A Lesson Half-Learned

29 december 2011

Democracy and Democratization After the End of the Cold War

Viacheslav Morozov is Professor of EU-Russia Studies with the Institute of Government and Politics at the University of Tartu.

Resume: The bankruptcy of transitology does not rule out the fact that modern liberal democracy is a product of European civilization and, consequently, that it is based on the historical and intellectual experience of the Enlightenment and subsequent eras. This concrete and essential component of the notion of democracy remains the last line in democracy’s defense against relativism – it allows us to distinguish genuine democracy from all kinds of fakes.

This article is based on a research project supported by the Estonian Science Foundation and the DoRa program of the European Social Fund. The author thanks the participants in the project, particularly Pertti Joenniemi, Artemy Magun, Andrei Makarychev, Maria MКlksoo and Elena Pavlova for a fruitful exchange of ideas, many of which were reflected in this work.

The world looked incredibly simple for most Europeans twenty years ago. The main conflict at the time was a confrontation between liberal-individualistic values and collectivism; between the market economy and socialism; and between liberalism and democracy. With the exception of some very small groups of radicals on both sides of the political spectrum, we correlated our political tastes with this simple, bipolar system of coordinates inherited from the Cold War. Western liberal values clearly dominated the debate and were increasingly adopted as universal, while communism looked to the liberal majority as a dangerous opponent. All alternatives at the time appeared to be either hopelessly naїve or backward. Both radicals and traditionalists could be safely ignored, but the latter deserved humanitarian aid, which was provided out of compassion and in the hope that, sooner or later, they would also embark on the path to liberal democracy and market economy.

The next decade showed that the liberal heralds of the end of history were perhaps even more naїve than the radicals. Soviet-style communism, about which the West continued to be nervous up until 1996, was not viable as a serious political platform. As soon as a strong, populist leader emerged in Russia, Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party quickly became part of a “systemic opposition.” At the same time, countries at the world’s periphery came to the forefront of history, offering several truly relevant alternatives to global capitalism. The Chinese model of coexistence of market economy and authoritarian rule has proven to be more effective than the Western one – at least in the medium run. Latin America’s “left turn,” despite the region’s contradictions and diversity, has demonstrated the possibility of combining the principles of equality and solidarity with the basic values of liberal individualism. By contrast, radical Islam openly rejects liberal principles in politics and the economy, offering instead a return to the social structure with a centuries-old tradition to rely on. These alternatives can no longer be dismissed as exotic relics of the past, living their last days on the margins of world history. They share powerful political dynamics, and each has attracted millions of supporters across the globe.

However, even though the Western model today is no longer considered the only right one for the human race to follow, the West continues to play a dominant role in international affairs. This is not only because the North Atlantic community is still superior both militarily and economically; as the experience of the last decade has shown, this advantage is not absolute. The hegemony of the West also stems from the fact that in modern political vocabulary, whether we like it or not, “Western values” and “democratic values” are synonyms. Democracy, despite the wide variety of interpretations, continues to be the most powerful term expressing the essence of human values. Late Soviet ideologists accepted this idea, when they called friendly regimes “countries of people’s democracy.” Post-perestroika Russia has never challenged the universal value of democracy – even the ideology of “sovereign democracy” implies recognizing that democratic values in the most general form are suitable for all. This draws no fundamental objections from either the Chinese communists or South American populists. Islamic radicals are considered to be fierce enemies of democracy, but if we take a closer look at their rhetoric, we see that today even the traditionalists do not mind playing with terms such as “democracy” and “human rights.” However, the universal acceptance of democracy does not mean that the whole world becomes uniform. On the contrary, having become a recognized value, the concept of democracy may lose substantive content and turn into an empty slogan, suitable for any kind of political regime.

 

THE FAILURE OF TRANSITOLOGY AND THE RELATIVISTIC CHALLENGE

From the standpoint of the liberal dogma that dominates today’s world, the universal recognition of democracy looks natural. If, as many liberals believe, the meaning of human history is a steady movement towards a democratic organization of the state system, total democratization becomes unavoidable. The essence of dogmatic liberalism is perfectly expressed by the political science term ‘transitology’, or the study of general patterns of regime change. Firstly, transitologists consider the transition to democracy to be a universal phenomenon, which follows the same fundamental laws in different cultural and historical contexts (otherwise there would have been no subject to study, and hence, no discipline itself). Secondly, democracy is defined as a set of institutions – formal (such as free and fair elections), and more or less informal ones (free press and proper, corruption-free rule, or “good governance”). Thirdly, the transitological understanding of democracy is essentially nationalistic: democracy exists within the nation state and is a form of self-organization for the nation. The nation as a community with clear boundaries is a self-evident fact of life, and the democratic structure is bound by the limits of one state. Any attempt at going beyond these boundaries for example, by offering to democratize the international system, looks a dangerous nonsense.

One of the lessons of the past two decades is the knowledge that transitological blueprints only work in societies which have already reached a consensus about the need for a transition to democracy; in other words, where the most important political decision has already been made. In Central and Eastern Europe, in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, borrowing Western institutions was generally perceived, for various reasons, as a blessing, and it proceeded relatively smoothly. Yet in Russia, just as in many other countries, the primary task was to prove the value of democracy as such, and the need for building democratic institutions not for the sake of friendship with the West or for a supermarket paradise, but as an internally driven demand.

For transitology, such an approach is simply not possible, because it calls into question the fundamental postulate that all people aspire towards democracy and will ultimately achieve it, if only the morally flawed rulers do not interfere. Accordingly, the failure of “democratic transition” was interpreted as a manifestation of the authoritarian nature of local elites and individual leaders, like Vladimir Putin or Hugo Chavez. As a result, the West, by and large guided by the transitological paradigm, proved to be unprepared for a serious discussion with political leaders who countered the policies of democratization with relativistic slogans, such as “sovereign democracy.”

The logic of relativism is simple: there is no such thing as democracy “in general;” it always exists in a particular country with its unique political culture and historical experience. The democracy-building process cannot be reduced to merely borrowing Western institutions and practices. Each society must find its own, local ways of translating democratic ideals into reality, ways that are most appropriate for local realities and challenges.

Arguing against this reasoning is difficult, if not impossible. Moreover, the experience of democratic reforms in Russia and many other countries in the post-Soviet space and beyond shows how disastrous it is to blindly follow the transitological recipes. NaХve pro-Western policies often lead to a complete discrediting of the democratic ideal. Democracy becomes another word for chaos, and the term “human rights activist,” for example, is mainly used to indicate an internal enemy. Yet the other extreme does not lead to anything good, either. If we agree without reservations that every democratic government is democratic in its own way, then any regime that calls itself democratic and maintains at least a semblance of popular self-government will have to be recognized as democratic.

Transitologists brush off this problem; they argue that the criteria that distinguish democracy from non-democracy are well known: it is enough to leaf through the classical works of Robert Dahl, Samuel Huntington or other well-known theorists. However, upon closer inspection, these criteria turn out to be very far from exact science. They contain value judgments, so any one eager to prove, for example, that elections in Russia are free and fair, while those in the U.S. are not, will surely succeed. Since ideal democracy cannot be found anywhere, the advocates of the liberal dogma will eventually have to appeal to either faith (for example, the faith of the Americans that theirs is a chosen country, destined to carry the torch of democracy around the world), or to the political experience of the audience (“we know well in advance that the U.S. is more democratic than Russia”). However, it is precisely the belief in democracy and the experience of living under a democratic system that is lacking so badly among people in countries that have been through failed democratic transitions. Relying on their own political experience, they tend to think the democratic slogans are sheer propaganda used to conceal the real economic and geopolitical interests. Reluctant to take the relativistic argument seriously, the transitologists lose their main battle even before it starts. The battlefield is left to the proponents of “sovereign democracy.”

 

DEMOCRACY AS AN INTERNATIONAL PHENOMENON

According to the rules of composition, having shown the pernicious nature of the extremes, it would be appropriate to call for the search of the golden mean between transitology and relativism. Actually, this is exactly what many university intellectuals (mostly leftist ones) all over the world are busy doing these days. The result of this quest is disappointing, as the golden mean does not exist. If the task is to determine the best type of regime for any given state, the alternatives are mutually exclusive. Either we take the Western model as an example to follow, or we look for some “special way,” even if using general abstract principles as a starting point.

Obviously, we must look for a way leading beyond the boundaries of a too narrow task. The starting point may be recognition that in practice, the crisis of the transitological paradigm and the ensuing project of democracy promotion is not limited to the inability to meet the relativistic challenge. Another blind spot of dogmatic liberalism is its inability to assess the international dimension of democracy as a universal project. In other words, the problem of transitology is not only in its interpretation of democracy as a set of institutions, but also in artificially restricting its analysis to the level of the nation state.

Many contemporary critics of the West conclude that real democracy is impossible without democratization of the international system. Outside the North Atlantic community, the unipolar world has very few supporters, and these are mostly long-time and faithful supporters of the U.S. Drawing on a wide range of ideological resources, from liberal alter-globalism to anti-colonial rhetoric and back-to-the-earth traditionalism, the supporters of multilateralism maintain that democracy is inconceivable in a situation where major policy decisions are made solely by Washington and several European capitals at their own discretion. The excesses of the George W. Bush administration made this criticism more convincing, and eventually shifted the balance of power in the global debate in favor of the critics of the unilateral approach. This is evident, for instance, in the distinctions between NATO’s campaigns in Kosovo and Libya. In 1999, many in the West were genuinely surprised when the alliance was criticized for unilateral intervention: it was, after all, a collective decision within the framework of NATO. In 2011, this naїvety was gone: every effort was taken to secure at least tacit approval from non-Western players (Arab countries, the African Union and Russia).

Moreover, in the modern world democracy is faced with challenges of international dimension. As a matter of fact, the very project of democracy promotion shows that the democratic system is not confined to the national framework – at the very least, for security reasons. Democratic societies have turned out to be extremely vulnerable to rogue states, terrorist networks, cyber attacks, and many other cross-border challenges. It is important to remember that quite often debaters construe these challenges as threats to the democratic order and to the entire community of democratic nations. Accordingly, the main driving force behind the policy of promoting democracy in other countries is not so much international solidarity as a desire to ensure their own security. The ideological foundation this policy rests upon is democratic peace theory, based on the assumption that democracies do not fight wars against each other. In other words, democracy is becoming the driving force of global development not least because it has many enemies and it has to fight them on a global scale.

On the other hand, the supply of democratization services on the global political market generates demand. Remarkably, the video of a rebel seething with righteous anger and not even asking, but demanding, military and economic support from NATO, was a standard clichО on all TV news stations during the civil war in Libya. Obviously, the hope for support from the democratic community was one of the factors that spurred the revolutions promptly dubbed the Arab Spring. Recognition of this fact does not imply a belief in conspiracy theories about Washington’s direct control over Arab revolutionaries (or, before that, over Kosovo’s separatists and Ukraine’s “orange” protesters). Rather, this suggests that democratization has now evolved from one-sided policies by the West into a global, multi-dimensional phenomenon.

The imperial dimension of world politics also has direct implications for the future of democracy. First of all, there is the legacy of the colonial empires in different regions of the world, whose manifestations are very diverse. For example, in Latin American countries with large indigenous populations the problem of involving these groups in the political process is particularly acute. This inevitably implies the redistribution of resources and creation of a more egalitarian society; so on top of the political agenda one finds issues of equality, and not of individual freedom. As a result, when Western human rights activists accuse political leaders in the region of authoritarian tendencies, this criticism does not achieve its goal. This criticism stems from classical liberal individualism, while in Bolivia, Peru and Brazil democracy is more associated with socialist egalitarianism.

The exclusion of large groups of the population from the political process is a huge problem of other regions as well – for example, the Baltic States, especially Latvia and Estonia. There, however, the problem overlaps with other elements of the imperial heritage. On the one hand, many people still remember the Soviet occupation and continue to distrust modern Russia. Fear of their eastern neighbor forces the Baltic States to play the role of ideal Europeans, which is especially characteristic of Estonia. The Estonians joined the eurozone at the lowest point of the economic crisis, which entailed huge social costs.

On the other hand, as a new member of the European Union and NATO, Estonia now feels in a position to sharply criticize the most influential countries in the “Old West” for catering to Moscow’s interests too often, thus putting the democratic values in question. The fact that Estonia was part of the Soviet empire gives legitimacy to these charges in the eyes of not only the Estonians themselves, but also of their supporters in the West. It appears the Estonians derive the universal meaning of democracy directly from the tragic experience of colonial oppression, while former empires always show a tendency to pursue Great Power politics in the spirit of the Munich agreement and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Estonia takes a paradoxical position in the discussion about the relationship between the Western and universal components of democratic values. On the one hand, Estonia insists on the identity of Western values and democratic ideals. It rejects any right for Russia to have a say in the debate about the concrete meaning of democracy in political practice. In Estonia’s view, there is no “sovereign democracy” and there cannot be such a thing – there is only eternal Russian authoritarianism. On the other hand, it turns out that the Old West also does not have a monopoly on defining what democracy means. As Tallinn shows growing discontent over U.S., German and French policies, Estonia’s identity as a democratic state ceases to be that of a diligent student. Estonia is beginning to look for new, more independent grounds.

 

IS THERE A WESTERN-STYLE DEMOCRACY?

The Western core is no less divided about the future of democracy. The most revealing problems are solidarity within the European Union and its immigration policies. The crisis of the eurozone is just one of the clear signs that the European project is far from completion. Having gone all the way towards the creation of a currency union, the EU has not yet established an economic union (this can be seen, for example, in the fact that the principle of free movement of labor is not fully realized). In the sphere of political integration, the Europeans have stopped halfway. As a result, it remains unclear what European democracy’s demos is: Does it still consist of 27 separate nations, or is there already one European people? The ordinary EU citizen is obliged to follow EU regulations and pay taxes, a considerable portion of which is then redistributed by Brussels. Yet s/he is unable to influence decisions by the governments of other member countries. This, of course, blends with the classical problem of the democratic deficit; that is, the lack of full direct accountability of EU institutions before society. Eliminating this deficit is extremely difficult, because it is an inherent feature of the very foundation of the EU and one of its basic constitutional principles.

The issue of immigration complicates the matter still further. In Europe, just as in other developed regions, there are growing groups of de facto second-rate citizens who are subject to brazen discrimination, as well as numerous non-citizens who pay taxes and demand some social and political rights. The problems of Russian speakers in the Baltic countries are insignificant in comparison with the situation in other European countries, where immigrants, even second-generation ones, often find it difficult to obtain citizenship regardless of the degree of integration. Furthermore, there is growing estrangement between the people and state institutions, the crisis of political parties and social movements, and a growing gap between societal expectations and the budgetary capabilities. So, one may ask: Does Western liberal democracy exist as a working model?

The bitter dispute between Denmark and Sweden over migration and freedom of speech can serve as a recent example illustrating the relevance of this issue. These two Scandinavian countries have developed very different models of immigration policies: Swedish society is proud of its openness to immigrants, while immigrants in Denmark, and even their fully assimilated children, are perceived as a potential threat. At the same time, Swedish political culture often imposes norms of political correctness on all sectors of society, while in Denmark the value of the freedom of speech is indisputable. During the 2010 parliamentary election campaign in Sweden, the moderately xenophobic National Democrats could not avoid a boycott by the political mainstream and the major media. Most Swedes saw the party’s anti-immigrant rhetoric as a threat to the Swedish model of democracy, based on the principles of transparency and non-discrimination against minorities. This boycott, however, provoked a storm of indignation in the Danish press and among most political leaders, because from their point of view the Swedes encroached on freedom of expression, the most important principle of democracy. In the heat of the debate Sweden was called a backward country, an Asian-type despotic regime, and a communist dictatorship. The critics deployed the entire rhetorical arsenal that is commonly used in relation to countries outside the community of civilized Europeans, let alone among the genial Scandinavian family.

It is noteworthy that both parties proceeded from the core principles of liberal democracy – equality before the law and freedom of speech. Largely speaking, there were no major distortions in either case. If one leaves the surge in passions and the corresponding vocabulary aside, the Danes and the Swedes were right in their own way in treating basic liberal-democratic values. The dispute reflected internal contradictions of liberal democracy as such.

The contradictions stem partly from the combination of two very different value systems – liberal and democratic. Their synthesis emerged with the development of Western civilization, and it is a unique feature of this particular model. Its predecessor, ancient democracy, was by contrast deeply anti-liberal. The synthesis of liberalism and democracy has generated quite a few contradictions, which are evident in political practice. So, fierce debates over the embodiment of the democratic ideal in concrete institutions are going on not only between the West and the non-West, but also within the Western world, and in the latter case the controversy is perhaps a matter of principle. Therefore, the Western model of democracy can be considered only as an abstraction, a general term applied to a wide range of possible ways to connect basic liberal values with democratic ones.

Incidentally, as far as the immigration policy crisis is concerned, the situation in Russia is not too different from Europe’s. The nationalist riots of December 2010 can be seen as an outburst of a democratic mass movement against an authoritarian state and against tolerance towards migrants that it dictates. The paradox is that tolerance apparently is one of liberal values. It turns out that the authoritarian state in Russia promotes liberal individualist values against the democratic will of the masses. But had the Danes not said the same about the Swedes just a few months before?

 

DEMOCRATIC POLITICS IN SEARCH OF ITS SUBJECT

All these examples show that democracy cannot be defined in any productive way while staying within the boundaries of one state. It cannot be confined to a set of institutions or rules, because these rules appear either too abstract and vague, or excessively focused on the experience of individual countries or regions, and therefore unsuitable for others. Relativists rightly argue that in practical politics, the common principles transform into a wide variety of democratic systems. However, this does not imply that any regime that calls itself democratic is worthy of the name. Rather, all these conceptual difficulties mean that there is a need to shift the focus away from the institutional aspects of democracy onto the main goal of any democratic social order. As in any modern state, the aim is to pool separate wills into a political unity based on shared values and interests. However, as distinct from authoritarianism, democracy creates a unified political subject based on mutual recognition and equality of individual and collective interests and wills that make up this unity. Since any modern society is volatile, individual and collective interests are constantly changing: new groups and movements speak out, new threats emerge, innovative technologies create new opportunities to achieve common goals. A static mechanism cannot adequately transform this fickle variety into something that could be called common will.

Consequently, democracy is not a state, but a process of constant redefinition of common interests and values. What one finds at the heart of this concept is not an institutional form, but a political subject – that very demos which is supposed to rule in a democracy, and which actually comes into existence in the course of the democratic process. Today, when democracy has crossed national boundaries, the greatest threat is posed by the nationalist myth, which postulates that the people exist prior to the emergence of the state, and that a democratic state does no more than express popular will. This myth often creates alienation between the government and certain social groups, which for whatever reason are not included in this given “people.” Moreover, it feeds the dangerous illusion that a nation can be freed from tyranny from outside; that if provided with democratic institutions, a nation will immediately be capable of self-governance.

The experience of the last twenty years has demonstrated the danger of such illusions. The political existence of a nation under a dictatorship is embodied in the figure of the dictator, who alone represents the popular will. If the dictator is overthrown through the mobilization of the masses, a new, democratic nation is brought into being as a result of this revolutionary act. Of course, this does not guarantee against its fragmentation or even a civil war, but at least it provides a chance for a truly democratic consolidation. If the dictator is removed by external forces, the task of creating a democratic subject is much more complicated. Establishing a political nation from scratch after the “father of the people” has left the scene requires enormous effort over many years.

Fortunately, the Arab Spring and the related events show that the U.S. and its allies are no longer eager to decide the future of other nations. The operation in Libya was rather limited and even its boldest interventionist scenarios envisaged no more than some support for local fighters against the dictatorship. Today even the hawks in Washington understand that another Iraq would be a disaster, and tend to temper their enthusiasm. Yet only half of this lesson has been learned so far. The recognition of the fact that democracy cannot be implanted from outside is not sufficient to overcome transitological stereotypes. The liberal mainstream continues to postulate democracy as the “deliverable” of politics, which ceases to exist as such after that point and is replaced by “good governance.” The risk of emasculating democratic values by reducing them to a set of ready-made institutional solutions has not been realized in earnest.

* * *

In conclusion, we should emphasize once again that rejecting the definition of democracy through specific institutions does not mean approving the relativistic view on democracy as nothing more than a faНade simulating popular government. The bankruptcy of transitology does not rule out the fact that modern liberal democracy is a product of European civilization and, consequently, that it is based on the historical and intellectual experience of the Enlightenment and subsequent eras. This concrete and essential component of the notion of democracy remains the last line in democracy’s defense against relativism – it allows us to distinguish genuine democracy from all kinds of fakes. The history of the last twenty years has demonstrated particularly well that our knowledge about democracy is irreducible to a set of formal criteria. Rather, it consists in the ability to rethink the experience of previous generations in light of the trends and challenges characteristic of a specific political moment. Like any other assessment based on practical experience, such rethinking cannot yield a completely accurate and reliable result. Life in a democratic society is always a risky adventure: we make decisions and then bear responsibility for the consequences. But this is precisely what freedom is all about.

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