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East: Analysis From Washington -- Avoiding The Apocalypse

Washington, 22 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- One transition most post-communist countries have so far failed to make is away from the apocalyptic view that they must achieve a particular goal or else fall into the abyss of disaster.

In the past, communist leaders told their populations that they must build socialism or else suffer fascism, occupation and decay at the very least.

Now, the leaders of these countries -- not to mention their supporters and opponents abroad -- insist that their citizenries must rapidly build democracies and free markets or face some other but equally horrible alternative.

At one level, of course, this continuity in style of argument is both understandable and defensible. It is understandable because it is the only line of argument that many people in this region have any experience with. And it is defensible at least in the short run because it appears likely to work both at home and abroad. At home, this vision of an apocalyptic choice can energize governments and populations to take the difficult steps they must make toward a free society.

Abroad, such apocalyptic visions often can help these societies in transition extract assistance from Western countries that are now faced with a variety of competing demands for assistance.

Obviously, the more convinced Western leaders are that a particular post-communist country is on the brink of success or failure and that failure would be bad for the West itself, the more likely these leaders will be to provide it with the aid it seeks.

But if the use of such rhetoric about post-communist countries is understandable, it nonetheless entails three significant dangers for both these societies and those who would help them.

First, such apocalypticism contributes to an either/or quality of analysis both by the peoples going through post-communist development and by those outsiders who are watching them do so.

For example, many in both groups appear ready to decide that one country is democratic because it has had elections but that another country is not because communists play a major role in its government.

Likewise, they appear ready to believe that one country has a free market because it has undergone privatization but that another country with less privatization is not.

And groups both at home and abroad appear ready to assume that one country that is quiescent is somehow stable while another country equally quiescent is on the road to disaster.

Not only does this trivialize the meaning of all these terms and reduce the question of their achievement to a single measure, but it has the effect of driving everyone involved to apply one set of standards to some countries and quite another to others.

Thus, many may overlook the most egregious violations of human rights in countries deemed to be democratic while the same people will focus on similar violations elsewhere as convincing evidence of retrograde behavior.

And that pattern in turn leads many countries whose regimes are anything but democratic and free market oriented to seek certification as both from the West so as to avoid such criticism.

Second, this approach inevitably distracts attention from both what has been achieved and what remains to be done in these countries as they move away from the communist path.

Instead, it contributes to an all-or-nothing understanding of what is going on. Across the former communist world, all the countries, their governments and peoples have changed significantly over the past decade.

But in no case can it be said that their world is now "a new heaven and a new earth," totally without the marks of the past. In some cases, these marks are very obvious; in others, less so; but in all, these marks continue to cast a shadow on the present.

The apocalyptic vision obscures both the changes and the continuities and thus erects a barrier to a full understanding of just what is taking place.

And third, such apocalypticism undercuts the possibility for shifting from crisis-driven political systems likely to choose authoritarian solutions to less agitated societies in which democracy can take root and thrive.

Democracy and free market economics, as their founders regularly reminded the world, are things that can be introduced mechanically or by fiat, however desirable that might be. Instead, these complicated social systems can grow only out of a culture that promotes tolerance and understanding, a culture that evolves organically over a long period of time.

That is not something apocalyptic thinking allows for. And consequently, escaping apocalypticism is just one more transition the former communist states must make if they are to advance along the path to a freer future.