This week the world celebrates 30 years since the moment that symbolized the end of communism in Eastern Europe. The fall of the Berlin Wall was an inflection point for citizens across the former Soviet bloc who organized to demand freedom. As democracy spread in the years that followed, Europe’s trajectory as a continent — whole, free, and at peace — seemed secure, so much so that “the end of history” was proclaimed.
But today, even as Europeans celebrate this momentous occasion, the euphoria of 1989 has given way to worries of democratic setbacks in the same countries that were once the bright lights of liberal transformation.
Self-proclaimed “illiberal” regimes in Hungary and Poland are rolling back judicial independence, clamping down on independent media, and changing electoral rules to stifle political opposition. The Czech Republic and Slovakia are struggling with oligarchy and corruption that have shaken their democracies to their core.
Across the region a resurgent Russia menaces Western-aligned regimes and values, including through its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Western Europe is not immune to the illiberal turn either: from Germany to France and the United Kingdom, societies are grappling with how to handle increasingly powerful populist and nationalist movements.
In these turbulent times for democracy in Europe, the lessons of how democracy was won in 1989 are newly relevant. Once more, local pro-democracy stakeholders supported by international actors must mobilize, this time to hang on to hard-won freedom. In our new Brookings Institution report, The Democracy Playbook, we put forward a series of strategies for how domestic players across Europe, with the support of international institutions, can recapture democratic momentum.
First, the lessons of history (as bolstered by social science research from the past decade) show that nonviolent civil resistance remains perhaps the most powerful tool to promote democracy. To strengthen civil society’s efforts in a time of democratic backsliding, groups should be prepared to use wide-ranging nonviolent tactics like the massive street protests in Slovakia last year that brought a pro-democratic and anti-corruption president to power.
Opposition leaders should seek broad and diverse participation in their activities from across the political and social spectrum and should make decisions in a manner that is transparent and inclusive, themselves embodying the change they wish to see in their democracies.
Second, the fight for democracy must also take place within formal political channels and institutions. Political parties have a responsibility to infuse their work with the same spirit of activism and desperate optimism as street protesters.
Examples are seen in the vigor and smarts of the opposition in Poland, where unification around a positive pro-democracy message just caused the ruling PiS party to lose the Senate in national elections. Even in Hungary, where liberal institutions are far more degraded, a passionate and unified opposition had its biggest wins in a decade in local elections this fall. The ruling Fidesz party lost across major cities, including the mayoral seat in Budapest.
Wherever these kinds of gains occur, they should be consolidated to address democratic institutions that have fallen into disrepair, pushing for steps like ensuring broad access to the vote and regulating the role of money in politics to restore trust in the democratic system.
Third, as civil society actors in Central and Eastern Europe face increasing repression, international institutions have a key role to play in supporting domestic pro-democracy groups and independent media. International actors including donors, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and government officials should issue systematic, coordinated and high-level responses to signs of restrictions on NGO or media activities. They should also vocally promote laws that safeguard NGOs, activists and journalists.
International actors must also start looking beyond just the usual handful of partners in capital cities. We must address the divide between support for liberalism in larger cities and resistance to it elsewhere. That means doing the painstaking work of building support for local pro-democracy voices — including seeking out new or growing local groups.
The history of 1989 shows that student groups, local businesses, and universities are important actors in the fight for democracy. International donors should include these nontraditional groups when designing support programs. And those donors should help local organizations build basic capacities in financial management and human resources so they can be better equipped to work with local constituencies effectively.
Three decades after the end of the Cold War, governments and international actors that were once champions of democratic openings across Central and Eastern Europe have weakened in their support and in their standard-setting behavior. Their inability to uphold democratic norms further complicates democracy-promotion efforts.
A new democracy playbook must not only push back against illiberal governments but also renew the promise and resiliency of democratic institutions. The far-reaching consequences of a decade-long run of authoritarian resurgence makes reenergizing liberal democracy in the trans-Atlantic space all the more necessary.
Thirty years since the fall of the Wall, the stakes have seldom been higher.