21st Century (anti)Democracies
Defining democracy seems to be a hard thing to do. 20 years ago, when the Berlin Wall was still splitting Germany into two, it was easy to say what democracy was and what not.
On one hand we had total control over populations, while on the other hand were elected governments, accountability, and powerful civil societies.
Today things are a little more complicated: everybody seems to be democratic or, better say, everybody is creating democracy of their own style and preferences. As Freedom House’s report Undermining democracy points out, 21st century authoritarians have developed subtle strategies to dent true democratic principles. One example is Russia, whose “sovereign democracy” leaves plenty of vague space for any repressive regime to fill in with whatever fits best. When coupled with nostalgic nationalism, shutting down independent media, and one-party system, “sovereign democracy” does not seem so democratic any more. Another example is the “Islamic democracy” of Iran, which also holds regular elections for president and legislature, but whose entire political and social life is decided in the small circle around the Ayatollahs.
Nevertheless, these regimes present themselves as democracies despite the lack of accountability and internal legitimacy, political repressions, murders of journalists and deplorable human rights record. After this inexcusable fallacy comes unconditional foreign aid. IT targets developing countries from the neighborhood and Africa, which are supposed to follow suit and disregard the US and EU investments, which always come with the conditions to democratize and liberalize.
Why should this matter? Unlike 20 years ago, today’s battle is not who has more nuclear warheads or who will get the oil in Africa. The real war is between those who advocate for the right of every individual to live free and choose his own destiny, and those who are ready to neglect these rights for the sake of power, prosperity and ruling comfort. And while 20 years ago we had a war, albeit a cold one, today we have working “international institutions” and “economic integration”. Correction: international institutions, whose work is vetoed by authoritarian governments and economic integration at the price of neglecting political and human rights.
The term democracy has been blurred by authoritarian propaganda so much, and the democratic governments have been so immersed in business with authoritarians, that we have somehow swept the real fight under the carpet. Is it inconvenient any more to stand firm for the right of man to choose undisturbed how to pursue his happiness? Is it indispensable to allow authoritarian regimes undermine democracy through their newly-arisen economic strength?
Today’s resurgent authoritarian governments make it indeed essential to have a stance. Today if you have no position, you are in the camp of the perpetrators of human dignity and freedom. It is easy to point at Russia and Iran for undermining democracy at home and abroad. These countries have long been in manifest opposition to liberal democratic principles. Other countries are more moderate, but equally authoritarian. And they still call themselves democracies.
Take the following example. Myanmar is ruled by a brutally suppressive military junta since 1962. Since then the regime has detained thousands of opposition activists and murdered many of them with no CNN cameras around. No elections have been held. The whole power is vested in the military, which arbitrarily decides about the life and well being of every Burmese. The totalitarian socialism brought the country to the admittance as world’s most undeveloped nation. Over 90% of the population lives on less than 65 cent per day. The military dictatorship severely represses political opposition and even peaceful movements of Buddhist monks.
To make the long story short, the West reacts with unsuccessful sanctions which impoverish the country even more, while the neighbours trade and arm the junta. Remarkably, among those indirectly supporting the regime in Myanmar are democratic India and Thailand.
Last year the junta made new virtually unnameable constitution and this year announced elections for 2010. Democratic steps? It also pardoned a lot of criminals and some prisoners of conscious, only to incarcerate them again afterwards. Already under house arrest, the democratic icon of the country San Suu Kyi was sentenced to 3 years in prison. Then the sentenced was reduced to 1,5 years house arrest. These are only some of the sly PR campaigns of one of the most repressive regimes in the world, which does not intend to change. However, it may well gain external legitimacy and call itself democratic after carrying out staged elections next year. We will then have another type of democracy, perhaps “militarized democracy” or “The Burmese democratic way”.
In any case the advocates of freedom should stay alert for the cunning ways of the 21st century authoritarians. We are still fighting the same battle, only the enemy has changed its name and methods.