Tunisia today has similarities with Romania in 1989 that ought to guide U.S. foreign policy

By Jim Rosapepe and Sheilah Kast

January 25, 2011, Baltimore Sun Commentary

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Tunisia, January 2011. Romania, December 1989.

The similarities are eerie.

Each country was governed for 21/2 decades by an autocrat. In both countries, the people, not the elite, launch the revolution. Soldiers allied with competing factions are shooting at each other. Common people are outraged to see the palaces of the dictator’s family. French is the second language of the elite. Democrats around the world are cheering the revolution while security professionals in Western governments fret about stability. And we don’t know where the drama ends.

The similarities are important. But so are the differences.

Tunisia was a western European colony until 1956. Romania was dominated by Russia until 1989. Tunisia’s people are predominately Sunni Muslim. Romania’s are Orthodox Christian. Romania was one of the most closed societies under communism; Tunisia earns 13 percent of its gross domestic product from tourism. Romania and Tunisia are different countries with their own histories and cultures.

What are America — and Europe — to do?

First, understand reality. Tunisia’s political system has been disrupted. One powerful man is gone. The opposition, inside and outside the government, has been emboldened. But the outcome (a new democracy or a renewed dictatorship) is not pre-ordained. 1989 was the year of the democratic revolutions across Central and Eastern Europe — and also the year of Tiananmen Square. As in Romania, the culture and the people of Tunisia did not change overnight. The police chiefs, the waitresses, the business owners, the professors — and the secret police — are the same as they were last month.

In Tunisia, as in Romania, the U.S. and Europeans need to strongly promote democracy while recognizing the elites — and the voters — are the only ones Tunisia has.

Second, help the good guys. We can’t want democracy for Tunisia more than Tunisians, but we can help those who do — with moral support and resources. For too long, especially in the Arab world and in Africa, Western governments have prized short-term stability with autocrats over long-term stability with democracy. How much safer would America be today if, in 1953, the Eisenhower administration had helped protect democracy in Iran instead of helping to destroy it?

In Tunisia, the irony — and the opportunity — is that two of the most important outside powers are champions of the universal values of freedom and democracy: the United States and France. Our revolutions remain inspirations around the world. Yet, in Africa and the Arab world, American and French concerns about short-term security too often have trumped the long-term security of democracy.

This time, let’s take the long view, as we did with Romania. Our goal must be sustainable democracy, integrated into cooperation with other democracies. That means NATO and the European Union — not necessarily membership, but close integration. Tunisia was the first North African country to join Europe’s free trade zone. And, since 2004, the EU has had a “Neighborhood Policy” to build strong ties with northern Africa, as well as Eastern European countries on the EU’s borders. The courage of ordinary Tunisians this month could be the catalyst for a new architecture of peace, freedom and prosperity in the Mediterranean.

Third, articulate an end game soon, not after the bad guys have consolidated power. That was a major U.S. mistake with Russia in the 1990s. Because we were so unsure of the prospects for real change, we hedged our bets — for example, remaining silent when the Russian government crushed the parliament. In Romania, the invitation to join the EU was the single biggest stroke for progress. What is the equivalent for Tunisia?

Fourth, respect Tunisians’ culture and history. They are not Californians or Norwegians and don’t want to be. Like all people everywhere, they want a good life for their families and practical ways to be heard. But they want to keep their food, their religion, their language and their history. They want the economic and political benefits of globalization for their children without crushing the culture of their parents. That’s the genius of the European Union: prosperity, freedom and cooperation, all in 23 languages.

Fifth, embrace the spirit of the Tunisian revolutionaries — don’t fear it. Twenty years ago, the Bush administration wobbled as ordinary people in Eastern Europe stood up. In his famous Aug. 1, 1991, “chicken Kiev” speech, President George H.W. Bush warned Ukrainians against seeking independence from the Soviet Union, calling it “suicidal nationalism.” Understandable bureaucratic comfort with stability overwhelmed America’s strategic interest in freedom. The same shortsighted temptation has kept the U.S. allied with autocrats across the Middle East. As Arabs across the region watch their televisions, the Jasmine revolution can be the game-changer. It should be.

January 2011 could be remembered as the turning point in bringing Tunisia — and the wider Arab world — into the modern democratic age, as 1989 was for the 100 million people of Central and Eastern Europe. It’s in America’s and Europe’s interests to help make it happen. Let’s not waste the opportunity.

State Sen. Jim Rosapepe (senator.rosapepe@inbox.com), former U.S. ambassador to Romania (1998-2001), and Sheilah Kast, a journalist who covered the collapse of Soviet communism and is now host of “Maryland Morning” on WYPR, are co-authors of “Dracula Is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged Since 1989 as the New Italy.”