01 June 2011

Europe's Democratic Transitions: The Lessons to be Learned

CEPA Non-Resident Fellow and International Editor of The Economist, Edward Lucas, examines a range of explanations for the widely differing outcomes of democratic reforms in the former communist countries of Europe and Central Asia.

The dawning democratic revolution in North Africa and the Middle East evokes powerful memories for those who remember the 20 years of transition in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The first point must be a clear note of caution: What happens after the revolution is difficult and only patchily successful. (Most of the people who once languished under communism live in “not free” or “partly free” countries today.) In other words, getting rid of the bad guys is only a precondition for progress and no guarantee of success.

Why that is, we don’t know. Two explanations, one pessimistic and one optimistic, jostle for supremacy. The “cultural determinists” think that the results of the past 20 years were largely foreordained. For them, initial conditions are crucial. So urban, well-educated Egypt has a chance of success; whereas backward, rural, illiterate Yemen is bound to be a nightmare.

The “universal values” crowd thinks that the main thing is what you believe in, not where you come from. With the right approach, we could have democracy and the rule of law from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. For the cultural determinists, that is optimistic poppycock. Each country is different, and their differences will determine their future. Estonia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic were “bound” to succeed because of their pre-communist status as advanced, urban societies with a strong middle class. “Backward” countries such as Romania, Lithuania and Macedonia had less social capital, lower levels of social trust and were “bound” to find the shift to life in freedom harder.

But the great failing of the culturally determinist approach is its infinite adaptability. Why is small, mainly Protestant Latvia so far behind small, mainly Protestant Estonia? The cultural determinists conveniently tweak their model, in this case pointing to the absence of Latvia’s German and Jewish urban elite who perished during the occupation. But didn’t Estonia lose its elite too? Why is Slovakia (small, rural and backward) ahead of the (larger, urban and advanced) Czech Republic on so many counts? Why is the former “GDR” — previously communist-ruled Germany — doing so poorly, despite being showered with money and advice?

So you have to assume another variable: policy mix. A small country with a vigorous elite can leapfrog a larger and more complacent one. That explains why Georgia is doing well and Moldova badly. Does a diaspora help or hinder? Armenia’s wealthy and influential diaspora has had mainly malign effects; fast-reforming Georgia’s diaspora is negligible. Lithuania’s diaspora is big and noisy; while Estonia’s small and modestly middle-class émigré community is quiet.

Size seems to be an equally baffling factor. Rural, backward, ill-run, big-diaspora Poland is the region’s economic and political leader. That suggests that large countries have an inherent advantage. So why is Russia behind? Because it must be too big. And Ukraine? Well, that’s because it is so badly run. What about corruption? It seems a disaster in Bulgaria, but Kazakhstan, in the grip of epic nepotism, is forging ahead. The cultural determinists end up with a circular argument:  the world is like it is, because it is like it is.

The universal values approach was neatly advocated by Toomas Hendrick Ilves (a scion of that Estonian diaspora) at the Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn last month. His argument is that nothing “unique” or “European” distinguished the successful reformers in CEE from the unsuccessful ones. Indeed he paraphrased Anna Karenina to say that, “All successful post-despotic countries reformed alike. Each unsuccessful country finds its own excuse.”

In other words, the best approach (regardless of initial conditions) involves maintaining a depoliticized civil service, avoiding a winner-take-all electoral system and preferring a parliamentary over a presidential system.

But Mr. Ilves’ advice from faraway Tallinn came with a twist: most outside advice is bad. That message was echoed a few days later by Poland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Radosław Sikorski during a visit to the Libyan rebel leadership in Benghazi:

“...while Europe has much to offer its North African neighbors in terms of financial support, advice, and training, the region needs to find its own path to freedom and success. Let us approach this task in the best spirit of European solidarity, but also with a certain humility. Europe’s former communist countries can make a special contribution to the process of transition across North Africa. Above all, we understand that sustained reform requires assuming responsibility by mobilizing the energy of one’s own people, not relying on well-intentioned but often ill-focused outside help.”

For his part, Mr. Ilves compared the “orientalism” (patronizing ignorance) long applied to North Africa and the Middle East with the dismissive way in which the West of Europe approached the East in the 1990s. He cited this particularly shocking quote from a senior German politician:

“The forthcoming enlargement [of the European Union] is not comparable to any previous one. This is true not only – and not primarily – because of the immense gulf between the West and the potential East of the Union in terms of the standard of living. More important is that the citizens and the politicians of the Central and Eastern European countries differ fundamentally from those in the present EU Member States as regards their national emotional traditions, experiences, interests and value judgments. What needs to be overcome here is not only the legacy of 50 years of separate development but also far older and more fundamental differences rooted in European history.”

Mr. Ilves rightly decried that as “crypto racist.” But as someone sourly noted, he himself has been known to argue that Estonia is quite unlike its southern Baltic neighbors, being more “Nordic” in attitude, values and history. Some might scent a whiff of cultural determinism there.

My observation is that the crucial factor is people. If Armenia had a Mikheil Saakashvili, it might be doing better. If Georgia had an Ilham Aliyev, it might be doing worse. A handful of brave and brilliant people (Mart Laar, Leszek Balcerowicz and Ivan Mikloš come to mind) can really make a difference. Where are their counterparts in North Africa and the Middle East? We shall see.