Democracy Lab

Nothing Is Written

The triumph of democracy isn't inevitable. It has to be fought for.

I recently had the chance to watch an inspiring documentary film. It's called A Whisper to a Roar, and it tells the stories of pro-democracy campaigners in five authoritarian countries (Egypt, Malaysia, Ukraine, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe). The movie offers some vivid stories of courageous political struggles. I especially liked the interviews with female Egyptian activist Esraa Abdel Fattah and the Venezuelan student campaigner Roberto Patiño -- both remarkable people who clearly have an interesting future ahead. It's the self-sacrifice and idealism of figures such as these that give the story its lift.

The producers of A Whisper to a Roar clearly wanted to deliver a message of hope to those of us who would like to see more freedom in the world. According to the film's website, "the core message of the work is that the thirst for freedom and accountable government is universal and that democracy is not just a Western concept." On balance, that's a statement that I'm inclined to accept (even if I find it a bit too vague for my taste). But if that's what the film was supposed to prove to me, it hasn't succeeded. The film would like us to believe, essentially, that the good guys will always win in the end, since that's what all of us want. It's not just clear that reality is ever quite so straightforward.

It's striking is that none of the countries so optimistically profiled in the film has yet to embrace full-blown democracy. The vicious Robert Mugabe is still president of Zimbabwe today (even though, as the film shows, he was pushed into a power-sharing arrangement with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai). The authoritarian regime in Malaysia remains in place (though it could be facing a strong electoral challenge from Anwar Ibrahim in an impending general election there). President Hugo Chávez is still in power in Venezuela. Viktor Yanukovych, the authoritarian leader humiliatingly defeated by opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko in the 2004 Orange Revolution, is now president of Ukraine.

In Egypt, demonstrators are locked in a battle with the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government -- a democratically elected administration that, many Egyptians worry, is now on its way to curtailing some of their recently acquired freedoms via a new constitution drafted largely by Islamists and rejected by secular democrats. (The movie ends in the summer of 2012, so it touches upon some of these developments. Its take on Egypt is accordingly colored by the euphoria following the fall of Mubarak, and not yet compromised by the Brotherhood's power grab this autumn.)

In at least three cases, it should be noted, the leaders in question won power in competitive elections. The Brotherhood moved into power with the blessing of Egyptian voters. Yanukovych, who capitalized on the corruption and internal divisions of the democratic coalition that defeated him five years earlier, trounced his opponent in 2010. Chávez also convincingly won reelection in his latest presidential poll two months ago, fending off the strongest opposition challenge in recent memory.

Democracy, it would seem, is not inevitable. Sometimes people even vote against it.

Yet it's surprising how many people out there (especially in the United States) seem to share the Whiggish belief that history is progressing in a smooth, straight line toward liberal democracy, the only form of political organization that makes sense to consenting adults. There are still plenty of people around who argue that "democracy is inevitable" (a phrase coined by sociologist Warren Bennis, who contended that democratic forms of decision-making were inherently more "efficient" than others).

You can hear a lot of similar views from tech mavens who argue that the possibilities for community action enabled by the decentralized Internet are the natural accelerants of democracy. Elites are doomed, and hierarchies will fall, we are told. Facebook and Twitter undermine censorship and undermine authoritarianism. Technology thus invariably smoothes the path toward participatory action.

There's just one catch to all of this: We're talking about people here, and whatever humans do rarely follows straight lines. Democracy is not the only ideal of action that inspires intense passion and engagement. So, too, do nationalism and religion -- forces that sometimes complement democracy, sometimes operate against it. Nor should one underestimate the deep human desire for predictability and good governance, which can sometimes trump the longing for transparency and agency. (The classic case here is Singapore, whose wealthy, hyper-educated citizenry has traditionally evinced little interest in the politics of opposition.)

Don't get me wrong: Democracy is what we should be striving for. But I think we make an enormous mistake when we try to lull ourselves into the conviction that we're "on the right side of history" by supporting liberal institutions and values. This sounds to me suspiciously like the naïve progressivism of the Victorians and their heirs, whose optimistic faith in the civilizing influence of modern technology crashed and burned in the inferno of the First World War. I don't think that history has an end to which everything necessarily tends. History is the sum of our actions. It's whatever we decide to make of it. Nothing is inevitable. To assume otherwise is to undermine the very sense of agency that lies at the basis of democracy.


What's more, working under the assumption that Providence favors your case can be outright dangerous, since it can cripple your powers of analysis. If you believe you're favored by the gods, you run a much greater risk of blundering into the traps set by devils. Lately I've been hearing lots of people here in Washington repeating that Vladimir Putin's regime has been enormously "weakened" or "undermined" by the protests in Russia's big cities last year. Putin's regime appeared so corrupt, so obviously stagnant, that his downfall seemed to be just around the corner (at least to some).

Yet the most recent protest in Moscow drew modest numbers, oil prices are holding, and Putin's term has another six years to go. Meanwhile, the Russian opposition movement has no clear leaders, no clear organization, and no guiding issues that can appeal to people outside of the educated, urban middle class. As a result, the folks who claimed, not too long ago, that the protests had transformed Russia's political culture are still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I know that it is much more comforting to talk about how Putin or Xi Jinping or some other despot is facing impending doom. But the fact remains that many autocrats in the world retain a firm grip on power (sometimes even with American help), and most of them bear little resemblance to the caricature of the knuckle-dragging thug just waiting to be unseated by a couple of college kids conspiring on Facebook. The highly adaptable Hugo Chávez, to name but one, has shown that Twitter makes an excellent tool for populist mobilization. In Iran, the ayatollahs have long since figured out that the Internet is a great tool for organizing their illiberally minded followers. (The Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has apparently just launched his own Facebook page.)

The obstacles facing democrats around the world are hard, but not insurmountable. We have every reason to be optimistic about their success. But I suspect we can do a much better job of supporting them if we stay realistic about the challenges they face.

Pedro PARDO/AFP/GettyImages

Democracy Lab

Europe's Pet Dictator

Parts of the old Soviet bloc have moved on. So why is Belarus still mired in despotism?

"The KGB came to search our apartment," says Natalia Pinchuk, an elegant 48-year-old whose fair hair gives her a distinctly Nordic air. "They were looking for material to use in the case, but they didn't find anything." Last year, secret police grabbed her husband, human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, off a street in Minsk, the capital of the Belarusian police state. They packed him off to jail, where he remains today; he's now serving out a four-and-a-half-year sentence. (She last saw him in May, but further visits have been canceled by the prison authorities -- allegedly on grounds of "bad behavior.") The ostensible charge was tax evasion, but everyone knows what his real crime was: Bialiatski runs an organization that provides aid to political prisoners in the former Soviet republic.

The KGB? Political prisoners? Wait a minute. Isn't this 2012? The Soviet Union broke up 21 years ago. Today, Belarus's three neighbors to the West -- Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia -- are all members of the European Union and NATO. The citizens of these countries regularly elect new leaders through democratic, multiparty elections. They have free media, independent courts, and myriad institutional checks and balances.

In Belarus, population 10 million, President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994. He recently gave an interview to foreign journalists in which he boasted of his status as "the last and only dictator in Europe." Under his rule, Belarus has preserved Soviet-era organizations like the Young Communist League and the Young Pioneers. And yes, the KGB -- the Committee for State Security -- still proudly operates under its old name. (The organization's website includes a number for a telephone "helpline," presumably for use by upstanding citizens eager who are eager to inform on their neighbors.) Even Vladimir Putin's Russia felt compelled to rename its internal security service. Not so Belarus; there's much about the place that harks back to the days of Brezhnev.

The United Nations may have observed Human Rights Day earlier this week, but Minsk clearly didn't get the memo. Lukashenko, who got his start in politics as the director of a collective farm, cultivates a public persona that is equal parts gangster and a clown. He takes his seven-year-old son Myakaly along to his meetings with visiting dignitaries and suits him up in a miniature officer's uniform (complete with his own little gold pistol) for military parades.

The buffoonery is deceptive. This is a man with a shark-like understanding of power. When Belarusians started campaigning against his regime back in the 1990s, a prominent journalist and two of Lukashenko's leading political opponents simply disappeared. The government launched a half-hearted investigation, but, oddly enough, no trace of the men has ever been found.

Potential critics got the message. The opposition is still alive, but just barely. Two years ago they managed to bring significant crowds onto the streets to protest a rigged presidential election. Lately they've resorted to some innovative tactics, like the so-called clapping protests. Even those who participated in these innocuous activities met with a brutal response from club-wielding police. (And that stunt by Swedish sympathizers, who airlifted teddy bears adorned with pro-democracy messages into the country this past summer, certainly drummed up some welcome publicity. Lukashenko was so angry that he fired two generals for the presumed lapse in the country's air defense system.) But they've faced an uphill battle -- actually something more akin to a perfectly vertical wall -- in their efforts to garner support.

Bialiatski's group, called Viasna ("Spring") Human Rights Center, has been decimated by the government's assault. (At one point, the KGB even arrested his 23-year-old son, Adam; he was later released, and now lives in Poland.) Bialiatski himself could have left before his arrest; it was clear where things were headed. "Everyone told him to leave," says Zhanna Litvina, a leading Belarusian journalist. (Her group, the Belarus Association of Journalists, won a Sakharov Prize in 2004.) "But he said, 'This is my country. I'm not guilty of anything. I'm not running away.'"

Just last month, the authorities confiscated all of Viasna's property and boarded up its office. Activists say that there are just 12 political prisoners left in the country (including Bialiatski). But that attests less to the lack of critical voices than to the benumbing effectiveness of Lukashenko's police state. Seven people who tried running against Lukashenko in the last presidential election in 2010 ended up under arrest; one of them, Mikolau Statkevich, is still in jail.

Lukashenko, it appears, actually likes having a few political prisoners around. They make great bargaining chips whenever he needs to negotiate with the European Union, which is perpetually pestering him about his miserable human rights record. "It's like a sort of trade in people," says Tatsiana Reviaka, a member of Viasna. "He tells them, ‘You give us a loan, we'll free a political prisoner.'" Not surprisingly, the European Union has little to show for its efforts. Brussels has been nudging Lukashenko to allow greater freedom for his people now for the past 18 years.

But, aside from these minor concessions from the dictator, the situation remains virtually unchanged. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that there are still plenty of E.U. countries (notably the Netherlands and Latvia) that are eager to buy cheap oil products from Belarusian refineries. In the first six months of this year alone Lukashenko earned $8 billion from the trade. Those hard currency earnings constitute a crucial lifeline for the dictator. If the European Union really wanted to hit Belarus where it hurts, this would be the perfect place to crack down. So it's no wonder that the high-minded lectures from Brussels aren't having much effect.

The reason has a great deal to do with the peculiar geopolitical position of Belarus, sandwiched between the European Union and Putin's Russia -- a country that, needless to say, tends to share Lukashenko's views on human rights. But their ideological similarities don't necessarily mean that Moscow and Minsk see eye to eye on everything.

Lukashenko is too slippery a customer for that. His dependence on Moscow, which supplies virtually all of Belarus's energy needs, is great. (Moscow has been known to shut off the flow of natural gas when Lukashenko gets too feisty.) But he has proven a master at playing East and West against each other. The Belarusian dictator knows perfectly well that the Europeans don't want to see him slip farther into Moscow's orbit, while Putin is reluctant to relinquish any of his influence over Minsk. It's a delicate balancing act, but the fact that Belarus has successfully resisted handing over more of its sovereignty to Moscow for so long attests to the success of the strategy.

This also explains why the Lukashenko system has managed to stay in place for so long. He has exploited the curse of geography to keep himself in power. There is nothing about Belarusians that ought to make them inherently different from other Europeans. But their place in Europe has dealt them a bad hand.

I've been to Belarus. It's a beautiful country, green and lush (in the summer). The people are well-educated, friendly, and cosmopolitan. Yet history has not been kind to this particular bit of real estate. There's a reason historian Timothy Snyder titled his book about Belarus and the areas that surround it Bloodlands. In the 1930s and 1940s, its people have seen -- in quick succession -- Stalin's terror, Nazi invasion and occupation, the Germans' scorched-earth retreat, and the return of Soviet power. The Holocaust and the Gulag have both left their lasting imprint. Minsk, the capital, basically ceased to exist during the war. Eighty percent of it was destroyed.

This sad backstory, combined with Lukashenko's undeniable skill at intrigue, helps to explain why Belarus has ended up where it is. The majority of Belarusians clearly aren't happy with their present situation, but most now respond by hunkering down. Independent polling suggests that around 30 percent still support Lukashenko, while 15 percent side with the opposition; the rest have sunk into a profoundly apolitical apathy. Many Belarusians are voting with their feet, thronging into the European Union for any jobs they can find. (One big difference from Soviet days is that people can now travel more or less freely -- as long as they can get visas.) "We're a country of partisans," says Reviaka wryly. "We're very good at hiding in the bushes."

Perhaps. But there's no question that many Belarusians would welcome a way out of their current stagnation. The European Union already has a Nobel Prize of its own. How about giving Bialiatski a Nobel Prize? Now that would send a breath of fresh air through this musty corner of Europe.    

Photo by NIKOLAI PETROV/AFP/GettyImages