NEW YORK – Twenty-four years ago this month, Soviet hardliners, desperate to stop the country’s nascent democratic transition, arrested Mikhail Gorbachev and declared martial law. In response, millions of protesters poured into the streets of Moscow and towns across the Soviet Union. Key elements of the army refused to accept the coup, and it soon collapsed – with the Soviet Union soon to follow.
Even though economic conditions were dire in the USSR’s final months, people could see the freedoms that were coming and, unlike today, were willing to stand up for them. Indeed, in the early years of the democratic transition that followed, most post-communist voters did not succumb to the temptation to elect extremists who promised to end the hard times they were enduring. Instead, they usually chose the most sensible candidate available.
Russians, for example, rejected Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a clownish Donald Trump-like nationalist and anti-Semite, in favor of Boris Yeltsin, who had stared down tanks during the failed 1991 coup and recognized that his country’s future lay with democracy and the West. In Romania, the extremist poet Corneliu Vadim Tudor lost to a succession of corrupt pragmatists, beginning with Ion Iliescu, who had led the ouster of the country’s last communist leader, Nicolae Ceaușescu.
Since then, the world has been turned upside down. As life has gotten easier, with people’s material expectations largely met, voters have increasingly favored neo-autocrats who promise to “protect” the people from this or that threat. Russian President Vladimir Putin, of course, leads this group, but there are also Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Czech President Miloš Zeman. And the trend extends beyond the former communist countries to include, for example, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.