Democracy Ideas: Anne Applebaum, "Revolutions and Democracy"

International Forum for Democratic Studies Interview Series

Democracy Ideas: Anne Applebaum by International Forum for Democratic Studies

About this Episode

In this episode of Democracy Ideas, Christopher Walker asks Anne Applebaum about the factors that were critical for successful democratic transitions in Central Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, including the role of political elites, space for grassroots organizations, and societal expectations. Anne Applebaum also discusses the how these factors may affect current transitions underway in Ukraine and North Africa. (see the full interview transcript below)

Anne Applebaum is the Director of Global Transitions at the Legatum Institute. She is also a columnist for the Washington Post and Slate, and the author of several books, including Gulag: A History, which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction as well as other awards. She is the recipient of the Cundill Prize for Literature for her most recent book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56.

Related Content

Learn more about the International Forum for Democratic Studies research activities examining “Reconsidering Democratic Transitions: The Arab Spring and the Color Revolutions” and “The Role of Economics in Democratic Transitions.”

Read articles from the Journal of Democracy January 2014 issue exploring “The Legacies of 1989.”

Watch Anne Applebaum discuss her book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 at a book discussion organized by the International Forum for Democratic Studies in November 2012.

Interview Transcript

Walker: It’s now nearly 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and more than two decades since the implosion of the former Soviet Union. Since that time, we’ve seen a reemergence of contestation in the region where there are forces of coercion looking to influence the countries that are in the space between the E.U. and Russia against more consensus-based ideas. How do you see these developments?

Applebaum: It’s actually interesting to use the word contestation because you wouldn’t use that word 20 years ago. The countries which have had the most successful economic and political transitions in the last 20 years are countries which knew absolutely they had a cohesive political class; they had an alternative political elite which knew absolutely where it wanted to go after 1989. Maybe they didn’t know precisely, and maybe they didn’t know which kind of privatization they were going to have or which particular form of constitution they were going to choose, but these are countries that were all headed in one way by national consensus. You have Poland, Hungary, the Czechs and Slovaks, and the Baltic States—these are countries which never had any doubts about which way they wanted their transition to be.

What happened, though, in other parts of Europe is that countries who weren’t so sure which way they were going to go, or where there were other interests at stake—people had interests in oil and gas, in natural resources, or there were people who, once the economies had partly transformed (in other words, some things were private, some things were state) found that state of affairs to be a good one. Some people did very well in these half-changed places because there were ways of making money off of great connections and so on. Then, you saw a group of countries that didn’t have a clear direction after the collapse of the Soviet Union and didn’t make definite decisions at that time. And those are the countries that have more recently become part of this geopolitically contested space—Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.

Walker: You mention the idea of alternative elites being critical to successful democratic transitions. What determines how these elites form and the extent to which they can influence politics after there’s an opening in these kinds of settings?

Applebaum: The point about the Czechs—and particularly about the Poles—is that it wasn’t just about Havel, and it wasn’t just the people. Havel was, in a way, the theorist in this idea. But if you had gone to Poland or Hungary in the mid-1980s, you would have found an independent scouting movement, you would have found some small business, you would have found quite a lot of church groups, you would have found academic organizations. In other words, you would have found people who had already begun to organize themselves inside the totalitarian space.

Why that happened in those countries is partly to do with the decay of communism there—the fact that the ideology didn’t last very long and wasn’t very successful—it was probably because of older traditions, and it was partly to do with luck. The Poles were lucky because John Paul II became Pope, and he was an inspiration for precisely this kind of activity. It was probably because they were closer to the west—they had Western ties and links. You did see a similar phenomenon in the Baltic states and actually to some extent, Western Ukraine—the early nationalist movements of the late 1980s and 1990s were exactly that. They organized themselves and were able to make changes.

You did not have that in Eastern Ukraine, you did not have that elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. So, in a way some of what is happening in Ukraine now is what happened in Poland in the 1970s. The society is beginning to define what it wants: what do we want to be, what kind of rights do we want to have, what kind of relationship do we want to have with the state, how do we want to organize our own lives?

Walker: You indicated that it takes quite a bit of time for societies to organize themselves in a way to achieve positive democratic reform. Do you have a sense that Ukraine is becoming more mature and is heading in the direction of greater reforms?

Applebaum: Were it a kind of step ladder toward perfect progress, maybe that’s what would happen, but yes, I think before you have a political elite that can say “right, we want to be European, we want to have transparent laws, we want to have an independent judicial system, we want to have banks that are real banks that aren’t just funneling money to oligarchs,” you need a society that knows that it wants that and knows that it wants that kind of society to live in. You are beginning to see that form in Ukraine now, as we’ve seen in Georgia and elsewhere.

Walker: And in broad terms, what do you see as the most critical factors for successful reforms in these sorts of environments?

Applebaum: Look at the sources of success. For example, a country that’s been the most successful is Tunisia—here, what you have once again was a political class that was willing to make compromises, was willing to jointly write a constitution with other people whom it disliked, was willing to think about the rights of the individuals, and was willing to lay the groundwork for a long-term society. You didn’t have that in Egypt. You don’t have that in Libya. You haven’t had that kind of national consensus—that this is what we want.

At some level, you need this national consensus. At some level, you need people to feel themselves to be citizens, to feel some connection to the state, and to want to take responsibility for the state. What you need in turn is a state apparatus that feels that it works for the society.

What you’ve had so often in post-Soviet societies is the state—or the state bureaucracy—and the government who simply don’t feel any responsibility to the people. You become head of the country and what you do is steal as much as possible, get your children to head as many companies as possible, and then hope you can get away with it. What you need to have is a responsible political elite that doesn’t think in those terms.

Walker: Many observers of developments in North Africa have used the positive Central European experience as a frame of reference in thinking about developments in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia. How do you see this and do you think this may lead to overly high expectations in the most recent cases?

Applebaum: If you looked at Central Europe in 1995—three, four, or five years after the change—would it have looked so marvelous? Probably not.

One of my fears about North Africa is there were these enormous expectations unleashed by what were just street revolutions. They weren’t major changes of power— they may [be] beginning to be, particularly in Tunisia—but the amount of time that has lapsed is tiny. At the time, I wrote “Don’t think 1989, think 1848.” Maybe this is the first generation for the revolutions. There may be setbacks, there may be changes, but these are societies that are just beginning to form themselves.

In Egypt, you have very high rates of illiteracy—something like 60%. In a very illiterate society, it takes longer to explain [things] to people, and it takes longer to make people feel part of a polity or part of a state, which is an absolutely necessary and important ingredient for stability in the future. So, I think we may have over-high expectations of these kinds of changes.

On the other hand, it’s also important to remember that even in a very authoritarian or totalitarian society, change is good. It’s good when people organize themselves against a dictatorial regime. It means people are beginning to think, and it means a better future is at least possible.