The last two decades have supplied us with ample evidence about the conditions under which transformations to democracy may succeed, or fail - examples like post-communist Eastern Europe.
It was Francis Fukuyama, who announced in his The End of History the neo-conservative gospel - in a deterministic argument which tried to invert a simplistic reading of Marxism, he maintained that after the defeat of both fascism and Soviet-type communism, democracy and a market economy will develop automatically.
Developments in post-communist societies, however, have been more much complex. While some countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are prime examples and have moved successfully towards democracy and a reasonably functioning market economy, this is far from being the general rule. Romania and Bulgaria are still struggling with transition, as is Ukraine, while Russia has moved into an autocratic ambit with the Central Asian former Soviet republics - as well as Belarus – developing into an almost “sultanistic” authoritarianism.
What is the reason for these deep differences between societies? After all, only 15 years ago all had been one-party states, with a command economy and almost total control of the means of communication.
It is obvious that the answer cannot be found in economic or other quantifiable factors, like industrial development or degrees of urbanisation. Instead one has to look at history and what those countries had been before the communists came to power, either in 1917 or 1945-47. It is clear that those countries with a history of a relatively developed civil society, the transition to democracy was possible, whereas those which had no such antecedents, experienced great difficulties.
Let us compare Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic on one hand with Russia on the other. Czechoslovakia was a consolidated democracy before it was torn apart by the Nazis in 1938. It had a multi-party parliamentary system, a free press, a highly secularised tradition with a deeply ingrained religious tolerance, a thriving industrial private sector and a proud tradition of academic freedom.
Poland and Hungary were not as successful in the interwar years, but each had a representative tradition going back centuries, which while anchored in aristocratic privileges made both representation and a tendency to limit central government part of the political heritage. Both had centuries-old institutional traditions of local self-government and academic freedom, and while the role of the church in each of them was different, they were not identified with state-power. Freedom of the press was far from absolute, but both Warsaw and Budapest were, before 1939, home to a thriving iconoclastic community. Both were highly agricultural, with a limited market economy, anchored in a sometimes fiercely independent peasantry, not always distinguishable from the petty gentry.
When these societies tried to establish democratic institutions after 1989, it was not just an aim of a limited intelligentsia: there were enough memories - some "real", some constructed - in each country's history which were able to become the normative and institutional legitimate anchors of a democratic structure.
On the other hand, none of this had ever existed in Russia. Pre-1917 Russia had almost no ingredients of a civil society (hence the collapse of the 1917 attempt to develop a constitutional structure). There were no representative institutions at central, regional or local level. All power was hierarchically organised and the Orthodox Church was a handmaid of the Czarist autocracy, as were the universities. Religious and ethnic minorities were oppressed and persecuted; there was no tradition of legal political parties, there was no freedom of the press, there was no independent peasantry (serfdom, although abolished in the 1860's, failed to create it), and the commercial and industrial middle classes were extremely small. The only "usable past" open to Russia after 1990 - except the failed western intelligentsia of the 19th century - was autocratic and authoritarian. It is no accident that Peter the Great's portrait adorns Putin's office.
Similar analyses could be undertaken, one by one, of any other post-communist country. While history does not absolutely determine developments - countries like Slovakia and Croatia suggest that in borderline cases there is room for alternative developments - it is certainly an important ingredient. And recent events in the Ukraine are the outcome of internal developments.
This background is necessary to understand the utter hubris of an American policy which thrives to export democracy from the outside to Arab countries (it should be noted that Islam as such is not an insurmountable obstacle to democratic development: look at Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh, even the complex picture of Iran). Certainly, imposing democracy by the sword, as the US is trying to do in Iraq, is doomed to failure.
Arab societies in general have been - like Russia, but in a different way - extremely weak in developing a vigorous civil society. And this is the reason - not poverty, or imperialism - why there is no Arab consolidated or functioning democracy, and no serious attempts at democratisation have ever emerged in any Arab country, neither from above, nor from below. There has never emerged an Arab Gorbachev or an Arab Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel, or an Arab Atatürk.
Shlomo Avineri is Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author, among other works, of The Social and Political Though of Karl Marx, The Making of Modern Zionism and Moses Hess: Prophet of Communism and Zionism. He is the recipient of the Israel Prize, the country's highest civilian decoration.