When the Berlin Wall fell in the annus mirabilis, 1989, constructive initiatives were taken. With generous support from a number of donors, including the Austrian National Bank, members of the Eurasia Barometer Consortium on the base of the Paul Lazarsfeld Society decided to commence researching public opinion in the transition economies. Until then the society had concentrated on issues within Austria, such as Austrians' sense of nationhood and the public opinion on foreign development aid.
The invaluable support of Erhard Busek, Federal Minister for Science at the time, and the Austrian National Bank made possible the launch of the New Democracies Barometer in 1991, surveying Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.
This cross-national sociological survey was conducted among 1,000 selected representative residents of each country to monitor the reform process in Eastern Europe's post-Communist countries over time. The fifth New Democracies Barometer extends to 11 transition economies: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Bulgaria and, for the first time, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Soon the topics of the survey were extended to employ public opinion research to clarify the comprehensive picture of the region's development. A population's confidence in the future, view of the past, attitude towards its government, its trust in the country's democratic institutions and, not least, the citizens' willingness to participate in democratic processes have also been central topics of the surveys. In the course of further research, questions about the population's attitude towards the European Union, neighboring states and resident ethnic minorities as well as the respondents' inclination to migrate were also included. In 1990, members of Eurasia Barometer Consortium acting on the basis of the Paul Lazarsfeld Society decided to engage in first contacts with public opinion research institutions in former Communist countries; we found out that the required knowledge and skills were readily available, and that surveying institutions and faculties of sociology had gathered valuable experience in research on the fringes of society, above all in studies on the younger generation.
Difficulties were encountered primarily in the field of technical implementation, most of all in Russia, where the Paul Lazarsfeld Society conducted a nation-wide survey among 3,500 respondents. Surveys could only be conducted in areas with functioning means of public transport. In the transition economies closer to the West, the new democracies as we came to call them, this was less of a problem.
In 1991 members of Eurasia Barometer Consortium at the Paul Lazarsfeld Society successfully conducted surveys with standardized questionnaires in six CEE countries and in Austria. The results were not only made available to the Austrian National Bank and the Ministry for Science, but also to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, which distributed the surveys to the relevant embassies. The Paul Lazarsfeld Society also strove to publish the surveys' results internationally and to encourage discussions on their implications. Consequently, the European Commission, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and of course international academia received information on the results of the Paul Lazarsfeld Society's research. Professor Christian Haerpfer who led the international team of researchers provided decisive contribution to the success of the research projects realized by the Paul Lazarsfeld Society.
In 1994, Manfred Güllner, head of the FORSA Institute, Berlin – Dortmund, founded the German branch of the Paul Lazarsfeld Society, and the Austrian and German branches agreed to cooperate. In line with the logic, the Austrian branch covered the Central and East Central European economies, as well as the Ukraine and Belarus, while the German branch was dealing with Russia and the Baltic states.
In 1998 the Paul Lazarsfeld Society ventured to investigate the situation in Serbia. urned into fish soup, but no one knows how to now turn the fish soup back into an aquarium. After the second generation of reformers has also been worn down, and as the example of the Czech Republic has shown, nostalgia has grown strong – some people in the transition economies mistakenly spoke of the past as a golden era. Such romantic distortion of the historical facts does not make the difficult reform processes easier to sustain. The surveys showed, with few exceptions, that the population does not want to return to the Soviet or any other undemocratic system; where such trends became evident, strong resistance was soon to be felt. Yet the path into the future remains unclear. The transition economies have set off on their road towards a democratic society and there is no turning back: Voters demand their rights; above all, the right to participate in democratic governance. Nowadays Paul Lazarsfeld Society is still operating in Vienna, Austria as an independent research center.