Book presentation – “Reclaiming Democracy: Civil Society and Electoral Change in Central and Eastern Europe”
On March 4, the Austrian Parliament hosted a presentation of the book Reclaiming Democracy: Civil Society and Electoral Change in Central and Eastern Europe that was edited by GMF's Joerg Forbrig and Pavol Demeš in cooperation with Erste Stiftung. The event featured Barbara Prammer, president of the Austrian Parliament; Erhard Busek, special coordinator of the Stability Pact for Southeast Europe; Sonja Puntscher-Riekmann, director of the Research Institute on European Integration; Boris Marte, managing director of Erste Stiftung; and Pavol Demeš, director of Central and Eastern Europe of GMF. Held in the historic committee room of the lower house, the event provided an opportunity for Austrian policymakers, journalists, and NGO representatives, as well as students, to discuss recent democratic changes in Central and Eastern Europe.
In his opening remarks, Pavol Demeš provided a brief overview of the rationale and contents of the book that focuses on the democratic transitions in Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine. Labeled as "color revolutions," "transitions from postcommunism," "electoral breakthroughs," and for some representing a new "wave of democracy," the recent changes in the five countries have fascinated scholarly observers and democratic activists alike. For this reason, this book provides a cross-section of perspectives on recent democratic breakthroughs in Central and Eastern Europe. Case studies drafted by civic leaders present insider accounts of how civil society helped assert democracy, while comparative analyses by academic experts shed light on a range of further factors that facilitated these changes, including the semi-authoritarian nature of postcommunism, economic aspects, civil society strategies and resources, as well as youth participation.
In their responses, panelists pointed out a range of issues evolving around these recent democratic breakthroughs. Mr. Busek emphasized the critical role played by citizens and civil society groups in democratizing their countries against neo-authoritarian leaders, while Professor Puntscher-Riekmann discussed the prospects for consolidating new democracies against the ever present risk of non democratic reversal. In this context, panelists agreed that that there is a far reaching lack of interest and understanding in West European countries, such as Austria, of developments in the continent's East and Southeast. Despite obvious benefits from political change in postcommunist countries, resulting economic opportunities, and the EU's enlargement, Austria and other older EU members remain skeptical toward new EU members and eastern neighbors. Panelists agreed that it is only through improved information, such as provided by the book presented, that misconceptions can be broken down.