Are recent converts to democracy in Eastern Europe uniquely qualified to support transitions elsewhere?
In 1980, Lech Walesa co-founded Solidarity, the independent Polish trade union that contributed to the unraveling of the Soviet Bloc. In 1995, ex-president Walesa established a foundation that supports several pro-democracy movements around the globe. That Poland has been promoting democracy should come as little surprise, says Tsveta Petrova, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.
“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,” she writes for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab:
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. ….
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.
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. …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.
“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,” Petrova notes:
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.
“However, recent political openings, in the Arab world or Burma, for example, have seen little democracy-promotion coordination among new and established democracies,” she writes. “This is unfortunate, since such cooperation could prove crucial to the spreading and consolidation of democracy around the globe.”