Recorded just blocks from the Brandenburg Gate, NDI’s Robert Benjamin continues his discussion with Zuzana Papazoski about the fall of the Berlin wall and its effect on modern society. With so many questions surrounding democracy, are the lessons learned in the 1990’s still relevant?
Robert Benjamin: Hi, this is Robert Benjamin and we're returning to our conversation with Zuzana Papazoski, NDI’s representative in Central Europe.
I want to kind of go back to that notion of now and then because, you know we're in this period where there's a lot of questions about democracy, democracy's ability to kind of hold and keep that motivation going for people.
Are there any lessons from the 90s, we've been kind of talking about them, but are there any particular lessons from the 90s that you would think relevant now?
Zuzana Papazoski: Yes... it's like engagement, what we mentioned, that it's not in office and I have a quote our, our chair Secretary Albright who just said, “it's not enough to see and say but you have to do about it,” and it was the same with the communism. It wasn't enough to be something -
RB: Say something, do something is the third thing there.
ZP: Do something is I think the essential and this is what I think, kind of, is lacking now. Even back then wasn't enough to just complain about the regime at home unless there were people and, and it was again the younger generation that had to do, despite the snow and freezing temperatures, and risking their freedom and lives. They had to go out and be there. It wasn’t enough just to say it.
RB: And make it go places. They could go into civil society, they could go into political parties. Many people actually went into Parliament's as elected members and constructed the system of democratic governance, and I know you had a big role in supporting those efforts not only at home, but then you also we're working with NDI a little farther south, in the Balkans. If you ever seen, just to hear a little bit about your experiences where you're sort of looking not only at people being able to express their voices, but having that, having that access to political institutions and really defining what those institutions are doing.
ZP: So the institutions are crucial and, and frankly I think now our, you know, democracy maybe we were very naive and enthusiastic in the 90s. We didn't perceive democracy something that just not gives your rights and freedoms but there are certain responsibilities, and no one really thought of the responsibilities back then. As well it's clear and I think, like, with the recent developments in Central Europe and globally that the fight will be on ongoing, that there is never a moment where you can say that the job has been done. I think there are constantly new and new challenges ahead of us and still I feel lucky. Especially later working and spending time in the Western Balkans that, that there was understanding in Central Europe in order to live in democracy, you needed strong representative institutions.
Historically it is a much luckier region as the first Czechoslovak Republic from 1918 was one of the strongest democracies in Europe. You go to Poland, it’s the second oldest constitution in the world right after the Constitution of the United States -
RB: Going back to the 18th century.
ZP: Absolutely. Eighteenth century. Just like three years older than the U.S. Constitution if I remember it correctly. But basically there is a tradition. We had the First and Second World War, but we had a tradition we can kind of build on. And politicians back then understood how important it was to draw a quality Constitution, build strong and well resourced Parliament, how important it was to have independent judiciary, and those things, frankly, I took for granted. Going afterwards the Western Balkans were I would say the whole situation was much more complex.
RB: I mean the Balkans, 1989, actually was a different story. I mean it really opened up, yeah, it opened up a Pandora's box of a lot of conflicts that was latent and unaffectedly unresolved from World War II. A lot of it ethnic based, people will remember the war in Bosnia Herzegovina, later on the conflict in Kosovo. Central Europe also has a lot of ethnicities, minority groups, both ethnic and religious. Central Europe didn't have those conflicts or at least certainly not to the extent of violent conflict that unfortunately happened throughout former Yugoslavia, and you're sort of alluding to this, that there was a an ability to rely on new institutions to manage those things. But there was something probably social, social, social capital or other things that people had, you know, the ability to work with other people, I guess, basically.
ZP: Absolutely. It was the relations with the neighbors. We were lucky and this is why I would even say now that despite all the challenges we are seeing, I really believe that the society, especially in Central Europe, it's very resilient. We have seen it in recent elections, people like when the power is shared, when there is a pluralism of ideas and views.
Yes, there are there are many challenges ahead of us, and I think partially what is one of the leading ones, it's this disengagement and this apathy, in some cases, among the younger generation. Because maybe, and I think that was my, my story, that simply I've been active since my early childhood and I always felt that, you know, you have to do something in order to change it. I'm seeing now my generation, my classmates from school, you know, running for an elected office, my classmates from primary school, it's a mayor of Bratislava, I have many other friends and colleagues who, who simply ran successfully for an elected officer or active otherwise with the younger generation. I, I simply believe that for them, many the things we, we fought for, they take them for granted, simply. It's like when I heard as a kid stories from Second World War it's hard to imagine, like, how they explain to my kids that literally they had bananas maybe twice a year and just because you could produce them in Cuba? It's, it's totally different reality.
RB: It's a different world.
ZP: It's a totally different world and I think it's fine but any opportunity there is... if it's the climate change or any other projects that makes younger people, or even kids, engage and it gives them a voice, a tool that makes them included and, you know, we spoke about institution. I think it's incredibly crucial for institutions to find those tools and means how to not to be detached from people but to kind of bring them in so they have a voice. Even as kids, young adults because otherwise, otherwise, you know, we will see the populist party simply getting the support, galvanizing on the situation.
RB: You're raising a really interesting issue because I think it's certainly here this week in Berlin, running around as we are to a variety of different events and just talking with people. You know, there does seem, as I mentioned before, to be some questions really about democracy and how it is holding on here in Central Europe, particularly in the countries that you're working in. You know, there's a line of thought that says basically that governments in the region are dismantling democracy, that democracies kind of stopped. When you look at actions taken that many see to be compromising an independent judiciary, or an independent media, or in effect restricting or otherwise, you know, having a negative effect with civil society and really challenging principles like pluralism and having different views in accommodating and making room for people of different views to present their views, in those institutions, in the marketplace, a kind of closing is going on. Other people say, look, I mean this is a region that is unique, it's a region of countries and societies that have always been dominated by other powers. You don't have to look forward, in Germany there's, there's this former Soviet Union. We believe in democracy but we really believe in our national identity and we need security, and democracy kind of has to accommodate to that. I mean do you, how do you, how do you see things right now?
Are we in a period where democracy really is at risk? Or are we kind of on a winding path, and countries in the region are still kind of finding their way to a democracy that is strong, vibrant, and really speaks to what people want.
ZP: I personally am an optimist. I think this is much more, maybe it was inevitable. We had unexpected, we had unrealistic expectations.
RB: Secretary Albright said she's an optimist with a few concerns.
ZP: I totally, I can, I totally, yeah. I would say the same that we should be concerned. First of all if we are concerned, we have to do something about it. It's not enough to be concerned so whoever, you know, whatever tools you have, do something about it, and we at NDI, we do, you know, we deliver in variety of fields, engage in different communities. But I think this is just a process and maybe we have to earn it back and we have to speak more about 1989 and maybe I have to share more memories, my memories with my kids so it's not that it's something that, you know, it kind of makes them more grateful for everything that has been accomplished.
RB: Because they have, of course, some people under 35, anyway, have any memory of communism. They don't know where these, your countries, these countries have come from.
ZP: And the generation of like, my father he had to work for several months in a mine in order to be study medicine because his, his father was a doctor and it was impossible to have a line of doctors, you know, in a family.
RB: Because the state was deciding.
ZP: Yes. So he had to improve his background, he had to work several months in the mine. This sounds like science fiction but that's just a generation of my parents, you know. So maybe we should talk more to our kids and as well and I believe that we have to admit there was a segment of society that never dreamt the freedom, that maybe, you know, appreciated other values more like security and being taken care of, and especially for the older generation it was incredibly challenging.
RB: There's a sense of some people have been left behind.
ZP: I mean for sure and it was inevitable. You know, communism was a system that primarily praised those who were manually contributing to the development of the socialism. So people with vocational backgrounds, suddenly you had to flip and you had people with education had, you know, far better opportunities for transformation and to benefit from all the changes, younger generation, again, opportunities which are unthinkable for me as a child. So, so we need to, we need to appreciate
I'm definitely not a pessimist. I think that a lot has been accomplished. We have a much more realistic impression of what democracy is, what it needs, and we have to understand that we will have to work hard, you know.
RB: So one of the things that you're doing, of course, I mean as you know, is that, you know, NDI and you're leading our efforts to work with young people in Central Europe. People that, as we said, have no direct connection to 1989 or to the Communist past and there's really, you know, as we like to say, the need for a new narrative, that there is a need to reach young people different ways because their understanding is different from the older generation. So what are we doing? I know you've done some research, we're working with civic organizations, political parties. What do you see is sort of the new ways of doing politics to get young people engaged?
ZP: I think that all institutions no matter if it's political parties, parliament's, governments, have to create opportunities for engagement of young people and we at NDI, we are trying to encourage, explain to them why their voice is needed. And it goes from, you know, ballot box, as you mentioned, very important element to kind of being engaged in policy development process. You know, communicating with elected officials and representatives. So give them basically a stronger voice and as well encourage those who decide to go and take that path and responsibility to be there to support them.
Simply we cannot have democracy if we have a segment of society not represented. I think this is our future and the same way protests are always driven by the younger ones because they are the ones with energy who are less afraid, who are enthusiastic often, who have a better feel for what is justice is and what is solidarity. It is not a coincidence that most of these movements are driven by, really, the younger generation.