This Is Not a Transition

It has been commonplace to use the term "transition" when referring to what took place in East-Central Europe in the years immediately following 1989. The term initially had a refreshing vagueness to it. So much was up in the air. So much was changing. The fixed certainties of the past had melted away. At the same time, it was not exactly clear what the future held or, at least, when that future (of European Union membership, of a fully developed market economy, of a transparent democracy) would arrive. "Transition" offered a sense of movement forward without any fixed time frame. As an unemployed person might say that they are "between jobs," the region as a whole was "in transition" from one state of affairs to another.

As time passed, "transition" became an increasingly problematic term. First there was the question of when the "transition" had begun. Certainly, Hungary had experimented with melding capitalism and Communism as early as the late 1960s. The citizens of Yugoslavia had considerable freedom to travel and work abroad before 1989. And in Romania, people began to suspect that the "transition" had been in the works before Nicolae Ceausescu gave his final speech before the crowds in Bucharest on December 21, 1989.

If the origins of the "transition" were hazy, the trajectory was even more so. Yugoslavia's "transition" was certainly very different from its neighbors, for it seemed to move directly backward from the 1990s into the blood politics of the 1940s. Most of the East-Central Europe suffered from such tremendous economic dislocation that the "transition" never seemed to end. And because of the endemic corruption that set in during the 1990s, "transition" seemed at times to mean simply the transfer of resources from one ruling elite to another, with considerable overlap between the two groups.

Tibor Varady is an international lawyer and writer who has had a first-hand look at the "transitions" in both Yugoslavia and Hungary. And he does not like the term very much at all. It reminds him of the circumlocutions of a previous era.

"In no Communist country during the Communist period did we say that we had Communism," he told me during an interview last May in his office at the Central European University in Budapest. "We said that we were 'in transition' to Communism or "in the process of building" Communism. There was a simple reason for this demagoguery. What we had wasn't so great at all. Communism was supposed to be something shiny and wonderful. If Communist leaders said, 'This is it,' we would have said, 'This is it? What is so good about it?' But the magic word 'transition' suggested that if we had problems, they were not problems with Communism. It was just that we hadn't arrived yet."

And now the term has been repurposed for use in the new era. "In this part of the world, people don't say that we have a market economy," he continued. "They say, 'We are in transition to a market economy.' In part, that is true. But it is also a way to deflect criticism, a way of not facing the real problems. The market economy has, of course, its own problems. That's why I don't like the word 'transition.' It's a popular sleeping pill, and everyone is using it. To continue the dissident spirit of intellectuals under Communism, we should say, 'No, this is a market economy. We have had it for 20 years. We are not in transition. This is it. If this is not good enough, we have to do something about it.'"

Varady served as the minister of justice in the short-lived Panic government in Yugoslavia in 1992 and also represented the country before the International Court of Justice. We talked about those experiences as well as his thoughts on dissidence, contemporary politics in Hungary, and why it's so important to widen the space between heroes and traitors.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I was in Yugoslavia. For me, it was less dramatic and not such a huge event as it was for most of my friends and colleagues in other countries in Eastern Europe. There were two reasons for that. One is that in Yugoslavia we had a much more tolerable, more human regime. We had freedom of travel. We had a somewhat better economic situation. We had practically unlimited contacts with Western colleagues. Of course it was a one-party system, and it was not a democracy. But it was a much more humane version than in other Eastern European countries.

Probably the more important reason was that at that time we had another focus. And that was the emergence of Slobodan Milosevic and nationalism. That's what we were focused on and afraid of. Of course we were happy about the fall of the Wall. But it wasn't something that affected that much our everyday life. We were a little closer to what people call "transition," though I don't like that term. But also a danger of a different kind was looming. I think it applies to most of my colleagues in Serbia and former Yugoslavia -- we had more important business at that time.

Why don't you like the term "transition"?

It is a way to somehow postpone facing reality. In no Communist country during the Communist period did we say that we had Communism. We said that we were "in transition" to Communism or "in the process of building" Communism. There was a simple reason for this demagoguery. What we had wasn't so great at all. Communism was supposed to be something shiny and wonderful. If Communist leaders said, "This is it," we would have said, "This is it? What is so good about it?" But the magic word "transition" suggested that if we had problems, they were not problems with Communism. It was just that we hadn't arrived yet.

Now, in this part of the world, people don't say that we have a market economy. They say, "We are in transition to a market economy." In part, that is true. But it is also a way to deflect criticism, a way of not facing the real problems. The market economy has, of course, its own problems. That's why I don't like the word "transition." It's a popular sleeping pill, and everyone is using it. To continue the dissident spirit of intellectuals under Communism, we should say, "No, this is a market economy. We have had it for 20 years. We are not in transition. This is it. If this is not good enough, we have to do something about it." This is the reason why I'm not a fan of the word "transition."

What word would you use instead?

I think we have capitalism. I don't think it makes sense to say that capitalism is heaven. Capitalism is a reality that may be somewhat better than Communism. But we have to face it and repair it and criticize it rather than wait for the "real capitalism" to come. No, this is the real capitalism and it's far from perfect.

To extend the analogy, there was a debate under Communism about whether to support reform Communism or do away with the system altogether. Today, under capitalism, we could similarly have a debate about whether to support "reform capitalism" or advocate for something different.

Indeed, under Communism, we did have those two approaches, those two ways of criticism. Under capitalism, I don't really see any really strong position that says that capitalism is wrong as it is. But we have much less criticism of capitalism and less facing of the reality of capitalism than is proper. The mental attitude of dissidents under Communism would be most welcome and most needed in this new reality as well, as probably in any human reality.

I want to go back to 1989. At that time, you said that people in Yugoslavia were distracted by other issues, Milosevic being perhaps the most important. When we talked about that period of time in the United States there was a focus on Kosovo, because of the events there in 1989. There was a similar attempt by Milosevic to take away the autonomy of Vojvodina. But I don't hear very much about what the reaction in Vojvodina or whether it caused the same amount of concern elsewhere in Yugoslavia.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.