers     
President, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Mrs Wendy W Luers
President, Foundation for a Civil Society
Professor Richard E Neustadt
Douglas Dillon Professor Emeritus, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Mr Peter Quilter
Advisor to the Secretary General, Organization of American States
Professor Jeswald W Salacuse
Henry J Broker Professor of Commercial Law, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University