Saturday, August 30, 2008

Russia's Transition to Autocracy

The above is an article from the April 2008 issue of Journal of Democracy, entitled “Russia’s Transition to Autocracy.” It was written by Pierre Hassner.

This transition is interesting. The USSR collapsed and many of us thought Russia well on its way to a Liberal Democracy. Hadn’t Francis Fukuyama convinced us that the whole world was heading in that direction? What else was there? Fascism was dead, Communism was dead; so all that was left was Liberal Democracy.

Hassner comments about the analysts analyzing Russia’s transition:

“Today, analysts of Russia are threatened by three temptations: economic determinism, cultural determinism, and political determinism. For instance, the excellent Russian author Dmitri Trenin is optimistic about Russia’s future because, although not democratic, it is capitalist; hence he argues that it will give birth to a middle class that will want the rule of law. Other authors believe that Russia will never become democratic because its culture is basically authoritarian. The third group, composed largely of Americans, believes in politics as a deus ex machine: Because all people want democracy and the market, no matter what their culture or their state of economic development is, these can be installed virtually overnight.”

The third group is definitely the one I’m most familiar with. Doesn’t everyone want to be just like us? . . . well maybe not just like us, but at least like the Europeans who are sort of like us? Look at the Soviet dissident, Natan Sharansky. Look at the Eastern Europeans. They want to be like us. Surely all those Russians do as well.. But do they?

Hassner quotes from the “Russian Public Opinion 2006”: “In answer to the question ‘Would you like the Soviet Union and the social system to be reestablished,’ 12 percent answer, ‘Yes, and I think it quite realistic’; 48 percent say, ‘Yes, but I think now it is unrealistic’; and only 31 percent say. ‘No, I would not.’”

Another poll which shows that an “increasing proportion of Russians (26 percent) believe that Russia should follow its own path in terms of government, a plurality (42 percent) are still in favor of liberal democracy.”

That 60% miss the old Soviet Union ought to be good evidence that whatever they mean by Liberal Democracy isn’t what we mean. Putin isn’t promising them a return to the Soviet system. He is promising them something better. A good portion of even the 31% & 42% may like it.

It is rather arrogant to believe that everyone wants to be like us. Hassner quotes Henri Bergson: “Liberal democracy is the least natural regime on earth. What is natural is the rule of the strongest. Democracy can come into being only through an uphill struggle that requires courage and perseverance and that aims at a profound change in attitudes and institutions.”

COMMENT: Liberal Democracy is probably not inevitable. Francis Fukuyama was probably wrong. Liberal Democracy isn’t just going to happen. The Neocons were closer to the truth. If we act to promote Liberal Democracy, it can succeed. It is a very viable form of government, it can succeed anywhere as Natan Sharansky argues, but it won’t succeed unaided. Someone first needs to lose. And almost no one gives up without a fight. So if we want Liberal Democracy to win we are going to have to fight for it in some manner.

Note that encouraging others to “fight for it,” hasn’t worked that well. We encouraged the Iraqis to “fight for it” after the first Gulf War. We’ve been encouraging the Iranians to “fight for it” for many years, and we also encouraged the Chinese to “fight for it,” and they did, but in none of these cases did we back these fighters up. They were on their own, and that wasn’t good enough.

In the case of Iraq, we alleviated our shame somewhat by going in a second time. But we are probably not going into Iran, and we almost certainly have no intention of going into either China or Russia. So what sort of fight can we fight? We put pressure on China and they’ve added a few civil rights, and we can apply pressure elsewhere, but this may not have the result of turning these Autocracies into Liberal Democracies. It may only turn them into more agreeable Autocracies. After Iraq it will probably be a long time before we are willing to fight a military war in order to turn a nation into a Liberal Democracy.

Lawrence Helm

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