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May Books 10) Reclaiming Democracy

10) Reclaiming Democracy: Civil Society and Electoral Change in Central and Eastern Europe, edited by Joerg Forbrig and Pavol Demeš

A really good summary of the lessons for democratisation from the involvement of NGOs with the regime changes in Slovakia (1998), Croatia (2000), Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004). There’s a substantive chapter on each case, followed by a number drawing overall lessons. One overall conclusion made by several writers is that, far from the “colour revolutions” spreading, the remaining authoritarian leaderships in Eurasia have probably worked out how to prevent such changes of government from happening again (Belarus and Russia are often mentioned in this context). Each of the “revolutions” discussed benefited from a certain freedom in the media, which seems to me to be one of the key factors; sure, they all benefited from Western funding, but the same is true of many groups in countries which have failed to achieve regime change.

Ivan Krastev, in a typically thought-provoking final piece, makes the point that these revolutions should be seen not so much in the context of the transition from Communism in 1989-92, but more as European parallels to the recent left-wing changes of government in Latin America; in both cases, old corrupt elites booted out of office, though with the resulting governments going in opposite geopolitical directions on the two different sides of the Atlantic.

I’d have liked to see the authors explore two other questions. First, they all accept as fairly unproblematic the co-option of civil society on behalf of the opposition in an election campaign. Myself I think there are some consequences for the political neutrality of NGOs, and the political positioning of civil society as a whole. Second, while there is some discussion of the revolutions that didn’t happen, I missed any good unpacking of why the five cases under discussion are so different from, say, the overthrow of Ter-Petrossian in Armenia, or the BSP in Bulgaria, and Berisha’s previous government in Albania, all in 1997-98. I think myself that there is indeed a difference, but I would have liked it to be illustrated here.

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