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Timothy Garton Ash: Democracy Still Under Threat 20 Years After Velvet Revolution

Twenty years after the Velvet Revolution, where are the Vaclav Havels of Ukraine or Georgia?
Twenty years after the Velvet Revolution, where are the Vaclav Havels of Ukraine or Georgia?
PRAGUE --In 1989, British writer and Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash reported on the wave of democratic revolutions that swept Europe, and witnessed some of its key events.

He was in Prague this week to take part in a conference on the state of freedom in Europe 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He spoke to RFE/RL's Gregory Feifer on the eve of the day marking the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.

RFE/RL: You've said that a definitive, global history of 1989 has yet to be written. What don't we know about the significance of what took place in Eastern and Central Europe then, and how much is it part of the threat to democracy today?

Timothy Garton Ash
Timothy Garton Ash: I don't think there's a huge amount that we don't know in terms of revelations about [then-Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev's policy or whatever it might be. There's an awful lot that hasn't been described about the dynamics of the mass movements, of the social movements in Central and Eastern Europe. But what we haven't done is to put it all together, to do the work of synthesis, and I think that still has to happen.

I don't think that's a big problem of the next 20 years. I do think a big problem is that the memory of 1989 is divided, ambivalent, and weak. It's divided between East and West. It's ambivalent even in Central and Eastern European countries, you see that here. And it's quite weak among the young generation. And if you don't know where you're coming from and what it was like before, you've got a problem.

RFE/RL: You've written about the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia as a model of peaceful democratic change. A lot has been said recently about the threat of public indifference and lack of political courage to democratic change today. But what about the lack of political actors? Where are the Vaclav Havels of Georgia and Ukraine today, or does it take extraordinary times to produce their kind?

Garton Ash:
You know the famous exchange in Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo," when Galileo's disappointed disciple says "Unhappy the land that has no heroes," and Galileo replies, "Unhappy the land that has need of heroes."

Unhappy the land that has need of heroes. A normal country doesn't need heroes every day. But there is clearly a big problem with the political class in the Czech Republic and in many other places in postcommunist Europe. There's a problem of corruption, there's a problem of pettiness, and there's a sense among the population that these guys are only in it for themselves. That I think is becoming a real cancer in postcommunist democracies.

New Rival To Democratic Capitalism

RFE/RL: People have disagreed about various matters in recent debates about the significance of 1989. But one opinion most share is that Russia today represents one of the greatest threats to freedom in Europe. If true, can part of the danger be said to be a Western failure to understand the nature of Russian-style authoritarianism as an antithesis to liberalism?

Garton Ash:
I don't believe Russia is the largest threat to freedom in Europe today. That I really do not believe. But Russia is a huge challenge because it clearly has a system which, while it pretends to be democratic, is in fact a version of authoritarian capitalism. And because it controls the oil and gas supplies for many European countries. So that's a challenge for us.

I actually think the larger picture is that, for the first time since 1989, democratic capitalism has a very serious competitor, and that is authoritarian capitalism in the Russian or the Chinese versions. That's not attractive to people in the West, but it is attractive to a lot of people in developing countries. So for the first time I would say in 20 years, we have a serious competitor.

RFE/RL: Vaclav Havel and other Eastern and Central European politicians have criticized U.S. President Barack Obama for declining to meet the Dalai Lama recently, saying Washington's drive to improve relations with countries such as China and Russia risks forsaking its allies' interests and support for Western liberalism in general. But you write that long-term indirect support for civil society in authoritarian countries is more effective than direct short-term support. Is the criticism of the Obama administration wrong? If so, do you see a strategy in Washington?

Garton Ash:
The Obama administration, to the disappointment of many, is turning out to be rather realist. Its priorities are security first, development second, and democracy and human rights a rather poor third. That's a general point about the Obama administration and I think if the Bush administration did democracy promotion, but risked giving it a bad name by associating it with the invasion of Iraq, we're in danger of going to the opposite extreme, of doing too little.

The broader point, and this is a huge historical point, is if we really learned the lessons of 1989, we would show that not in how we look back, not in nostalgia, not in celebrating freedom as it was won 20 years ago, but in our relations with countries that are currently unfree. And of course the relationship with China is a great test case.

So I think the voice of someone like Vaclav Havel, who reminds us of the long term, of the importance of sticking to your principles, and of symbolic politics -- he's so passionate about the subject because he knows what it meant to the opposition to have a Western politician come and meet with you. And he knows how reluctant Western politicians were to come and meet with him. I think we should listen very carefully to that voice.

My own view is that all democratic governments across the world should simply agree that we receive the Dalai Lama. It's only because some do and some don't that the Chinese Communist Party has a perfect opportunity to divide and rule. This should not be understood as "splittism." It's not support for the independence of Tibet, it's support for basic human rights.

Revolutions Of '89

When The Wall Came Down
Revolutions Of '89
In the fall of 1989, a singular wind of change swept across the continent, blowing down the Iron Curtain and revealing the public's yearning for freedom. Click here for RFE/RL's look back at the year communism collapsed.

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