Revolutions of Dignity: 1989, the Arab Spring, and Ukraine
The German Marshall Fund of the United States’ (GMF) Young Transatlantic Network (YTN) represents a generation that has grown up in a world where Germany is united, the Iron Curtain has fallen, the Soviet and Yugoslav and Czechoslovak unions are a part of history, and the European Union and NATO have expanded to include most of the European continent. Instead, the global changes facing these early-career policy makers include the “Arab Spring,” the Ukrainian revolution, a confrontation between Russia and the West, and the various trials and tribulations of the EU that will all continue to play out in real time. The YTN recognizes, though, that nothing happens in a vacuum and that as tomorrow’s leaders, they need to learn yesterday’s lessons and how they apply today.
A quarter century ago, popular movements across Central and Eastern Europe overthrew communist regimes and brought the Cold War to a close. While the legacy of 1989 has undoubtedly shaped the fate of countries like Germany and Poland through the 1990s and into the 21st century, how has does it relate to the historic events of the “Arab Spring” uprisings, which brought down leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011, and the Ukrainian revolution, which brought down President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014? This was the question explored by GMF’s YTN in its first policy workshop in Washington on June 3, and this blog outlines some of the policy connections discovered through the discussion.
At the policy workshop, Hope Harrison, associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, spoke of the occupation and division of Germany, the creation and maintenance of a wall built through the center of Berlin to keep East Germans from leaving the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), and the events that led to the fall of the wall. She noted that, much like the revolutions of today, different countries had different interpretations of 1989, with some crediting Mikhail Gorbachev or Ronald Reagan and others Poland with starting democratization.
This overview laid the foundation for the group to divide in two to discuss the “Arab Spring” and the Ukrainian revolution, exploring similarities and differences with 1989.
The small group led by Amy Hawthorne, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, analyzed the ongoing “Arab Spring.” The group agreed that neither economic liberalization nor liberal democracy were necessarily at the center of the Arab uprisings. Instead, a desire for basic human dignity among young, better educated Arabs was the central driving factor of these revolutions, allowing them to react to structural and political injustices in their countries.
The group also discussed what lessons policy makers can discern from the “Arab Spring,” and how they relate to the revolutions in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War. One major lesson the group agreed on was that revolutions are not pre-determined or simple. For example, many eastern European countries had experienced democracy prior to World War II and the communist rule that followed. Therefore, they had democratic traditions that could be used as navigation points in the confusing and often turbulent times after their communist governments collapsed. This was not the case in the Arab world. Before Mohammed Morsi came to power through democratic elections in 2012, Egypt had never had a freely elected leader in its entire history. The thought that an elected President would somehow change the systemic grievances that had amassed over the course of hundreds of years was wishful thinking by many Western policy makers. Hawthorne challenged YTN members to play a “long game” with the Middle East and the quest for greater stability. As Hawthorne rightly pointed out, American democracy has taken decades to take shape and went through violent turmoil and unrest similar to many Arab countries. So, while the United States should encourage reform in these societies, strategic patience and an understanding of our own history is critical for tomorrow’s policy makers.
Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, led the discussion analyzing the Ukrainian revolution. Noting that Ukrainian political history had seen a number of protest movements, he argued that Euromaidan in late 2013 exploded onto the global stage for a number of reasons, including regime incompetence, a violent turn that is not yet fully understood, and the geopolitical influences. In comparison with Poland, a country that has thrived economically since 1989 while joining the European Union and NATO, Ukraine is extremely diverse and has lacked a unifying national project. The longer period under communism was also relevant, especially for the part of the country that was under Soviet rule from the time of Lenin, because much like in the Middle East, there was no living generation with a memory of the pre-Soviet, more open time to use as navigation points in the country’s democratic transition. The group analyzed how deterministic Russia’s role had been in Ukraine’s fate, the desperation of Ukraine’s situation and whether it was a bridge too far for European integration. They also debated the role of the radical right element in Ukraine, which was ready to fight in the revolution even if they have not received many votes in elections.
After examining the facts, YTN members decided the common link between 1989, 2011, and 2014 is dignity. The Revolution of Dignity (Революція гідності) is what the Ukrainians call their ouster of the Yanukovych regime. A yearning for dignity drove the self-immolation of Tunisian vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi and the anti-regime protests it unleashed in his country and beyond. And it was something East Germans felt when they were denied freedom of movement by walls, armed guards, dogs, trip wires, and searchlights, as Harrison described. Dignity “is at the heart of what makes us people,” as Jessica Hirsch, a GMF and YTN staff member, described in the concluding discussion, and it is on this foundation that the policy makers of tomorrow can better approach the tumultuous times in which they will operate and solve the challenges yet to come.
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