Democratic Fundamentalism and Promises. With Georgia (and Russia) on My Mind

 In last week's column, I discussed the question of "democratic fundamentalism"-the tendency to believe that quick interventions and scheduled elections solve all ills.

 

In last week's column, I discussed the question of "democratic fundamentalism"-the tendency to believe that quick interventions and scheduled elections solve all ills.

It is very true that the maxim, "Modernization first, democratization to follow," can be used by authoritarian regimes to indefinitely postpone real reform. Central Asian and Caucasian policymakers I have encountered have routinely invoked the centuries required by Western countries to evolve from autocratic monarchies into representative democracies as a way to deflect criticism of their own domestic institutions.

But the principle itself is not inappropriate. Without stable, viable institutions, democratization is like the seed in Jesus's parable that falls upon the rock, briefly spouts up, and then withers away because it cannot put down roots.

I had the opportunity to meet the new Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, during his visit to Washington in February.  One cannot help but be impressed by his dynamism, his drive and, indeed, his idealism. He believes in reform and, through that, the rejuvenation of Georgia.

Yet can reform and democracy co-exist in Georgia, at least in the short term? Saakashvili must contend with Georgia's version of the oligarchs. He must confront a political system where money can buy police and political protection. He faces powerful interests who will not desire fundamental change and can use the media to whip up opposition to his policies. He must cope with separatist challenges. To ensure his country's stability, he may be forced to make compromises with his northern neighbor that will irritate nationalists. (And by the way, simply peruse speeches in the Mexican Congress since the early 1930s onward-America occupies for many nationalist Mexicans the same place that Russia does in the hearts of Georgian patriots-the northern colossus seeking to exercise political and economic hegemony.)

So - and no surprise here-Saakashvili is taking steps which some consider to be Putinesque. Creating a super-presidency, perhaps revisiting some of the results of privatization, concern over media holdings-all of these are steps which worry those who are concerned about democracy, but they may end up being vitally important for getting serious reform started in Georgia.

And this coming Sunday, the presidential elections in Russia-what some inside Russia and many outside of Russia are terming the presidential farce (because of the lack of any serious opposition to Putin).

The question of a viable opposition is important. Russia cannot evolve from the system of managed pluralism it current operates under to conditions of a full-fledged democracy if, over time, opposition candidates cannot emerge who have a serious chance of winning the presidency. We might draw a distinction between pre-Fox Mexico, where opposition presidential candidates helped to legitimize the victory of the PRI candidate, and the United States, where, even if elected to a second term, President Bush does face the possibility of a real challenge from Senator Kerry.

And a real opposition in Russia (as well as a real governing party) can only emerge when actual interests are represented and mediated from the grassroots to the governing class. Several wealthy businessmen financing a party have not created a viable opposition movement.

But to call the elections this coming Sunday a farce misses out on the fact that the results-the re-election of Putin-do not contradict the wishes of a majority of Russians.  An influential minority, to be sure, does not welcome this outcome-but we in the West need to be careful to identify this minority with some sort of Russian silent majority. The election is not rigged in the sense that an unpopular candidate is being foisted on the country. Russia in 2004 under Putin is not the Philippines under Marcos in 1986.

So the test now before us, in places like Russia and Georgia, is how to preserve a zone of political and economic pluralism that provides a stable basis for further change and development. And I don't think it unwise to ponder another parable, that of the hare and the tortoise. Getting across the finish line is the most important thing.

(I was going to end on that note, but then I was reminded of a scene in Patton when George C. Scott, already pinning the third star on himself, is reminded by Kurt Malden that such appointments are only official when ratified by the Senate.  "The Senate has their timetable, and I have mine" is the response.  I sometimes think we in Washington think the same way-we have a timetable for transitions, and be damned if local conditions make it impossible to fulfill.  It reminds me of the anecdote you'll find in the spring 2004 issue of The National Interest, in our feature "Despot Watch," about how Robert Mugabe threatened the national weather service with a treason charge for predicting drought when he wanted good weather for harvests.)

 

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.