Wednesday, June 01, 2011

1989 and the Arab Revolutions of 2011 redux: A plea for theory-driven comparisons

Marc Morjé Howard has a guest post up at The Monkey Cage summarizing some of the similarities and differences between the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe and the current revolts in the Middle East. (I don’t like the term “Arab Spring,” since spring is not a season in Arabia, as somebody reminded me recently, and anyway the implicit comparison with the Prague Spring of 1968 or even the “Springtime of Nations” of 1848 is needlessly discouraging). I hesitate to disagree with Prof. Howard, since he is a real expert on Eastern European politics who has published widely on the events of 1989 and their aftermath, whereas whatever knowledge I have acquired about the fall of communism comes from teaching the events of 1989 at the undergraduate level over the last four years and basically learning on the go. And I am mostly in agreement with what he says about the similarities between 1989 and 2011 (though I might demur on the point about the importance of prediction, but we’ll leave that for another day).

Yet I think the basic idea of the post, in which Howard notes various similarities and differences between the regimes and argues that the differences outweigh the similarities, making him pessimistic about the ultimate democratization of the region, leads to misleading conclusions. In order to know whether the similarities between the cases outweigh the differences, and more importantly whether the differences mean that we should expect much less democratic change in the Arab world than in Eastern Europe in 1989, we need to have a theory or a set of theories that tell us how to weigh them; and it is not clear that Howard provides such a theory, or that the theories that he does discuss support the more pessimistic conclusions about democratic change he draws. Consider the differences between Eastern Europe 1989 and the Middle East now that Howard describes:

1)      The larger geo-strategic environment is very different today.  The movements of 1989 took place within the context of the Cold War, with two main super-powers and their mutually assured destruction.  Today there are numerous complicating factors—some of which existed previously, but now have their own post-Cold War dynamic—including oil, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the rise of China, and many others.

This is true, but these changes in the geo-strategic environment may push in both directions: some of them might favour democratization, some might favour authoritarianism, some might favour regime collapse followed by a different authoritarian regime, and some might be a wash. For example, the global “norm” of democracy has been arguably strengthened since 1989 (and perhaps because of the events of 1989), a change that would make the revolts in the Arab world more likely to lead to liberalized electoral regimes than the revolts of 1989. Theory does suggest that oil gives incentives to elites in authoritarian regimes to hang on to power at great cost (as appears to be happening in Libya, though for many different reasons), and it might give the USA incentives to be protective of their big oil clients (like Saudi Arabia), but some of the best empirical work on the question (by Haber and Menaldo) suggests that oil does not necessarily lead to authoritarianism, at least not in any simple way, and at any rate not every Middle Eastern country is oil-rich (Egypt and Syria, for example, are not, and Tunisia produces only trivial amounts of oil). My point is not that there have been no geo-strategic changes of any significance between 1989 and today, but that in order to say that the differences matter we need a more explicit theory, or at least a more explicit causal story, connecting these differences to likely outcomes (whether democratization or authoritarian survival).

2)      It is important to remember that the East European states were not autonomous.  Indeed, the Soviet Union was the guarantor of stability and continuity in the region.  When Gorbachev made it clear that the Soviet Union would not intervene in Eastern Europe, the gates opened (quite literally in Hungary).  Today’s Middle East contains a mix of small and large states with different levels of autonomy, but there is no equivalent to the Soviet Union lurking in the shadows.

I’m not sure I see that much difference between the Middle East today and Eastern Europe in 1989 in this respect; it all depends on how we define the extent of the regions. As Howard concedes, autonomy is a relative term, and Eastern Europe in 1989 contained a mixture of more and less autonomous regimes. At one end of the spectrum were the GDR, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, which were clearly not autonomous from the Soviet Union: they hosted large numbers of Soviet troops and had only managed to remain in power with direct Soviet support in the past. At the other end were Romania, Yugoslavia, and Albania, which had been able to retain power without significant Soviet support (and sometimes in opposition to Soviet policy). But even a regime like the one in Poland – which was clearly less “autonomous” than, say, Albania or Yugoslavia – did not necessarily depend on the Soviet Union to survive. Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law in 1981 was not forced on him by the Soviets (though I don’t remember whether he was worried about Soviet intervention if he did not act), and he managed to arrest most of Solidarity’s leadership all by himself. Similarly, the regimes of the Middle East display varying degrees of autonomy from the USA, from states like Bahrain (where the American fifth fleet is stationed) to states like Libya. To be sure, one might argue that the kind of support that the Soviet Union provided at least some of the regimes in the region was qualitatively different from the kind of support the USA provides to its client states in the region, so that when the Soviets withdrew that support, the Eastern European regimes had to fall; but this argument certainly would not apply to Romania, and I think it’s quite dubious for Poland. (And the Albanian regime survived until 1991). Without a fuller causal story about the mechanisms connecting superpower support (or not) to regime preservation, we cannot draw any significant conclusions about the effects of any differences between Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Middle East today for the outcomes of the Arab revolts.

3)      The 1989 movements were not the first democratic protests in the region.  Earlier movements had taken place in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1980-81), but these were all crushed.  Nonetheless, they still stood as important precedents, to both the regime and the citizenry, which became useful later.  Although dissent has been brewing in the Middle East for the past decade, there are no comparable precedents to these earlier East European movements.

I think this is incorrect. There may be no precedents that are well known in the West, but there have been antiregime protests in Libya, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries before the last decade (all of them crushed). The levelling of Hama by Hafez al-Assad in response to antiregime protests there occurred in 1982, and (I think, though I can’t find my source) there have been occasional riots in Benghazi against the Gaddhafi regime since 1969. Whether one should refer to these protests as “democratic” protests is a different matter, but it is worth noting that among the precedents Howard cites the 1956 revolution in Hungary was not necessarily a “democratic” revolution (at least initially, its main leadership did not want to get rid of the communist party’s monopoly on power, though that changed once tanks rolled in), and that after 1953 there were no democratic protests of any significance in East Germany (and for that matter, there were few protests of any significance in Romania). At any rate, it is unclear what the fact that there were protests in some Eastern European countries is supposed to show; as a recent working paper by Krichner, Livne, and Magaloni notes, though more repressive regimes experience fewer mass protests, they tend to fall at higher rates when they do experience such protests. (The intuition is simple: repressive regimes make it very costly to protest. So mass protest in such circumstances signals quite extensive dissatisfaction). One could perhaps tell a story about the building up of democratic movements through protests, but though this story makes sense for Poland, it makes no sense for the GDR and Romania, where the opposition was small and thoroughly infiltrated by the security services.

4)      The East European movements generally fit the classic (from O’Donnell and Schmitter’s Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, published in 1986) model of elite agency, whereby divisions between hard-liners and soft-liners in the regime led to pacts with the opposition, resulting in compromises on both sides.  In this model, the “resurrection” of civil society only came later.  In the Middle East, in contrast, the “popular upsurge” came first, before the elite divisions became apparent.

I don’t think this is right. The only two countries that fit the standard O’Donnell and Schmitter pattern in Eastern Europe were Hungary and Poland. Certainly these were important countries, and it is true that they were also the countries where transitions to democracy were most successful initially (except for the GDR, which is sui generis). But regime change happened in the GDR, Romania, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia despite the fact that these regimes were dominated by hardliners who were unwilling to make compromises until protests had forced them to, and democracy emerged quickly in Czechoslovakia (less quickly and less perfectly in Romania and Bulgaria). The “popular upsurge” came first in the GDR, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, and reformers within the Bulgarian communist party emerged more as a result of a fuite en avant by nomenklatura members who got rid of Zhivkov when they saw the writing on the wall than as a result of a struggle between hardliners and softliners in O’Donnell and Schmitter’s sense (though my old teacher Venelin Ganev should be able to correct me here if this is wrong, since he wrote the book on Bulgaria after 1989).  It seems to me that a better model for what happened in Eastern Europe is the “elite defection” model Mark Beissinger describes in his piece on modular revolution: divisions within the elite played a big role in the first two cases, but then the other regimes fell as elites failed to find the right combinations of repression and concessions to stop popular mobilization. This may not be the right model for the middle East right now (“elite learning” seems more appropriate, where later leaders learn what combinations of repression and concessions will stop popular mobilization), but it is not clear that there is that much of a difference between Eastern Europe in 1989 and  the Middle East today in this respect. And to the extent that there is a difference, it is not clear to me that O’Donnell and Schmitter’s model of “pacted” transitions is the best lens for analyzing these differences.

5)      Unlike today in the Middle East, when the “opposition” is largely faceless, in Eastern Europe there were well-recognized dissidents who had much popular legitimacy.  Although they may have been small in number, these writers, pastors, and environmental leaders were quite influential.  In contrast, many of the long-standing opposition leaders in the countries of the Middle East are ineffective, coopted, or disconnected from contentious politics, thus contributing to the large gap between elite opposition politics and popular demands for democratic change.

Again, I think there is less here than meets the eye. The opposition was entirely faceless (not to mention disorganized and infiltrated) in the GDR, where the Stasi estimated that there were only 60 “core” dissidents in the entire country (see Stephen Kotkin’s “Uncivil Society,” p. 10). There were simply no well-recognized East German or Romanian dissidents, they were all caught by surprise by the revolutions, and they had little role to play in shaping the aftermath (Barbel Bohley? Mircea Dinescu?). Even in Czechoslovakia, Havel was simply not a well-recognized opposition leader under very late, and his influence really came with the revolution. Only in Poland do we meet with real opposition leaders with genuine popular legitimacy, like Walesa. But this point is moot, for revolutions make leaders, not the other way around; and at least Egyptians and Tunisians do seem to have leaders with some legitimacy and name recognition, even if not necessarily wide popularity yet. (What are Amr Moussa and Mohammed El-Baradei, chopped liver? Or Wael Ghonim and some of the other youth leaders of the April 6th movement?). These are not perfect leaders, but neither was Walesa (or many of the leaders in the rest of Eastern Europe), and revolution and democratization do not depend on having popular and legitimate leaders before a transition.

6)      Except for the Catholic Church in Poland, religion was almost entirely absent in the East European movements.  Although churches were sometimes a “safe zone” in communist countries, the movements themselves were not religious, and the societies are the least religious in the world.  In contrast, in the Middle East, although the movements have not been particularly religious, the societies certainly are, and the role of religion in political life remains a big, open, unanswered question.

The Polish exception is big enough to drive a truck through (since Poland was the birthplace of the 1989 revolutions); the religious component of the Polish revolution was huge, and the society was very religious. (I also think that Romanian society was also more religious than is perhaps generally recognized). But anyway, it is unclear what the religiosity of Middle Eastern societies (which varies widely, by the way, and is organized in many different ways) is supposed to imply, given that, as Howard notes, the movements leading the revolts there have not been particularly religious. Without a good theory, we cannot say much about its effect on regime collapse or democratization – it could be positive, negative, or a wash. What little we do know suggests that the background religiosity of a society (as opposed to the religiosity of particular movements) does not appear to have much effect on political regime (see, for example, Przeworski’s “Culture and Democracy,” unfortunately not online, or Ronald Inglehart’s work). So, granted that there are differences between the religiosity of Middle Eastern and East European societies, we simply cannot tell whether this is a positive fact for revolution and democratization (maybe more religious societies sustain the solidarity necessary for protest better? Or have more ways of organising resistance, as with Friday prayers?) or not; one must remember that Iran was also a relatively religious society that had a world-historical revolution in 1979 (even if the resulting regime was later pushed into a less democratic direction for a variety of reasons).

7)      All movements depend on communication—this has not changed—but the speed of the new media has obviously changed tremendously.  Much of the information in the East European movements spread via samizdat (precious photocopies of texts and information from the outside that were smuggled around secretly).  Today the spread of information is almost instantaneous via Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

But this particular fact (if it is a fact: remember the feedback loops with TV in the East German revolution) would support the view that the revolutions in the Arab world are more likely to result in democratic change. Of course, if Evgeny Morozov is right, then the effect of this might go in the other direction: Facebook, Twitter, and the like will just make it easier for authoritarian regimes to suppress revolts. But we need a more explicit theory to evaluate the significance of this difference between Eastern Europe 1989 and the Middle East today, and what theory we do have does not indicate that this is particularly likely to retard democratization or even simple regime change in the region; on the contrary.

8)      After the movements of 1989 ran their course, the communist regimes actually fell (even if they reorganized and competed electorally in some cases).  In the Middle East, this has not happened (yet?).  The outcomes of the ongoing transitions in Egypt and Tunisia are unclear, and it remains to be seen whether they will yield a clean break from authoritarian politics.  In the other countries, autocrats still remain in charge, even if they have been shaken by the protests.

Here I think the significance of this point depends on what you mean by “the regimes fell.” Did the regime really fall in Bulgaria? Or for that matter in Romania, where Ion Illiescu and the National Salvation Front (basically repainted communists) took power after Ceausescu fell? The regime fell much more thoroughly in Tunisia than it ever did in Bulgaria, it seems to me (the former ruling party has been suspended, people from the regime elite have been put on trial, etc.). And protests are still ongoing. Revolutions don’t always happen in a day; it took 10 years in Poland.

9)      Extending from point 5, when the communist regimes fell, known opposition leaders were ready to assume office.  Poland’s Lech Walesa and Czechoslovakia’s Václav Havel were the most prominent, but most East European countries had new leaders ready to fill the gap.  This remains an open question in the Middle East.

See my response to point 5). I think “most East European countries had new leaders ready to fill the gap” is a vast exaggeration; it is only in retrospect that this seems to be the case.

10)   In terms of the eventual consolidation of democracy in Eastern Europe, NATO and the European Union have played crucial roles by encouraging democratic reforms and making them conditions of membership.  There are no equivalent regional organizations in the Middle East that could help to push these regimes to further democratize, and they are certainly not going to be invited to join NATO or the EU.

This is true, but what is the marginal effect of this causal mechanism on democracy? If these organizations had not existed, do we think that Poland and Hungary would not have become democratic? Other forces push countries towards more democratic forms of government, and while I do not want to discount the positive influence of the incentive to join the EU and NATO, I am just not sure that we know this was a very big cause of democratization (as opposed to, for example, the availability of the democratic model and its relative success in Western Europe).

I am not arguing here that there are no differences between Eastern Europe 1989 and the Middle East in 2010. Of course there are. But in order to evaluate the significance of these differences for both regime change and democratization, it seems to me better to engage in theory-driven comparisons, where, to use Przeworski and Teune’s phrase, we substitute variables for country names. For example, we might say “countries with a history of democratic protest are more likely to democratize than countries without”; or “countries with a higher GDP per capita are more likely to sustain democracy than poorer countries, though they are no more likely to democratize;” and so on. And then we try to tally the weight of each of these effects, and consider whether (and how) the theory applied both in 1989 and today. For what is worth (and I’m no Middle East specialist), this sort of exercise suggests that Tunisia and Egypt are in relatively good shape to become more democratic (and perhaps Syria, if the regime collapses there, and Jordan and Morocco, if the monarchs there act reasonably), though obviously nothing is guaranteed; other middle Eastern countries less so. 


  1. With regard to your comments on Point 2, here is a quick and rather elegant history of Gaddafi opposition by Najla Abdurrahman, a Libyan-American writer and activist: