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Development of Trust in Post-Communist Societies

Michal Lehuta and Kristina Stefanova
Prof. Jens Beckert
Intermediation, Networks and Social Capital
International University Bremen
Spring Semester 2003
June 6th, 2003

Trust – Definition, Importance
The question of trust is particularly crucial for countries going through transition from communism to democracy and free market. Before starting a discussion about the development of trust in the post-communist countries the term “trust” needs to be defined and explained in all of its variations. Susan Rose-Ackerman recognizes three types of trust that are caused by different factors. Generalized trust, which expresses a background psychological attitude, has been used recently as an indicator to measure the health of a society. The results, however, are very difficult to interpret because there are not well-specified links between generalized trust and the performance of government and market institutions. In countries experiencing transition it is even more problematic to understand this measure because interpersonal trust often diverges from trust in institutions. Findings suggest that generalized trust and democracy support each other, but do not imply that the development of general trust will generate strong democracies. The next kind of trust that is distinguished is one-sided reliability, where person A decides whether to trust or not person B on the basis of information about incentives, motives and competence. An example is the market of “lemons” where the seller anticipates the buyer’s behavior, but the buyer is the only one who needs to exhibit trust. B depends on A’s estimation of B’s trustworthiness. The third type is the reciprocal trust, under which links may be established on the base of mutual calculations of others’ interests, on feelings of personal affection and responsibility, or on shared values. Trustworthy behavior is influenced by the degree of trust and trustworthiness expressed by others.

Why is trust important in the establishment of a democracy?
Modern societies are extremely complex systems requiring a host of formal organizations to act collectively on behalf of individuals and often also in the interest of society as a whole. What’s even more important, trustworthy organizations are crucial for the orderly transition from authoritarianism to democracy.

This transition in Eastern Europe required negotiations between the leaders of the departing regime and the leaders of the opposition, who were to become the governors under democracy. The agreement regarding the transition will be effective only if the bargaining powers represent real forces in the polity and are trusted by those whom they claim to represent. The link between trust and democracy is multi-dimensional. In democracies, people choose representatives and other kinds of agents, such as bureaucrats and judges, to govern them. The problem is that the voters cannot perfectly control neither of them, so a great amount of discretion is required because the more they can be trusted to fulfill their roles willingly, the less resources are needed to monitor and discipline them. Thus a crucial requirement is one-sided trust in public officials.
Piotr Sztomka gives several ways in which trust contributes to democracy. First of all, he says that democracies require communication and trust facilitates it by helping people speak and listen. Democracies also require tolerance of differences and trust in others is a way to accept their differences rather than perceiving them as a threat. Democracy also implies that people accept some basic rules of interaction. The more people trust others, the more they are willing to play by the rules because they expect others will do the same. Inter-personal trust as well as also trust in political institutions is needed in order to create a healthy atmosphere for political participation. The extent to which people will trust depends on the rule-based character of the state and trust is only present when one believes that the others will follow the same set of rules. Last but not least, in order for people to be responsible citizens, they need information and the sources that provide it should be, therefore, credible. Trust enables governments to make decisions and commit resources without having to resort to coercion to obtain the specific approval of citizens for every decision. Trust is also essential for the establishment of civil society – the institutions, which create a sense of community for the citizens and connect them to the government. Trust in civil institutions is a complementary part to democracy, which enhances the effectiveness of political institutions. Citizens, who are more trustful in other people, are more likely to be volunteer members in different kinds of associations that Tocqueville called “schools of democracy” .

Trust Under Communism
Under communism, trust, as the basic factor facilitating social action, was lacking.

People did not trust the system and its’ representatives that they didn’t want. They didn’t trust ordinary strangers, because of secret police agents and their helpers. Although communist societies possessed some institutions of civil society like trade unions, writers’ guilds - these bodies, however, were purely puppets of the party state. Corruption, as we will see later, flourished everywhere.

Regime Change, Trust Change?
In 1980s, finally, came the so awaited impulse, when Mikhail Gorbachev announced his perestroika (reconstruction). This stimulus gave considerable rise to opposition civil society movements that demanded freer environment. The impossibility of reversibility of this gradual process caused the collapse of communism in the entire Second World. The third wave of democratization after the Fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 embodies the greatest shift to democracy in the worlds’ history. In Europe, seven successor states after the Soviet empire plus twelve other countries emancipated from the Russian sphere of influence started building liberal democracy almost at the same time. Some more, some less successfully, but the general enthusiasm that brought the end of communist dictatorship was present everywhere.
At first, limiting the states’ power was on the list. Censorship was abolished; freedom of speech became the human right. Boundaries were opened – people could freely travel wherever they liked. States’ institutions of the command economy had been dismantled, leaving thus space for rising living standards and civil society. These were the basic historical facts driving the transformation towards democracy in 1989 and 1990s. But how did trust develop? Do people trust the new regime, do they trust more themselves? Whom do they trust? Which people do trust more? We will try to answer these questions in the next part of the essay.

Although the concept of civil society implies a generalized trust in social and economic institutions, they are distinguished from each other and from political institutions, since most theorists think that there should be a clear distinction between the state and the self-governing, independent associations. In post-communist societies, where citizens have only seen such self-governing, independent institutions after the regime change, citizens are much less able to distinguish between civil and political institutions.

People in these countries were asked whether they make difference between civil and state institutions and whether they evaluate discrete social and political institutions separately. Indeed, a principal components analysis of popular trust in fifteen social and political institutions suggests that people evaluate civil and political institutions holistically.

Table 1

Source: Mishler and Rose: Trust, p. 431

Political institutions generally have the strongest loadings; the highest is trust in government, followed by trust in courts, police, parliament and civil servants. On this single dimension the social institutions, like farm organizations, unions, and private enterprises, are also strongly loaded. Church contributes to trust in civil society least.
The difference between a single-factor and a three-factor is that the first one, as it provides the best fit with the data, confirms that civil and political institutions are perceived holistically, while the second one implies the existence of more emergent dimensions of trust. The general expectation is that in countries in which citizens fail to differentiate between social and political institutions because of lack of experience with independent civil institutions, the subsidiary dimensions of trust would emerge with greater strength as democracy is consolidated.
The first factor is clearly dominated by trust in political institutions; all of the state institutions have loadings above 0.55 except for the army. The second factor reflects trust in civil institutions, especially the ones associated with market reform. The great amount of trust put in churches and the army suggests that this third factor reflects a residual trust in institutions of traditional authority – both social and political. This is further supported by the secondary strongest loadings of police and farm organizations.
The substantial correlations among the three dimensions reinforce the idea that the citizens’ trust in all of them is holistic. Between the political and civic trust the correlation is 0.42; trust between political and traditional is 0.29, and trust between civic and traditional institutions is 0.19. All of the correlations are statistically significant, showing that the three factors reflect a common underlying dimension. Citizens can only draw distinctions between society and state institutions after they have had enough experience with them.

Right after the regime change, however, the post-Communist countries do not distinguish between civil and political institutions and judge them holistically with the same skepticism.
The level of political trust varies across the Eastern and Central European countries and provokes a controversy about the cause of this phenomenon. The socialization theory basically state that political values and beliefs are learned, usually as the result of life experiences associated with individual’s positions in society as reflected in their education, gender and socioeconomic status. The performance theories, on the other hand, hold that trust depends on individual assessment of the success with which political and social institutions provide expected social, economic and political benefits. Both perspectives state that trust is a product of experience, but they differ in their assumed time frames. What is certain is that the legacy of Communism must be taken into consideration in the explanation of trust in Eastern European countries.
This legacy of the past, however, is a subject to periodic revision based on more recent experiences and evaluations of contemporary performance, so the attitudes toward the Communist regime are used as a base to evaluate the performance of present institutions. The economic reforms that took place after the fall of Communism may prove their worth later, but in the beginning they caused a lot of confusion and decrease of the economy. The reforms of the political institutions can be felt earlier, which makes their evaluation much easier. For citizens that are accustomed to state interference with many aspects of their private life - including religion practicing and freedom to join certain organizations – the removal of such restrictions can significantly influence their political trust. In this respect, when compared to economic reforms, expanding individual freedom is inexpensive and can be achieved more quickly with relatively fewer resources through administrative deconstruction. Perceptions of freedom and fairness have had the strongest and most constant impact on contemporary trust. The new regimes in Eastern and Central Europe are providing citizens with a variety of individual freedoms and are pledged to maintain those freedoms under the threat of an electoral sanction. In contrast, economic performance has a big, but inconsistent impact. The move from a command economy resulted in a substantial deterioration of macroeconomic performance and reduction of living standards, but the introduction of market reforms generated hopes of better economic conditions in the future. The worst economic statistics were registered in 1993-1994, and since then the conditions are considerably improving .
Now, let us have a look at some empirical results.

About half of all Russians do not trust any significant cluster of institutions. This distrust, as noted above, is the major obstacle to the emergence of a healthy civil society in which representative institutions link the interests of individuals and families with the action of government.

One camp of sociologist believes that it is the legitimacy of the system that is important for the effectiveness of democracy. This legitimacy approach holds that the higher is the percentage of “solid democrats”, i.e. people supporting democracy, the more efficient the democracy is. The correlation coefficient between these two variables, according to Welzel (2002), equals to 0.597, which indicates a rather strong relationship.
The data for years 1995-98 reveal Eastern European nations with support for democracy ranging from only 14-17% in case of Albania or Russia to almost 70% in Croatia, Czech republic, Slovakia and Hungary. In between lay: Slovenia, former Yugoslavia with 55-60% of solid democrats, Estonia (50%), Latvia, Bosnia, Romania (40-45%) to Moldova, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Ukraine (about 25% of solid democrats). This great variance indicates also a great variance in the effectiveness of democracy among transforming countries. Very generally speaking: where the impact of the transformation process was not so harmful there people trust democracy more.

Competitive elections became standard in Eastern Europe. Using mostly the proportional representation, the outcomes have shown that many parties can gain parliamentary representation. For this reason, the turbulence within the political spectrum became reality for a few years, in some countries this process still continues.
This change, when the parliament suddenly does what it is supposed to – i.e. it quarrels about politics – brought much distrust in it. However, we may see a certain amount of distrust as healthy, securing the constructive critical attitude of the competent polity.
Political trust can be measured as the support for certain political institutions, such as government or parliament. As Mishler and Rose (1994) illuminate, the regime support and the support for legislature in Eastern Europe is widespread, although it still doesn’t reach the support in Western European countries. Most citizens support their legislature in the sense that they would oppose attempts to abolish it. According to their research, support for legislature tends to be higher among attentive publics and those most satisfied with the performance of the economy.

Confident supporters of the legislature tend to be more educated people, managers or professionals, people with higher income and citizens having rather secular orientation. As expected, the relationship between legislative and regime support is reciprocal, although the support for legislatures is much more a consequence than a cause of support for the regime .
According to Rose (1994), distrust in institutions in Eastern Europe is prevailing. Russians tend to distrust most the political parties (93%), which can be linked to the argument presented above. Then come the Supreme Soviet (80%), local governments (79%) and trade unions (with 76% of distrust). Russians rather trust their army (62%). Apart from traditional authorities, people do trust media very much. Television channels, newspapers and radio stations are free to report frankly and comment freely on national affairs, thus earning the support of the public.
The most striking and partly counter-productive distrust in transforming countries is the hatred and distrust in rich people. The new wealth of businessmen is not seen as (and often really is not) the result of their providing better or cheaper goods or services in the market. Instead, most people believe that new millionaires became wealthy by exploiting and deceiving. This disbelieve is dangerous, because it assumes that success of one can be achieved only by dishonest to others, leaving “honest” people poor and suffering.

Trust and Corruption
That corruption destroys general trust is widely known. If we are to pay a clerk for a favor that he is obliged to do without a bribe, we can’t trust the system he is part of. If it’s possible for a lobby to pay for an unfair (or against a fair) law, parliament cannot be trusted. When officials are corrupt, they betray the trust bestowed on them by the citizenry. Similarly, if corruption prevails in courts, uncertainty is introduced into the market reducing the incentives for real business, leaving thus the nation trapped in inefficiency.
Level of corruption in post-communist societies is significantly high. On a scale from 0 to 10 (0 reflecting the maximally corrupt country) rank Eastern European states from Slovenia with an index of 6.0 (ranking 27 among 102 studied countries ) to Moldova with 2.1 (rank 93).

Compared to Western European countries rank Eastern European much lower, but least corrupted post-communist societies rank similarly to the most corrupted states of the western part of the continent, producing thus not two distinct factions (Eastern and Western Europe), but a common continuum of European corruption perceptions.
Corruption was widespread under the communist command economy, when artificial price ceilings created shortages and bribes were an effective way to get hold of variety of goods that could not be found in state-run stores. Besides that, bribes were often needed to access formally free state services like health care, education or housing repairs.
The great variety of kinds of corruption in transforming countries persists. This malady comprises of bribes in health care and education, incentive payments for bureaucrats, buying judicial decisions, payments to obtain major contracts, concessions and privatizing firms, buying political influence and buying votes.

Fighting Corruption, Increasing Trust
Fighting corruption and thus increasing the trust in the system has been an attempt of every responsible government since 1989. There are several options that have been used: governments try reducing the opportunities for corruption, increasing the transparency of every transaction, improving the corruption detection and strengthening the punishment for this type of crime.
Higher salaries for judges, police and their staff decrease the incentive to accept a pay off. Campaign finance legislation reduces the pressures that parties put on media and indirectly increases trust in them. Regular disclosure of politicians’ and their families’ property (and its’ origin) has been introduced. Laws ensuring the public access to information were set up. Many countries have established Ombudsmen to hear complaints of all kinds .
Avoiding conflict of interests is another strategy. Because many politicians in new democracies have interests also in private companies, citizens tend to view them as corrupt. In Ukraine 150 businessmen and bankers were elected to the Parliament in 1998 .
Reducing the members’ of parliaments and other officials’ immunity before the law has been discussed for years. However, it is very implausible for an organ with a certain amount of power to abandon it voluntarily.
The role of free media is a very important, but at the same time rather controversial one as well. On the one hand, media reveal scandals and, therefore, increase the perception of misbehavior that might lead to decrease of trust (therefore “Corruption Perceptions Index”). But on the other hand, by investigative journalism, increasing transparency in the system, they set certain standards, they make it much more difficult for the possible corruptors and corruptees.

Continuing distrust in Eastern Europe is a pervasive legacy of the communist rule. The increasing diversity in the quality and extent of democratization in these countries reflects also the variance in the level of trust.

Countries with better economic performance such as Slovenia or Czech republic tend to have more developed civil society, lower corruption, more support for democracy and more trust.
Among people showing some trust in institutions, most place their confidence in the order-securing institutions or media. Only a small part indicates general trust in representative institutions. In spite of prevailing general distrust, people do support the democratic regime.
Although societies and their elites realize the importance of general trust, it is naturally complicated to create it overnight in turmoils of transition to market economy and liberal democracy. The transformation process did not bring general trust immediately. It rather created a base that has the best capacity to create government of the people, by the people and for the people, thus sustained by the support of the polity, step by step creating common expectations, creating trust.

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