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Journal of Democracy 11.2 (2000) 115-129

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Eastern Europe:
The International Context

Jacques Rupnik

The democratic revolutions of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe have been described as the culmination of the "third wave" of global democratization that began in Spain and Portugal in the mid-1970s. It is indeed tempting to see the disintegration of the Soviet empire as part of a worldwide crumbling of dictatorships. This view certainly influenced how the democratic transition in East-Central Europe has been perceived in the West (as the "end of history") as well as by some of its protagonists. Ten years later, however, despite extensive Western efforts at democracy promotion, the democratic tide has somewhat retreated, leaving a picture of successes in Central Europe (as well as in Latin America and parts of Asia) offset by setbacks in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans (but also in China and most of Africa).

In no other region of the world has the impact of international factors on democratization been as apparent as in Central and Eastern Europe. The revolutions of 1989 were characterized by two important features: First, they were made possible by the lifting of the Soviet imperial constraint. The Soviet bloc imploded, rapidly and peacefully. The falling dominoes of Soviet hegemony in East-Central Europe seemed to complete the triumph of the periphery over the center of the empire. To be sure, the roots of the ideological, political, and economic decay of [End Page 115] the communist system go back at least to the post-1968 "restoration of order" and to continuing resistance and dissent in Central European societies, most powerfully exemplified by the Solidarity movement in Poland. Western policies, both public and private, also no doubt played a part in undermining the old order. Future historians will establish the proper weight to be attributed to each. Yet at the critical moment, the victim was a consenting one: Gorbachev's decision not to back the communist regimes in East-Central Europe with military force marked the beginning of the end.

Until Gorbachev came to power, the countries of East-Central Europe hardly featured in the discussions about prospects for democracy. In a 1984 article entitled "Will More Countries Become Democratic?" Samuel Huntington argued that "the likelihood of democratic development in Eastern Europe is virtually nil. The Soviet presence is a decisive overriding obstacle, no matter how favorable other conditions may be in countries like Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland." 1 That constraint was gradually lifted under Gorbachev, finally opening the possibility for a successful transition to democracy.

Second, the revolutions of 1989 were unique in that they proposed no new model of society. Imitation of existing Western models and reconnection with the precommunist past were seen as the quickest path to democracy and prosperity.

The Cold War came to an end in 1989 with the triumph of the Western liberal democracies. The scale of the changes that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall was every bit as great as those that followed either of the two world wars, with one major difference: After the Cold War, there was no victor willing or able to impose a "new international order." Neither the United States, the sole superpower, nor the European Union (EU) was willing to play that part. Instead, they served as an inspiration, a pole of attraction ("Magnet Europa," to use Adenauer's phrase) for the new democracies in East-Central Europe. It was only later that the prospects of integration into Western institutions began to act as an external democratizing force.

1919 and 1989

In examining the relationship between the international system and democracy-building in East-Central Europe, the most relevant historical comparison is with the situation after World War I. Then, as after 1989, liberal democracy was seen as the most desirable form of government. Then as now, the victory of the Western powers was widely presented as the victory of democracy over autocracy. This triumphalist view is reflected in the writings of Tomás G. Masaryk, the founder of Czechoslovakia (and is in many ways echoed by his...


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