We launched the Project on Democratic Transitions a decade ago in reaction to the fifteen years of dramatic change that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. The communist dictatorships of Europe and Eurasia had crumbled and been followed by encouraging movements towards democracy, culminating in Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution.” At the time, numerous analysts saw this as the wave of the future, not just in Europe/Eurasia but globally. In sharp contrast with the prior 15 years, the past decade has produced disappointed hopes and, in several countries, significant regression. This is true not only in the post-communist region but also in the Arab world and elsewhere. Based on these developments, one might even ask whether the Project should focus on authoritarian regression and the failures of democracy promotion abroad instead of “democratic transitions.”
Certainly, the global picture today is far less rosy than in the 1990s. Yet, viewed in the longer sweep of history, the post-communist transitions of the past 25 years represent a significant net progression. As eminent political scientist Samuel Huntington has documented, the story of democracy since the American and French revolutions has involved multi-decade waves of democratization as well as long “reverse waves.” Just as we have seen recently in post-communist Europe, these pull-backs have undone some – but by no means all – of the earlier progress. History also makes it clear that the road from autocracy to democracy is long and difficult, and that there is nothing inevitable about any given society choosing that road at all. External encouragement and support can at times make an important difference, as we saw in the spectacular democratization progress of 1989-2004 in most of the post-communist countries. But the ultimate task of democratic consolidation is mainly internal and there are thus major limits on what the U.S and other democracies can accomplish, even in the best of circumstances. And the present global context is substantially less favorable than it was in the 1990s. Currently, the Putin regime in Moscow is deeply committed to stifling democracy in its “Near Abroad,” most notably via its undeclared war in Ukraine, but also through less direct (but often effective) methods elsewhere. This counter-offensive explains some of the regression of the past decade, as well as the PDT’s increasing focus on geopolitics.
In honor of FPRI’s 60th anniversary, the present compilation provides a sampling of the work that the Project on Democratic Transitions has done over the past decade. The essays reprinted here are selected from among those published directly by FPRI, but I would also like to draw your attention to our numerous journal articles listed below. If these essays pique your interest, then I invite you to visit our web page here to learn more about our project, or to contact us. Please also consider becoming a member of FPRI, or a contributor at a higher level, and thus support the sustained production of high quality scholarship on these key issues.