Is Eastern Europe a model for Arab Spring?

WARSAW, Stephen Collinson- From behind the former Iron Curtain, President Barack Obama warned the Arab Spring may spawn a "one step forward, two steps back" struggle for democracy and said revolutionaries must heed eastern Europe's "inspiration."
The White House had framed Obama's four-nation European tour, especially a wrap-up stop Saturday in ex-communist Poland, as a chance to establish a roadmap for the future of transition nations like Tunisia and Egypt.

Is Eastern Europe a model for Arab Spring?
"What you have is a process that's not always smooth. There are going to be twists and turns," Obama said in a trip-ending news conference in Warsaw.
"There are going to be occasions where you take one step forward and two steps back -- sometimes you take two steps forward and one step back.
"What's required I think is, number one, understanding that you have to institutionalize this transformation."
But officials and analysts warned that while the eastern European model offers a hopeful narrative for North Africa and the Middle East, there are as many inconsistencies as there are parallels.
US officials argue that the transition from communist, centrally-planned economies to free market democracies undergone by many ex-Warsaw Pact nations since the fall of the Berlin Wall, may provide a rough blueprint for the Arab world.
The growth of civil society movements, the formation of electoral and governance systems, and sometimes rocky transitions to stable nations were all experienced in eastern Europe after the Cold War.
Now, multilateral organizations like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development that helped bankroll the European transition, are being pressed into service in a new age of turmoil.
"Some of the very same institutions and infrastructure that was set up to support democratic transitions in Europe, in Eastern Europe in particular, are now being reoriented towards the south," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor.
Yet, even as America and its allies seek parallels and hope from eastern Europe's emergence, the inconsistencies of the approach are clear.
Some Arab states lack the national identity that communist nations were able to preserve despite years of Soviet domination.
Others are riven by tribal and ethnic divides that had been settled in some Eastern European nations.
Where those ethnic fault lines did fracture in Europe, in the former Yugoslavia, years of brutal war offer testimony to the sometimes treacherous path towards democratization.
The arrest of Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic while Obama was in Europe offered a reminder that when states and authority fracture, the results can be dangerous, unpredictable and bloody.
The eastern Europe of today, with functioning economies, despite some social problems that are a legacy of the Soviet years, also took a long time coming -- over 20 years and counting.
And whether religion, in a region challenged by conflicts over faith and radical Islam, will be a positive force in forging stability in the Arab world, remains to be seen.
One rallying force the Arab world has, and post-Soviet Europe did not, is the Internet and the political power of social media in politics, already a key factor in revolutions like Egypt's.
"There are vast differences between Central and Easten Europe and the Middle East and North Africa so it's not an analogy that one should overstress," said Mike Froman, another senior Obama administration official.
But Froman, a deputy national security advisor for international economics added: "In terms of moments in time when important democratic and economic transitions begin, this is a comparable moment."
In one sense, the Arab Spring/post-communist Europe analogy has done its job -- galvanizing Western states to promise the Arab world $40 billion dollars (28 billion euros) in development and democracy funding at the G8 summit in France.
Jan Techau, who runs the European branch of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said eastern European states could provide lessons in grass-roots civil society and democratic development.
But he added there was a danger of taking the comparison too far.
"The cases are very, very different, the starting points that these countries come from are very, very different," Techau said.

Sunday, May 29th 2011
Stephen Collinson

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