Nations in Transit

Can transition democracies learn from Poland’s democratisation experience of the 1990s? Poland’s Foreign Policy Minister, Radosław Sikorski, gave a lecture at the LSE Ideas Seminar on Tuesday (12th of March 2013). He was interviewed by his wife, the journalist and Pulitzer-prize winner, Anne Applebaum. Maria Eugenia Filmanovic reports.

In order to explain how Poland’s foreign policy has been and will be conducted, Mr Sikorski posits a trade-off between “interests” and “values”. Poland’s trade partners – defined as “interests” – do not always share the democratic values that Poland strives to export. “The further a country is far from us, the more “interests” will prevail on “values”, but if the country is closer then we want it to accept our values and be like us”, said Mr Sikorski, who then reminded Poland’s aspirations to “have the West on both sides of [its] borders”.

Looking beyond these aspirations, Poland has not yet contributed in significant monetary terms to The European Endowment for Democracy (EED), currently led by the Polish diplomat Jerzy Pomianowski. But even if Mr Sikorski acknowledges the limited monetary support for initiatives aimed at democratic promotion, he declared that “Poland will continue to exercise soft-power and be pivotal in guiding democratic transitional countries” in both EU’s and Poland’s neighbourhood.

Poland is keen to secure a role in the European Union while European integration advances eastward. When new democratic glimmers appear in the authoritarian darkness of Belarus or Ukraine, Poland will be ready to take the lead as a promoter of democracy by putting on the table its post-communism roadmap for successful democratic consolidation. Yet it remains to be seen whether the same democratic process can be introduced to countries with different initial conditions or backgrounds, and with EU incentives thinner on the ground.

Perhaps the best way to assess Poland’s likely impact is to look at what they have already done. In transition, rethinking key institutional dynamics starts by re-questioning the old institutions – what should be the relationship between society and religion? Is presidentialism or parliamentarism a better political system? What should be the role of the former elites? What to do with the secret documents? In answering these questions, the advisory role of Poland has been crucial for the democratic developments in Syria, Burma and Libya. In particular, Poland provided guidance on eradicating some of the former regime’s institutional settings. However, one big difference is that EU’s prospective accession in Poland “made the work of politicians very easy” as institutional vacuums were filled in according to democratically certified European standards.

Nonetheless, initial conditions determine the quality of the democratic outcome. Mr Sikorski sees cultural obstacles in Arab countries as “religion is not always conducive to a liberal order.” On the widespread issue of corruption in Russia in the 1990s, Mr Sikorski comments that “corruption is what gave democracy a bad name”. For those countries at risk of a slide back to corrupted authoritarianism, Mr Sikorski proposes the registration of assets and interests so to be able to punish political elites through a reformed judicial system.

Mr Sikorski concludes by mentioning Poland’s experience of privatization. He highlights that initial conditions did not include “money making” and “money losing” sectors as in the case of Russia, and that all companies could be privatized relatively quickly without political tension. A well-trained entrepreneurial class has been pivotal to transforming Soviet state-owned businesses into efficiently organized firms competing with Western firms.



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