When Pro-Democracy Organizations Take Power: What Poland and South Africa Should Have Told Us About Georgia

February 07, 2011 // 11:00am12:00pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Africa Program

"This is a study of pro-democracy social movements, and the undocumented—but widely-seen phenomenon—of their leaders taking power after victory," stated Brian Grodsky, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Maryland-Baltimore County, at a 7 February 2011 Kennan Institute event. Specifically, the speaker continued, the study was constructed around one central question: what is the influence of pro-democracy social organizations once "one-time colleagues" come to power?

Grodsky analyzed this question through the lens of the pro-democracy movements in Poland, South Africa and Georgia. Each country's movement exhibited varying degrees of inclusiveness, duration, intensity, and membership transfer to government. However, according to Grodsky, the common thread for these countries was that their movements all started with "pro-democracy organizations that shed their leaders to the state."

The government transition in Poland during the late 1980s was spearheaded by the trade union Solidarity. It successfully led the political movement to oust the Communist regime, and its leaders began to be elected to government starting in 1989. Grodsky explained that, notwithstanding the establishment of democratic rule in Poland, Solidarity's subsequent political success was rife with complications. Initial implementation of the economic reforms on which the organization campaigned failed, resulting in a "clear fragmentation" between the movement's members and their former colleagues who worked for the state.

The schism eventually led to further tensions between the two actors. Solidarity members blamed their former colleagues in the government for the failure of their reforms, which prompted the movement to elect more of its members to public office. Such efforts still did not result in a change of government policy; eventually, Solidarity leaders founded a new political coalition, known as AWS, which brought together more than thirty center-right parties and triumphed in the 1997 parliamentary elections.

Solidarity members who were elected to the AWS government experienced similar frustrations in terms of their relationship with the trade union. "Identities remained," Grodsky said, "but new leaders from the old movement quickly found that where they sat had a bearing on their priorities." Indeed, upon working for the state, many officials from the movement realized there were institutional roadblocks that prevented them from implementing Solidarity's reforms to the extent that the movement wanted. The state actors' inability to deliver on policy demands exacerbated tensions between members of the government and Solidarity, and ties of kinship between the groups deteriorated significantly.

Similar dynamics and issues emerged in South Africa, when pro-democracy movements succeeded in ending apartheid and ousting the government. The principal organization leading the movement was the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), whose political efforts focused on economic demands, civil rights, and ending apartheid. Upon establishing democratic rule, workers of COSATU were transferred to state employment or political office at virtually every level of bureaucracy. Identity with the movement was initially strong among state employees, but many lost their enthusiasm after the democratic transition. Grodsky noted that constraints between state actors and remaining members of the movement emerged due to a divide between ideological identity and political practice: "What you do when you have power" theoretically should be to find a way to implement the reforms that were fought for while part of a social movement; however, as South Africa showed, this ideal does not always hold true.

Georgia had elite-driven social movements that focused on political reforms and helped bring about the Rose Revolution. Their political participation involved serving as a "watchdog" over the state and addressing corruption and human rights issues. Following the Rose Revolution, Grodsky noted, the old networks provided mechanisms for lobbying government officials. However, a combination of the movements' high expectations and the unwillingness or inability of new state officials to enact reforms ultimately resulted in very limited cooperation.

Inevitably, according to Grodsky's research, the pro-democracy social organizations tended to "lose out" politically upon completion of the transfer of governmental power. Despite the high expectations organization members had for their colleagues who eventually entered public service, those in the government were ultimately unable to deliver on all of the movements' aspirations once they reached office. Governmental structures presented institutional constraints that precluded the public officials from pursuing each movement's respective goals.

The speaker concluded by discussing the application of his research to understanding political movements, regime transition, and state bureaucracies. With respect to American policy, Grodsky emphasized the importance of supporting social movements, as well as broader civil society. Civil society is critical during transition and following democratic breakthrough. "This is a period we can lend credibility to these organizations," Grodsky said, and assist them in forging deep and sustained democratic progress.

By Ross Oermann
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute

Event Speakers List: 
  • Brian Grodsky // Short-Term Scholar, Kennan Institute
    Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
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