Post-communist lessons for Arab Spring – new democracies must deliver

The experience of post-communist transformation in Central and Eastern Europe carries a vital lesson for the reformers of the Arab Spring, writes Anna Nadgrodkiewicz. Citizens need bread as well as freedom, so democrats must convert revolutionary zeal into concrete policies for inclusive economic growth.

31 years ago – echoing the rallying cry of earlier mass protests in 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1976 – striking workers at the Gda?sk Shipyard in Poland (left) were demanding “bread and freedom” from the communist authorities. The workers called their movement Solidarno?? (Solidarity) and formulated 21 postulates that encapsulated their aspirations for change. Along with economic grievances, their demands included important democratic priorities such as freedom of speech, freeing political prisoners and – listed as number one – legalization of independent trade unions.

Realizing that it can no longer contain strikes spreading across the country, the government delegated commissions to negotiate with the strikers and signed the so-called August Agreements granting their demands. Although the authorities later went back on their promises and brutally suppressed Solidarity during the martial law imposed in December 1981, the opposition movement survived underground and finally triumphed in 1989, spelling the beginning of the end of communism in the region.

Those early days of Solidarity, filled with hope and upheaval, were captured in many moving photographs. Yesterday, Woodrow Wilson Center in cooperation with the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, unveiled a commemorative photo exhibition The Phenomenon of Solidarity: Pictures from the History of Poland 1980-1981. Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, delivered opening remarks, emphasizing that Solidarity managed to reveal the duplicity of Poland’s communist regime which claimed to represent the workers but in reality repressed them.

Today the same is true in many dictatorships around the world. Authoritarian leaders who claim to be the voice of the people and to have their best interest at heart in reality silence that voice and deny economic opportunity through trampling on political and economic freedoms. Today the calls for bread and freedom resound as loudly across the Middle East as they did in Poland three decades ago, showing the universality of this most basic human aspiration.

The history of successes and failures in post-communist transformation of Central and Eastern Europe carries an important lesson for Arab Spring reformers. The challenge is to translate revolutionary fervor into concrete policies that bring political freedom and inclusive economic growth. Bread and freedom go together. Reforms meant to advance them must go together as well or the promise of democratic and more prosperous future will remain unfulfilled.

This post first appeared on the CIPE Development Blog. The Center for International Private Enterprise is one of the four core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Post-communist lessons for Arab Spring – new democracies must deliver

The experience of post-communist transformation in Central and Eastern Europe carries a vital lesson for the reformers of the Arab Spring, writes Anna Nadgrodkiewicz. Citizens need bread as well as freedom, so democrats must convert revolutionary zeal into concrete policies for inclusive economic growth.

31 years ago – echoing the rallying cry of earlier mass protests in 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1976 – striking workers at the Gda?sk Shipyard in Poland (left) were demanding “bread and freedom” from the communist authorities. The workers called their movement Solidarno?? (Solidarity) and formulated 21 postulates that encapsulated their aspirations for change. Along with economic grievances, their demands included important democratic priorities such as freedom of speech, freeing political prisoners and – listed as number one – legalization of independent trade unions.

Realizing that it can no longer contain strikes spreading across the country, the government delegated commissions to negotiate with the strikers and signed the so-called August Agreements granting their demands. Although the authorities later went back on their promises and brutally suppressed Solidarity during the martial law imposed in December 1981, the opposition movement survived underground and finally triumphed in 1989, spelling the beginning of the end of communism in the region.

Those early days of Solidarity, filled with hope and upheaval, were captured in many moving photographs. Yesterday, Woodrow Wilson Center in cooperation with the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, unveiled a commemorative photo exhibition The Phenomenon of Solidarity: Pictures from the History of Poland 1980-1981. Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, delivered opening remarks, emphasizing that Solidarity managed to reveal the duplicity of Poland’s communist regime which claimed to represent the workers but in reality repressed them.

Today the same is true in many dictatorships around the world. Authoritarian leaders who claim to be the voice of the people and to have their best interest at heart in reality silence that voice and deny economic opportunity through trampling on political and economic freedoms. Today the calls for bread and freedom resound as loudly across the Middle East as they did in Poland three decades ago, showing the universality of this most basic human aspiration.

The history of successes and failures in post-communist transformation of Central and Eastern Europe carries an important lesson for Arab Spring reformers. The challenge is to translate revolutionary fervor into concrete policies that bring political freedom and inclusive economic growth. Bread and freedom go together. Reforms meant to advance them must go together as well or the promise of democratic and more prosperous future will remain unfulfilled.

This post first appeared on the CIPE Development Blog. The Center for International Private Enterprise is one of the four core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Polish Solidarity’s rich legacy, global impact

When people rise up today in Libya or Syria, the experience of Poland’s Solidarity is somewhere in the back of their minds, says Carl Gershman, addressing the opening of a Woodrow Wilson Center exhibit on The Phenomenon of Solidarity: Pictures from the History of Poland 1980-1981. Arab activists may not be explicitly aware of the history, but Solidarity was the first successful mass movement in modern history to challenge and ultimately defeat a seemingly entrenched totalitarian system, and its impact continues to resonate.

The period of the Solidarity uprising in August 1980, and its above-ground existence in communist Poland until martial law was imposed 16 months later, brings back vivid memories.

I recall a debate that the Committee for the Free World organized on March 30, 1981, at the Polish Institute for Arts and Sciences in New York.   It was between Tom Kahn (below, left), the head of the International Affairs Department of the AFL-CIO and Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary magazine.  I was the moderator of that debate, which just happened to have been held on the day President Reagan was shot.  It was, indeed, a momentous time. The issue we were considering was whether the United States should be prepared to extend credits and economic assistance to Poland at a time when Solidarity was challenging the Community Party and occupying public space in what had been a totalitarian country.  Norman Podhoretz took the traditional anti-communist position that we should not help Poland in any way because reform was not possible in a communist state and the US shouldn’t do anything that might prolong its existence.  Tom Kahn expressed the AFL-CIO’s position, which was worked out in consultation with Solidarity, that assistance should be provided on the condition that the Polish government continued to respect the rights of Solidarity as contained in the Gdansk Agreement.

Tom Kahn (left) with AFL-CIO Civil Rights Director, Don Slaiman. Photo credit: SDUSA

Polish Solidarity’s rich legacy, global impact

When people rise up today in Libya or Syria, the experience of Poland’s Solidarity is somewhere in the back of their minds, says Carl Gershman, addressing the opening of a Woodrow Wilson Center exhibit on The Phenomenon of Solidarity: Pictures from the History of Poland 1980-1981. Arab activists may not be explicitly aware of the history, but Solidarity was the first successful mass movement in modern history to challenge and ultimately defeat a seemingly entrenched totalitarian system, and its impact continues to resonate.

The period of the Solidarity uprising in August 1980, and its above-ground existence in communist Poland until martial law was imposed 16 months later, brings back vivid memories.

I recall a debate that the Committee for the Free World organized on March 30, 1981, at the Polish Institute for Arts and Sciences in New York.   It was between Tom Kahn (below, left), the head of the International Affairs Department of the AFL-CIO and Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary magazine.  I was the moderator of that debate, which just happened to have been held on the day President Reagan was shot.  It was, indeed, a momentous time. The issue we were considering was whether the United States should be prepared to extend credits and economic assistance to Poland at a time when Solidarity was challenging the Community Party and occupying public space in what had been a totalitarian country.  Norman Podhoretz took the traditional anti-communist position that we should not help Poland in any way because reform was not possible in a communist state and the US shouldn’t do anything that might prolong its existence.  Tom Kahn expressed the AFL-CIO’s position, which was worked out in consultation with Solidarity, that assistance should be provided on the condition that the Polish government continued to respect the rights of Solidarity as contained in the Gdansk Agreement.

Tom Kahn (left) with AFL-CIO Civil Rights Director, Don Slaiman. Photo credit: SDUSA

Libyan lessons for Syria’s opposition?


With Syrian army defections reportedly on the rise following the ouster of Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the democratic opposition and international community are seeking to ramp up the pressure on Damascus and maintain the Arab Spring’s momentum.

Washington today took the exceptional step of announcing sanctions against Syria’s most senior diplomat, Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moallem. The announcement followed the news that the brother of a prominent US-based Syrian dissident was arrested and came a day after video footage broadcast on YouTube (above) showed Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Damascus being harassed by pro-Assad demonstrators.
The State Department dismissed the footage, which purports to show US connivance in the anti-Assad protests, as a “feeble attempt to divert the world’s attention from what’s really happening to the Syrian people.”

Pro-democracy activist Radwan Ziadeh (right), a Syrian scholar based at George Washington University, confirmed today that his brother was arrested by Syrian Air Force security operatives.

“Yes, the [Syrian] Air Force security arrested him today morning and we don’t have info about him where he is exactly right now,” Ziadeh said in an email to the Digest. “I have a concern [he] may be under torture.”

A former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group,  Ziadeh was one of several exiled Syrian democracy advocates who met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this month.

Several observers have noted that Syrian diplomats have been facilitating the domestic repression of dissent by identifying exiled democracy advocates and threatening to harm relatives back in Syria.

“You have the Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustafa, under investigation by the FBI for orchestrating this pattern of intimidation and violence,” says David Schenker, director of the Arab Politics Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  “This is happening every day in Syria,” says Schenker. “How many family members of opposition figures have been rounded up, tortured, killed?”

Syria’s opposition appears to be following the good example set by Libya’s diverse opposition, motivated by the need to prepare for a post-Assad transition and to assuage misplaced concerns over Islamist influence.

As The Henry Jackson Society’s Michael Weiss observes, the mainstream Syrian opposition has been consistently moderate and democratic in its demands.

“From Dr Radwan Ziadeh’s National Initiative for Change, a umbrella movement founded in late April and built around a manifesto of the same name, to the Local Coordination Committees, which released their statement of principles after the Good Friday massacre, the demands of most opposition groups within and without Syria have been remarkably consistent,” he notes.

A consortium of Syrian political parties has formed a Libyan-style Transitional National Council, to develop a democratic alternative to Ba’athist dynastic rule which will likely be headed by Sorbonne professor Dr Burhan Ghalioun, seen here telling Al-Jazeera that the Arab world’s two biggest problems are dictatorship and religious control of the media:

These clerics have no true knowledge of society or politics. Whoever turns on Al-Jazeera or any other channel sees that the clerics control everything. It is not true that they are a minority. Today, the intellectuals and politicians have no role. Arab societies are held hostage by two authorities: The authority of political dictatorship — arrogant dictators, who are inhuman in their oppression of liberties, and in their crushing and humiliation of the individual. The other authority is that of the clerics — even those opposing these regimes — who tyrannize Arab public opinion nowadays. Arab public opinion is held hostage by the clerics of all types. Muslim clerics and Islamists from all groups. There is a kind of undeclared, practical alliance between the political dictatorship and the dictatorship of religious authority from all groups, who do the impossible in order to remove all the people who hold different views — politicians, thinkers, and intellectuals — whether by accusing them of secularism, which means heresy, or by accusing them of modernism, of having ties with the West, or of collaborating with colonialism. In their conduct, they do not really differ from the Arab dictatorial regimes. The leaders of the Islamic movements are, without a doubt, the ones winning the war. Whoever watches Arab media realizes that they have won the war of culture. The slogan “Islam is the solution” — in my opinion, 90% of Arab public opinion believes nothing else.

The international community can help Syria’s opposition to facilitate a democratic alternative to both secular and religious authoritarianism by pressing for answers to a range of practical issues, writes Peter Harling, the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon project director with the International Crisis Group:

How to ensure that the collapse of the regime not provoke or lead to the simultaneous collapse of the weak state? How to deal with a military that has not stepped up to its task as a national army? How to maintain security with an inept and corrupt police force? How to ensure the well-being of the Allawite community, without which Syria cannot be soundly rebuilt? What will be needed to kick-start economic recovery?   

Forget about crafting a power-sharing arrangement, he says.

“The focus should be on thinking through how to manage the transition’s early stages, sustaining basic governance, and reviving the economy,” Harling suggests. “By raising and answering such questions — which the protest movement has little time, space, energy and experience to contemplate — dissident intellectuals could gain relevance on the ground, reassuring both demonstrators who resent their perceived claim to leadership and citizens who currently back the regime for lack of trust in the alternative.”