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  • Eastern Europe a Decade LaterGeography and Democratic Destiny
  • Laurence Whitehead (bio)

Democratic aspirations may be deeply rooted in the intellectual history of Central and Eastern Europe, but until very recently geopolitics exercised a decisive veto. No matter what inspiration Tadeusz Kosciuszko, leader of Poland’s independence movement, may have drawn from the American and French revolutions, Warsaw was too close to Berlin, Moscow, and Vienna to escape partition among rival absolutisms throughout the nineteenth century. The Central European liberals of 1848 fared little better, and their experiments too were largely foredoomed by geopolitics. (For example, Lajos Kossuth, leader of Hungary’s struggle for independence from Austria, was crushed when the Russian army invaded his homeland in 1849.) After 1918, a new set of democratic possibilities opened up, most notably in Czechoslovakia under Tomás Masaryk and in the Baltic republics, but these too proved unsustainable in the contested hinterland between Nazi and Soviet expansionisms. And after 1945, of course, Moscow exercised a military veto over political experimentation until the Berlin Wall came down. Only over the past decade has this geographical fatalism been lifted, and even now some parts of postcommunist Europe are “more equal than others” when it comes to pursuing democratic aspirations in the face of external constraints.

Although geopolitics has been particularly constraining in this part of the world, it would be a mistake to suppose that outside the battlegrounds of Europe the geographical influence on democratization [End Page 74] loses its significance. All existing democracies are territorially based. The introduction of democracy logically requires a restatement of the territorial scope and limits of the polity to be democratized, and that restatement may not always reaffirm inherited boundaries. Geopolitical constraints and crosscurrents can powerfully affect: 1) the interstate distribution of democratization; 2) the scope of democracy within the states affected; and 3) the viability of the resulting democratic regimes.

Some territorial locations are highly propitious for democracy (Luxembourg’s democracy would seem “overdetermined” by its surroundings); others are almost irredeemably inauspicious (Afghanistan is an example). But most are, to a greater or lesser extent, crosspressured. Thus it is difficult, but not necessarily impossible, for Paraguay to buck the democratic trend in South America. Cuba demonstrates the extent to which island status may reinforce a political insularity generated by other means. Cyprus and Hong Kong dramatize the conflict that can arise between internally generated democratic potentialities and internationally driven impediments. Contrariwise, Lesotho proves that even when external influences overwhelmingly favor a democratic outcome, internal dynamics may remain unresponsive, and clumsy management of the interactions between the two can have perverse consequences.

Central and Eastern Europe offer further confirmation of these general points. Geopolitical circumstances more or less guaranteed that if the Soviets ever lifted their veto on political change, East Germany would be reunited with the democratic West. Apart from this special case, the region’s postcommunist regimes are all, to some extent, crosspressured. Every extra-European example mentioned above has a postcommunist European counterpart. Thus, Belarus is evidently managing to buck the trend toward competitive elections in all adjoining post-Soviet republics. Moldova and its breakaway Transdniester region have tended to replicate some of the international problems that obstruct a democratic settlement in divided Cyprus. At least until its September 1998 elections, Slovakia proved unresponsive to the strong external incentives in favor of political pluralism offered by the European Union; if anything, these pressures seemed to be producing perverse results. When Yugoslavia’s incipient steps toward democratization foundered under the pressures of political disintegration and ethnic conflict, the breakaway republic of Slovenia proceeded to nurture the democratic institutions that other components of the federation were disregarding. If such Balkan republics as Albania and Croatia are now to be classified as democracies (an arguable but not absurd proposition), they can only secure this status by accepting reinforced territorial demarcations which leave significant sectors of their co-nationals beyond their protective reach in the clearly undemocratic jurisdictions of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. [End Page 75]

Each of the new and potential democracies of postcommunist Central and Eastern Europe is fixed in a territorial matrix that exposes it to powerful international crosscurrents, some of which are positive for democratic...

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pp. 74-79
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