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Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
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More than 20 Years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall: Democracy or Authoritarianism

Written by Klara Bilgin, Visiting Political Science Professor

Eastern Europe
Eastern Europe

How healthy are the young countries born from the dismantling of the massive Communist Block?

After the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe, the Communist Block quickly disintegrated. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 brought into existence 15 new sovereign states; the peaceful Czechoslovak divorce of 1993 created two new countries (the Czech and Slovak republics), and the bloody disintegration of the Yugoslav federation begot statehood to its six former republics plus the former Serbian province of Kosovo in 2008. All in all, out of the eight East European countries and the U.S.S.R., 28 post-Communist states had emerged.

Luckily, in the newly created international context of post-containment and post-Cold War dynamics, the United States could engage in a sustained effort to assist and support these countries in their complex processes of change. Groping along the way, the Clinton Administration designed a new foreign policy strategy of “engagement and enlargement,” allowing for two ‘revolutionary’ tactics of aiding the post-Communist states. First, it unleashed the power of the democracy assistance sector. Second, it suggested a new readiness to include the Eastern European Block in the previously rival ‘Western’ structures of global governance and defense.

The boldest move of the administration was President Clinton’s decision to ‘give in’ to the tremendous pressure of the Polish and Czech presidents, and in 1994 declare his decision to let NATO expand to the East. (Currently, many Eastern Europeans remember this early U.S. vote of confidence and for that reason cherish a strong personal affinity towards President Clinton and his family.) The first East European countries to fully join the alliance in 1999 were the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. Today, all of the former European Communist states, as well as the three Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, are NATO members. Of the 28 countries making up NATO today, 12 are former Communist rivals standing uneasily across from a former ally and currently geopolitically resurgent Russia.

For most of the Eastern European countries, however, NATO membership was simply the prelude to the more desired prize of European Union membership. EU accession for these countries had both a deeply symbolic meaning, of reinstating their European identity and civilization belonging, as well as the valuable pragmatic benefits of giving them access to the Common Market (with its freedom of travel, work, and trade) and significant financial resources during their adjustment/accession process.

After 15 years of ‘transition’ – the dream of EU membership finally came true for eight former Communist states when the ‘Big Bang’ of the 2004 EU enlargement made the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia plus the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Cyprus the newest members of the Union. This was the largest single expansion of the Union in terms of people, land mass and number of countries, and it was followed by another round when Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007.

But what about the former Soviet Union? Has it fulfilled the democratic promises of the early 1990s? In the case of the 15 states emerging from the former Soviet Union, the picture is highly polarized. Of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet republics, eight are brutal consolidated autocratic regimes with state-dominated semi-liberal economies. The most oppressive and tyrannical of those are the Central Asian republics or the so-called ‘stans:' Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. With the vivid exception of Kyrgyzstan, all of the Central Asian republics are currently lead by presidents who have been in office since before the Soviet dissolution and simply exchanged their party leadership for the position of the presidency. Outside of Central Asia, three other former Soviet republics have in the last decade degenerated into fully dictatorial regimes. In Azerbaijan, the Alive family has been running the country as its personal fiefdom since 1993; in Belarus, “Europe’s last dictator” Alexander Lukashenka just this last December won re-election and a fourth term in office. Even more intimidating have been the developments in the biggest remnant of the U.S.S.R.– the Russian Federation itself. Under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin (1992-1999), Russia was a rather unstable and hectic but decentralizing and partially democratic polity. Since the reigns of the state have passed to Vladimir Putin, first as a president (2000-2008) and then as a prime minister under the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, Russia has been transformed into a highly centralized political hegemony with renewed geopolitical ambitions, a petrostate with an expanding resource base, and a major bulwark of authoritarianism in the Post-Soviet space and Asia. In fact, it now critically undermines the democratic chances of every other post-Soviet state outside of the Baltics.

And finally, the only two countries that made a major leap across the post-U.S.S.R. authoritarian quagmire and underwent ‘Color Revolutions’ in order to throw out their growingly authoritarian post-Communist leaders − Georgia and Ukraine – have unfortunately also disappointed. The Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2004 removed President Shevardnadze from power in a post-election mobilization campaign but its then opposition leader and current president Michael Saakashvili has been accused of ‘super-presidentialism.' The Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004-2005, which removed President Kuchma and his anointed successor from power was reversed just this last year when, this same successor, Victor Yanukovych, won the 2010 Ukraine presidential elections and quickly moved to undo the democratic achievements of the Orangists.

Overall, two decades after the fall of Communism, the former Soviet republics, (with the exception of the Baltics) are again using brutal security forces, pliant courts, and tightly controlled news media to systematically crush political dissent. Journalists, dissidents, and opposition forces are facing even more brutal torture, deadly violence, and disappearances. All optimism regarding the countries of the former U.S.S.R. seems both futile and naïve. It seems even more so when examined within a wider international context. Currently, the EU is overextended and still adjusting to its new size – and largely unwilling to face further enlargement or engagement in the Balkans or in post-Soviet space. The U.S. democracy promotion mission was discredited during the last Bush administration and even if it finds its new raison d’état, the two wars in the Middle East and a lagging economic recovery would keep democracy abroad only as a marginal concern.

Finally, and probably most critically, we are currently witnessing the creation of an “Axis of Authoritarianism.” It spreads from the eastern fringes of Europe to the outpost of Asia, bracketed by China and Russia and passing through Central Asia – a region which is growing more economically powerful and politically more closed and oppressive.

In conclusion, we can simply say than the European countries and the Baltic states have largely jumped over the authoritarian divide, the post-Yugoslav states are in between and the situation in the formers U.S.S.R. republics is tremendously grim with no hope of any change.