TitlePolitical scientist Ivan Krastev on what the Green Movement might learn from Eastern Europe

“The East European revolution is relevant for Iran”

22 Jul 2010

■ Shervin Nekuee & Ann De Craemer
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To get some guidance for present and future, it is always a good idea have a look at the past. That is TehranReview’s philosophy behind this interview with Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev. Krastev is Chairman of Board of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a member of the Board of the European Council on Foreign Relations. He was ranked 85 in the 2008 Top 100 Public Intellectuals Poll.

Contemporary Iranian dissidents can learn from the developments, dilemmas and strategies of East European dissidents in the Soviet time, and Ivan Krastev is an expert in this field. Of course we are aware that the comparison is far from perfect, but there are similarities between the East European dissident movement and Iran’s Green Movement.
First, in ideological terms, the Islamic Revolution had its own utopian and therefore totalitarian tendency. The collectivist way of thinking about policy making was based on this ideology, and the turn to state (or army) capitalism has become a popular formula against the post-utopian elite of the Islamic Republic. Second, the East European Soviet situation is comparable to Iran today in terms of how the (secret) police state has made a huge part of the people distrust each other. Finally, most of the leaders of the Iranian Green Movement used to be “believers” of the Islamic Republic and disciples of its founder, ayatollah Khomeini – just as communism was once “the great belief” of the East European opposition. All these factors make it valuable for Iranians to look at the recent history of Eastern European dissidents, their strategies and dilemmas.

Mr. Ivan Krastev, how would you describe the different strategies East European dissidents have been using at the time of the communist regimes? Outside the political establishment: Political Confrontation; Operating within: Political Reform; Shifting the game: from politic to civil society struggle. Which one would you qualify as most successful and why?

Krastev: A distinctive characteristic of the dissident movement in Eastern Europe is that in their majority, the key figures of the East European opposition have been former believers. They started as Marxist critics of the communist regimes who hoped for a while to reform the system and ended as opponents who want to dismantle the system. This explains the ideological evolution of their ideas for change. Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968 acted as a “reality check” for dissident imagination. The strategy of the “self-limiting” revolution that is a signature concept of East European dissent assumes that dissidents exclude the possibility of a violent change. Dissidents were aware of the military might of the Soviet repressive machine plus they were aware of the destructive consequences of any revolutionary violence. So, at the core of the dissident strategy was attacking the moral foundations of the communist power and establishing a parallel society in which people can live according to their moral values.

Engagement with the reform elements within the communist establishment was another key element of the dissident strategy and this element was particular important after Gorbachev’s coming to power. But as the US historian Stephen Kotkin demonstrates in his recent book The Uncivil Society- with the exception of Poland, the change of Eastern Europe can be better explained as the collapse of the demoralized communist establishment than as the revolt of the civil society. It was like a bank run on communism.

The Iranian opposition should speak much more the moral language of the humiliated human dignity than any other ideological language

How would you describe the contemporary role and agenda and the aspiration of Russia in the world? And what does that mean in terms of the Russia-Iran-US relationship? How can Iranian dissidents have an impact on the Russian political agenda toward the Iranian government?

Krastev: In Putin’s statement “Russia will be either a great power or she will not be at all”. Russia’s current leadership is doing its best to maximize the stability of its power and to maximize its geopolitical relevance. In the context of its ambitions, the Kremlin’s attitudes towards Iran are complex ones. Russia definitely fears the emergence of Iran as a nuclear power. Russia also benefits from the current isolation of Iran that keeps Teheran’s oil and gas to a great extent outside of the major markets. At the same time Russia fears that destabilization of Iran can lead to turmoil in the predominantly Muslim populated regions of the country. In the aftermath of the last presidential elections Russian leadership sided with the status quo, fearing the increase of Washington’s influence in the region. But the anti-American slogans in some of the demonstrations of the Green Movement made Russian leadership afraid that it can end as a hostage to an unpopular regime. So, at present Russia is doing diplomatic acrobatics- on one side supporting UN sanctions on Teheran and on the other side developing economic and political relations with Ahmadinejad. Moscow’s fear of color revolution in Teheran seems stronger than its fear of nuclear Iran.

What are the basic questions that the leaders of the Green Movement or any other opposition group need to find an answer for at the moment and “the day after” – the moment of a possible overthrow of the Islamic Republic? What should they be prepared for and try to find and create a compromise on before they would possibly come to power?

Krastev: In the last twenty years East European experience was “oversold”. But in a paradoxical way Iran is one of the few places in the world where the East European experience is still relevant. Iran is a post-revolutionary society and the legitimacy of power to a great extent is rooted in the legacy of the revolution of 1979. Violent anti-Americanism is among the major weapons of the regime. The economy is in a permanent crisis. The population is educated and the young and urban part of it in their majority sympathize with the opposition. The last elections eroded the electoral legitimacy of the regime.
In this context some of the key lessons of the East European revolution are relevant for Iran. First, the Green Movement should try to do its best at reaching at the reformist forces within the establishment. Second, the Iranian opposition should speak much more the moral language of the humiliated human dignity than any other ideological language and should stress the democratic and peaceful nature of the change it is looking for. And thirdly, Iranian opposition should address the problems of the failure of the regime to deliver well-being.

Tehran Review
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