Communism collapsed first in Eastern Europe in 1989-1990 and then in the Soviet Union in 1991.
In short order, the Soviet Union dissolved, as did Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Germany reunified. Governments throughout the region held free elections. Many began to hope that these societies could become flourishing democracies and market economies. Eastern Europe freed itself from the Soviet yoke, embraced Western ideals of markets and democracy, and sought to “return to Europe.”
Democracy and the free market prevail
The world celebrated these changes not just as victories for democracy and the free market, but also as the triumph of Western ideological and political influence over Soviet domination. Many analysts on both sides of the Atlantic credited President Ronald Reagan for pursuing hawkish policies that brought the Soviet economy to its knees. Some pointed to Reagan’s historic 1987 speech in Berlin, when he demanded that embattled Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall.”
Democracy, markets and administrative reforms did flourish, and Western influence led the way. In many countries, elites across the political spectrum united to implement market reforms and support membership in the European Union. Governments even emulated Western political institutions, such as electoral rules, regulatory agencies or regional administrations.
Where they did not, the United States and the E.U. used sticks and carrots to encourage reforms. In recognition of these new commitments, 10 former Soviet bloc countries joined NATO from 1999-2004, and three others followed. On May 1, 2004, eight of these countries also joined the E.U. in the first wave of accession, and three more joined by 2013.
But the sense of victory was short-lived. Three decades after the euphoria of the Berlin Wall’s fall, democratic erosion — not democratic consolidation — appears in the region’s headlines. The ruling party in Hungary has been dismantling the institutions of liberal democracy since 2010 and consolidating its grip on power in ways that would make its autocratic communist predecessors blush with envy.
Putin’s Russia, not the United States or the West, is the new influence in the region, both politically and militarily. Putin allies himself with political parties, funds populist politicians, interferes in elections and even helped to launch coups.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014 evoked the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War and left yet another frozen conflict on Russia’s borders. Leaders such as Czech President Milos Zeman or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban happily spout Putin’s talking points and defend “illiberal democracy.”
To be sure, there are reasons for optimism about the future of democracy in the region: the election of an anti-corruption president in Slovakia, Romania’s anti-corruption efforts, and the continued flourishing of the Baltic Republics despite their enormous and hostile neighbor. But democracy, free markets and administrative reforms are no longer the clear endpoint for post-communist Europe.
What happened to democracy?
So what caused this backsliding? The dominance of liberal ideas became the victim of its own success.
First, the consensus of political elites in post-communist Europe on market reforms and E.U. accession ironically fueled the anti-democratic resurgence. Their unanimity meant that there were few mainstream domestic critics of these projects. The exception were largely populist parties, which decried E.U. and NATO accession as selling out sovereignty. In the run-up to accession, populist parties found themselves on the political margin, dismissed as extremist and anti-democratic.
Once some mainstream political parties showed themselves to be corrupt and incompetent, however, their populist critics gained new prominence and credibility. In several countries, they were elected to government — and promptly began to undermine democratic institutions in the name of defending national interests. As a result, illiberal populists are now eroding democracy even in countries that were once the poster children of early democratic reform, such as Poland and Hungary.
Second, the apparent triumph of democracy and markets in Europe led to complacency in the E.U. and the United States. The E.U. took note of the democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary, but has done little to sanction these wayward governments.
For its part, the United States underestimated Russia’s disruptive potential. George W. Bush described Putin on several occasions as being naive and making “juvenile” arguments. Despite his campaign promises to take a hard line on Russia, Bush failed to take any decisive action when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. President Obama then dismissed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 as a “regional power” lashing out in weakness.
Analysts debate who “lost Russia.” But this is a misplaced argument; the West never “had” Russia. Russia’s governments never invested in the West’s dual projects of democracy and the market. Even Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, whom the Clinton administration praised for promoting U.S. interests in the 1990s, lacked commitment to fair elections and a free market. Yeltsin empowered the oligarchs that profited from Russia’s stalled transition to capitalism — and anointed the deeply illiberal Vladimir Putin as his successor.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall meant enormous new opportunities to build broader markets and new democracies — but it also allowed for the establishment of illiberal regimes and Russia’s resurgent influence. As we are learning across the world, democracy is not an irrevocable achievement. This is especially the case among newly democratized countries in the shadow of an aggressive and autocratic power. Democracy, like walls, must be fortified to persist.