Democracy - beyond the Market: Throughout the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Richard Swift Finds a New Breed of Activists Are Struggling for Sustainable Democracy

By Swift, Richard | New Internationalist, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Democracy - beyond the Market: Throughout the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Richard Swift Finds a New Breed of Activists Are Struggling for Sustainable Democracy


Swift, Richard, New Internationalist


THE entire square outside the main cathedral in downtown Kiev was covered in coloured, flickering candles. It was late November and Ukrainians were remembering the death of millions of farm people at the hands of Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. The Soviet dictator had followed a deliberate policy of food confiscation, execution and forced deportation to 'collectivize' agriculture. People came in thousands to put down their own little beacon of remembrance: their way of saying 'never again'. It was an example of a kind of popular self-activity rarely witnessed in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Leaving aside a few notable exceptions like Prague and Bucharest, the collapse of communism did not come about in this region because of popular movements from below. By and large, arrangements were made over the heads of the people: arrangements that too often left those responsible for the old system also running the new one. But democracy needs more than this. It needs citizens to take their future into their own hands. Slowly and painfully this is beginning to happen.

A new activism is emerging. Listen, and you can hear some of its voices. It takes different forms in different places. It crystallizes around the corrupt and autocratic practices of the oligarchic quasi-democracies that moved into the vacuum left by the communist collapse. In Eastern Europe and the tiny Baltic republics, the system that has emerged allows at least some space for organizing political dissent.

Such space has been very limited throughout most of the former Soviet Union. Yet even here democracy is stirring. No longer are organizations confined to desperate struggles by a few isolated dissidents for basic human rights. Today they have ambitions to shape a democracy more profound than the sterile monopolies of politics and economics currently holding sway. As they go beyond the rallying cry of the 'free market', they struggle against a massive assault on people's living standards - an assault that has replaced the cradle-to-grave security promised by the communists with a precarious existence in which millions are forced to survive on a couple of dollars a day.

There is the danger that such struggles may be misunderstood - particularly by the Western Left. For activists in the East, the old words and ways of thinking and talking stick in the throat. Olexi - a campaigner working with the Bankwatch Network (which keeps an eye on the regional shenanigans of the World Bank and IMF) - attended the Paris Social Summit last autumn. He left early because he couldn't take the repetitive speeches by various Marxist sects. They simply had no meaning for him.

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Instead, the activism that is emerging in the former Soviet Union tends to use the language of democratic struggles rather than that of traditional Marxism. But the goal of social justice remains intact.

When the demonstrations for democratic autonomy broke out in Hong Kong last year, one young activist wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt was widely televised burning a Chinese Communist flag, complete with hammer-and-sickle. What was one to make of this? Che's spirit of free rebellion was in conflict with a Marxism where the symbols and words are simply hypocrisies justifying autocracy and privilege. If the sclerotic worldview of orthodox communism does not lead towards a democracy in the true sense - the self-rule of a people - then what good is it?

A truly international movement must be able to appreciate and work with the ironies that are rife in post-communism. The spirit of revolt once associated with Marxism has not died. It's been passed on to other movements with other possibilities. Real democracy, mutual respect and tolerance and environmental integrity have surpassed the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' as the rallying cries. Maybe if we listen closely we can learn something.

Jennie Sutton - defender of Baikal eco-region

[Graph Not Transcribed]

Braving the harshness of the Siberian winter and the attentions of an over-protective terrier is relatively simple for a woman like Jennie: she takes on the State's police. …

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