Post-communist countries emerged from the Soviet hegemony with fairly heterogeneous economic and political backgrounds. Disregarding the former Soviet republics with their inner differences – due mainly to their status in the Soviet Union as well as development prior to the sovietisation – two groups of states may be recognised in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE): the so-called northern and southern tiers.
Countries from the northern tier had not only a clearly better prospect of accession to the European Union but also coped better with the transition from centralised economies and one-party regimes. This led to a broad assumption of the positive effect of the European Union on the transition process. Some neglected inconsistencies between the visible correlation and actual causality must however be drawn.
Establishing a correlation
All the ‘success stories’ of the transition were associated with a prompt and rather unproblematic accession to the EU. Despite natural political and economic complications, these countries have recovered quickly from the transitional recession in early 1990s, succeeded to consolidate their constitutional order and avoided significant populist or even authoritarian derives from democracy.
Countries geographically distant, mostly former Soviet republics – today’s Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) without any tangible prospect of the EU accession lived through very indecisive transitions. The transformation of their economies and political systems did not lead to Western-style market economy or liberal democracy but to a set of specific types of hegemonic and often authoritarian regimes.
The middle ground between these two distinct groups of clear-cut ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of the transition, are characterized by sometimes very problematic but not strictly unsuccessful transitions. The extent of successfulness corresponded very conclusively with the prospect of the EU accession, both tending to be bigger in Eastern and smaller in Western Balkans. In short, empirical observations confirm that the prospect of the EU was associated with successful transitions. There seems even to be a certain proportionality: bigger the prospect, more successful the transition.
Doubting the causality
The prospect of membership was however not for everybody and the medal of a potential candidate was awarded after a rather lengthy observation and initially very modest conditionality, technical support and in general relatively small role of the EU as such (probably initially smaller than aggregation of other international actors, such as the World Bank, EBRD or the OSCE).
The EU itself determined very cautiously and rather late, which countries are suitable for EU membership.  Only in 1997, the first part of CEE countries was openly admitted as potential candidate countries. This belated first significant message as well as the rather meagre influence of the EU itself in the immediate post-revolution period, undermines the idea of the EU being a crucial determinant in the successfulness of the transition, despite the effect it probably had on the domestic political environment in Slovakia during the electoral campaign of 1998.
Firstly, this assessment took place after substantial successes in transition of the northern tier countries. Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia and Hungary undertook in early 1990s crucial steps in privatisation as well as reforms concerning decisive fiscal and financial policies. Their political institutions were consolidating rather quickly; the role of civil society was on the rise and all the mentioned countries held free and uncontested elections. Secondly, the EU determined these prospects in a period subsequent to Yugoslav wars, deep financial crisis in Bulgaria in late 1996, problematic political transition in Romania and after deep economic slump and quasi-inexistence of democratic development in the CIS.
In other words, when the EU was realistically establishing the prospect of EU membership, it had already good information on the likelihood of countries to go through the transition promptly and successfully. Moreover, the EU has even used the criteria that determine the successfulness of the transition to accept or reject the potential prospect of membership. In this respect, the causality is opposite: bigger the perspective of successful transition, bigger the prospect of EU membership.
Integration vs. transition
If we observe the concrete processes through which the transition took place, it is also less clear to what extent the possibility of accession helped states to pass necessary reforms and develop their economies in the best way to cope with inner pressures and to achieve the optimal way of transition regarding their historical path. In this context, the prospect and the accession to the EU might have even delayed or complicated the transition.
Transitologists often point out the difference of the post-communist transition in its simultaneity (“Gleichzeitigkeit” in Klaus Offe’s words). It takes place not only in the strictly political and constitutional context, but also in rather different and often contradicting fields of reforms of economy and social structures. However, particular international organisations exercised important pressures on distinct and separate issues, such as the World Bank on social and fiscal reform as well as privatisation or the OSCE and EU on minority rights. Very few of the external actors took the picture of the transition as a whole and neither did the EU. It has for instance favoured particular policies that aimed primarily integration and stabilisation of the region, not transition and its successfulness as such.
The “goodness of fit” of the EU conditionality
To explain the logic of positive or negative influence, we may refer to the so-called “goodness of fit” of European policies to domestic institutions and structures. This theory may be applied also on CEE states and would suggest that the simultaneous pressure from international organisations and from the EU yielded different degrees of success depending on the fit or misfit to the already existing domestic structures and popular willingness of CEE states. In other words, more the political and economic structures were already conform or similar to the Western European structures, more positive the outcome of conditionality was likely to become. It means that the outcome of the EU’s influence depended radically on the receiving state’s structures, and could even harm those states, which were not institutionally prepared, as they would have to proceed to costly adaptive measures.
The EU accession and application of the acquis communautaire was less conducted with respect to the transition itself but rather to the integration. Candidates were imposed in general rather neoliberal rules and frameworks, which were not fully applied in all EU-15 countries due to different varieties of market economies and therefore negotiated opt-outs. This leads essentially to the conclusion that the outcomes of such pressure were rather sub-optimal, because applied rules were not appropriated to CEE environment. In fiscal terms for instance, the double pressure on maintaining the public spending low at once with increased costs of applying the acquis, put the candidate countries to a difficult trade-off between fulfilling concrete domestic challenges – including democratic ones – or satisfying external actors.
The northern tier of the CEE countries would have probably succeeded in their transition anyway, while post-Soviet countries of Central Asia would have suffered transitional problems even with a strong prospect of similar integration. On one hand, it is indubitable that in many policy areas (such as minority rights), the willingness of CEE governments was weaker than the situation asked for and that the EU played a crucial role of stabilisation. It is also clear that the EU candidacy and membership sent important positive signals to the rest of the world about economic preparedness for globalisation and led to clear increase in foreign direct investments. On the other hand, the mere geographical presence of Western Europe was probably sufficient at the beginning to motivate populations to undertake the first round of extensive reforms. Therefore, the correlation of EU membership and success in transition is clearly not a pure causality.
 With the exception of Baltic States, which are often included into the Northern tier and Georgia, which left the CIS after the 2008 Summer War.
 It is striking to what extent virtually all CIS members remarked a rise of power of small groups and authoritarian post-communist personalities, such as Bakayev in Uzbekistan, Nazerbayev in Kazakhstan, Akayev in Kyrgyzstan, Shevarnadze in Georgia, Aliyevs (father and son) in Azerbaijan, Niyazov in Turkmenistan, Lukashenka in Belarus or Kuchma in Ukraine. Similar rise was rather early prevented in countries with the EU membership prospect, for instance in the case of Mečiar in Slovakia or Tudjman in Croatia.
 The Copenhagen criteria were agreed in 1993 explicitly in order to assess the preparedness of CEE.