Thursday, January 27, 2011

Whatever Happens in the Middle East Is Not Going to Be Like What Happened in Eastern Europe

Wishful thinking: The Soviet Union and its ruling ideology, Communism, which spread over nearly half the world, collapsed with minimal fighting and deaths in 1989 - 1991, leaving a number of democratic governments in charge. Therefore, with some good luck, later revolutions (condescendingly modified with a word of others' choice) can follow the same pattern.

It's not impossible, of course, but one needs to go beyond the wishful thinking that Paul Wolfowitz et al. applied to the invasion of Iraq and look at some of the history of those regions.

The wishful thinking analogy, of course, is being applied to the Maghreb and wherever street demonstrations are going to shake the Arab world. Joshua Tucker provides a comment along those lines, and Kevin Drum questions some of what Tucker is saying. As I compose a response to Tucker in my head, it's becoming obvious that I might write all day on the subject. But let me keep it brief.

Tucker's point 1 is simply wrong. A great many people saw that Communism was unsustainable economically and even militarily. The Afghan war and environmental horrors in the satellite countries and the Soviet republics were causing public resistance for some time. It's true that nobody could predict that the Soviet Union would be officially dissolved on the precise date December 25, 1991, but many people in the US State Department and Europe saw it coming.

Tucker's point 2 is probably correct, but its relevance to the downfall of Communism is questionable. It was not demonstrations in the streets that brought Communism down all by themselves. The satellite countries and many republics had histories of independent rule before the Soviet takeover, and political parties were organizing and acting long before 1989. The legislatures were slowly, from perhaps 1980 on, transforming themselves from supreme soviets to parliaments, and many of their members were becoming more nationalist than Soviet. It's doubtful that such political underpinnings exist in the Arab countries.

Drum makes a good case for the importance of Mikhail Gorbachev's role in the downfall of Communism. Such actions, avoiding bloodshed, may or may not be taken by Arab rulers. Ben Ali did flee Tunisia without incurring large amounts of violence.

Finally, it's not clear what the outcome of the Tunisian revolution, the only one to oust a ruler so far, will be. Revolutions can go bad without the preparations that were taken in 1980s Eastern Europe. Lenin and the Bolsheviks took over in Russia in 1917, and the French Revolution got ugly. Ceaucescu's rule in Romania was ugly enough that things got bloody there, although Romania came through as a democracy. And not every Soviet republic managed to become democratic; look at Belarus.

Update: Maybe it's more like the Iranian revolution of 1979.

Second Update: Jim Lehrer can't resist. But Vice President Joe Biden has a good answer.


Xavier Marquez said...

Cheryl, on point 2 of Tucker: it is true that in some countries opposition parties long before 1989. But communism fell in the GDR and in Romania and Bulgaria with practically no organized opposition, for reasons explored in the work Tucker cites (by Kuran) and in subsequent work (by Steven Pfaff, for example, Christine Lohmann, and Rasma Karklins and Thomas Peterson). This lack of organized opposition had some important consequences for how the successor regimes emerged (e.g., communists played a big role in Romania and Bulgaria's "transition", whereas West German political parties played a big role in the GDR), but just because there is little organized opposition does not mean a regime is safe, or cannot turn into a (minimal, not necessarily very inspiring) democracy. As for political underpinnings in Arab countries, Egypt has a dysfunctional parliament where the opposition is technically represented: not so different from the Soviet legislatures of the 1980s, for example.

Xavier Marquez said...

One additional comment, on point 1 (I hope it is not too much): yes, lots of people thought communism was unsustainable. But they still gave it many years of life. Even participants in the revolutions thought the process might take decades. (Again, Kuran's piece is instructive here). Similarly, lots of people think many of the current Arab regimes are unsustainable. But they still give them many years of life and think of them as evolving slowly.

Cheryl Rofer said...

On Tucker's point 1: Good political analysis simply cannot pinpoint a date. If that means that "Almost nobody saw the collapse of communism coming," then I would have to agree with Tucker. The difference between us seems to be in precision of prediction, which I don't believe in for this kind of enterprise.

On his point 2, I will reiterate that those countries had experience in independent governance before the Soviet takeover, more or less democratic. That background could also be cited as a factor in how successor regimes emerged.

The Kuran article is, as Tucker says, theoretical. It was also written in 1991, when much less information was available about the course of those revolutions.

I am not saying that a regime is safe if there is little organized opposition, nor that it might turn into a democracy. I am saying that the analogy to Eastern Europe in the late eighties is extremely faulty.

Your characterization of the supreme soviets

Egypt has a dysfunctional parliament where the opposition is technically represented: not so different from the Soviet legislatures of the 1980s, for example.

is quite incorrect for the Baltic republics, for example, where "the opposition" was successfully legislating movement away from Soviet control from 1987 on. Many of those representatives continued in the parliaments of the free republics after 1991, although they had been Communists earlier.

We are getting into more detail than I wanted to put into a short blog post. But as long as I'm there, I'll suggest considering the difference in the Soviet stake in the satellite countries, like Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania and in the Soviet republics like Estonia, Lithuania, Georgia, and Kazakhstan. That difference (and the felt loyalties to and disaffection from) the central Soviet state also accounted for the differences in outcome in those countries.

In short, the analogy between what is now happening in the Maghreb and what happened in the satellites in 1989 and the republics in 1991 is highly flawed. Yes, the revolutionary fever spread rapidly. But that is about as far as the analogy goes.

Xavier Marquez said...

You are right about the differences in the legislatures (and eventually the outcomes) between the Soviet satellites and the Soviet republics. (I wrote too hastily. I was mostly thinking of the legislatures in Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia).

Cheryl Rofer said...

I should add that Americans tend to take 1989 as the end of the Soviet Union. That's not the case; the satellites were lost in that year, and of course we have the television coverage of the destruction of the Berlin Wall, but the Soviet Union still existed as a state. Poland, Hungary, and the other satellites remained nominally separate countries throughout the Soviet times, although heavily influenced by the Soviet Union.

It can also be argued that the Cold War ended in 1989 because of explicit change in Soviet foreign policy.

It was when the Republics began peeling off, a process started in 1987 with earlier roots, that the end of the Soviet Union came into clear sight. The Republics' actions were influenced by events in the satellites, but their path had to be different. In the Baltic States, which led the way, it was a canny combination of legislation and demonstration.

The Tunisians and probably the Egyptians have no pre-formed replacement governmental structures, as did the Soviet Republics. As Xavier mentions, some of the Soviet satellites may provide closer analogies, although they still had somewhat democratic histories to draw upon.