Perils on the Road to Democracy

Former-dissident, MP and newspaper editor, Adam Michnik, spoke at the Oxford Literary Festival on the lessons learned from the transition to democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. The event was organised by the Ion Ratiu Foundation, which recognised Mr Michnik’s services to democracy with its eponymous award in 2009. Josh Black summarises his lecture.

Adam Michnik. Photo by Ryszard Hołubowicz

Adam Michnik.
Photo by Ryszard Hołubowicz

According to Adam Michnik, who served time in prison as one of the organisers of the 1968 protests in his native Poland, the experience of Soviet communism was deeply corrupting. As he put it, “when a human being is owned by the state, deviousness becomes part of the system.” Another dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, would put it slightly differently, arguing that violence was built into the system. From this realisation came Vaclav Havel’s great insight, that if one could remove fear and apathy, and encourage people to think for themselves, communism would become ideologically regressive, shifting from the promotion of a new social order to the preservation of the political order by authoritarian means.

Poland was fortunate in its ability to escape from the two traps that followed the collapse of that authoritarian political system. The first is the failure to see that democracy was the most important development of 1989. According to Michnik, both Hungary and Russia, , had started down nationalist-authoritarian roads. It did not matter that one was anti-communist and the other marked by regret at the absence of the Soviet Union. Both were making the same mistakes. The second trap was what Michnik called mafia-dominated states, in which everything was for sale. Again, Russia had made this mistake, while Michnik could not resist mentioning the name of Berlusconi in this context.

Michnik’s friend, colleague and, for three brief years, foreign minister of Poland, the late Bronisław Geremek, represented a strand of thinking that allowed Poland to overcome the legacy of Soviet authoritarianism. During the last years of communism he was an influential voice in the debates taking place in the Polish Catholic Church. Later, in a free Poland, he became an ardent advocate of joining the European Union. He worried about the possibility of a nationalist ‘brown wave’ following the transition.

Indeed, Michnik warned that many of the forces which had given Poland freedom might have proved inimical to it in the aftermath of the revolution. The Church, in particular, which during communism was “a sovereign state in a country lacking sovereignty,” offered an “asylum for the honest,” began to take illiberal positions in the 1990s, advocating intrusion into people’s personal lives, defending its own material interests rather too vigorously and fomenting radical, anti-European and anti-communist sentiments.

Michnik chose to devote the remaining third of his speech to the imprisoned Russian oligarch, Mikhail Khordokovsky. The former CEO of Yukos, he argued, had undergone a unique transformation from plutocrat to democrat, and offered an alternative to the Russia of Vladimir Putin. Russia had both benefitted and been harmed by its dependence on oil, but the recent elections had shown that the status quo was unsustainable, partly because of rampant corruption. This did not mean that Russia would inevitably become democratic – Michnik was worried by the emergence of what he described as ‘fascist groups’ in Russia. Although he could offer no specific recipe for safeguarding Russia from this development, Michnik drew upon the lessons of Poland’s transition. This was based on the influence of the EU – a wholly positive one, in his eyes – and the legacy of Vaclav Havel and Bronisław Geremek.


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