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  • Twenty Years of PostcommunismDeepening Dissatisfaction
  • Ivan Krastev (bio)

It was "the best of years." Reflecting on the historical significance of Central Europe's revolutions, Robert Cooper wrote that "the year 1989 divides the past from the future almost as clearly as the Berlin Wall divided the East from the West."1 The revolutions of '89 turned the will of the people as expressed in free and fair elections into the only source of legitimate government that modern societies were ready to accept. Centuries-old arguments critical of the desirability or feasibility of democratic regimes virtually disappeared. Democracy may not have run out of enemies, but it ran out of critics.

The revolutionary crowds on the streets of Prague and East Berlin—peaceful, triumphant, and insisting on their right to live in a "normal society"—provided the ultimate validation for the superiority of liberal democracy as a form of government. The contradictions that had been afflicting Europe's democratic experience over the last two centuries seemed finally to have reached a resolution. Inspired by the spread of democratic regimes following the demise of communism, political theorists became more interested in the process of democratization than in the transformations taking place within existing democracies. In the years immediately following 1989, little attention was paid to the impact of that year's epochal events on the way that democracy was beginning to be perceived by its own citizens. No longer was democracy only the least undesirable form of government—the best of a bad bunch, if you will. Instead, it was coming to seem like the best form of government, period. People were starting to look to democratic regimes not merely to save them from something worse, but to deliver freedom, prosperity, and honest and effective governance all in one big package.

Today, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is a growing [End Page 113] ambiguity about the historical significance of 1989 and about the state of democracy in Europe (particularly Central Europe). Trust in democratic institutions (including elections) is steadily declining. The political class is viewed as corrupt and self-interested. Disenchantment with democracy appears to be growing. According to one 2008 survey, only 21 percent of Lithuanians, 24 percent of Bulgarians, 24 percent of Romanians, 30 percent of Hungarians, and 38 percent of Poles believe that they have benefited from the fall of the Berlin Wall.2

The revisionists' hour has arrived. In his new book Uncivil Society, the U.S. historian and political scientist Stephen Kotkin powerfully argues that, the Polish case aside, the communist collapse across Central and Eastern Europe is best understood as the implosion of an ineffective and demoralized communist establishment (the "uncivil society" of his title) than by a revolt of civil society.3 The people on the streets of Prague and Sofia were not so much revolutionary citizens as dissatisfied consumers. The idea of civil society has long been a magical construct, one that has somehow succeeded in simultaneously satisfying modernization theorists' belief in the historical mission of the middle class, the New Left's fascination with spontaneous activism, neoliberals' affection for antistatism, and Western donors' fondness for English-speaking NGOs. But today that construct is losing its appeal.

1989 and All That

The new wave of revisionism does not limit itself to reappraisals of what really happened in 1989 and who did it. Instead, the revisionists seek in the first place to alter our understanding of who were the overall winners (and who were the net losers) from the change. There are many today who believe that it was not the people but the elites who broke free and collected the jackpot of 1989. The end of communism, this account goes, set in motion a process that has liberated ex-communist elites from fear (of purges), from guilt (for being rich), from ideology, from the chains of community, from national loyalties, and even from the necessity to govern. Was George Orwell right, one wants to ask, when he wrote that "all revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure"?4

My argument here, however, is not that the revolutions of 1989 were a failure. What I...


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