Rethinking the democratic future: Lessons from the 20th century


Project partners: Res Publica Foundation  (a Warsaw-based publishing house and a think-tank) and  the Jan Nowak-Jezioranski College of Eastern Europe in Wroclaw (KEW)


Project funded by:

Following 30 years since the popular uprising in 1989 that eventually led to reunification of Europe, we are facing a new crisis: freedom, self-rule, unified Europe – the ideas that mobilized the democratic revolutions are in peril. In this political climate, 1989 is becoming both – an inspiration as well as a point of division. 1989 symbolizes the struggle for freedom and self-rule all around the world: from the 2014 Maidan Revolution in Ukrainian to 2019 civil protests in Hong Kong. In the region, the memory of 1989 is becoming increasingly political, with the symbols of Velvet Revolution employed in protests in Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia as a sign of recommitment to the ideals of 1989. At the same time, there is increasing sense of dissatisfaction with the promises of freedom, self-rule and justice, that activated and solidarized people around 1989. Diverse meaning placed in 1989 symbolizes the collision between different visions of political future.

With support from Europe for Citizens Program, Open Lithuania Foundation is launching a new project “Rethinking the Democratic Future: Lessons from the 20th Century”. The key aim of this project is to commemorate the legacy of the democratic revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe, by re-evaluating various forms of active citizenship, reflecting critically of their relevance to contemporary Europe, reimagining the forms for meaningful political involvement in the digital age.
Through diverse type of activities (study visits, international public debates, non-formal education) and targeted yet wide dissemination of results the project will propose meaningful political participation through learning from the democratic revolutions in digital age.

Implemented by 3 partners covering 4 countries (Lithuania, Poland, Latvia and Hungary) with wide regional reach to European countries (extending the scope up to 7 countries through international events). The project will create synergy through wide partnership of cultural/political journals, civil society organizations, think-tanks and academics, involving up to 250 -330 people directly, including young people. Indirectly through digital and print platforms with wide regional reach it will reach 30 000 people.


Preparatory meeting in Vilnius, November 2019

Participation: The preparatory meeting has involved 11 participants – representatives of partner organizations from Poland (3), Hungary (1), Lithuania (7).

Location / Dates: The event took place in Vilnius, Lithuania on November 11, 2019
Short description:

The kick off meeting was about the brainstorming on the legacy of democratic revolutions. The meeting was aimed at detailed planning of the project activities and roles of the partners as well as aligning thematic priorities, objectives and products of the project as well as dissemination plan discussed. During the meeting all the partners shared their knowledge and insights about the events related to commemoration of democratic revolutions in their countries. This was of crucial importance in order to find a common ground for evaluation of varied process of democratic transition and its success across the focus countries. Several priorities occurred during the planning meeting (1) commemoration of 1989 as a form of dialogue between pre and post 1989 generations; (2) the relationship between the transition of 1989 and the perspectives for democracy in the region and beyond (including the perspectives of active citizenship, civil society and freedom of media).

Event 1 Public debate. The Future of Europe: Why 1989 Matters Today?

Participation: The discussion event was attended by 30 people, from Hungary (1), United Kingdom (2), Poland (3), Lithuania (24).

Location / Dates: The event took place Vilnius, Lithuania on November 11, 2019

Short description: 

The event was aimed at reconceptualizing 1989 and focused on the meaning of it for today. The co-authors of “1989: The Global History of Eastern Europe” presented their study and argued that the shift in emphasis from the dominant narrative that the year of 1989 became the beginning of Eastern integration with the West needs to happen, focusing on the fact that the revolutions against tyranny in the East became the beginning of a new, common stage in European history. This should help us to accept 1989 for ourselves as a page in our European history, rather than maintaining a starting point for the integration of the backward East into the progressive West.
The full list of speakers and topics include: Prof. James Mark and Tobias Rupprecht, the University of Exeter, UK, co-authors of the book “1989: A Global History of Eastern Europe” who spoke on Reconceptualizing 1989: divided memories and political implications, Adam Reichardt, the Editor-in-Chief of New Eastern Europe on the question of 1989 as the promise of the future: was it realized? and Wojciech Przybylski, Editor-in-chief, Visegrad Insight; Chairman, Res Publica, whose talk was titled Central Europe Spring 2.0 – civil society beyond 2019.
As a result, there were several media coverages and interviews given to the national press by the guests of the meeting.

Event 2 Study Tour. Latvia and Lithuania

Participation: 94 people, including experts, academics, past activists and project partners, young people and wider public from Belgium (2), Poland (7), Romania (1), Bulgaria (1), Germany (1), Czech Republic (1), Latvia (7), Lithuania (58), UK (2), Switzerland (1), Ukraine (5), Belarus (2) and other countries (6).

Location / Dates: Online, hosted by Open Lithuania foundation during September – October 2020.
Short description:

The study tour consisted of several parts:
1) 3 Online consultations were organized to gather the perspective of the young people on history of 1989 and the relation of post-1989 to the events (19 people from Lithuania and Latvia;). Through a round of online consultations variety of issues were discussed: from 1989 as a cultural memory and the polarization of peaceful revolutions through ‘ownership’ over the symbolic meaning attached with 1989, including the imitation thesis, to the perils of transition and the legacy of the Soviet politics.
2) 2 individual interviews with 2 scholars from Lithuania.
3) Public discussion: A post-revolutionary hangover: Is revolution always followed by disappointment? (Event attended by 73 people) explored the meaning of revolution and the links between the movements for freedom from 1989 in the Baltics (Latvia and Lithuania) to twenty first century Europe (Ukraine and Belarus), building the dialogue between the freedom movements of 1989 and now. Speakers: Jogilė Ulinskaitė, political scientist, Institute of International Relations and Political science, Vilnius University; Aleksejs Grigorievs, vice chair of the Board of the Baltic to Black Sea Alliance, journalist, formerly member of the Supreme Council of Latvia, Maksimas Milta, Head of Communications and Development Unit at the European Humanitarian University, Volodymyr Yermolenko, Ukrainian philosopher, writer and journalist, chief editor at, lecturer at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Moderated by Simona Merkinaite, Open Lithuania Foundation.

Event 3 Study Tour Hungary
Participation: 30 people from Hungary (27), Romania (2), Ukraine (1).

Location / Dates: July – November, 2020 online, hosted by ResPublica Foundation.

Short description:  

This study tour consists of:
1) 2 online consultations with young 20 Hungarian students during which students provided their their perspective on memory of 1989 in Hungary. Hungary is a country that stood out from the rest 3 focus countries (Latvia/Lithuania and Poland), as here the peaceful revolution of the people did not take place in 1989, and hence 1989 is recalled as a transfer of power than systematic change and affects the feeling of political powerlessness across the generations.
2) 2 online consultations with 6 scholars from Hungary. A round of online group consultations with past activists, political leaders, academics and civil society representatives focused on the meaning of 1989 for Hungary, the perils and lessons of transition for democratic future.
3) Individual interviews with 4 academics from Central Eastern Europe: from Hungary (1), Romania (2), Ukraine (1) who provided a deeper insight about the transformation period and its meaning today.

Event 4 Study Tour Poland

Participation: 167 people from Poland (135), Lithuania (5), Romania (3), Belgium (3), Latvia (2), Slovakia (2),Hungary (2), Germany (1), Bulgaria (1), Czech Republic (1), Albania (1) and other countries (10).

Location / Dates: June 2020 – March 2021 online hosted by Jan Nowak-Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe/New Eastern Europe and Res Publica foundation / Visegrad Insight.
Short description: 

This Study Tour consists of:
1) 2 online consultations with 16 students from Poland. During a round of events there was discussed the relation of 1989 and current events in Poland. The transformation period is considered as the tool that helped Polish Church and some political leaders to gain their influence and keep it to this day and this situation may cause polarization in Polish society.
2) 2 online consultations with 5 Polish academics who offered their perspective on the Solidarity, Transition period and its relation to current political events in Poland.
3) 2 individual interviews with 2 scholars from Poland that provided a broader and deeper insight on the meaning of 1989.
4) Public discussion: Women in Revolt: from 1989 to 2021 – there 114 people from Poland (104) and 10 from other countries were organized online in conjunction with International Women’s Day a public discussion by New Eastern Europe, in partnership with Open Lithuania Foundation, Jan Nowak-Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe/New Eastern Europe, San-Francisco-Kraków Sister Cities Association. Women play a key role in political resistance and change movements – from the Solidarity movement to today, yet the key and unique role and the impact that women’s self-organization plays in historic events is overlooked and understudied. The webinar Women in Revolt: from 1989 to 2021 was designed to shed light on the role women’s movements play in civil organization, democratic reform, and life in Central and Eastern Europe. Panelists included: Shana Penn, scholar, author of Solidarity’s Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland, Elena Gapova, Professor, Department of Sociology, Western Michigan University, Marta Lempart, Polish activist, initiator of the All-Poland Women’s Strike, Klementyna Suchanow: Polish writer, activist, initiator of the All-Poland Women’s Strike, moderated by Simona Merkinaite, Open Lithuania Foundation.
5) Strategic workshop with the civil society (30) hosted online by Visegrad Insight on November 27, 2020. The aim of the project was to evaluate the meaning of 1989 by re-evaluating various forms of active citizenship, reflecting critically of their relevance to contemporary Europe. This is why a workshop was organized in order to map the current challenges to the civil society and the perspectives on their future. The exercise confirmed that the role of civil society is more important than ever, undertaking the challenge of civil education and democratic participation. A number of recommendations that civil society and decision-makers at the policy level should consider when programming their activities developed and put together into a report available here.

Event 5 Autumn School

Participation: The event involved 25 participants (11 students and 14 speakers) from Czech Republic (2), Belarus (1), Kosovo (1), Netherlands (1), Ukraine (2), Germany (1), North Macedonia (1), Italy (1), Hungary (1), Lithuania (1), Belgium (1), Poland (12).

Location / Dates: The event took place at renaissance castle in Wojnowice near Wrocław (Poland) on October 4 – 8, 2020 and was a mix of physical-online event, with some speakers joining distantly due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Short description:

As different countries of the region are reaching the 30-year anniversary of the collapse of Soviet rule and the transition to democratic rule, the post-1989 generation of young people are searching for their own relationship with memory of oppression, resistance and independence redefying their meaning for the generation of the independence. With that generational gap in mind Jan Nowak-Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe organized the Autumn Memory School at Wojnowice castle in Poland. It brought together 11 students and young scholars from nine countries around Europe (including Kosovo, Ukraine and Belarus) for workshops, discussions with history witnesses and study visits around Wrocław, all intended to reflect on diverse memory and experiences of the past and their cultural, political and societal implications. The participants also visited historical sites around Wroclaw and contemplated the issues of preserving and presenting the memory to new generations.

Event 6 Online International Conference

Participation: throughout all three conference days 212 people from 36 different countries have joined the events: Albania (1), Austria (2), Belgium (5), Bulgaria (5), Cyprus (1), Croatia (1), Czech Republic (8), Estonia (2), France (6), Germany (12), Hungary (11), Kosovo (1), Lithuania (37), Latvia (1), North Macedonia (1), Netherlands (7), Poland (40), Portugal (1), Romania (6), Slovakia (6), Slovenia (1), Sweden (1), United Kingdom (9) and other countries (47).

Location / Dates: The event took place online, on April 26-28, 2021.
Short description:

5 disucssions were organized (all in English):
On April 26, the opening session shaped as a dialogue between two well recognized scholars Jeffrey Goldfarb (the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research) and Nadia Urbinati (Kyriakos Tsakopoulos Professor of Political Theory), disusing the links between the history of 1989 and perspectives of the democratic future, titled A place for ideology in post-1989 world? organized in partnership with New School for Social Research (New York) and Institute of International Relations as Political Science/Vilnius University. Moderated by Simona Merkinaite, OLF.
On April 27, A conversation with young people: the legacy of 1989 and political activism today. A round table of post-1989 generation co-hosted by European Humanities University organized and maintained the focus on youth perspective from and outside the EU space. Speakers: Anastasiya Halaburda, European Humanities University, Benedek Pál, Central European University, Daria Manzhura, Bard College, Daniiar Sadykov, American University in Central Asia. Moderated by Maksimas Milta, Head of the Communication and Development Unit, European Humanities University.
On April 27, Media and civil society renewal in CEE, a discussion on democratic challenges faced by media and civil society co-hosted by Visegrad Insight organized and was dedicated to the CEE media and civil society response to the democratic backsliding threats. Speakers: Thomas J. Kent, Adjunct Associate Professor, The Harriman Institute at Columbia University, former RFE/RL President and CEO, Hanna Liubakova, Fellow at the Atlantic Council, Ágnes Urbán, Associate Professor and Chair of the Infocommunications Department at the Corvinus University of Budapest, moderated by Wojciech Przybylski, Editor-in-Chief of Visegrad Insight.
On April 28, Transition memory. Challenges of teaching transition at school, a workshop on memory of the 90s through the lens of education hosted by Open Lithuanian Foundation. Speakers: Donatas Puslys, journalist, head of Media programme at Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis (Lithuania), Juozas Malickas, teacher at the North Lyceum (Lithuania), Louisa Slavkova, director of the Sofia Platform Foundation (Bulgaria), moderated by Laurynas Kudijanovas, teacher at Vilnius St. Christopher Gymnasium (Lithuania);
On April 28, 30 years on…The legacy of the post-Soviet transformation and the future of democracy, a discussion on perspectives on transition from the wider Europe co-hosted by New Eastern Europe organized and concluded the conference. Speakers: Overview of post-Soviet transformation presented by Kate Graney, Professor and author Skidmore University, other speakers include: Olga Onuch, University of Manchester, Bakar Berekashvili, Political scientist, Denis Cenusa, Political scientist. Event moderated by Adam Reichardt, editor-in-chief of New Eastern Europe.

Read more about the project here.

Sponsors and partners