EasternFocus #3: 30 Years Later. The Unfinished Revolution

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Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the state of liberal democracy in the former communist bloc is “probably worse than we hoped but better than we feared”, thinks Thomas Carothers, interviewed in this issue of Eastern Focus. He looks at the good, the bad and the ugly of post-1989 transition and says that three decades later, we are still in an intermediate state.

A final democratic destiny is in no way assured and “illiberal” (a soft word for unconstrained use of power!) democracy most certainly will not lead us there! 2019 was a year of reckoning rather than celebration, with lots of questions – and eyebrows – raised and very few answers. The present issue of Eastern Focus tries to shed some light on a few of the most intriguing developments.

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Why is there in Central and Eastern Europe a current of resentment against the West we once struggled long and hard to re-join? Sharing some of the highlights of the recent book he co-authored with Ivan Krastev, The Light that Failed, Stephen Holmes argues that the explanation lies in political psychology, not political theory.

The voluntary choice to imitate the West eventually turned into self-inflicted trauma, as the West kept looking down on its prodigal sons, while it was itself morphing into something different from the original which we, in Eastern Europe, were trying to emulate. Democratic backsliding is not a matter of falling back on old habits, the authors believe, but an almost Oedipal rebellion against an alienating father figure. But where did the West fail in supporting democratic state-building in Eastern Europe?

Three authors who were heavily invested in the process, on behalf of American foundations that implemented programmes in the region after 1989, look back on what could have been done differently. With the benefit of hindsight, Barry Gaberman, Merrill Sovner and William Moody reflect in a comprehensive study on what Western donors took for granted, especially the naivety of assuming that democratisation was complete with EU accession.

Building civil society is the hardest thing, they later realised; a multigenerational effort of 60 years! Veronica Anghel and Silvia Fierăscu denounce the limitations of the institutional model of democratic transformation, emphasising the essential, but often overlooked human element. The two authors unpack the ways in which, behind facade democracy, entrenched corruption develops state-capturing networks which tend to outlive their individual participants.

“Democratic backsliding is not a matter of falling back on old habits, but an almost Oedipal rebellion against an alienating father figure.”

Especially relevant today, that is to say that although we often credit individual leaders, i.e. strongmen with the ability to thwart their countries’ progress toward rule of law (the other mandatory pillar of sustainable democratic transformation, alongside elections), in order to preserve their own privileges, in fact it is entire ecosystems of corruption that sap at the root of our effort.

Once you take away the institutional conditionality (imposed during pre-accession to the EU, for instance), the challenge that lies bare is how hard or relatively easy it is to disentangle and dismantle these networks. Prof. Fierăscu hence proposes an alternative approach to anticorruption, based on the structure of such networks as it results from the analysis of procurement systems in 28 countries over 10 years. Economy professor Cornel Ban addresses another growing complaint coming from Central and Eastern Europe: that instead of helping the region catch up during transition to liberalism and a free market, Western Europe has been draining it of human resources and of the associated potential for development.

Brain drain, dependent market capitalism, a transfer union are the buzz words now frequently used to characterise the state of post-communist economies. How accurate is this description? „It’s complicated”, Cornel Ban seems to say, as he argues that the state and foreign investment have cooperated well so far across the region to deliver growth; but indeed the next challenge is for these countries to evade the trap of a low-income, high inequality model.

This reminiscing section ends with an interview with Katherine Verdery, who, as a foreign anthropologist, has experienced both communist persecution and post-communist transition. She believes that present day resistance to elites around the globe has been fundamentally determined and defined by the experience of regime change in Central and Eastern Europe. Moreover, political renewal is more likely to come from this part of the world, where communism has created working classes with political consciousness who now claim back agency, than from the US or Western Europe.

Elsewhere in the world, from Hong Kong, to Lebanon and Chile, massive protests give sign of a new global revolutionary period. Despite moves to the contrary, trade wars, walls and nationalism, we are at the beginning, not the end of political globalisation, explains anthropologist Alec Bălășescu, writing from Hong Kong. What is at stake today, there and everywhere, is an ample negotiation of the principles of governance and consensus-making in public life. The latter has collapsed because of the failure of democratic representative institutions to adjust to the fast-changing context – which drives people out in the streets as the only fora where they can make themselves properly heard.

The Western liberal model is falling short of addressing the new global circumstances (for one, perhaps, because liberalism was not built to deal with globalisation – as Thomas Carothers puts it).

Hence, a simplistic interpretation of these revolutionary movements in a European key is to be avoided. Five Romanian and Asian anthropologists and political scientists, Alec Bălășescu, Dana Trif, Iulia Lumină, Ross Cheung and Ho Ming-sho focus on Hong Kong as their starting point as they explain the differences, the nature of contemporary revolutions and their Asian-specific, post -colonial features, from Singapore to Taiwan.

Back to the European context 30 years after the fall of the Wall, as the new European Commission is just taking up positions in Brussels, a group of 30 prominent experts representing 23 think-tanks and 17 countries, convened by GlobalFocus Center, the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and the Romanian EU Council Presidency of the first half of 2019 are putting forth a set of policy memos to the incoming EU leadership, charting out concrete measures which the Union needs to implement if it is to preserve its internal cohesion and its standing in the world.

#EuropeOnward looks at the EU’s global role; going beyond the enlargement agenda; the completion of eurozone integration; coping with an economy in flux; migration and borders; hybrid threats and information manipulation; but also a possible framework to make populism obsolete.

As developments around the EU borders underscore, „Europe whole and free” envisaged after the lifting of the Iron Curtain remains a distant dream. President Macron has a way of shaking off European inertia by seemingly kicking down the stairs some of its most valued elements (at least in the eyes of his Eastern allies!), from NATO to EU enlargement. As the EU accession process is placed in doubt by the failure to open accession negotations with North Macedonia and Albania, Zoran Nechev and Ivan Nikolovski write about the shockwaves this has sent across the region and what comes next. Meanwhile, alternative influences in the EU proximity multiply, generating important security and geopolitical risks.

Previous issues of Eastern Focus have looked at China and Russia; now we turn to Turkey. Hamdi Firat Buyuk dispells the myth of a Russo-Turkish ‚friendship’ and proves that it is not just an alliance of opportunity, but one that is detrimental to Ankara’s long-term interests.

Ana Maria Luca questions another widely-held assumption, that Turkey is a necessary stabilising force in the Middle East. She analyses the recent Turkish intervention in Syria from the perspective of Erdogan’s history of tactical moves in the region, which, the author says, have done nothing to pacify it. Quite on the contrary, Turkey has sought to be a player in the new power arrangements in the Middle East at a high potential cost to its own stability.

Eventually, three authors cover three different aspects of a changing global order. Bobo Lo ellaborates on Russia’s other alliance of „strategic convenience” (not an alignment of world views and long-term interests), the one with China, and translates Russian and Chinese end goals for a Western audience. Michal Onderco proposes options for European action, now that the INF is dead: these centre around developing a military muscle, as opposed to exclusive reliance on the US, as Washington’s external action will be predicated primarily on countering China. Julian Lindley French reinforces the argument and emphasises the need for European adaptation to 5D warfare.