The Unfinished Revolution: East-Central Europe, Democratization and the Euro-Atlantic Community

The Unfinished Revolution: East-Central Europe, Democratization and the Euro-Atlantic Community

On Sunday, February 2, 2003, President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic became a private citizen.

 On Sunday, February 2, 2003, President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic became a private citizen. As president, he was the conscience of what is best in the post-Communist world. In Central Europe he explained and advanced the values of the West; in the West he explained and advanced the needs of Central Europe. He convinced President Bill Clinton of the wisdom of NATO enlargement in 1993 and in 2001 he convinced President George Bush of the wisdom of further expansion-from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Sadly, most of those who played a key role in the struggle against Communism before and in 1989 have by now left the political arena. Lech Walesa, the hero of Solidarity, did not make a successful transition to democratic politics; the stubborn intolerance that served him and his cause so well in the 1980s did not carry forward to democratic politics in the 1990s. Others have withdrawn, retired - or been turned away by the voters. In Hungary, where is Janos Kis or Peter Tolgyessy? And still others, like the once so promising Viktor Orban, have changed their political outlook beyond recognition.

This is why the transition from Communism has been completed but the transition to Western-style democracy is still on Central Europe's agenda. True, some aspects of democracy have indeed taken root, and Freedom House is correct in drawing attention to the steady enlargement of the democratic community of nations. After all, democracy has spread from Central Europe to the former Soviet Union, especially to the Baltics but in some ways to Russia as well. Yet, while the last decade has witnessed a dramatic widening of the zone of democracy, there has not been a corresponding deepening of the culture of democracy. Indeed, there is a very real danger that while the next decade will witness a further expansion of the Euro-Atlantic community to the east, democratic values will not necessarily take deeper roots or flourish.  The warm winds of democracy will surely touch Ukraine, but here in Central Europe the cold winds of mild authoritarianism, narrow nationalism, bitter intolerance, polarization, and Svejk-like opportunism might halt this region's democratic momentum.

If deepening does not accompany widening-if quality does not accompany quantity-the result will be post-Communist regimes that have a semi-authoritarian soul in a semi-democratic body. The electoral choice will further narrow, pitting anti-Communist nationalists (whose past is largely untainted but whose future is at least ambiguous) against ex-Communist social democrats (whose past is shady but whose future is often promising). As the once-prominent liberal parties, notably Poland's Union of Freedom, continue to lose ground, the West will have no choice but to favor the best of the ex-Communist lot, such as Poland's Aleksander Kwasniewski, Hungary's Peter Medgyessy, and Slovenia's rather steady leadership. That pragmatic, political choice, in turn, is bound to alienate from the West many of the region's principled liberal intellectuals, who will have trouble understanding how and why the West can make common cause with their former oppressors.

Absent new political leaders who embrace modernity and feel at home in the 21st century, Central and Eastern Europe is bound to fall back on its own past. It is happening already. On the one hand, people-in many cases, large majorities-tell pollsters that they are nostalgic not only for the welfare state of the 1980s but for the "order" and apparent egalitarianism of the Communist era. And the past haunts in another way too. For parties of the Right and even Center-Right, interwar Eastern Europe has become a source of inspiration and legitimacy. This is happening not only in Czechoslovakia, which featured a parliamentary democracy between the wars, but in Poland, Hungary, Romania, and of course the three then-independent Baltic states as well. Why is there such nostalgia for authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes like those led by General Pilsudski or Admiral Horthy? What relevance do these (at best) "traditionalist" regimes have in our era of rapid modernization and integration?

There is no easy way to come to terms with such popular attitudes, but it may be because all post-Communist societies still have a particularly long way to go to achieve their post-1989 goals, especially the political ones. Let's recapitulate those goals.

The first goal was independence. This was the single most important demand in 1989, and therefore it should be celebrated as the major achievement of the post-Communist transition. While Russia, through mainly economic means, is once again present in all countries of the former Soviet bloc, it will not recover its once-formidable ideological appeal.

The second goal was economic transformation. True, very few people in this part of the world knew much about free markets, and not many more saw "capitalism" in a positive light.  Yet the goal of ending central planning and almost-total state control did matter to many - and it has been achieved. Do not confuse nostalgia for the benefits of the welfare state with preference for the planned economies of the past. Do not confuse the frequently heard criticism of vast, new inequalities and excessive Western economic penetration with preference for Communist economics. And do not confuse euro skepticism with preference for the old Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON). What is really happening in Central and Eastern Europe is that capitalism is having a difficult birth, and so far the new baby has learned only to crawl, not yet to walk.

The third goal in 1989 was "democracy"-defined vaguely as the opposite of "dictatorship." Here, too, there have been considerable achievements. The ten actual and prospective members of NATO are not dictatorships, and quite a few other states, including Russia, have made progress over the years.   Yet post-Communist political life does not seem to satisfy those it is supposed to serve. It is true that, especially here in Central Europe, free, competitive elections, freedom of religion and assembly, and even, in a rudimentary sort of way, the rule of law have come to exist.

What is missing today, then, is the spirit of optimism  and the habit of tolerance, combined with pro-Western commitments, which Vaclav Havel has exemplified. He understood well that the division of Europe - Stalin's wicked achievement - could be overcome only by joining NATO and the European Union.

The paradox is that while Havel has paved the way for the European Union to open its door to eight new members from Central and Eastern Europe, the people of some of these countries may yet turn down Brussels' offer. Confused by devious politicians who play on the people's fears about novelty and change, Polish public support has dropped from more than 80 percent some ten years ago to less than 60 percent today. The coming referenda in several countries may be approved by the smallest margin - or they may not be approved at all. How could this be? The 1956 Hungarian revolution was in good part about "rejoining Europe" and so were the 1968 Prague Spring and all of the heroic Polish uprisings from Poznan to Gdansk, from 1956 to 1989. How is it possible that hardly more than a third of the Estonian public appears to favor joining the EU? Is it really only the fear of the Brussels bureaucracy that has produced such hard-line opponents as Poland's Andrzej Lepper and skeptics like Vaclav Klaus in Prague and Viktor Orban in Budapest? How come is it good politics now to question the need to join the EU when the goal - to make Europe whole and free - is one that these same people could only dream about fifteen or twenty years ago?

One of many (disturbing) answers is that, aside from the unique case of Poland, the pre-1989 anti-Communist and pro-democracy opposition was much weaker than commonly assumed. While almost no one liked or approved Communism, the number of active dissidents in Russia and in Hungary was only in the thousands, in the old Czechoslovakia in the hundreds, and elsewhere there were dozens, not more. The memory of embarrassment and shame for being largely inactive in the face of Communist tyranny has made the task of mobilizing people for genuine democracy in Central Europe very difficult. After the initial period of euphoria, when real dissidents ran Poland, they were increasingly marginalized precisely because they were liberal, pro-Western democrats - and not simply anti-Russian, anti-Communist nationalists. This is why Vaclav Havel, after a couple of years in power, has been much more popular in the West than in his own country.

There are, of course, many, many other reasons why the post-1989 momentum toward the development of a pro-Western political culture has been halted. Those reasons need to be not only studied and debated; their political consequences must be better understood both by the region's political leaders and in the West. Indeed, there is much to be done. Widening the Euro-Atlantic community to parts of the former Soviet Union is critically important in order to expand the zone of security and stability in Europe. Far more complicated, but equally pressing, is the task of deepening the values of the Euro-Atlantic community in Central and Eastern Europe. Mitteleuropa and its immediate environs-the region where democracy has the best chance to grow and flourish-still need both some tender loving Western care and some "tough love" too.