Thirty years ago this June 4, Poland held its first honest election since the country was subjugated by Stalin and communism was imposed on an unwilling society. The election results were an across-the-board sweep for the anti-communist forces led by the Solidarity trade union movement. Communist power was shattered. Poland qualified as the first in a series of Soviet puppet state dominoes to topple throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Six months later, nothing remained of the archipelago of satellite regimes that the Red Army had imposed after World War II, and shortly thereafter, Western-style democracies prevailed throughout the region.
That seminal moment is worth remembering and reassessing today, as we are living through a period in which democracy is in retreat around the world, modern dictatorships have armored themselves against similar breakthroughs, and many American elites on both the Left and the Right show little interest in supporting struggles for freedom abroad.
In retrospect, the 1989 election results seem inevitable. Poles had a visceral hatred of communism and an intense antipathy towards Russia, their historical adversary. Under President Reagan, the United States had maintained (sometimes wavering) support for Poland’s democratic opposition. In the Vatican, Pope John Paul II, the former Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, pursued a shrewd campaign for Polish freedom. The Polish economy—an obsolete heavy industry model imposed by the Kremlin—was in tatters.
Yet decades of repression, foreign control, and impoverishment were not enough to convince officials in Washington and Warsaw that communism’s time had run out. In both capitals, political leaders and diplomats anticipated a victory for the communists as the party of stability. After nearly a decade of inconclusive strikes and protests, the Polish United Workers’ Party, as the communists were formally known, seemed to hold the upper hand. The leadership had been challenged in the streets and had not succumbed. Communist self-assurance was reinforced by the party’s control over election mechanics. In negotiations between Solidarity and the leadership, the regime extracted important concessions, including the right to a share of power no matter the outcome and a stipulation that opposition candidates would run not under the Solidarity banner but as unaffiliated independents. Furthermore, the communists enjoyed the many advantages of four decades of total state domination and boasted a sizable cadre of active members who, if no longer true believers in socialism, had powerful career stakes in continued Party rule. In Washington, State Department officials, some of whom were weary of Poland’s state of permanent economic disarray and Solidarity’s defiance, were convinced that Poles would opt for economic security and order.
The pessimism that dominated diplomatic thinking reflected a conviction that Moscow retained a level of control over its empire that could resist the challenge of a popular movement like Solidarity. Belief in the enduring nature of the Cold War division of the world was not limited to the diplomatic corps. Scholars with stellar reputations as experts on East European affairs were nearly unanimous in dismissing iconoclastic scenarios of an impending breakup of the Soviet empire, much less of the USSR itself.
In fact, Poland had changed in ways that those schooled in the idea of a permanent East-West divide had failed to grasp. The opposition operated within a parallel society. Solidarity could communicate with its own media, influence the course of events through a respected national leadership and regional structures led by Solidarity officials, convey an alternate interpretation of history through a network of educational projects, and deal as an independent force with foreign governments. It had survived martial law and the arrest of Lech Walesa and other top officials. By 1989, Solidarity had demonstrated that, while it could be checked, it could not be beaten.
Solidarity also stood as inspiration for democratic movements elsewhere in the world, not only in the Soviet sphere, but in countries as diverse as South Korea, the Philippines, and Chile. The elements that made possible the peaceful overthrow of a communist regime were dissected and identified as the elements that could bring down dictatorships in other settings, whether the system was totalitarian or just an old-fashioned military junta.
Solidarity was a national movement which had traditional ambitions for freedom, independence, and sovereignty. Its success depended on a leadership that was at once courageous and prudent, especially in holding to a strategy of non-violence in the face of regime provocation. It also depended on allies—both powerful states and a network of independent trade unions across the democratic world which had resources, influence, and a tradition of international solidarity.
Among the keys to Solidarity’s success, the following were crucial:
- Solidarity’s status as a national movement. While it was popular among industrial workers, it also enjoyed the support of the democratic intelligentsia, a group which ranged from Catholic thinkers to former communists to liberals to aspiring entrepreneurs. Even under martial law, the authorities could only do so much to counter this resistance.
- An opposition media of unusual diversity and reach. The Solidarity underground press included regional and local publications, nationwide bulletins, and journals aimed at targeted audiences—Catholics, members of the security forces, the military, even communist functionaries.
- International labor solidarity. While some democratic governments, West Germany most notably, regarded Solidarity as an annoying obstacle to improved relations with Moscow and kept it at arm’s length, the trade union movements of Europe and especially the United States were generous with material and moral support throughout Poland’s time of troubles. Lane Kirkland, the president of the AFL-CIO, was the most stalwart advocate within the democratic labor movement—indeed, he stood as Solidarity’s most vocal supporter in the free world. American and foreign labor movements gave millions of dollars for the underground press and to support imprisoned activists. In the United States, organized labor maintained pressure on political leaders when hints of irresoluteness rose to the surface.
- International broadcasting. Since the 1950s, Radio Free Europe, the BBC, and other international broadcasting stations had exerted a powerful influence on political life in Poland. Indeed, RFE functioned as a kind of opposition press, more credible and with a greater audience than any of the communist propaganda organs. RFE’s Polish language service was regarded as “our media” by the opposition. It earned this status through coverage that balanced a message about the superiority of democracy, Polish patriotism, and the idea that Polish problems must ultimately be resolved by Poles themselves. Once Solidarity was in business, RFE devoted hours of coverage to its actions and statements, and to the reactions of the Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States. The combined appeal of international broadcasters and the underground press ensured that Solidarity, and not the communists, prevailed in the information war.
- American diplomacy. The strikes that triggered Solidarity’s formal existence took place in the waning months of the Carter presidency. The initial response of the American foreign policy community was marked by apprehension and ambivalence. Commentators fretted over the AFL-CIO for its full-throated declarations of support, arguing that if American unions felt it necessary to assist besieged Polish workers, they should do so quietly, without drawing parallels between free labor unions and broader democratic freedoms. Under Reagan, American support was more forthcoming. Throughout the crisis the Administration held to a policy of modulated support, calibrated sanctions, covert and open assistance to the union, and presidential statements calling on Moscow to “tear down this wall” and give the satellites their independence. With the 1983 creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Administration sent an important signal that as a matter of national policy democracy promotion was to be integrated into American diplomacy.
The Solidarity revolution was among a series of upheavals that took place in the period from the mid-1980s to 2004 in which pro-democracy movements pushed aside dictatorships and ushered in elections and civilian government. Democratic change swept through South America, most notably in Chile, where the Pinochet regime failed in a referendum that would have meant the prolongation of dictatorship for years. In Asia, South Korea and Taiwan shed long standing military rule while in the Philippines the Marcos regime collapsed after the Reagan Administration gave it a final push.
At the time, the abject collapse of dictatorships across the globe seemed to validate the preeminence of democratic capitalism and signal a repudiation of the once-dominant faith in statism as a driver of economic advancement in the less-developed world. Optimists could also point to two relatively new phenomena, the internet and global civil society, to bolster their expectations of further gains for democracy and a consolidation of democratic government in the new wave of free states. With the introduction of the internet, many believed that technology had given birth to an information instrument that could render any kind of state control impossible. Likewise, many experts came to regard global civil society as an unstoppable force for liberalism, more powerful than the nation state itself. Eventually, civil society was put to the test and played critical roles in bringing down strongmen or corrupt leaderships in Serbia, where student activists organized a campaign that triggered the downfall of Slobodan Milošević in 2000, and in Ukraine, where reformers played a pivotal role in ensuring that the 2004 elections were not stolen through fraud, in one of the first color revolutions.
The proposition that authoritarian methods were destined for history’s dustbin also represented confidence in the broad appeal of liberal values. The optimism of the 1990s, however, appears naive when viewed through the lens of recent developments. Freedom House has identified a decline in global democracy that has extended over the past 13 years. While the decline has affected every region, it has been especially pronounced in Central Europe and the Balkans, including in countries like Hungary and Poland—success stories of post-Cold War democracy.
In a number of societies, democracy has been supplanted by what has been called modern authoritarianism. Modern authoritarianism can be summed up as effective political control with minimal bloodshed and overt repression, or as an illusion of pluralism that masks state domination of key political institutions.
Modern authoritarianism is durable. A trend of the 21st century is for new democracies—and some older democracies as well—to become progressively less free and repressive regimes to become more repressive. Once the slide towards autocracy gets underway, reversals are rare, and the trajectory is typically towards more control, more repression, fewer independent voices, and more kleptocracy and cronyism.
Modern authoritarians—Putin, Orban, Erdogan, Xi Jinping—are focused on retaining power. They are careful students of recent history, and are especially interested in the dynamics of the Solidarity revolution and the color revolutions in Serbia and Ukraine. In China, cadres are indoctrinated in the lessons of the Soviet system’s collapse. Putin is fixated on Western schemes to foment a copycat version of the Polish or Ukrainian upheavals in Russia. His military has incorporated plans against color revolution as part of its overall defense strategy and his regime has sponsored international conferences at which China, Iran, and other repressive governments discuss strategies to forestall such threats.
Modern authoritarians, in other words, are determined that there be no Solidarity-esque movements in their territory, no romantic figures like Lech Walesa, no significant opposition media. Putin has appropriated Russian nationalism as a central governing idea and has worked tirelessly to identify his government with Christian values and the Russian Orthodox Church. Likewise, Viktor Orban has embraced “Christian values” as a core governing idea while Erdogan calls his regime Islamist, has championed the Muslim Brotherhood, and identifies his rule with the Ottomans. Putin, Orban, Erdogan, and Chavez have all made media control a centerpiece through the marginalization of opposition outlets, the forced nationalization of foreign-owned media, and absolute control over the commanding heights of television and, increasingly, the internet. For Solidarity, the underground press was an instrument to inform people of one region about protests taking place in another—in other words, to be the connecting link in a national movement of resistance. For Beijing, an overriding goal is the prevention of strikes or industrial protest movements from migrating beyond the local level. Even before Xi Jinping, information strategy was designed to forestall a national workers’ movement.
Putin and others like him have also worked diligently to destroy civil society as an incubator of citizen-driven reform. In Russia, Putin has imposed wave after wave of laws that choke off funding for civil society organizations, limit their sphere of operation, and criminalize protest rallies and opposition assemblies—all in the name of countering color revolutions and “reinforcing sovereignty.” Viktor Orban has treated civil society—not the political opposition—as enemy number one through his ongoing Stop Soros campaign. As for trade unions, today’s autocrats have ensured that they are weak or led by regime loyalists. One of Hugo Chavez’s first orders of business upon assuming power was to replace independent unions with his own pliant entities.
The erosion of faith in liberal democracy as the ideal governing system is not limited to authoritarian-minded political leaders in Italy and Hungary; it’s also happening in the United States. Despite its status as a movement of the industrial working class, Solidarity received overwhelming support from American conservatives, especially the Reagan Administration. In the 21st century, however, U.S. faith in democracy has been declining—first under the Obama Administration and more so under Trump. Furthermore, as Gabe Schoenfeld has noted in these pages, there is now a group of vocal intellectuals who prefer various forms of autocracy and champion illiberal leaders like Orban.
This means that authoritarians face less opposition from abroad than they used to—and that relative lack of opposition seems to have had an emboldening effect. Until recently, a distinguishing feature of modern authoritarianism was the ruling group’s ability to consolidate political power without resorting to the brutal tactics that defined the mainstream dictatorships of the 20th century. Yet over the past few years, we have seen a reemergence of older methods of social control. The most extreme example is the establishment of concentration camps in Western China for the reeducation of Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups. In Russia, the roster of political prisoners grows steadily, as does the list of journalists and political dissidents who have been threatened, attacked, killed, or forced into exile. In Hungary, the Fidesz government has passed new laws that weaken judicial independence and consolidate the ruling party’s control over the media. In Turkey, Erdogan has imprisoned journalists and overruled the results of a democratic election. And in Venezuela, the Maduro regime has created something akin to an old-style Latin American military dictatorship.
Thus regimes that previously rationed violations of democratic norms are increasingly baring their fangs to their own people and the rest of world. Given the wavering commitment to freedom in Europe and the United States, there is not much comfort in the fact that repressive regimes are fundamentally more unstable and vulnerable to breakdowns than democracies. The Solidarity experiment was a noble success. And today, people are in the streets seeking democratic change in countries as different as Venezuela, Sudan, and Algeria. Major authoritarian governments may collapse in the face of economic crises, popular protests, or succession battles. But in the absence of international pressure and support, and a will to win equal to what we see in Russia, China, and Hungary, a democratic outcome in the near future is in serious doubt.