Making democracy work in Central and Eastern Europe


In Central and Eastern Europe, conservative nationalist governments in Hungary and Poland are causing alarm in western European capitals that democracy itself is under sustained challenge in the post-communist half of Europe, The Financial Times reported this week.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the wave of revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe, countries like Poland and Romania have been lauded as examples of successful democratization, writes Rachelle Faust. In recent years, however, it has become evident that proponents of Western democracy may have been overly optimistic as to the extent that these countries have embraced and incorporated democratic ideals into their political systems.

The extent to which recent backsliding of Eastern European countries is caused by systemic corruption was discussed a recent event in Washington, D.C., Making Democracy Work: Civic Action and Extra-Institutional Pressure in Central and Eastern Europe, hosted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University SAIS. The discussion centered on the question of how and where the democratization process became derailed, as well as what steps can be taken in the future to rectify its shortcomings.

Dr. Maria Stephan, Senior Policy Fellow for the United States Institute of Peace, briefly summarized the evolution of democratic government in Central and Eastern Europe. As she noted, in the early 1990s, democracy and a free market economy were presumed to be the sole path of development. However, recent setbacks in the region’s political systems have indicated that the lack of consideration for alternatives was an oversight on the part of politicians, international organizations, and civil society. In response to the corruption that currently plagues governments that were thought to have successfully transitioned to functional democracies, the international community must confront the reality of the ongoing nature of these transitions and the need for systemic flaws to be addressed.

Civil society continues to be a critical component in the region’s democratic transitions. Even amidst shrinking civic space in this region, there has been an expansion of protests and a rise of civic movements in response to corruption and a lack of government accountability. One manifestation of tension between the political elite and civil society that has resulted in widespread protest, the Romanian Autumn movement, for example, exemplifies the flawed political spheres of several Central and Eastern European countries. As Dr. Tina Olteanu, an Austrian Marshall Plan Fellow at Johns Hopkins SAIS, noted, rampant corruption has led to this unusual instance of Romanians converging in protest, representing the frustration of a civil society that has lost faith in the political elite. Olteanu describes the societal effects of this movement as far-reaching, triggering subsequent protests against government actions that have a negative impact on the public.

Macedonia’s Colorful Revolution is another example of the shortcomings of traditional avenues for democratic reform. Shaazka Beyerle, a nonresident fellow at Johns Hopkins University SAIS, detailed the deficiencies of a recently negotiated agreement between the European Union and Macedonia that has failed to resolve the political and democratic crisis that continues to plague the country. Despite the admirable measures that were proposed within the agreement, Beyerle pointed to limited implementation as the root cause of the agreement’s failure. Following the Macedonian President’s pardoning of individuals under scrutiny by a special prosecutor’s team, the public has responded with sixty days of protests, both in the capital and in other cities, that are currently ongoing. This latest evolution of citizen dissent has resulted in a number of requests, ranging from calls for immediate action to demands for substantive, institutional reform. Beyerle asserted that in order for the nascent movement to surpass the stage of protests, external actors will likely play a critical role in enabling citizens to continue to express their dissent and become a factor for combating corruption in Macedonia.

In Romania and Macedonia, civil society continues to play a vital role in responding to the deterioration of democratic institutions and the persistence of corruption. The general consensus among the panelists was that the path to democratic resilience is to be found at the convergence of civil society, state institutions, and external actors. In particular, the panel recommended that extra-institutional pressure address the needs of the society, as identified by its citizens. As such, the role for external actors may primarily be to ensure that citizens have an opportunity to freely express their opinions and dissent. Some middle ground must be found between the state and civil society in order for Central and Eastern European countries to move forward on the path to democracy.

Despite widespread frustration with political parties that fail to act as the envoy of society to the state, working solely with NGOs will likely not result in the desired outcomes either, as Dr. Reinhard Krumm, Head of the Department of Central and Eastern Europe for Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, concluded. Perhaps most importantly, citizens need to experience and engage with how politics can work outside of a systemically corrupt system in order for change to occur. Extra-institutional pressure from citizens, in combination with foreign pressure, will also be a crictical factor for countering the vested interests of the elite. Until the players at hand accept the possibility of alternate routes to democracy, however, it is likely that the battle between civil society and the state will be long and arduous.

Rachelle Faust is an intern in Government and Public Relations at the National Endowment for Democracy.

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