Sunday, February 27, 2011

Be patient with democracy: Memories from Soviet Union and reflections on the revolutions in Arab world

In 1988 I was 15 year-old student in high-school in the small city of Zhitomir, Western Ukraine. It was time when the citizens of the Soviet Union started to wake up from the complete passivity imposed on them by 70 year rule of the Communist Party. I will never forget these days, because there was something new in the air, something new and unfamiliar for all of us. It was not the feeling of freedom, no - it was the feeling of the promise of freedom. I remember how I walked to spontaneous meetings and gatherings, hold at the parks, in  squares, on the streets, where people were listening to some courageous journalists and intellectuals who were talking about democracy. I remember the first semi-democratic elections for the Soviet parliament in 1988, when suddenly people get mobilized for the "anti-nomenclature" - non-communist - candidates. I remember how my mom, always afraid of KGB, went to spread the flyers for the only democratic candidate running in our city. I will never forget this.

I have no doubt that people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Iran fell now the same way - the promise of freedom. Of course, Soviet Union is not Egypt or Iran, and Soviet block is not the Arab world. However, there is no doubt, in both cases we have popular revolution against regime that became dis-functional and repressive. Yes, it's about revolution. Is it a democratic revolution? nobody knows. We, or in effect, future generation/s will be able to judge. In fact, the precedents of popular democratic revolutions in the previous century show mixed evidence, with strong possibility of serious regression and anti-democratic counter-revolution. Want examples?

In the last two months we could hear many experts and opinion-makers who compare the events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the democratization process in the Central Europe. I think it's a wrong comparison. All of the new democracies in Central Europe were in the orbit of influence of the Soviet Union who suppressed with brutal force all the democratic movements - in Chechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and others. Once the Soviet government showed "weakness" and its unwillingness to intervene militarily, these countries were set free.

I think about more reasonable comparison, if any such comparison could be done, and this is the democratic process in the Soviet Union itself. In August 1991 the group of the communist leaders who opposed the democratic reforms of Gorbachev, organised a military putsch. After three days of the mass demonstrations in Moscow and the refusal of the army to suppress them, the communist regime was defeated. For 8 years Russia was struggling her way towards democracy, but this movement was seriously set back in the last 10 years. When  Mikhail Gorbachov calls the political regime in Russia  "imitation of democracy", one can understand that the democratic project in Russia was not a success story. And when you look at the other former republics of Soviet Union, with the exception of Baltic states, you can see that their journey to democracy is far from being accomplished.

So, what happened? Lack of democratic tradition, economic problems and unsolved ethnic tensions created reactionary movement. The democratic system lost its value and was perceived as impotent to deal with social and economic disorder. In these conditions, the best organized group will always have advantage of coming to power and restoring the rule of strong leader that will dismiss most of the democratic achievements.

By the way, the 1917 revolution in Russia developed in a similar way. In February 1917 the popular movement brought down the monarchy in Russia. However, this movement didn't have strong democratic leadership, and in the socio-economic chaos that followed the revolution it was the tiny Bolshevik party who seized the power. Despite its small size, Bolsheviks were able to mobilize resources, to gain support from within and from outside, and in 9 months organized perfect coup d'etat in Saint-Petersburg. It took them 4 bloody years of war to gradually take over all of the Russian Empire.

And by the way, why limit this comparison to Russian history? Did French revolution of 1789 culminated in the complete victory of democracy? If I am not mistaken, there were months of revolutionary terror, and European campaigns of Emperor Napoleon I, and restoration... And the popular revolts of 1848, and the bloody suppression of 1871 rebellion in Paris... Couple of days ago I heard French historian who said that it took 100 years after the French revolution in 1789 to establish a true democracy in France.

Which brings us back to the revolution in the Arab world. Please, don't have any illusions: it will take years to build democracy in the Middle East. Like in the Soviet Union, these countries lack democratic tradition, have deep economic problems and ethnic or tribal tensions. There are also anti-democratic forces, like Muslen Brotherhood, that happened to be organized better that the popular movements who created and fulfilled these revolutions.

Of course, the risks are high and the future of the revolutions is not clear. However, we should not forget that people in the Arab world woke up , for the first time and against all odds. This movement is irreversible. It will take time, and probably generations, but the expansion of freedom is inevitable.

Probably, the only thing that could help shorten the transition period is the information revolution and social media. And about the role of Facebook in these revolutions you already know...

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