In Human Rights Watch’s new World Report 2012, Rachel Denber has an interesting essay that speaks to a salient question: How can what we’ve learned about democratic revolution in the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union be applied to the Arab Spring? In response, she offers six lessons. No. 1, There is Nothing Inevitable about Transitions to Democracy, is a bucket of cold water:

Watching decades of authoritarianism come to an end in Egypt and Tunisia was thrilling; who does not hope that it will usher in a new era of democracy and rule of law? But Soviet Union watchers have seen how the collapse of a repressive, authoritarian regime – while it brings months of euphoria and sets complex political transformation in motion – in no way guarantees the arrival of governments committed to human rights protection. As the dust settles, the historical forces that have shaped the society for decades come again to the fore and, absent institutional change, can be accompanied by reemergence of authoritarian rule.

Though Denber frames her argument around human rights, her larger point is that post-revolution democratic transition is difficult. The “heady assumptions,” as she writes, often prove naïve or even delusional on the long journey from revolt to representative governance. Democratic revolutions often disappoint expectations.

Observers of today’s authoritarian regimes in Central Asia, Vladimir Putin’s iron grip on power in Russia and the considerable human rights deficits throughout the former Soviet Union know Denber has a point. If this point seems obvious, I suggest an excellent piece by Lawrence Scott Sheets of the International Crisis Group on the struggle to consolidate democratic transition in Georgia, where locals “were much less naïve than many in the west about how rocky that road would be.”

But the two decades since 1991 also offer a far more hopeful lesson: Against considerable odds, democratic revolutions can turn out one heck of a lot better than expected.

Today, journalists, especially, like to chide the naivety that followed the political upheavals in the Eastern Bloc in 1989 and the early 1990s. They often anchor their argument on a misreading of Francis Fukuyama’s controversial thesis in “The End of History, which saw in the collapse of European Communism the passing of an enduring threat to liberal democracy, not of events themselves. But we often seem to forget that, some unrealistically rosy expectations notwithstanding, many political scientists hardly saw cause for optimism in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Communist rule in its Warsaw Pact allies.

To this point, one of the most interesting interviews I’ve ever done was with an economist who advised Vaclav Klaus after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, when the Czech president served in the government under Vaclav Havel. With “New Europe” emerging from 40 years of Communism, many western leaders wanted to meet with their eastern counterparts, Havel especially, to pass along advice for the transition. During one of those meetings, the former adviser told me, Henry Kissinger said the Soviet Union could not dissolve peacefully.

Kissinger’s pessimism wasn’t unique. As Mark Leonard explains in Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century, most foreign policy experts expected the demise of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe to destabilize the continent – or, as he puts it, make Europe “an incubator for world war.”

Articles in scholarly journals predicted that a resurgent and reunified Germany would burst through its borders and attack Poland, Czechoslovakia or Austria; that an ethnic conflict would erupt between Hungary and Romania; and that there would be a new arms race between Germany and Russia.

That none of this happened, that instead many former Warsaw Pact and Soviet nations were liberal democracies and European Union members 15 years later, Leonard attributes to the efforts of European institutions generally and Brussels in particular for encouraging reform in countries that want to join, or even do business with, the EU. At the European Council on Foreign Relations, he explains how the EU might also play a positive foreign policy role in the Arab world today.

As Denber emphasizes, the democratic awakenings of 1991 and 2011 are very different. I’m neither trying to equate the two nor diminish the considerable work on human rights, democratic consolidation and rule of law still to be done in the former Eastern Bloc. Only to point out that, in the example of the albeit bumpy road since the Soviet Union’s collapse, there might be more cause for optimism on the Arab Spring than people think.

Picture of a December protest in Moscow over alleged voter fraud in Russian parliamentary elections from Wikimedia Commons

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email:

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