The report is notable because it offers the assessment of 22 veterans of the struggle for freedom who continue to play significant roles in their countries’ political life. These are among the courageous men and women who, spent much of their formative lives under communist rule and yet, dared to “think of new realities.”
Their disheartening assessment is that, in many of the former Soviet bloc countries, the larger promises and hopes of the 1989-91 freedom movement remain unfulfilled under the long shadow of the communist legacy. In some of these countries, the Soviet communist system was replaced with authoritarian dictatorships enforced by former KGB officials and members of the Communist Party.
For most of these countries, the legacy of the communist period has bequeathed a long list of serious problems and challenges: endemic poverty, high unemployment, social disparities, endemic corruption, lack of transparency, weak political parties, a weak or nonexistent independent media, low levels of citizen participation in political life, and more.
Why did freedom succeed in some countries, and yet other countries failed to achieve even a basic democratic model of governance? Even in the countries where elections became free and fair, why has the role of non-democratic parties been so strong? Why is civic life and citizens’ participation in the new democracies so weak? What happened to the dream of an independent media? What were the missed opportunities for advancing freedom?
As I read this report, I could not help but to think melancholically that decades from now, a very similar report may be written about Cuba.
The authors of the study place much of the responsibility for their countries’ failed opportunities to achieve democratic governance on their own citizens; a citizenry who was unprepared to meet the challenges of overcoming the communist legacy and “did not act with sufficient decisiveness in getting rid of the old system.”
The report also notes that Western countries have a limited vision for expanding freedom and often fail to back democratic movements. Instead, Western governments underinvest in supporting the values of freedom and side with governments of an anti-democratic character.
One result has been that many political parties in post-communist countries view the state, not the people, as “their base or their constituency.” These parties become the instruments of authoritarian leaders. When societies fail to deal with their communist past, they inhibit the development of genuine democratic institutions.
The report also assesses Western politics and identifies additional policy problems. It argues that business oriented Western leaders often have an affinity for regimes that adopt economic reforms without democratic reforms. The authors argue that such regimes are self-contradictory and that democracy, not economics, should be the priority.
The valiant freedom fighters that authored this report are not homogeneous in their political orientations. Yet, they make it clear that when the Western liberal democratic establishment signals that its values are relative, that message undermines those fighting for democracy in their countries. They urge us not to look away from our values out of political concerns or for economic gain, and to stop treating dictators as if they can be
“educated or turned.” The Kim Jong- uns, Putins, or Castros will not be turned.
At a minimum, Western governments should not incite democratic activists to work within the systems of dictatorships or faux post-communist organizations. The objective should be to promote real movement toward democracy, with long-term support for the development of democratic institutions.
It appears Western governments, and in particular the U.S. administration is unwilling to listen to the voices of the opposition living under oppression in Cuba or to the democracy loving exile community that champions freedom. But they should understand the Eastern European experience and heed their leaders.
It was the courage, values, and political imagination of 1989-91 freedom movements that brought about one of the most fundamental political transformations of the twentieth century. The lessons for Cuba’s future are multifold.