01/06/2014 03:37 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2014

Rethinking Democracy in Europe

A generation of East-Central Europeans has grown up without any firsthand experience of Communism. They have been educated in schools that are connected Europe-wide through the Bologna process. They can get good jobs outside their countries. They increasingly think of themselves as European citizens (the younger they are, the more Euro-friendly they are, according to a 2012 Eurobarometer poll).

Not surprisingly, this generation looks at their world differently from their parents. Take the example of the Simeckas of Slovakia. Milan Simecka was a prominent dissident during the Communist period, someone who initially was connected to the "socialism with a human face" politics of 1968 and who ended up in prison like many of his compatriots. His son Martin Simecka grew up in dissidence. Together with his wife Marta, he was part of the pivotal generation that helped guide Slovakia into the era of democracy. And now Michal Simecka, the third generation, is working in Brussels after studying political science at Oxford.

The family thus represents in microcosm the evolution of politics in East-Central Europe: from reform Communism to the cusp of democracy and then into the European Union. In the same way that Istvan Szabo in the film Sunshine used the Sonnenschein family in Hungary to represent the country's path from the 19th century through World War II into the Communist era, an enterprising filmmaker could sit down with the Simeckas to describe the path of not only Slovakia but all of East-Central Europe into the 21st century.

Michal Simecka has thought a great deal about the meaning of democracy in Slovakia as well as Europe as a whole. "The main defining political struggle of my parents' generation was around values such as democracy and freedom against autocracy, against the state, but also against nationalism and other poisonous forces in politics," he told me in an interview in Bratislava in February when he was home from Brussels on a break. "Politics was defined by the struggle between these two very broad camps or set of ideas. I think this is an outdated paradigm. At some point we have to stop fighting for democracy and start looking at other aspects."

In other words, the current generation is in some sense still fighting yesterday's battles and employing yesterday's concepts. But the political conversation has moved on. "Lots of people in Slovakia still continue to perceive every political action, every political move, every election result through this prism: Will it enhance or will it weaken democracy?" Simecka pointed out. "Instead of asking, for example: Will our country's wealth be more equitably distributed as a result of the elections, or not?"

Since he's based these days in Brussels, he spends a lot of time thinking about how the EU could be more democratic - not by cutting back on the EU system but by enhancing it. "We need a more substantive and more multidimensional way of thinking about democracy, specifically one aspect of democracy completely absent from the paradigm in the 1990s and that's civic participation," he argues. "Here people think about democracy or the lack thereof mostly in terms of liberal values or the infringement of those values by the state. They don't think in terms of civic participation. To what extent can people take part in decisions? Or to what extent is there policy accountability? This requires a new mindset or a new conceptual framework for democracy."

We talked about what it was like to grow up in a family of dissidents, his research into civil society in the former Soviet Union, and why Slovak NGOs might be overhyping the efficacy of their opposition activities in the 1990s.

The Interview

You mentioned you were working on a paper about public perceptions here in Slovakia of the break-up in 1993. What are the main conclusions of your research in the paper?

The paper isn't about the break-up as such. It's more about where these two countries stand today, particularly Slovakia. The perception at least of people that I'm in touch with, my circle of friends and family, has changed quite dramatically. At first it seemed like a disaster. For some people, the disaster was the destruction of the Czech-Slovak state itself and this was the problem. But for most people the problem was not the disappearance of the country as such, but rather that Slovakia was now left with Vladimir Meciar, who could do whatever he pleased without Prague. So it was more a concern about what would happen to the country. That was back in the mid-1990s.

Now I think almost everybody agrees that it was, in retrospect, if not a good choice then at least not as bad as people thought at the time. But that was partly because Meciar was defeated in the 1998 elections. So today, the entire break-up is not seen as such a tragedy. Everybody emphasizes that the relations between Czechs and Slovaks are better than they ever were, and probably better than they would have been had the federation continued, because there would have been all these fights over prerogatives and the make-up of the institutions and all that. Obviously there are no wars anymore because we're in the Schengen, we're in the EU, so this is the narrative today, that all is good and well. Nobody is advocating a return to the federation. But at the time, it was pretty dramatic. I'm sure lots of people, my dad included, told you that it was pretty dramatic.

By the time the movement against Meciar started to come together, you were almost a teenager.

That was the problem, I was almost a teenager. I was not politically conscious at that moment. Had it been three or four years later, I would have probably been part of it or at least aware of it. But at the time, I was just consumed by football. I do remember the 1994 elections, which went so badly. When Meciar won, the mood was sour and everybody was apocalyptic. I don't really remember the mobilization campaign. Had it happened two or three years earlier, I probably would be much more active in it. I do recall the 1998 elections and the hype around it. I remember the tension, because we didn't know what Meciar would do, if he would send tanks into the city if he lost. We always had parties in the garden of our house after these elections where lots of people gathered and watched the elections.

But this mobilization campaign of the NGOs was actually part of my Master's thesis at Oxford. It was not about Slovakia per se, but about the idea of these civic movements and how the ideas spread to other countries, like Ukraine in the Orange Revolution. So I got to know quite a lot about that, though from research not participation. This was a unique moment in the modern history of our country when dozens of different NGOs and groups came together to make this campaign. On the other hand, and this was part of my conclusion after I did this research, there's been a lot of ex-post PR by the people who were part of the mobilization effort, and not all of it entirely accurate. The NGOs certainly helped, especially to drive up voter turnout, because the logic was that a higher turnout would contribute to Meciar losing since his voting base was more disciplined. But if the political parties had not been able to unite, the entire mobilization campaign would have been pointless. The NGOs don't give enough credit to the opposition politicians. Also, there's a self-interest in promoting the story of how civil-society mobilization defeated Mečiar, because then they got money from donors to share their experience and do the same thing in Serbia, Croatia, Ukraine, and Georgia.

Didn't the opposition politicians do the same in order to get money from, for instance, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute?

I'm not sure the political parties got money. They had other channels of getting funding from privatization deals and so on. I know about the civil-society segment of the opposition, because I did research on them and interviews with them, including with U.S. people. I don't deny that it was a historic moment and that the NGOs played a major part in it. It's just that it's being a bit hyped.

Also, when you look at the various factors that contributed to Mečiar's defeat, one of the reasons why I would argue that the NGO effect was over-interpreted is that Slovakia's potential exclusion from the EU enlargement process was the biggest driver of change. This is sometimes forgotten, that all of this opposition mobilization was influenced by the conditionality from Brussels. And NATO as well.

Do you think that this has had any negative consequences? It's one thing to oversell a role that the NGOs play in terms of distorting what happened. But do you think it had negative impact beyond simply a distorted narrative?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.