Reflecting on the fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years on (w/ Brian Atwood & Ken Wollack)

Left to right: Former NDI President Brian Atwood, Current NDI President Derek Mitchell, Former NDI President Kenneth Wollack

In this special episode of Demworks, NDI President Derek Mitchell is joined by his predecessors at NDI, Brian Atwood and Ken Wollack. The three discuss the years before and after November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall fell. Together on this anniversary, they take stock, talking about the evolution of NDI’s work around this period, discussing the specific cases that helped shape the Institute, and reflecting on lessons learned given the state of democracy today.

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Derek Mitchell: Hello, my name is Derek Mitchell and I'm President of the National Democratic Institute. In this very special Demworks episode I'm honored to talk to two of the legends and deep founders of the democracy development business, Brian Atwood and Ken Wollack. They also happen to be my predecessors here at NDI.

The three of us will discuss the years before and after November 9th, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall fell. To those of a certain age, the fall of the wall, 30 years ago, was unimaginable. It was a pivotal moment, not just for Europe, but for the world, as it foreshadowed the imminent end of the Cold War, led to triumphant assertions of the end of history, and heralded to some the inevitable spread of democracy around the world. We at NDI have always known it wouldn't be so easy and no two people understood that better than my two predecessors at NDI. So I wanted to bring them together on this anniversary to take stock, to talk about the evolution of NDI’s work around this period, discuss the specific cases that helped shape this institute, and reflect on lessons learned given the state of democracy today.

Brian Atwood is currently on NDI’s board and teaches at Brown University. He is a former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Clinton administration and Dean at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Most importantly, he was NDI's first president from 1986 to 1993.

Ken Wollack, for those just being introduced to NDI, is my immediate predecessor as president of the Institute. He held the position from the time Brian departed in 1993 until just last summer, or a summer ago. For over three decades, Ken was instrumental in shaping NDI to what it is today and for that there are multitudes who are grateful including myself. Ken was recently elected chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates and currently serves on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy, NDI’s parent organization.

I'm really looking forward to this conversation and thank my good friends for joining us today. Thank you, Brian. Thank you, Ken.

Brian Atwood & Ken Wollack: Thank you.

DM: Brian, let me start with you. November 9, 1989, 30 years ago, do you remember where you were on that date and the reaction within NDI when the Wall fell?

BA: Well, I don't remember specifically where I was on November 9, but we had just been working a lot in, obviously, the Philippines where there was a snap election and we were called upon to observe it and sent a delegation over there. That was the first time we ever had a USAID grant which was interesting because they were reluctant for a new organization. We had very few people and we managed to get some election experts to do a preview of whether or not it could be a free and fair election and we all know what happened. After that it was a very, very heady experience because the People Power Revolution, I believe, wouldn't have happened if we hadn't brought in an international delegation to observe that election. Then Chile came along and we did a lot of work, not only in Chile where there was a referendum on Pinochet, but also in Argentina and other places where the military was losing power. So we were developing a reputation at that point. Then the wall came down and it just took off from there. We started with five people here at NDI and we did the whole Philippines and Chile thing with maybe ten people and from that point on it just grew and the wall coming down, of course, was a very important aspect of that. It was a metaphor for what happened in Central and Eastern Europe all over. The wall coming down was the last and the most dramatic thing that happened, but Poland had already moved and Hungary and other places in Eastern Europe where we were working. So it was an exciting time. In fact, as I look at my career, being in government and other places it's probably the most exciting thing that I've ever done is to be here at NDI and see the actual changes we could make on the ground by supporting small-d democrats in other countries. They were very courageous and they inspired us and and I think helped make this organization what it is today.

DM: NDI was established 1983-84, so, I mean, this is a continuum, as you say, we've been working during those late years of the Cold War and building your reputation, starting slow. You say we were five people and now we're over a thousand internationally, as I mentioned earlier, with 50-plus offices and Ken, you were a part of that development over the ensuing years. But during the initial period, you came in in 1986, how did this fit into the continuum of what we were developing at that time, had you consider the Berlin Wall in context?

KW: Well, people talk about the resurgence of authoritarianism today, particularly over the last decade. When we started, the world was pretty bleak at that time. Latin America was dominated by military regimes. The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact extended to Western Europe. You had military governments in Bangladesh and Pakistan, dictatorships in the Philippines and Indonesia, military regime in Korea, you had absolute monarchy in Nepal, communist regime in Mongolia. Democracy was not even part of the lexicon in the Middle East. In Africa between 1960 and 1990, you only had four African heads of state that stepped down voluntarily and between 1990 and today that figure is over 50. So this was an enormous, I think, challenge for those that were supporting democracy and I think a turning point, as Brian mentioned, was the Philippines and Chile because after Spain and Portugal were moved into the Democratic camp in the 1970s there were these two seminal events of People Power Revolution and that people were participating in a process of which the rules were defined by the dictatorship and yet they overcame, primarily through peaceful means to overcome the dictatorship. I think those two events, the Philippines and Chile, I think had a huge impact on the rest of the world, that had a huge impact on the debate here in Washington, because people realize that there was a symbiotic relationship between the extremes, between the communists insurgencies, and in the Philippines and Chile, and the dictatorships in both countries. The democratic center, from left of center to right of center, were marginalized because of that symbiotic relationship. When people were given an opportunity, a choice, they chose a democratic system. So, the fall of the Wall, I think, was surprising for everybody. There were a few people who predicted this, Senator Moynihan from New York was one, but for those of us who were engaged in those struggles in the Philippines and Chile in a supporting role, we saw the power that people had fighting for their freedom. So, in a sense, it was perhaps less surprising for us, but it was a continuation of we were elated over it but realizing that we had to respond very quickly to the challenges. We were new, there weren't many in the international community that were engaged in this. The German party foundations, but there was not an international democratic architecture back then that exists today.

DM: Right. How were you able to get into countries and be accepted as an honest broker in assisting their democratic development of bringing folks together and basically building the reputation that NDI has now. 

BA: Our entry point was that we represented the democratic party even though, ironically, we are a nonpartisan organization and we operated in a nonpartisan way overseas, which was really important, because when we had conferences to explain how political parties might be organized, we never dictated, we certainly were not trying to sell the American system, because we weren't a parliamentary system. Most of the countries there wanted a parliamentary democracy so we would bring people in from Western Europe and other places, as well. So there was credibility that because of the relationships that we had developed. We started this organization by having a major conference on Africa with all the African leaders, a major conference in Latin America. We did a series of conferences called “Democracies and Regions in Crisis”, so it wasn't very difficult, as the representative of the Democratic Party to bring people to us. We had friends and people who trusted us and they came in and helped us with these party conferences.

How does a party organize itself in a democratic way? How do you select your candidates? We had a lot of problems in Eastern and Central Europe because of what we call “sofa parties”. Personalities would, you know, they might have four or five friends that could all fit on a sofa and they would declare themselves to be a political party. That wasn't terribly realistic, so how do you, then, especially in a parliamentary system, how do you form coalitions? What are the natural, ideological relationships? You mentioned the German party, they are very ideological, their parties, the Liberals, the FDP, the Social Democrats, and the like were looking for parties that were consistent with their own ideology. We weren't... and we would invite everyone including the new socialist parties that were formerly communist parties in places like Hungary. led to be should we be just

DM: We were established as a political, you know, a democratic political party. What was a debate like? We should just gather small-d democratic support, rather than-

BA: Well, I think, we obviously had to have discussions with the board and the like about that. We would not work with parties that in any way wanted to advance their cause through violence, so we stayed away from political parties that were extreme, but for the most part, given the transitions that were going on, we wanted everyone in the room. Not everyone came to the room, but we still managed to get across issues that related to the nuts and bolts of how a political party operates, how you communicate with constituents, how you form your ideological platform and that kind of thing. Tried as best we could to introduce civility into the process as well. I mean, it seems a little strange today to talk about that, given the uncivil nature of the politics in this country, for example, but in those days, we wanted to expose people to what it was like to be the loyal opposition. If they lost an election could they accept the results and of course we were involved very much in the election process and including introducing. What we had learned in the Philippines and in Chile, for example, parallel vote counts and that kind of thing and that helped.

I'll never forget Bulgaria, because we had a situation there where the Socialist Party, which had been the Communist Party, basically won in a narrow election and people who wanted to revolt and yet we had Bulgarians working with us on the parallel vote count that went on television that night to explain what it was all about and we managed to avoid a real bad scene in Bulgaria.

DM: That continues to happen, providing assurance and the integrity of intellectualism.

KW: One of the reasons why we decided to work with a broad cross-section of small-d democratic parties right-of-center and left-of-centre was that in the United States, we were a two-party system, we weren't a parliamentary system. The Germans had seven foundations seven shift ins so they could partner with fraternal political parties overseas Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, a Social Democrat with a Green Party. But, in many of these countries, we had two political parties that were coalitions, basically broad political parties, so it would have been very difficult to choose ideological partners. So we felt it was much more appropriate to work with a broad cross-section of political parties. I think that was a surprise for many overseas, but I think it was the right decision.

Going back to your point about perceptions of our role, I think Brian is right, we were seen as an American chapter of an international club of small-d democratic parties and these parties have organized themselves around different ideologies, internationals comprised of liberal parties social democratic parties, christian democratic parties, conservatives. So it was quite natural that we would join this community of democratic political parties around the world. When we first went into Chile, there were Chilean experts here in the capital who said an American organization cannot operate effectively in a country like Chile. They will always be suspicious of your work because of the real and perceived view of American role in the coup in 1973. So, we began by bringing with us political experts and practitioners from around the world. So, this wasn't a particularly American face, but we never confronted that issue, even in a place like Chile.

DM: Was that the first time? So, because of that we decided bringing international experiences was a way to go and then we perpetuated them.

KW: Well, there was always a philosophy among staff, under Brian's leadership, the board, that we wanted to become part of something larger than ourselves. This was not an American export product, but rather, we were part of a larger community of small-d Democrats. We wanted to be seen that way and we wanted to approach that work this way. So, therefore when we went into Chile it was never an obstacle and as an American organization, I think for the Chileans they saw us overcoming what was perhaps, for some in the country, sort of a stigma and that was associated with the United States. I think this work helped repair whatever problems that were in the relationship because of the historical context.

BA: What was really, really important and I think it has really established something for NDI over the years as well was the energy that came about as a result of working in the Philippines, bringing them to Chile, bringing Chileans to observe an election in the Philippines and seeing that there was so much in common. I mean, these are developing countries. Chile had experienced democracy, Philippines a little less so, but still the fact that we established credibility by marrying these people of common interest which was basically democracy.

DM: We mention Chile many times, I think it’d be instructive to talk about what that was, what did we do then? It sounds like it was somewhat of a turning point, in a way, for NDI or a major milestone, at least, but, Ken, you want to talk about what exactly that was about just to give folks context.

KW: I think the Philippines and Chile I changed this work in Washington. There were naturally conservatives that were very supportive of this work and there were liberals, progressives that were supportive but also there were conservatives and progressives that were rather opposed to it. There were some on the right who felt that we were in this struggle against Soviet Communism and we shouldn't begin challenging our friends who happen to be autocratic given this larger struggle, global struggle. And on the left, there were some who saw this as a Cold War instrument by the United States and so there was there was an intense debate. But I think two things changed it and that was Chile and the Philippines. Those on the right saw that there was something between the dictatorship and the communist insurgency and for the left, they saw that we were challenging, we were supporting Democrats against, you know, autocratic friends of the United States we were true to our mission of supporting democratic processes. In Chile, I think that there was a very, very close relationship, we were not running a campaign, but we utilize funds that - special funds - that were appropriated by Congress at the time in an amendment that was introduced by Senator Harkin from Iowa and it was a million dollars. About half of it went to NDI, half of it was administered by the National Endowment for Democracy and we worked, initially, with the free election movement on the ground, helping them devise a strategy to register voters and that was a huge hurdle because they realized the more voters you could register, the more that people would side with the Democrats. Secondly, we did a lot of political polling in the country which showed that that there was a center in the country that there was a third for the no vote which would deny Pinochet an eight-year term. About a third was for the yes vote in support of Pinochet and a third was about in the middle. The third in the middle didn't care so much about human rights abuses, they wanted to talk about bread-and-butter issues and so also we helped not run a campaign or run the media, but we helped the Chileans who had a vibrant democracy. They were out of practice for seventeen years and they wanted to know, from the United States, some of the nuts and bolts of running an organization and a coalition of nine political parties and how they should operate and how they should address the voters. So, we never ran anything, but we supported their effort and they usually took whatever advice was provided by volunteers and improved upon it because they were quite sophisticated.

BA: Let me tell you what I think was the most significant thing about the whole Chilean thing. All of that that Ken mentioned on the ground was really important. The most significant thing was before all of that started. The Venezuelan president at the time had lived in in exile under a military dictatorship in Chile. He knew all of the Chilean politicians. The left in Chile, the Socialists, in particular, did not want to engage on the plebiscite. They were opposed to it initially. The right thought this was an opportunity to legitimize Pinochet for another several years. We brought the left and the right together in Venezuela and Caracas and we brought in people like Fraga, the former interior minister, and some socialists from Spain, and we brought Uruguayans that had gone through a transition and one really important, André Solomon was the conservative leader and he was supporting Pinochet, but he was a small-d democratic. Fragra said the biggest mistake we made was not recognizing the communist party in Spain in the early days. Suarez, who became the first president of democratic Spain-

KW: And he was the interior minister under Franco.

BA: And so is Suarez under Franco in that cabinet. But he said the biggest mistake was because once we recognize them, we showed they had no support in the country, and Solomon leaned on the table and he said, “Would you repeat what you said?”. He couldn't believe that Fraga, who he admired because he was a left to having right-of-center politician, had said it and so that brought the whole opposition together to support doing the plebiscite in the first place. That surprised Pinochet and his people and then, of course, registering all those voters also surprised the heck out of them but that wouldn't have happened if we hadn’t brought those people -

KW: The final thing was a level calculation which had a profound effect because there was a real fear on the night of the plebiscite when the Interior Ministry did not announce the results of the plebiscite. They were not going to recognize the victory of the No Campaign, but at the same time, a parallel vote tabulation was done that showed that the opposition had actually won the plebiscite, the No Campaign. They were sharing that with Andre Solomon and the party that he led, the Renovación Nacional, and they went and said we supported you in this plebiscite but

we're not going to support fraud. At the same time they were releasing the results on Radio Cooperativa which was an opposition radio station. So the entire country knew what the results of the plebiscite was and so it was quite dramatic when the Junta member, the head of the air force, walked out a La Moneda, the presidential palace, and they said, “well, who won the plebiscite”, and they said, well the opposition won. And so at two o’clock in the morning, finally, the regime announced the results and later General Maté said, “why did you break the ice here?” and he said, “well, there was this parallel vote tabulation and the country knew what the results were”. It had a profound impact.

BA: This conservative leader had been to the Philippines with us and had seen how parallel vote tabs work and he personally threatened to go public if they didn’t release the results.

DM: That shows the network that works and that thing builds and builds and builds over the decades. 

KW: Brian is right. What was quite influential was the People Power Revolution in the Philippines and that parallel vote tabulation. So the Philippines experience had a big impact, more so than the transition in Spain. The Chileans will say that that had a bigger impact than the Spanish transition because of the use of instruments like the parallel vote tabulation, and the organization, and the coalition building that took place.

DM: But then the wall falls and you have a moment of almost, how long it took, there's certainly a euphoria in Germany. And, you say Hungary, there were already things were happening leading up to that time and Poland, etc. That led to, I mean, do you remember those days and how NDI then thought about how do we make the most of this moment in Eastern Europe and Asia and elsewhere?

BA: Ken has mentioned it already but, I mean, obviously they were really thirsty for information. How then do we move through this transition, advice on how one holds elections, advice on how one organizes political parties. We were all over the place bringing people, again, from Nampho, from Chile, from different parts of the world in there. There's a book that I think is the best written about this era called Lighting the Night, and it was one of the observations in the book is that one day everyone was a communist, the next day everyone was a democrat. Now we've seen now in retrospect that there might have been some people that declared themselves to be Democrats... it might not be as Democratic as we'd hoped the moment.

I think what is really important and what we learned is that there's different contexts in each place. I mean Poland had solidarity and Hungary had a, what they call, a Goulash Communist Party that was led, at least intellectually, by a guy named [inaudible] who was the Deputy Leader of the Communist Party, but a reformer. I'll never forget meeting him, Walter Mondale, he led our delegation to the election, we met with the Deputy Leader, he was standing for election against a couple of young people including someone who had worked for NDI. He actually lost that election to the the NDI former staffer who won that election, won that parliamentary seat but the Deputy Leader was impressive. I call him the Gorbachev of Hungary. He may not have abandoned some of his left-leaning communist ideology but he understood the world. People like Kádár who had gone through many phases including executing some of the people that were involved in the ‘56 uprising and then tried to restore himself. There was a lot that was going on under the scene- what I think we now realize and I think it's important to think about it in today's terms, when you see this resurrection of what I call extreme nationalism, is that the Soviets suppressed all sorts of things. They suppressed religion, they suppressed culture, everyone had to toe the line and when that dam broke it just all came out, and in my view, they have not yet still reconciled what responsible nationalism may be, which I would call patriotism. The other thing that I remember very distinctly about that whole era, Ralph Dahrendorg, who was a great German-English philosopher, Oxford, wrote a book about citizenship. They didn't quite understand what it meant, especially if you were in a minority. Of course those countries, some of them, were created back after World War One when minority Hungarians found themselves within Romanian borders and elsewhere. Germans in Poland and Ukraine and Polish and Ukraine. It's just, it was a kind of a mess in that sense and it was really important for them to then buy into the concept of what citizenship is all about and not talk about the other. That still hasn't happened and it's still a problem in those countries.

DM: Yeah, I mean democracy can be misunderstood as simply a process contestation through parties or whatever else and it's a culture, it's a mindset, and that is not going to change. I mean, when a wall falls it may not even change in a generation or if you're of a certain age or experience you may never change.

BA: That's why NDI started also working to try to develop civil society because of the belief that you can talk to people at the political level and if you don't have grassroots support for democracy you really don't have anything. 

KW: I think it was a period of fanaticism that existed at that time because events were unfolding so rapidly. I think when you look at the countries of Central Europe, when you look at Poland, when you look at Czechoslovakia, later the Czech Republic and Slovakia and Hungary, because of some of their experiences with democratic governance in the interwar period and even in the 19th century, that transition was smoother and then the countries of Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania was a little rockier and part of that was the particular pernicious nature of the communist legacy in those countries, some of their experience with the Ottoman Empire. It was was much more of a challenge for those countries.

In most of those places, except for Albania, what was common was that civil resistance forced the change, the courageous nature of solidarity in Poland and democratic forces and other countries going back to 1956 in Hungary. So you have civil resistance and then you had a negotiated settlement, a negotiated transition, what was called roundtable negotiations in the countries. That had a huge, huge impact and so after that elections were seen as initiating the transition. So what you had is democratic forces in these countries wanting to be part of this transatlantic alliance- not only welcomed the international engagement in general and American engagement, in particular, but sort of demanded it. So, NDI responded very, very quickly on the whole array of programs that related, as Brian said, to civic participation, political party development, political party coalitions, election law reform, to help contribute, not only to an informed debate, but helped contribute to the election process so the will of the people could be expressed. At that time there were two countries in which the renamed communist parties had won those first elections, Bulgaria was one and Albania was the other. In the other countries you had the sort of united democratic forces or small-d democratic parties that prevailed in all of those. I think the challenge since that time has been the challenge of other democratic governments and other countries including in Western Europe. That, as you know, when you talk about it, Derek, the ability for democracy to deliver that, the promise of democracy delivering on the expectations of the people and that has been not only a challenge in Eastern Europe, but it's been a challenge in other places of the world. Then you add to that the sort of malign actors from the outside that try to sow discord and you have a volatile situation. I think that requires a democratic stimulus to support democracy in these countries.

DM: Let me just say to listeners, thank you for joining us. Please invite others to join the conversation about democracy by sharing the Demworks podcasts.

I'm Derek Mitchell and this has been Demworks. Thank you for listening.