Democracy: a possibility?

Robert Lane Greene of the Economist reminds that transition from totalitarianism to modern democracy can take a long, long time, depending on the initial and current conditions. It’s good to read an article so full of common sense, but why such an obvious observation has not made it into the mainstream political thought?

A few comments.

Many post-authoritarian countries in Europe, including Spain, Greece, and Portugal, as well as many of the former Soviet satellites, enjoyed some form of democracy before their detour into dictatorship.

In the case of the Soviet block, not many enjoyed full democracy; only Czechoslovakia was a fully democratic country from 1918 to 1938. Poland had been an aristocratic “republic” (rzeczpospolita) for centuries; it was a genuine democracy for a few years in the 1920s, so were the Baltic countries before their elected leaders turned into dictators (Smetona in 1926, Ulmanis and Päts in 1934). Horthy ruled Hungary in an authoritarian way between the wars, although the country could have partaken of democratic government at some level in imperial times. Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia had some experience as constitutional democracies.

Notably, the politically worst-off countries of the former Soviet bloc–Romania and Albania, as well as Russia itself–had little or no democratic experience.

Romania got a constitution based on Belgium’s 1831 statute, in 1866, and another one, quite democratic, in 1923. Thus, Romania had no less experience with democracy at the time than Poland or Hungary.

In a recent book, Russia experts Michael McFaul of Stanford and Timothy Colton of Harvard politely call Russia a “managed democracy.” Freedom House, an NGO that rates political and civil liberties across countries, calls Russia just “partly free.” My own publication, The Economist, has flatly said that, “The West should stop pretending Russia is a free democracy.”

Let’s ask ourselves first, what is a free democracy? There is no doubt Russia is in some important sense less free than, say, the UK, but it’d be very nice of the authors to delineate these senses. How much of this limitation of freedom is explained by the Putin regime’s violation of Russian laws, and how much should be attributed to the non-grassroot nature of Russia’s democracy? France doesn’t have much of a grassroot democracy, either; it has unions instead. I have wondered if democratic institutions can emerge at all in an industrial economy if they had not been there before, even in a very basic stage. The Internet, a horizontal network, might actually be very helpful in changing the nature of democracy in a country; it spreads slowly, but surely. “Forum” is a key Net term.

As both Iraq and the former Soviet Union make clear, the legacy of totalitarianism is utterly debilitating. Not only are there no opportunities for political initiative–such as voting, referenda, political protest–in totalitarian societies; there is no room for individual initiative of any kind. (This is the key difference between a totalitarian society and a merely authoritarian society, like Franco’s Spain or Suharto’s Indonesia.)

Back to the beginning. I do not know if Iraqis were reduced to nuts and bolts in Baath’s state machine. As far as I understand, small-scale private enterprise was OK: the butcher and the barber kept their shops, as they did in Eastern Europe. Agriculture was not collectivized, as it was not in Poland. The whole Baathist experiment lasted for 35 years. On the contrary, the Soviet project lasted for nearly 75 years and involved a complete abolition of all private entreprise. No wonder the Soviets were successful at space exploration and military technology: at least in those areas, new ideas and invididual contributions were always welcome. Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Central Asian republics should therefore have been expected to be the toughest cases.

Greene eschews another characteristic of the social fabric: clans and extended families. It is reported that they are central to many Iraqis’ self-identification and loyalties. For a Russian, a clan is simply a group of people with common interests. Extended family ties persist especially in “old” families (those that can trace their history to “before the Revolution”), an “he’s my first cousin, once removed” can be a weak form of recommendation. Cousin marriage is quite rare in Gentile Russian families. (In the Caucasus, of course, it’s all quite different.) Note that Putin likes to recruit people he made friends with either at the university or the KGB college. He is not alone at that; old-boy college networks are as important in Russia as elsewhere.

Greene does not mention the central paradox of transition. A populace freed from totalitarian rule is likely to soon vote for a leader promising order at all costs; the new leader delivers, and democracy is no more.

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