Chandler Rosenberger: The man in Bratislava

Professor leverages firsthand knowledge of emerging democracies in new course

Photo/Mike Lovett

Most Americans probably cannot imagine the experience of cobbling together a democracy from the rubble of authoritarianism or watching entire countries dissolve overnight. But Chandler Rosenberger, assistant professor of international and global studies and sociology, doesn’t have to imagine. He experienced it first hand.   

Rosenberger worked as a NGO liaison and fellow of The Institute of Contemporary World Affairs (ICWA) in post-communist Europe, just after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. He organized educational events in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, to bolster the new marketplace of ideas and worked as an advisor to democrats such as Slovakia's then-prime minister, Ján Čarnogurský.  

This fall, Rosenberger will leverage his first-hand experiences in a new class about democracy hopes and practice in the United States, China and India. The class will center on 19th-century French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville and his book, “Democracy in America.”

"Tocqueville wrote 'Democracy in America' because he wanted to understand the new wave of equality he saw in his own times," Rosenberger says. "Now that spirit has reached nearly every corner of the globe. I saw what it was like -- good and bad -- when that spirit was unleashed in Central Europe. Now I want to explore: what happens when you mix this egalitarianism spirit with ancient civilizations such as India's and China's?"

Rosenberger became interested in central Europe while studying philosophy at Oxford University in the 1980s. After graduating, he took a job with the Jan Hus Educational Foundation, an organization based in England that ran underground education networks in communist-ruled Czechoslovakia.

After the Iron Curtain fell, the foundation continued its work above ground in Bratislava.

Rosenberger became the foundation’s “Man in Bratislava,” organizing lectures, giving away books and setting up courses at new universities. He lived on the 12th floor of an old Soviet-style walkup dorm, replete with peeling paint and Cuban oranges in the cafeteria.  

It was an exciting and frustrating time, Rosenberger recalls.

On one hand, he witnessed freedom, democracy and idealism being put into practice. On the other hand, he watched the rise of nationalism, ethnic clashes and political thuggery in Slovakia and neighboring countries such as Serbia, Bosnia and Moldova.

“You learn quickly that democracy isn’t enough,” Rosenberger says. “It wasn’t enough to promote free elections. You have to promote habits of the heart: listening, tolerance and moderation.”

After working in Bratislava, Rosenberger received a two-year fellowship from the ICWA, allowing him to travel and write about central Europe for the institute and other publications including The Wall Street Journal.

On one trip to Moldova, Rosenberger traveled with a human rights organization to investigate the intimidation of Moldovan politicians by Russian thugs in the disputed region of Transnistria, located near the eastern Moldovan border with Ukraine. The team and their Moldovan translators were picked up by local police and detained.  

After about an hour, the team leader demanded to know why they were being held. The police refused to answer. Repeated inquiries brought no reply.

“Finally, she said, ‘if your not going to tell us, that means you have no charges against us and we are going to leave,’” Rosenberger recalls. The whole team, including the translators, got up and walked out of the police station. They got into their cars and started driving before a team of police surrounded them with AK-47s and expelled them from the Russian-occupied area at gunpoint.

Looking back on the experience, Rosenberger remembers what it meant for the Moldovan translators to defy police. “They realized they didn’t just have to sit there and take whatever the police doled out,” Rosenberger says. “It’s like lights went on in their head and you could really see how much one’s own sense of dignity matters. We saw freedom in action.”

The value of one's own dignity is at the heart of most nationalist and populist movements, Rosenberger says. "You see it in the Arab Spring.  You see it in the anti-corruption campaigns in India and the environmental movement in China. People just will not be denied their right to be recognized."

Rosenberger encourages his students to witness that spirit first hand.

"There is just nothing like watching good people take the fate of their country back into their hands, or watching real life and new initiatives -- new businesses, new media, new parties -- spring up after a dictator has been brought down," Rosenberger says. "It's like watching a world be reborn."  

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

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