The "first" transitions from communist rule in Europe and Eurasia at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s did not resemble many of the transitions from authoritarian rule in the previous two decades. Why? Some have suggested that countries in the communist world shared distinguishing historical legacies or particular institutional configurations that made them different from the countries in Latin American and Southern Europe, which in turn had path-dependent consequences for the kind of transition they experienced. These differences are most certainly a major part of the explanation.
In addition, however, this paper argues that the configuration of the international system also played a causal role. The bipolar system of the Cold War constrained the kinds of transitions possible, both in the "East" and in the "West." By 1989, this international system no longer existed, but instead was in transition to a new global order anchored by one hegemon, the United States. This new system allowed for a wider range of transitions than the previous era. The "international system" is the missing independent variable that helps to unify theories about the "third wave" and the "fourth wave" and move us close towards a general theory of democratization.