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01.02.2023, . 00:16

The Global Revolution and the Need for Civic Education in the Former Soviet Bloc

by Dr. Juliana Geran Pilon

Director of Programs for Europe and Asia

The euphoria that accompanied the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, if not entirely evaporated, has certainly been replaced by a more somber evaluation of the serious challenges facing the countries of the former Soviet Bloc. Democracy does not emerge automatically from the complex exercise that is commonly known as elections, even multi-party elections that are generally «free and fair.» Increasingly, it is becoming clear both to the West and the newly liberated citizens of the emerging post-Soviet countries that the idea of democracy itself requires conceptual clarification. More important still, it requires practical implementation, in order for societies unused to freedom to create viable institutions that are able and willing to translate people's interests efficiently, fairly, and dynamically, into legal and social frameworks that will foster rather than hinder creativity.

For political institutions to be able to adapt to changing needs and circumstances, represent different sections of society as equitably as possible, and permit freedom of expression and the operation of a free market, the citizens must appreciate both the value of active political participation and the need to sustain and nourish a strong private sector. For this, however, more is needed than revolution: a painstaking building process must follow, encouraged and defined by what may be called «civic education.» It represents both the prerequisite for and the ongoing lifeblood of a free society.

Has there been a democratic revolution in the last decade?

Whatever political analysts may call some of the events that occurred during 1989 and 1990 in the former Soviet Union, whether «Velvet Revolution» as in Czechoslovakia, «Unfinished Revolution» as in Romania, or simply «coup» as in Russia, there is a general agreement that the tally sheet on freedom has generally advanced in an upward direction. Electoral systems have adapted to pluralism and accommodated emerging new parties, allowing for representation in the new legislatures based upon complex percentages that mirror at least to some extent the new realignments. The broader context, however, cannot be overlooked. And unfortunately, it is not entirely heartening.

Put most starkly, the classical liberal ideals that first germinated in the eighteenth century and found a fertile soil in some corners of Western Europe and America have not fared as well beyond the Danube, even prior to the advent of communism. Those political principles encountered major obstacles: foreign domination; political corruption; and a largely authoritarian, corrupt tradition (particularly in the Balkans) which communism only exacerbated.

The elections held in the immediate post-Soviet era, therefore, took place within a flawed political culture. There soon emerged a smorgasbord of parties with often unclear visions even less clearly conveyed -mostly by government-controlled electronic media that paid little attention to fairness-to stupefied electorates who were asked to fill out mystifying new ballots. The candidates were usually elected by complicated proportionality methods of allocating electoral success depending on the particular system adopted in an atmosphere that often resembled pure chaos. These systems depended less on fairness and commitment to democracy than on a mixture of tradition and political compromise. Several years later, the voters are still not sure what to think: is this progress or not?

Evidently, it is wrong to generalize about East-Central Europe, let alone the entire former Soviet Empire, as if the region were homogeneous. Each nation in that complex area is unique - and proud of its uniqueness. But certain patterns of democratic arrangements and electoral systems emerge, with implications for the stability of reforms and future civic vigor. The type generally adopted is the parliamentary system, usually based on one or another of a type of proportional representation (or PR) formula that is more popular in continental Europe than in either Britain or the United States.

While this system has definite advantages for smaller, newly emerging parties, there are disadvantages as well. Chief among them are: a fragmented political scene; unclear relationships between constituents and their representatives; and a still quite disorderly democratic process that bodes ill for the revival of a civil society which is the cornerstone of a stable democratic process. And such stability is a necessary - even if not sufficient - prerequisite for peace in the region.

These systems are often not only demoralizingly cumbersome to understand and implement, but perceived as unresponsive to popular needs and interests. The result is that voters who are already skeptical of «elections,» which for decades had been nothing but a sham under the communist dictatorship, are increasingly turned off to democracy itself. And there are few avenues for reform that voters can explore. For one thing, there are often no independent permanent electoral commissions to whom one can address grievances and suggestions.1 It has been a consistent goal of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) to recommend the adoption of independent electoral commissions, with some success. But much more needs to be done.

Among the grievances, there is first of all a concern that the candidates elected through party lists are often unknown, and may not live in the areas they are supposed to represent in the legislature. The advantage of voting for parties, and hence political ideas, rather than for candidates - who did not have a fair share of media time, nor enough money to campaign - is all but canceled out by the fact that people find it difficult to believe their interests are being represented by legislators chosen through party lists who hardly ever bother to communicate with their constituents.

Indeed, the elected officials are often not even aware that they are supposed to engage in such an activity. Nor do most of the constituents realize that they have a supreme right - and indeed civic duty - to hold their elected representatives responsible and accountable, that governments are constituted by the people for the people, rather than despite the people, let alone to spite the people.

According to a poll conducted in January 1995 by IFES in cooperation with the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, only 1 in 10 Ukrainians approve of the work done by their parliament, the Supreme Rada. Nearly two-thirds of those polled said that official corruption was very common, with another one-fifth saying it was «fairly common.» About 70 percent felt that government officials were interested only in helping themselves. And in fact more than one-half of Ukrainians did not believe they were actually living in a democracy.2 While these results reflect greater pessimism than is generally found in East-Central Europe, they are fairly typical. The citizens of the former Soviet Bloc generally have little trust in their official representatives.

Second, the system of allowing smaller parties to be represented in the legislature has led to the formation of ethnically-based parties throughout the former Soviet Bloc (such as an Armenian party in Romania, a number of Gypsy-or Roma- parties throughout East-Central Europe, Turkish parties, etc.) which arguably contributes more to divisiveness and conflict rather than to promote unity and an anti-discriminatory attitude insofar as a majoritarian (two-party) system requires coalition-building and compromise.

Third, some electoral options are simply not properly understood. For instance, there seems to be considerable skepticism about federalist schemes - in part as a reaction to the sham «federalism» of the former totalitarian systems. Yet increasingly there is interest in decentralized methods of self-rule.3

It should not surprise anyone that tired people throughout the former Soviet Union now yearn with some nostalgia for a quick fix, an authoritarian government that will put an end to what is perceived as a circus, a free-for-all incapable of meeting the challenges presented by excruciatingly painful transitions from controlled economies to market systems. Televised sessions of most newly elected Eastern European parliaments appear to have done much to create an impression of a collection of prima donas, impolite to each other and incapable of listening to argument. Considering the complete mystery surrounding the work of the former puppet «legislatures» of the communist era, the recently broadcast cacophony cannot but mystify and even frighten. Some people naturally recoil, and even yearn for the lost peace, however illusory. It is not entirely surprising that socialist neo-communist parties have recaptured power in Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, and most recently Bulgaria.

In brief, the demise of Soviet hegemony and totalitarianism is not necessarily synonymous with the triumph of democracy as we know it generally in the West, let alone the special brand we enjoy in the United States. The people of the former Soviet empire are not certain what exactly they have gained with the advent of a multi-party system of government. The pursuit of happiness still eludes most of them, even if they do feel a bit more free.

Or do they?

To some extent, «freedom» can be quantified - as Freedom House does in its Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties entitled Freedom in the World. A short three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the survey decided to drop two Baltic countries from «free» in the previous year (1991) to «partly free;» since then, Lithuania, then Poland, Hungary, and most recently Bulgaria, elected sizeable numbers of «socialists» or neo-communists to parliament. The challenge is clearly before us.

FreedomHouse analyst George Zarycky summarizes the problems of East-Central Europe graphically:

From the Baltic to the Balkans, post-Communist societies are grappling with the Augean task of buttressing fragile democratic gains against the tide of reaction swelled by the destabilizing consequences of systemic economic restructuring, combustible ethnic animosities, political polarization, resurgent nationalism, nascent authoritarianism and a recalcitrant Communist apparatus that doggedly refuses to accept the end of history.4

But while he titles the last section of his essay «Prospects: more gloom than doom,» he ends on a positive note:

Perhaps most encouraging, from Romania to Poland, the last three years have seen a deepening of the civil society: nongovernmental human rights groups, lawyer associations, businessmen's groups, religious institutions, independent media watchdog groups, think-tanks, and independent polling organizations. As these gain strength, influence and acceptance, they cement the very foundation of democratic societies.5

The creation of these groups stands as testimony to the creation of a civil society, which in itself provides the best civic education a country can experience. But it is not enough: for the infrastructure that supports these groups is extremely fragile. And besides lack of information, what the people of the former Soviet Bloc have to battle is a sorry state of pre-revolutionary civic culture.

The pre-revolutionary state of civic culture

The legacy of totalitarianism has been a mixture of raw anti-Western propaganda, a form of pseudo-nationalism meant to sugar-coat a bit the bitter pill of Soviet domination combined with domestic totalitarianism, and obsequious, profoundly disingenuous Marxist-Leninist cant. «Civics» taught in the secondary schools of East-Central Europe consisted mainly of a rather unabashed form of brainwashing as millions of budding communists learned to parrot their flawed, contradictory constitutions modeled after that of the Soviet Union. All of these constitutions gave lip-service to individual rights only to immediately qualify them as limited by «the interests of the state.»

What is more, children throughout the Soviet Empire learned that laws are only made to give the appearance of legality while the nomenklatura was in firm control of everything from choice cuts of meat to the best jobs. The state of civic culture prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall was characterized by unequivocal cynicism and a profound contempt for law that was excelled only by a greater contempt for the members of the judiciary themselves. I recall learning «civics» in my «Constitution» class in a secondary school in Bucharest in the early sixties: this education amounted to an initiation to the official vocabulary, having nothing at all to do with the ideas behind the development of a civil society, nor with the meaning of private activity and active participation in a free political process.

On the contrary: whatever «civic education» existed under the regime imposed by Moscow was systematically steeped in falsehood. For history itself had been falsified under the communist regime to fit Marxist-Leninist models of development, to illustrate the dialectic of «class struggle» and «the triumph of the proletariat.» Each nation's cultural and political past was neatly squeezed into an ideological mold. And while that past was in most cases morally flawed and largely undemocratic, at least there were bright moments and a colorful heritage. At least there were a number of institutions, even during the most authoritarian of regimes that could be described as free, voluntary, viable components of a «civic» culture.

But in the place of a common memory the communist system introduced a fabricated facsimile. Accordingly, the civil society was denied not only a present but also the memory of another era when the existence of a private sector of activity was at least partially possible. The people whose behavior and soul was mutilated by totalitarianism were thus doubly punished. Their children became angry enough to refuse to allow the destruction to continue into the last decade of the second millennium; but they could not be expected as well to know exactly what should take its place.

To be sure, it would be an exaggeration to say that the civil society had died during the communist era. Some signs were still visible, however weak. The Hungarian writer Miklos Haraszti wrote in 1990, in an essay about «The Beginnings of Civil Society,» that «civil society in the true meaning of the term emerges in the...phase [that] can be called post-totalitarian» which he describes as «a system in decay, since it consists of clearly heterogeneous elements and is no longer able to reproduce itself. Democratization replaces liberalization as the central issue of politics...» 6

Yet the concept of «civil society» is not unambiguous.7 Sociologist Daniel Bell has defined it as embracing all kinds of «voluntary association, churches and communities,» coupled with the hortatory demand that «decisions should be made locally and should not be controlled by the state and its bureaucracies.»8 Seligman explains in detail several definitions in historical perspective but finally opts for considering it in toto as referring to a family of concepts both political and normative. The normative element he feels is important, because he considers the civil society to provide «an ethical vision of social life.»9 While I do not disagree with Seligman on this point, for the purposes of this brief essay I will restrict my self to the descriptive element of the concept of civil society «as a collective entity existing independently from the state.»10

Keeping this definition in mind, then, the stage of an emerging civil society described by Haraszti develops in the post-communist system as democracy «builds on the forms, energies, experiences, and pluralization that were already given shape in civil society.»11 But these experiences, under a totalitarian system, were still merely embryonic and need time, effort, and experience to become solidly entrenched. Hence the serious setbacks that even as emancipated a country as Hungary experienced in May 1994 with the sizeable neo-communist victory in the parliamentary elections that was only partially explained by the internecine warfare waged by the democratic opposition.

Enter civic education. For the limited, flawed experience of budding civic activity took place in a theoretical vacuum-even as late as the 1980s. The underpinnings of democracy had been eliminated in a semantic overhaul, a ruthless, deliberate redefinition of political concepts at the hands of highly skilled word smiths. This form of linguistic terrorism was further buttressed by demonstrable contempt for any form of traditional legitimizing institutions: «elections» became a farcical ritual canonizing pre-selected henchmen; «people's democracies» were a ludicrous oxymoron; «parliaments» represented no discernable «constituency» beyond the ruling elite that barely bothered to communicate through the controlled puppet press.

And if the political system before their eyes had nothing to do with «the people» in any common sense of that term, most of the ordinary citizens of these republics knew next to nothing about the rest of the world. Generally painted with one brush stroke as «capitalist,» the free world was envisioned as a blurred picture of wealth and color simultaneously alluring and frightening, impossibly desirable and politically inexplicable. Such simple concepts as separation of powers, representative republican democracy, judicial restraint, or lobbies, were no less mysterious for most citizens of East-Central Europe than terms of alchemy.

The same was true for the most elementary principles of economics. The concept of a «price» could not be understood without some sense of what is the mechanism of supply and demand. Steeped in the political economy of Marxism, having only the experience of centralized planning, the lemonade-stand economics that is second nature to an American youngster was out of the reach of most Eastern Europeans. The concept of «profit» was indelibly marked by a long tradition of contempt for the little

Gypsy (or other) peddlers and their seemingly scabrous penchant for black marketeering. Selling little trinkets for a pittance became synonymous with mercantilism and half-tolerated, unsavory profiteering.

Indeed, the entire tradition of under-the-counter pricing and illegal exchange cast a long, ugly shadow upon the perfectly normal - indeed, vital - practice of offer and exchange that defines human interaction. Homo economicus became ashamed of his identity, wishing to hide under any conceivable euphemism yet unable to find any that would allow him to survive along with his family. Short of joining the communist party and breaking bread with the oppressors of the masses, most people had to flout legality. In the process, economic understanding was unable to shed the dark shadow of black marketeering. And the central controls masked the reality of economic principles, preventing the people from learning those principles through experience. Hence continued confusion regarding the most basic of civic principles: the concepts of market exchanges.

Finally, religion and true folk culture - as opposed to the kitsch tolerated by the ruling powers to mollify the masses - had been moribund at best under totalitarianism. Officially, the Ministry of «Cults» tolerated a modicum of religious activity - infiltrating the priesthood with secret policy informants - while genuine believers were persecuted, often imprisoned, even killed. Writing in 1988, British scholar Janice Broun found that religion in Eastern Europe had suffered greatly for the past four decades:

The ideological attitude of the Communist parties is the same in Eastern Europe as in the Soviet Union. This «scientific» attitude regards religion as a distorted reflection of reality that prevents the human race from seeking its true salvation in materialism and the humanistic society. ... Moreover, the churches, often virtually the only non-state organization permitted, provide a focus for potential dissent. Therefore the governments have set up special bodies whose purpose is to keep religion under control.12

The dissident samizdat literature is full of stories documenting the plight of religious believers and their children. The religious traditions of each of the countries of the Soviet Empire was preserved at the highest cost, in the face of the most difficult odds. Romania for example saw one of the most dramatic visible forms of destruction of religious and cultural national treasures: the razing of thousands of churches throughout the land - magnificent jewels dating centuries back - at the orders of the pathologically megalomaniacal Nicolae Ceausescu.

To some extent this happened in each country, including ruling Russia itself. I saw it myself, on the eve of Russia's first democratic national parliamentary election since the August 1993 coup. In the heart of Moscow, near Red Square, stands a replica of a magnificent old church. The new building is a merely pathetic reminder of the destroyed edifice, far worse than nothing - like a plastic limb in the place of the flesh and bone. As I visited it along with dozens of tourists and native Russians, I could feel only empathy, a sense of loss and shame. (I will not even mention the decimation of the Jewish religious edifices - for they were negligible compared to the slaughter of the Jews themselves. At least at Babi Yar in Ukraine, not far from Kiev, there is a monument; in most other countries, there is the deafening silence.)

Religion could never be destroyed entirely, of course. Since religious institutions were allowed to exist - and they were the only legally existing entities that were not under the direct rule of the Communist Party nor inspired by it -churches became a focal point for extra-official, if not quite civil, society. Writes Broun in 1990:

Some people find what they seek in the institutional church; other gravitate toward church-related groups, which may be either official and openly backed by the church, encouraged, disapproved of, or clandestine. The institutional churches are hamstrung by state regulations, and usually restricted to worship in the church, whereas the groups attract those who are probing social, political, and existential problems and thrive on personal contact.13

And so remnants of civil society and a civic culture limped on, barely alive, nurtured in the shadow of the totalitarian state, the people keeping the fluttering candle of freedom from being blown out altogether. But it took both courage and despair. And the results were fragile indeed, hardly enough to create the necessary base for what would be required to create viable political systems that would withstand the frigid reality of economic restructuring in the post-socialist world. More would be needed.

To recapitulate, then, this is much of the legacy: mutilation of memory; destruction of incentive; mistrust of one's fellow man; cynicism; exhaustion; outbursts of excessive nationalism fueled by anger at the destruction of genuine tradition by foreign elements either from within or - usually - from without; dilapidation and general economic disaster; in brief, psychological and physical misery. In such a setting, only the most sophisticated and exhaustive overhaul of theoretical knowledge that would not only explain the ravages of the past but show the way to a new future could possibly be expected to at least offer a glimmer of hope. This kind of knowledge may be described in a word as «civic education.» It has to embrace not only the principles of democracy but the reasons for its necessity. No easy task.

Challenges for Civic Education

In the first place, the very mention of the term «civic education» is met consistently with shrugs of the shoulder: what is there to know about «civics,» people there ask, that can possibly have anything to do with reality? Teachers complain that the old textbooks have no more relevance while new textbooks have not been printed. But how can one teach without textbooks, they ask? «Textbook» knowledge is what everyone has become accustomed to: spoon-fed facts, recipe-style. The cookbook of democracy, ready-made formulas with pre-measured amounts of the right ingredients: that is what teachers, used to decades of learning-by-rote to not think, have come to depend upon, like mediocre chefs. A pinch of this and a pinch of that, and voila: the new man is ready, all set to replace homo socialistus who actually never was. (Although in fact a mutation resembling a mirror version of the Marxist vision did emerge: a meek, selfish, slogan-chanting, undernourished specimen who learned to trust no one.)

So then, just what exactly is «civic education?» The term is often used in a manner that is almost cavalier, as if the educated public must surely know what is meant. Yet this is hardly justified; for the term is not only ambiguous but vague. As with all language, ambiguity is not necessarily undesirable: it allows broader application and accommodates a multiplicity of contexts. In this context, however, a certain degree of accuracy is necessary.

I propose to define civic education as both a set of concepts that constitute the principles of a free society and specific illustrations of how those principles operate in reality. On a country-specific basis, civic education must also encompass the legal and social framework for civic behavior according to the existing system. Evidently, civic education relates both to political life and the private domain, insofar as both are necessary for survival in a viable society whose citizens rule themselves and respect each other. Inasmuch as it is illustrative and didactic, therefore, civic education is and should be free of partisan ideology. Its philosophical basis rests simply upon the need to inform citizens of what democratic systems are about, and in addition what elements of free action are possible within the existing frameworks of their own countries. The philosophical premise of civic education rests upon the implicit right of all individuals to govern themselves, in line with the Kantian categorical imperative that no one is to use another human being for his own ends.

Parenthetically, it should be mentioned that one special component of civic education is known as «voter education» which refers to the facts required to be an informed voter: e.g., what are the parties that participate in an election, their various platforms, but also what the concept of a «party» means in a pluralist system. Still more specific is «voter information,» which refers to the particular facts required to actually fill out a ballot in an informed fashion.

The political system of a country is always the most crucial component of social life, since it relates to the use offeree in service of either the protection or the violation of rights, depending on the system. There is no middle ground. Governments are either good or bad, in varying degrees, but they cannot be indifferent - it is not an option. A government that secures individual liberty will enhance the use of its citizens' energies; one that saps their vigor inevitably does so by enslavement. Respect for political activity is impossible

when the citizens refuse to believe that politics does anything other than cheat them out of their legitimate claim to freedom. Civic culture therefore presupposes an order that claims respect.

Paradoxically, however, such an order is generally impossible to achieve unless the citizens are prepared to institute it, and are prepared to defend their rights against violation by elected officials. Unless freedom is both claimed and defended, it will never take root. And unless freedom is instituted, economic well-being is not likely to emerge - certainly not likely to be enjoyed by the great majority of the population. The result of such an artificially (politically) created economic imbalance is an embittered population exhausted and disillusioned, incapable of acting to its fullest potential. In other words, a civil society cannot flourish without a political context that defends and indeed encourages its existence-which means in effect a political system that defends individual rights.

Specifically, a political system that allows for individual initiative in the private sphere must institute strong safeguards for the protection of property and respect for the rule of law. Respect for the rule of law is indispensable. This requires the overhaul of the old system of pseudo laws but also-and this is much more difficult -the replacement or reeducation of judges who did not enforce constitutional provisions for protecting rights with others who consider this to be their primary function.

Equally important is the need to explain that «property» is not synonymous with «ill-gained profit.» It is true that current realities in the post-communist era make this argument difficult: in mostcountries the immediate benefactors of privatization have been members of the former nomenklatura who had «inside» knowledge of the process and made sure to cushion themselves financially.14 They constitute a sizeable portion of the new class of capitalist «entrepreneurs.» Nevertheless, a surprisingly large number of people seem to appreciate the importance of competition and free enterprise. Despite recent setbacks, the impetus behind genuine privatization has not lost all momentum. Ordinary people recognize that everyone profits when there is more freedom; in Romania, for example, most of the trade unions continue to press for decentralization and less government control of the economy.

But the forces against this spirit are strong as well. The philosophy of decentralization is contrary not only to communism, but also to such communitarian ideologies as xenophobic nationalism and certain types of religious fundamentalism. Aberrations born of complex needs - not entirely inexplicable given the aberration that was communism itself - these ideologies have found greater appeal in East-Central Europe than one might have hoped. They present the most significant obstacle to the creation of a genuine civic culture aside from the intellectual vacuum left by Marxist-Leninism.

The civic education of the new society has a difficult challenge: to change the voter into a courageous, cooperative, even generous, human being who can make his own decisions based on his own judgments, who can challenge the opinion of others without either fear or lack of respect, who can change his mind if the facts warrant it and join others in ventures that would succeed better if a common exercise is more effective than lonely action. In other words, civic education will have to result in another member of the species. Homo democraticus has no clear blueprint; his limbs and brain grooves cannot be designed according to identifiable dimensions like the map of a projected shopping mall. He must be his own creation.

Ultimately, the reason behind an effective program of civic education is to assist in the emergence of a civil society. That means creating a fluid, thoroughly dynamic, constantly reinvented collection of voluntary organizations dedicated to supporting common goals. It means the creation of a political culture that is dedicated not to the destruction of the political life of the country but its success in keeping rules to a minimum, enforcing them effectively, and allowing the greatest possible role for private initiative. Citizens should become active in their communities through voluntary groups rather than turn - as is too often the first impulse - to governments to regulate and centralize.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of all stripes, some more formal than others, some larger and some quite small, representing associations among like-minded individuals pursuing desired goals (while respecting the right of others to do the same) require both an atmosphere of toleration and respect and a legal setting that makes their existence possible -indeed, desirable. And while NGOs can develop outside the political structure, that structure must meet certain standards to allow their existence: it must be stable; responsive to the citizens and thus trusted; limited in scope so as to allow the exercise of individual rights; and it must be respected, which is to say enforced through a judicial mechanism, for it to be a reality.

Hence a program of civic education must be all-encompassing, to include both information about the political structure of a democratic system - including the theoretical foundations of such a structure, above all the principles of political legitimacy and individual rights - and information about the private sector that constitutes the civil society and its many ramifications.

Theoretical knowledge is especially necessary when practical experience is either lacking or, worse, partial and misleading. It is imperative that civic education includes comparative information about different systems of representative democracy, with their various limitations and relative advantages.

How is theoretical knowledge of civic education imparted? Through written texts above all. But increasingly there is creative use of the media, including call-in television programs; there are simulated elections, which IFES has successfully used in places as different yet strangely similar as Nicaragua and Russia; there are exchanges and internships for people to see for themselves what the rest of the civilized world looks like. In addition, there is business education relating to the civic culture that helps people understand the realities of economic life; there is management training that also applies to leadership training; and there are workshops for exchange of specific problems in creating the new concepts of a democratic society.

Finding the tools, the specific subject matter, and trainers that work best in any specific environment is a daunting challenge. It involves a hit-and-miss approach that is saved by a consistent desire to find a way, and a conviction that a solution will indeed be found. But there is no substitute for commitment in the pursuit of civic education. The most important qualities that a trainer must have are respect for his audience, understanding of their needs, ability to listen, patience, and modesty. (This last is the most difficult to attain, for it is all too easy to become enthralled with oneself in the process of helping others who are both grateful and intelligent. It requires nobility of soul.)

But there are other specific challenges as well. One of the most insidious and mercurial - which has caught the West to some extent unawares - is the challenge of nationalism, which sometimes is fused with a kind of intolerant and xenophobic religious fundamentalism.

Nationalism: A Special Challenge

The appeal of xenophobic nationalism in post-communist Eastern Europe (for example in Romania) and the former Soviet Union, most dramatically in Russia (illustrated by the success of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the misleadingly named Liberal Democratic Party, and in late 1994 by President Boris Yeltsin's «Operation Chechnya»), came as a particular surprise to Western analysts. Its anti-liberal, anti-Western bias represented a confused mixture of religious and statist prejudices inimical to a spontaneous pluralism that lies at the essence of a true civil society. Accordingly, nationalism came to represent an unexpected and fairly significant challenge in addition to communist ideology, which civic education would have to address. This peculiar post-communist Eastern European and Russian version of nationalism could be considered a special aspect of the legacy left by Marxism-Leninism

Two clarifying points are in order here. In the first place, the nationalist sentiments that underlie the desire for independence in such countries as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and other former colonies of the U.S.S.R. do not necessarily imply more than a desire to regain pre-Soviet political status and recognition of cultural autonomy. This attitude is clearly differentiated from xenophobic and anti-democratic nationalism. In fact, the recent IFES poll indicates that 5 out of 10 Ukrainians, who otherwise strongly support Ukrainian self-determination, disapprove of «nationalism» (meaning excessively zealous Ukrainian, not Russian, nationalism). And the second point: the distinctly anti-Russian feeling that one senses throughout the former colonies is obviously not exclusively or even primarily a brand of nationalism but reflects rather a quite understandable resentment against the many decades of suffering as a result of Moscow's totalitarian Marxist-Leninist imperialism.

The legacy of Marxism-Leninism is indeed painful and manifold, consisting of a multitude of handicaps: having to undo a distorted view of history; coping with a sense of wounded pride and lack of self-esteem; facing the effects of economic trauma; disintegration of genuine fellow-feeling; having to reinvent language that was designed to mask reality in euphemistic garb; coping with secularization; and finally, facing maneuvering by the outgoing hardcore nomenklatura that does not wish to give up their old privileges and has no interest whatsoever in democracy.

The disintegration of trust and empathy, or «fellow-feeling,» is without doubt the most insidious and essential obstacle to the creation of a civic culture, and arguably the most difficult to overcome. Trust is not something one learns about in academic settings; it is the result of life experience, and an attitude nurtured by normal social existence. Communism undermined this attitude paradoxically enough precisely by exalting The Group beyond all individuals - requiring immediate reporting of any deviant behavior that was supposed to harm Group Interests - and suspicion became inevitable. It is impossible to properly appreciate the true nature of post-communist society without understanding this fact.

Alongside suspicion of one's own countrymen there has also been deep mistrust of foreigners - though different nations have been viewed differently, of course. The West has been mistrusted for the rather palpable reason that it did not come to the rescue of East-Central European nations during the time of Soviet occupation. Over the years, various forms of detente with the communist rulers were witnessed by the people of the captive nations with incredulity. The entire system finally collapsed of its own weight in 1989.

Hatred came easily in an atmosphere that had been called - to use an expression by the Czech writer Josef Zverina - «a whole ideology of hate:»

This ideology justified everything it required: everything was permitted to achieve its success; it encouraged hatred and even required it on occasions. There can be no worse threat than this to human morality and life. While, unhappily, we find hate in various guises all over the world, hate here has its specific features. The education of a people into a single permitted ideology creates a much more intensive basis for such hatred. Hate is thereby «nationalized,» as it were.15

The legacy of hatred could not but express itself in pathological forms of human interaction after the fall of communism.

Equally subversive to the emergence of a true civic culture was the lack of self-esteem endemic to the communist system. Having had to lie - not only about one's own past, but even about the present, about matters before one's own eyes - for fear of the secret police, for fear of destruction and retaliation not only against oneself but one's children and parents, has created a deep sense of insecurity. No matter how clear it is that such fear is perfectly justified, the sense that one should have sacrificed everything in the interest of truth is impossible to erase completely.

Vaclav Havel described the essence of this process in his now-famous essay «The Power of the Powerless,» as drawing

everyone into its sphere of power, not so they may realize themselves as human beings, but so they may surrender their human identity in favor of the identity of the system, that is, so they may become agents of the system's general automatism and servants of its self-determined goals, so they may participate in the common responsibility for it, so they may be pulled into and ensnared by it, like Faust with Mephistopheles.16

This Faustian legacy weighs heavily on the people of East-Central Europe. Havel's chosen path to salvation, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn's «living in truth,» cannot help those who, sometimes quite deliberately, usually half-consciously, and sometimes even unconsciously, went along with the Big Lies of their corrupt Marxist regimes. They cannot forgive themselves.

Yet forgive they must, both themselves and others, if they are to live and work together, build a new life for themselves and their children, and institutionalize democracy. In that difficult task, the West can help up to a point; ultimately, they must help themselves.

This is not to minimize the contribution of Western assistance. While there is no substitute for experience, the people of East-Central Europe carry within their historic memory the knowledge of times past, of democracy at least subliminally understood. Western political theory and experience, the legacy of liberalism and conservatism within a democratic tradition, are the best gift we can share with our less fortunate though not necessarily less sophisticated Eastern brethren.

What Western experience can offer

The two-hundred-year-old constitutional republic of the United States is surely one of the oldest continuous free government in history. It is no less unusual for its longevity, however, than for its size and diversity of population. It offers a glimpse of the future post-nationalist state, accommodating different cultures and traditions with tolerance and vigor. But it is not perfect; no democratic system is. Each form of representational self-rule must fall short of perfection, for no one can speak for anyone but oneself, yet representation requires proxy. The American system is plagued by problems of gerrymandering, unfair control of the legislative process by special interests, corruption, waste, excessive taxation. But the principle of individual rights and the right of private property are paramount for the most part. Whatever the violations of that principle - and they abound - at least there is a recognition of what lies at the basis of all good (which is to say limited) government.

Beyond America, there is the common experience of the Western world, with its varied electoral systems and experiments in federalist arrangements. Pluralism has been the rule in modern times, with parliamentary democracies emphasizing the preeminence of the legislature over that of the executive, with mixed results. The countries of East-Central Europe are still struggling to find the best political formula for themselves.

Aside from politics, however, Western experience in building a civil society is of particular interest. The constellation of nongovernmental organizations, the vibrancy of the private voluntary sector, the whole spectrum of associations and groups that meet special needs and interests, present a picture of humanity at play and work pursuing happiness unhampered by governmental constraints. The very example of such activity is invigorating; explaining its theoretical basis underlines its universal relevance.

This is not to imply that the people of the former Soviet Bloc are either ignorant about the principles of a free society or so disinclined toward freedom as to require an extensive program of indoctrination. Hardly. The thirst for liberty is what caused the spectacular implosion of the Berlin Wall in the first place. People who have tasted oppression know from personal experience what it is to be prevented from letting their imaginations and energies create prosperity for themselves and their children. But knowing what they do NOT want does not necessarily offer a clear picture of what to seek in its place. Accordingly, a combination of uncertainty, fear of the unknown, and misconception about what may be possible in a free society, may lead to hesitation and skepticism about democracy. Moreover, there is concern that what may work in one country might not work in another - and not without reason. It is impossible to import blueprints, whether economic or political, without regard to context. Which is not to say that certain general principles do not apply universally.

In addition to the natural reluctance to accept Western experiences at face value, the vacuum of information deliberately nurtured during the Soviet era has resulted in uneven and sometimes distorted visions of the true nature of democratic life. Many people in the former Soviet Bloc see the West through the eyes of Hollywood; but more often than not, impressions about the Western world transpire through third-hand reports with widely varying degrees of verisimilitude.

But in addition to information about Western life, there is clearly a great need for civic education in the former Soviet Bloc relating to system of each emerging new democracy. The IFES poll conducted in Ukraine in January 1995, for example, found that nearly eighty percent of Ukrainians did not know what their legal rights were with regard to the authorities, and a full one half felt that they did not have enough information about the candidates or parties to make a good choice on voting day.


In the 1960s, one of the most popular songs announced the dawning of a new era. The name was magnificently, appropriately opaque: the age of... Aquarius. The melody was haunting, the harmony simple and subliminal. The name brought to mind images of aqueous beauty, mystery, astrological rationality (which is to say no rationality at all, or at least the peculiar kind that is governed by gods beyond our reach). The culture of two decades ago seemed to have abandoned trust in the laws of men, in the order of liberal justice. Paradoxically, the former Soviet Bloc seems ready to accept that it too is facing the dawn of this peculiar age, the age of Aquarius. They too have become in many respects cynical and unable to accept or at least understand the rationality that governs Western democratic systems. Unlike America in the sixties, however, the fragile post-communist nations do not have a strong constitutional framework nor a vibrant private sector that never allowed such a mindset to lead to terminal despair and chaos. The former Soviet Union unfortunately lies at the very edge of the abyss. Its liberal framework is paper thin. A strong wave of Aquarius would be sufficient to destroy it like a sand castle.

If «civic education» is the name for what Western society can offer by way of example and theoretical knowledge, let us call it that. Put differently, we might help these newly emerged democracies to see in their Age of Aquarius the dawning of hope, trust, and energy. This is not only easier in a political framework based on Reason - the guiding torch of the Enlightenment which inspired the birth of the United States - but indeed can only happen if everyone recognizes its supremacy. Only then will rights be respected, and civil society flourish.

It is not simply a matter of altruism; for as long as the enormous territory that was once in the throes of the barbaric experiment known as communism is incapable of institutionalizing a democratic process - while keeping megaloads of nuclear missiles stockpiled sky high - no one is safe. We have little choice but to share our experience of individual freedom and pluralist elections, of free markets and uncensored press.

One may actually say that we have the responsibility to do so. Not for the reasons one sometimes hears - namely, that we Westerners, and Americans in particular, are responsible for the «sell-out» at Yalta, that we cynically abandoned our brothers to communism, that we didn't save them during the Cold War but talked of convergence and compromise, turning our eyes away from the horror of the Gulag and of everyday totalitarian life. Whatever truth there may be to these charges is not the point. The responsibility is of a different order: not born from shame and guilt, nor from necessity and fear, but from a sense of oneness that belongs to all mankind. For however real and precious each special ethnic heritage, nations are ultimately just figments of the political imagination before the Master of Aquarius. We are all one to Him who made us what we are: flawed, magnificent, silly, miraculous, and equal before the endless sky. We deserve to respect each other as ourselves. And therein may lie our salvation.

(C) Copyright IFES, Washington, DC, 1995

IFES is a Washington-based non-profit non-partisan NGO that assists emerging democracies hold and institutionalize free and fair elections. The Foundation fulfills its objectives through programs in technical election assessment; on-site technical assistance; poll worker training; citizen education in democracy; and election-day activities. IFES is a clearinghouse/or election-related information and experts.

IFES 'program activities have expanded dramatically since the worldwide shift toward democratic pluralism and the increasing demand for the technical support. In the last 7 years, IFES has worked in over 75 countries, including Albania, Angola, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Congo, Guinea, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Haiti, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Mali, Malawi, Moldova, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Panama, Poland, Romania, Russia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Ukraine.

Election related material and equipment has been shipped to countries in Africa, the former Soviet Union, East-Central Europe, and Latin America. IFES election observers have produced comprehensive reports on elections on six continents. Among IFES' significant contributions have been the undertaking of training for voter registration workers, poll workers, and other election officials in Bulgaria, Honduras, Moldova, Nicaragua, Russia, Kazakhstan, Haiti, Paraguay, and Ukraine.

IFES serves as a vital resource center for any nation seeking expert assistance in developing a sound election process, an essential step in establishing and maintaining a democratic form of government. IFES also serves as a clearinghouse for sharing information about any technical aspect of electoral systems, including names of those expert in these systems and the materials essential to establishing and managing democratic elections.

In the former Soviet Bloc, IFES also maintains field offices in Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Moldova which assist host government officials, NGOs, and civic organizations share information, advice, and technical issues regarding election preparation, administration and management; voter and civic education; and election commodities.

International Foundation for Electoral Systems
1101 15th St. N.W. Third Floor Washington, D.C. 20005
(202) 828-8507

1 The Association for East-Central European Election Officials, created by IFES in 1990, which includes members from all the countries in the region, favors the establishment of such institutions and fosters dialogue to exchange electoral experience, but there is still a long way to go.

2 Other interesting results of this poll include the finding that 9 out of 10 Ukrainians are either not satisfied or «not at all satisfied» with the situation in their country; 6 out of 10 feel they do not have very much or any information about free market reforms in Ukraine; yet three-fourths chose a Western country as a model for Ukraine's development. The poll was based on extensive interviews of 1201 people.

3 Moldova is the most recent and dramatic case in point. Because of the Russian presence in the Trans-Dniester region, Moldova's president stated in February 1994 that the country will take a very serious look at a system of federalism to avoid possible military confrontation. A year later, this is still an option. Federalist solutions to ethnic diversity could be explored for Slovakia and Romania as well, in order to deal with the Hungarian minority problem. And in December 1994, Ukraine decided to create a new constitution which allows for considering federalist solutions to the Crimean problem.

4 Freedom in the World, The Annual Survey of Political Rights & Civil Liberties, 1992-1993, R. Bruce McColm, Survey Coordinator (Freedom House: New York, 1993), p. 49.

5 Ibid., p. 55.

6 Ed., Vladimir Tismaneanu, In Search of Civil Society:
Independent Peace Movements in the Soviet Bloc
(Routledge Press: New York and London, 1990), p. 85.

7 In his erudite and useful study The Idea of Civil Society, the Hungarian Adam B. Seligman notes that «in this contemporary [post-1970] 'revival' of the idea of civil society, the concept has come to mean different things to different people.» (New York, Toronto: The Free Press, a division of Macmillan, Inc.; Maxwell Macmillan Canada, 1992, p. 1) The common theme however involves «the proper mode of constituting society itself, whether in terms of private individuals or of a shared public sphere.» (P. 2).

8 Cited in Seligman, p. 2.

9 Ibid., p. 10.

10 Ibid., p. 5.

11 Ibid., p. 87.

12 Janice Broun, Conscience and Captivity: Religion in Eastern Europe (Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1988), p. 15.

13 Brown, op. cit., p. 194.

14 In his new book The Birth of Freedom: Shaping lives and Societies in the New Eastern Europe (Simon & Schuster: New York, 1993), Andrew Nagorski discusses this problem especially in chapter four, «To Market,» pp. 145-178.

15 Josef Zverina, «On Not Living in Hatred,» in Vaclav Havel, cd.. The Power of the Powerless (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1990) p. 212.

16 Ibid., pp. 36-37.

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