Democracy after the Fall of the Berlin Wall

By Rubin, Trudy | The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV), November 12, 2014 | Go to article overview

Democracy after the Fall of the Berlin Wall


Rubin, Trudy, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV)


The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is a good time to reflect on the dimming regard for democratic government - at home and abroad. Nov. 9, 1989, the day that East Berliners scaled the wall and embraced their fellow Germans from the West, marked the zenith of global faith in democracy's promise, shortly before the communist empire collapsed.

I was lucky enough to witness East Europe's democratic uprisings firsthand. In November 1989, in East Germany, I watched tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators in Leipzig roar for a united, democratic Germany, in a series of Monday protests that helped seal East Germany's fate.

In Czechoslovakia, I heard soon-to-be President Vaclav Havel, at Prague's Letna Park, urge a massive crowd to strike for free elections and the right "to think freely. I hurtled around Gdansk in a van driven by the legendary Polish labor activist-dissident Lech Walesa, who shouted out his hopes of building "the country we dreamed of. Soon, communist systems collapsed in all three countries.

The fall of the wall not only ended the Soviet empire in East Europe, but also led inexorably to the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later. Third World countries turned toward the American capitalist model in hopes it would deliver the prosperity that socialism hadn't.

In the United States, hubris reigned as pundits decreed "the end of history and democracy's global triumph. "This was a period of a lot of illusions, said the National Endowment for Democracy's Carl Gershman at a conference called "Does Democracy (still) Matter? cosponsored by Philadelphia's Foreign Policy Research Institute. Twenty-five years later, democracy is on the defensive, and that question is now a matter for hot debate.

In Europe, right-wing xenophobic parties are on the rise, as a result of the continent's ongoing economic problems. In the Muslim world, the Arab Spring uprisings that called for democratic rights have collapsed in a backlash that produced a military coup in Egypt and entrenched a bloody dictator in Syria. The American experiment with imposing democracy on Iraq produced a sectarian regime and the birth of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. (It also made foreigners question the competence of America's democracy.)

Meanwhile, Russia's Vladimir Putin is promoting his toxic brew of ultranationalism-authoritarianism as an alternative ideology to democracy.

Never mind that Moscow can sustain this new authoritarianism only on the back of high oil prices. From the outside, Putin's model looks attractive to some leaders - for example, in Egypt and Venezuela - who are crushing free media and political opposition. Meanwhile, China, too, hypes its brand of authoritarian rule as a better alternative for Asia than messy democracy or any political alliance with America. …

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