Opening remarks at "The State of Democracy in East-Central Europe: Thirty Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall"

20 November 2019
Brussels, Belgium


Kevin Casas-Zamora Credit: © European Union/ Giedre Daugelaite
Kevin Casas-Zamora.  Credit: © European Union/ Giedre Daugelaite


Dear President Lambertz,

Distinguished speakers and attendees,

Allow me to welcome you to this conference commemorating the 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I would like to start by acknowledging the presence of the former heads of governments from Romania, Czechia, former foreign ministers, the human rights Commissioner of Poland, the Vice-President of the European Parliament, and all the distinguished members of the audience for being here with us. Their presence at this conference will help us revive the spirit of Europe’s Miracle Year of 1989 and examine the events with the reflections from those who were leading and participating in those deeply transformative events.

On the 9th November of 1989, Europe and the world saw one of its most defining moments in recent history—the fall of the Berlin Wall—the wall that for almost three decades stood as the symbol of artificial separation of Europe, of the deprivation of millions of citizens of their fundamental rights and freedoms, and of the oppression perpetrated by the totalitarian regimes that dominated the countries on the east side of the wall.

I remember that day very well not simply for the obvious reasons. I’m a child of the Cold War in a more direct way that you may imagine. My father was a Cuban exile. For us, at home, the perversion of totalitarianism, as represented by the Wall, was a very personal thing. For my father and my family, the fall of the Wall was a sign that the arc of history could indeed bend in the direction of justice and freedom; a sign that a twisted political system that had to confine its subjects in order to survive was not an inevitable fact of life or the design of inscrutable gods, but a human creation that could be dismantled by human agency.

This is something that we tend to forget. While the date of the demise of the wall is significant and symbolic, we should never overlook that the Wall tumbled under the pressure and determination of citizens on both sides of the divide; it fell because of the tireless work and sacrifice of thousands of pro-democracy leaders, activists, organizers, citizens, determined to regain their freedom and dignity after years of oppression and suppression of their fundamental rights.

It may be worth to remember that a symbolic pan-European picnic was organized at the border between Austria and Hungary in August of 1989; that also in August of 1989, 2 million people formed a real human chain, spreading nearly 700 kilometers, across the three Baltic states; that roundtable discussions in Hungary and in Poland took place throughout 1989.

These are but a few of the examples of the events of unprecedented civic courage, mass mobilization and artful political negotiation with the representatives of ruling regimes, which took place all across East-Central Europe during the months and years preceding the November 1989. And also before that: we ought to remember the workers that refused to stay silent in the shipyards of Gdansk in 1980, or the founders of Charter 77 that passed hand to hand samizdat copies of forbidden texts, or the masses that stood up to the tanks in Budapest in 1956 and in Prague in 1968, and paid the ultimate price in order to reveal the brutality and fundamental weakness of their political system.

Each and every one of these acts—individual or collective—merits commemoration and celebration so that their spirit and lessons live on.

In the 30 years since 1989, countries in Central and Eastern Europe have gone through rapid democratization, and profound economic reforms, while the rest of Europe also saw its democracies deepen further and European unity strengthened.

Indeed, Europe is currently the region with largest number of high-performing democracies. We know this, because, just yesterday we launched here in Brussels our GSoD Report 2019, which contains a very comprehensive health check of democracy in the world. I won’t go into many details, because my colleague San van der Staak, the Head of International IDEA’s Regional Europe Program, will soon make a presentation about our flagship report and its findings. By the way, copies of our report are available for your review outside this hall as well as online. I certainly hope that you will check it out and use it for your work.

For now, I’m only going to say that our data shows that while Europe is still one of the great democratic regions of the world, over the past decade the quality of these democracies has often shown signs of stagnation and at times erosion and backsliding.

Within Europe, the East-Central region has been most affected by these declines, particularly in democratic attributes such as Civil Liberties, Freedom of Expression, and Media Integrity. In many European countries, as well as in other regions, it is increasingly evident that the distortion of true democratic debate by the spread of fake news or populist discourses is posing a massive challenge for the quality, and even the survival of democracy.

And here perhaps we should state what I think is one of the lessons of these turbulent times. I have the impression that rather than the idea of democracy itself being in crisis, it is the idea of the inevitable triumph of democracy that is under siege. Democracy had a good run in the final quarter of the 20th Century, and as it happened with capitalism, we thought that the good times would go on forever. Well, history has a way of reminding us that human projects are never so smooth and so simple.

The truth is that there is nothing inevitable about the advance of democracy. The notion that all human beings are endowed with equal dignity and with the same right to participate in collective decisions; the notion that political power ought to be limited if it is to remain legitimate; the idea that the best protection for human dignity is not tribal bonds, but the existence of a body of rights, protected by law, in the face of which we are all equal; all of those are very new ideas that in many respects swim against powerful tides in human nature.

Inequality, the exercise of raw power, and allegiance to tribe and to those who are exactly like us, are the historical norm. We should always remember that the spread of democracy is an enormous victory against dark forces in our nature. Now all those ancestral forces are rearing their head again in different places around the world. Democracy is not spontaneous—it must be willed and it must be built. The recent history of East and Central Europe offers a particularly stark reminder of the importance of this lesson.

This conference, which we are co-hosting today with the Committee of the Regions, aims to contribute to building greater consensus among policymakers, the thought leaders and regular citizens on the course of democratization in East and Central Europe over the past three decades. In so doing, it aims to form the basis for more open debate on how to reinvigorate the quality of democracies in the region and in wider Europe.

We at International IDEA look forward to working with you in the future to help power the indispensable collective effort to deepen democracy across Europe. As with the rest of our work at International IDEA, we hope that this conversation will help, even in a small way, to revive the democratic promise that moved millions of people to tear down walls of oppression 30 years ago.

Thank you all for being here.

About the Speaker

Kevin Casas-Zamora

Dr Kevin Casas-Zamora is the Secretary-General of International IDEA since 1 August 2019.