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  • Published on: 21st September 2019
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The fall of communism was sudden and unexpected. Poland was able to quickly turn away from its communist past towards establishing a stable democracy, whereas Russia took much longer to establish it. There are many forms of democracy, overall, it is defined as a system of government where the citizens chose a leader through fair elections. Modern democracy divides power into three branches, the legislative, the judiciary and the executive. A democratic government must be run in a way that reflects the general will of the society that it governs. There are several factors that must be considered when analyzing the success of a countries development of democracy and the steps it took to move towards it. These include pre-communist and communist legacies, transitional institutional choices, political leadership, and foreign influence. Political democratization and economic transformation are central to establishing a successful democracy. Both Poland and Russia were able to establish a democracy after the fall of communism and economic reform and privatization were key factors in moving away from communism towards a stable democracy.

With the deaths of both Joseph Stalin, the USSR’s leader and Poland’s Stalinist leader, Boleslaw Beirut a few years later, control and fear of Poland’s population decreased and protests demanding freedoms such as free press began. Party reforms were demanded and since the release of Władysław Gomułka, a party leader jailed in the Stalinist period “a Polish road to socialism,” was started.  This began the privatization of Poland’s economy. 
Poland, a post-Soviet country, was the first to transition away from a centralized communist state and was one of the most successful at doing so. Poland had transitioned towards a liberal, more westernized democracy. It currently has a stable system with two dominant parties and a number of smaller parties. The Polish political system constantly changing for years, altering its constitution and laws in response depending on how successful they were. In the process, Poland developed into a system that had begun to fight the former communists for power. This led to a stable system after twenty years of democracy establishing two dominant parties as wells a few smaller ones. In 1990, the first presidential elections were held in Poland where there was more than one contender. Walesa was elected and market reforms and large-scale privatization were launched.  Shock Therapy was implemented on Poland’s economy to rapidly stabilize the currency so that a rapid shift to capitalism could occur and financial aid from the West could be approved. This caused a rapid decline in the living conditions of many people in Poland causing widespread discontent which slowed the development of trust in new democratic institutions and leadership. Poland did not come to establish democracy easily and had some setbacks in the populations overall outlook of democracy. It was found that the population of Poland had good knowledge of democracy, “From the 1970s on, most Poles had real knowledge of and very high expectations for democracy and capitalism because they had been guest workers in the West, had ties to family members there, and had an elite that tried to buy them off with its openness to the West. The image of democracy and capitalism they took away from this was of prosperity not, inequality. In Poland, they learned to work around or oppose the system. They did not learn, however, how to function as citizens in a normal democratic system. In the end, the communist-era reforms left them with high hopes for democracy, little practice with working within a democracy, and an economy of foreign debt, inflation, and failed factories”. This mentality was not helped by the outstanding debt Poland had to the West and its ties to the Soviet bloc economic system.

Russia becomes independent along with Ukraine and Belarus as the Soviet Union collapses forming the Commonwealth of Independent States. There were multiple attempts at improving Russia’s economic situation but there was a significant improvement until Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power. Gorbachev made an effort to reform Russia’s economy through Perestroika and develop political liberalization through glasnost. This resulted in the demand for accelerated reforms. Gorbachev eventually fails to complete the reforms and fix the economy leading to the collapse of Communist rule and the cessation of the Soviet Union.

Boris Yeltsin came into power and is said to have brought democracy to Russia, won against the communistic established in the first partially democratic parliamentary election in 1989 and 1990 and in the first Russian presidential elections in June 1991. Yeltsin then stood in a reasonably fair election in 1996 which he won. Yeltsin saw the urgent need for economic reform in Russia and made efforts to stabilize the economy. In an attempt to avoid previous problems, he prohibited the Communist Party.  However, setbacks occurred in establishing a successful democracy, Yeltsin did manage to democratize, market and privatize Russia, dissolving the Soviet Union peacefully. Yeltsin appoints Vladimir Putin as the Prime Minister who in 2000, wins the presidential elections and is appointed Russia’s new president and his popularity is helped by the solid economic base established by Yeltsin.

In 2003 President Putin’s United Russia party wins a significant number of seats in the Duma, anchored by the economic recovery. Vladimir Putin faces significant criticism by western countries. Nonetheless, President Putin possesses extraordinary popularity; many Russian people reject Western models of democracy. Putin has earned praise for restoring stability but is accused of authoritarianism. In December 2007, United Russia party won the majority in parliamentary elections again, which critics described as undemocratic. Russia's current political system by definition is a democracy, "The President is elected for a 6-year term by the Russian Federation’s citizens on the basis of universal, equal and direct suffrage by secret ballot", although it has been debated that Russia is a failed democracy. The current composition of the state Duma is United Russia (340 seats), Communist Party (43 seats), Liberal-Democratic Party (39 seats), Just Russia (23 seats). Two seats are assigned to the members who are not members of any faction. There are representatives from all parties which participate in legislative processes. It has been noted that “Across post-communist states, studies of electoral competition reveal variation in the capacity of political parties to compete on the basis of clearly articulated issue-based programs. Notably, the development of programmatic party competition in the Russian Federation is lagging behind other post-communist states.”

The reasons for Poland’s relatively quick establishment of democracy when compared to Russia and other post-communist states are that it had the political and economic foundations for democracy sooner than Russia. Poland was the first to turn away from communism to democracy. It is possible that its negative history with the soviet union made the population more likely to choose democracy over communism. It was not until Yeltsin was elected in a semi-democratic presidential election did the idea of Russia becoming a democracy become a reality. Both Russia and Poland are semi-presidential systems. The differences in their establishment of democracy can be explained by the state of economic, geographic and political systems after the fall of communism occurred in those countries. Geographically smaller countries are more likely to have a sustainable democracy as it is easier to govern a denser population. It is also more likely that a denser population shares a political option. Poland is significantly smaller than Russia which affected the result of the eventual election of the democratic party against a communist one. In Russia, before Yeltsin, Gorbachev attempted to work closely with the West and reform the economy and political freedom of the Soviet Union, he did not entirely succeed in his plan and was eventually unfit to lead any longer, slowing the process of democratic development. Economically, both counties struggled both before and after the fall of communism with significant wealth gaps between the upper-class population and the rest of the population. Furthermore, how financially stable and rich a country is would greatly affect the effect of democracy and its legitimacy. Russia did not receive financial aid from the West as it had already begun to turn away from western influence. The “shock therapy” economic program used in Poland, although effective had caused a significant decrease in the living standards of Poland’s population, making people less trusting of new democratic institutions, this ultimately led to the approval of Western aid. Poland had already reconstructed its economy it was not as affected as other countries during the European economic recession. This likely helped strengthen the popularity of democratic institutions and government.

Currently, both the Russian Federation and Poland are democratic countries, although it is continuously debated whether Russia is a legitimate democracy. The 1993 constitution declares Russia a democratic state with a republican form of government. Poland was quicker to become a democratic state than Russia. Both countries needed the use of various democratic institutions to achieve democracy. Pre-communist and communist legacies, transitional institutional choices, political leadership, and foreign influence were all significant factors in determining the success of democracy in those countries. Yeltsin was significant for Russia’s democratic development and he had significantly improved Russia’s economy which aided in solidifying popularity in a democratic party over a communist one. In Poland similar institutions were used in terms of economy transformation and political democratization. Although it had caused a set back in Poland’s transition to democracy, the use of “shock therapy” on its economy had helped stabilize the currency.

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