4 March 2021
Considering the current decline of democratic consensus across the different states of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), as well as challenges met by democracy globally, 1989 stands in vivid contrast in terms of hope and belief in the rules and democratic values promised by a unified Europe. This juxtaposition of circumstances provides a moment for reflection on 1989 and the subsequent transition.
Rethinking the Democratic Future
Lessons from the Twentieth Century
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With the current decline of democratic consensus and the legacy of 1989 in mind, the Open Lithuania Fund (OLF), the Res Publica Foundation and the Jan Nowak-Jezioranski College of Eastern Europe launched a project “Rethinking the Democratic Future: Lessons from the Twentieth Century”, generously funded by the European Commission’s Europe for Citizens Programme.
During the project, a mix of online consultations, public events and in-depth interviews with past activists, historians, experts and civil society representatives were conducted. A variety of issues were discussed: from 1989 as a cultural memory and the polarisation of peaceful revolutions through ‘ownership’ over the symbolic meaning attached with 1989, including the imitation thesis, to the perils of transition and the legacy of the Soviet politics. Special attention was given to the post-1989 generation’s perspective on the highlighted year.
One of the key takeaways of the project was the decisive role of civil mobilisation and civil disobedience.
In 1989, civil power grew out of the small acts of disobedience to Soviet ideology and rule. In a democracy, meaningful change in policies, first and foremost, requires a capacity to navigate the democratic institutions and processes. A somewhat naïve, and unfortunately widespread, belief is that an active civil society is a natural byproduct of democratic rule or that it can take root immediately following the collapse of another system. One of the key consequences of this belief in our focus region is the lack of sustainable investment in the civil society sector, with most of the organisations relying on international project-driven donor funding. As a result, citizen capacity for meaningful participation in the democratic process in many countries remains limited.
In addition, many self-organising groups during the previous system – such as workers’ or ecology movements – emerged in response to the inaction and ignorance of the state, and it was natural that these groups of people stood in opposition to the government. In contrast, in a democracy, we still need to learn to treat civil society as equal partners in governance, not only as watchdogs of the government, picking up the slack.
For the past few years, we have been witnessing the reemergence of civilian mobilisation and civil disobedience in response to the growing abuse of powers and corruption. The arrival of tech-savvy generations poses new challenges to various tactics of civil power and civil liberties, providing the much-needed hope for self-mobilising citizens reassuming political power.
While 1989 can offer limited lessons here, it does suggest the need for leadership that, beyond protests and civil disobedience, would transform the demands of people into policies. This means that the role of civil society is more important than ever, undertaking the challenge of civil education and democratic participation.
This very report offers a non-exhaustive insight into the debate we have managed to animate across Europe and raise important recommendations for civil society to take into consideration when addressing the mounting challenges of today and tomorrow.
Visegrad Insight’s original, interactive design thinking and mind-mapping methods brought together a diverse group of independent and distinguished voices in a scenario-building workshop which generated a number of recommendations that civil society and decision-makers at the policy level should consider when programming their activities.
First, civil society overall – often captured by the anti-political sentiment – must reconsider its historical path and ask itself whether democracy in 1989 would be possible if activists decided to keep their distance from interacting with politicians and building up non-partisan constituencies in support of the cause. Today, more often than not, civil society hosts refugees from the awful world of politics. But the political world ignores the considerations of those who do not speak up and eventually tends to expand beyond what we recognise as legitimately democratic limits of power. Civil society’s duty must be to keep this political expansion in check and that often requires crossing set and seemingly-safe boundaries.
Throughout the meetings, we could observe how important the role of memory about past democratic achievements is in civil education, and that this education is not currently being delivered nor is it building bridges between the past and future as it ought to. With this in mind, a bold proposal emerged to redesign civil education from scratch and initiate such programmes at the primary school level.
Obviously, civil society organisations (CSOs) always look at practicalities and many voices raised the need to adapt funding schemes from public resources. Activists pointed out that, especially due to the pandemic, the needs for social projects are dynamically changing and that mental health seems to be one of the future key areas to work in.
Another strong voice that came from the sector of CSOs concerned private donors, which not often enough encourage collaborative funding schemes. The example of the Visegrad Fund and the European Commission programming could significantly improve the situation by encouraging to consolidate and coordinate many partners instead of inducing them for fundraising rivalry.
Finally, we have to stress the importance of the local community level and focus more attention on the trends and ideas that shape our democracies from the bottom up. Just like democracy needs the local press, it also needs local activism to keep delivering on its promises of equal rights and individual freedoms.
“Democracy dies in darkness”, so it takes millions of candles – often from small remote communities – to light the way and keep the good work going.
Simona Merkinaite, Programme Coordinator at the Open Lithuania Foundation
Wojciech Przybylski, Editor-in-Chief of Visegrad Insight