Solidarity’s Promise

Why recent converts to democracy in Eastern Europe are uniquely qualified to support transitions elsewhere.


In 1980, Lech Walesa co-founded Solidarity, the independent Polish trade union that undermined the country’s communist regime and contributed to the unraveling of the Soviet Bloc. In 1995, by then an ex-president, Walesa established a foundation that has supported several pro-democracy movements around the globe. In neighboring Ukraine in 2004, Walesa advised the opposition movement behind the so-called Orange Revolution. After Tunisia’s revolution in 2011, Walesa led a delegation dispatched by the Polish government to support that country’s democratization. And Walesa’s foundation has also stepped up its assistance to pro-democracy activists in Burma since that country began its political opening in 2012.

That Poland has been promoting democracy should come as little surprise. Following recent democratic breakthroughs in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia, new democracies have sought not only to build democracy at home but also to support its development in their neighborhoods. Many have done so in distinctive ways. Instead of issuing public statements criticizing other countries’ violations of democratic principles or human rights, they favor work through regional international institutions and cautious encouragement of other countries’ political reform. Much like Western support for democracy abroad, the democracy-promotion efforts of the Eastern Europeans have often been inconsistent, ad hoc, and subordinate to other foreign policy objectives. But these new democracies have nonetheless played an important role in the regional diffusion of democratic values by serving as models for other countries to emulate and by purposefully supporting the spread of democratic norms and practices.

What is the value added by these new democracies supporting democratization abroad? How do their efforts compare to similar efforts made by the more established Western democracies? And what are the advantages and limitations of these new democracy promoters? The argument here is that new democracies have much to contribute to the democracy-promotion work of more established, Western democracies.

A few Central and Eastern European countries — most notably Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia — are among the most active democracy promoters born in the wake of the third wave of democratization that began in 1974 in Portugal and spread across Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, and parts of Asia until the middle of the first decade of the 21st century.

The activism of the Central and Eastern Europeans provides a good starting point for understanding the democracy-promotion approaches of new democracies. Some government officials and activists from Central and Eastern Europe are very consciously passing along best practices and lessons they have learned about democratic breakthrough and consolidation. For example, one of the largest and most prominent Eastern European non-governmental organizations (NGOs) providing democracy assistance abroad, the Czech Republic’s People in Need, has compiled a "democracy cookbook" that compiles lessons learned from the Czech democratization experience. It covers issues ranging from reform of the judiciary and the security services to environment protection and privatization.

Consider also the example of the Slovak NGO Memo 98, a media watchdog that played a key role in undermining Slovakia’s authoritarian leader Vladimir Meciar in 1998. Since then, Memo 98 has participated in election-observation missions and media-related training in more than 30 countries around the globe, from Azerbaijan and Bosnia and Herzegovina to Uganda, Mexico, and Lebanon. It has used its media-monitoring experience to foster transitions, to enhance the quality of democracy, and to prevent democratic backsliding in regimes that have already moved towards democratic governance. Together with other Slovak NGOs and with a number of Slovakia’s government officials, Memo 98 has helped spread abroad the Slovak "electoral breakthrough" model, centered around a civic campaign to expose electoral fraud and mobilize the citizenry to defend democracy. These Slovak efforts have admittedly had little success in autocracies such as Belarus, but have been instrumental in helping the electoral revolutions earlier this century in countries such as Croatia, Serbia, and Ukraine.

Given the importance of civil society in their own transitions, the Central and Eastern European democracy promoters have prioritized support for civil society development abroad. Given their unique transition experiences, however, each country also promotes democracy in its own distinctive ways. For instance, the Czech Republic has earned a reputation as a defender of beleaguered oppositions around the globe — particularly in Belarus and Cuba and, to a lesser extent, in Burma, Iraq, China, and North Korea. Hungary has launched human right dialogues in Asia, focusing on political freedom and especially multi-party politics. And Estonia has shared its distinctive e-governance expertise with other post-communist states.

What distinguishes Central and Eastern European democracy assistance from that of more established democracies is that these countries are exporting democratization strategies based on their own fairly recent transitions. That is, they have their own models of democratization, whereas more established democracies tend to export their own models of democracy. One might see this as the difference between working off a sketch of desired institutional outcomes (the Western institution-centric approach) and following a script for the transition process (the Central and Eastern European process-oriented approach). In other words, it’s the difference between knowing where you want to end up and knowing the directions for getting there.

Keen observers of Western democracy assistance programs, such as Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment, note that their methods are frequently based on a set list of institutions that each donor believes are the constituent elements of democracy at home. According to Carothers, such lists often serve as desired endpoints, and are used by Western aid providers to design programs that help recipient countries make progress.

In contrast to such Western institution-centric (and often one-size-fits-all) assistance, Central and Eastern European democracy support has been more process-oriented and, as a result, more tailored to the needs of recipients. When the leaders of Central and Eastern European countries describe their approach, they talk about supporting others in "traveling our path to freedom" or "following our democratization journey." They generally pass along their lessons in the form of "recipes" for defeating authoritarian regimes (breakthrough) or achieving particular reform objectives (consolidation).

One anecdote illustrates this point well. In the late 1990s, a group of Ukrainian officials were invited for a study visit to several towns in the northeastern United States. The Ukrainians listened to lectures about the pros and cons of the U.S. system and talked to a number of officials at the local and state level about their responsibilities in local economic development. The Ukrainians were amazed by how well the American municipalities were organized to provide various services and wished that they could design a local governance system like the one in the United States. While they felt that they understood how a local government ought to be structured, they were far less certain about what steps to take to make that a reality back at home — and they weren’t sure that the Americans would know how to explain it to them.

Ultimately the Ukrainians chose to approach Polish local government officials who had been involved in Polish-Ukrainian cross-border cooperation. These Poles had participated in the implementation of the Polish decentralization reforms in the 1990s, and were eager to relate the process through which they empowered the Polish local governments. The Poles secured some funding to bring the Ukrainians on a study visit to Poland. The visit included conversations about the key aspects of the various stages of decentralization reform, how the Ukrainians could mobilize support for it at the local and national level, and how they could work with local businesses and citizens to make the most of the reform.

Because they have a number of different democratization recipes, many Central and Eastern European democracy promoters have tried to pass along transition best practices that each democracy promoter deems to be the best fit for each recipient. This is why there are differences in the various Central and Eastern European approaches to hybrid regimes and autocracies. Polish activists working in authoritarian Belarus draw in part on the lessons learned during the Polish struggle against communism, especially during the martial law period in the early 1980s. Polish activists working in more democratic Ukraine (especially from 2004 to 2010) referred more often to reforms that came from Poland’s post-1989 transition and the Polish experience with Euro-Atlantic integration.

The Central and Eastern European democracy promoters have also had the opportunity to learn from the successes and mistakes of a number of Western donors offering very different types of democracy support. Some of the transitional lessons the Central and Eastern Europeans now share with others can trace their roots back to Western democracy assistance in Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and the 1990s. 

This category includes the tradition of Polish youth centers that specialize in working with young people from neighboring countries. Shortly after 1989, Germany helped to establish in Poland a number of youth centers aimed at fostering contacts between the residents of the border regions of Germany and Poland while also strengthening values such as volunteering and international tolerance. In turn, by the mid- and late 1990s, several of these Polish centers began helping neighboring Ukraine and Belarus set up their own youth centers as a way to strengthen their civil societies. Like many other Central and Eastern European NGOs, these Polish civic organizations have supported democratization abroad with the encouragement and financial assistance of key Western donors. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that many Western democracy promoters have seen Central and Eastern European activism as a continuation of their work. 

In fact, there are many important ways in which new and established democracies can support each other’s democracy-promotion work. The new democracies, which have evolved from receiving democracy support to promoting democracy in their own right, have learned from Western donors that offer vastly different types of democracy assistance. Their recent transitions give new democracies credibility with recipients as well as valuable expertise that other donors lack. They also tend to work in their own neighborhoods, where they have good knowledge of local conditions and where their own experiences are highly relevant. Because their democracy-promotion efforts have often been guided by important historic or personal ties to recipients, many new democracies have been able to deeply and broadly penetrate recipient societies and broach sensitive issues without encountering as much resistance as actors from the West. During Ukraine’s so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, the political parties in Kyiv invited the then-Polish president, Alexander Kwasniewski, to help mediate among them. Westerners and Ukrainians involved in the mediation have commented that among all international mediators, Kwasniewski “made the most creative contributions” to steering the country toward a more democratic course, thanks to his relationships “with key Ukrainian players."

The capacity of new democracies to provide diplomatic support and aid is, however, often limited. Partly due to administrative and financial constraints and partly due to their politicization, the Central and East European democracy-promotion efforts have been modest in scope and vulnerable to the inconsistencies in the foreign policies of these countries. Moreover, instead of striving to innovate, many Central and East European NGOs frequently export their most successful domestic programs; some of them also remain rather dependent on Western funding for their international work. Finally, many of these countries are also still grappling with major issues of internal adherence to democracy, which have sometimes hurt their reputation and credibility.

Many of these limitations can be overcome by forging democracy promotion partnerships with more established democracies. In such partnerships, established democracies can leverage their capacity, reputation, and expertise, while new democracies can contribute first-hand experience with democratization and local familiarity with recipients. Additionally, by paying more attention to the transition process, new democracies have much to contribute to the more institution-centric Western approach to democracy promotion. Moreover, not only are these differences complementary, but the fact that the democracy-promotion efforts of new democracies are in many ways a continuation of the work of Western democracy promoters creates favorable conditions for fruitful cooperation. 

Recognizing the merits of such cooperation, the U.S. policy community has sometimes encouraged, supported, and made use of the democracy-promotion experience of new democracies. The joint Western and Eastern European response to the electoral breakthrough in Ukraine in 2004 is such an example. However, recent political openings, in the Arab world or Burma, for example, have seen little democracy-promotion coordination among new and established democracies. This is unfortunate, since such cooperation could prove crucial to the spreading and consolidation of democracy around the globe.

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