Democracy and Media Double Standards

Democracy and Media Double Standards

Recent Georgian presidential elections have been hailed as proof of the new leadership's commitment to democracy.

Recent Georgian presidential elections have been hailed as proof of the new leadership's commitment to democracy. While not perfect, according to OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President and British MP Bruce George, "there were many, many positive things that we observed and we are proud to report on." "Georgia tastes freedom" say the editors of the Daily Telegraph. The New York Times described them as a "jolt of democracy." President Bush has already invited President-elect, Mikhail Saakashvili, to Washington, promising him "all-round assistance" in international affairs.

The western media's enthusiasm for the Georgian elections stands in stark contrast to their portrayal of the Russian Duma elections just one month earlier. The OSCE wasted no time in calling those elections "fundamentally unfair." Mr. Putin's "stooge parties" had made the vote a sham, according to the London Times, and in this country influential columnist William Safire scorned Putin "and his KGB cohort" for bringing back one-party rule to Russia. After coolly noting that the Putin had achieved the working parliamentary majority he had sought, the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow pointedly worried about "the breach of values" that was occurring in relations with Russia.

Now, for the record, the Georgian elections took place just 45 days after a coup d'etat in that country removed the previously elected president, Eduard Shevarnadze. Saakashvili, one of the coup leaders, was opposed by five other candidates (one withdrew calling the elections "immoral"). Not surprisingly, in this environment of almost total political chaos and blanket local media coverage of the success of the "Rose Revolution," Saakashvili managed to receive over 96% of the popular vote!

This thunderously democratic figure becomes even more impressive when one realizes that two rebellious regions, Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia, refused to recognize the validity of these elections, while and a third, Adjaria, reported a low 25% turnout. Nevertheless, OSCE observers quickly concluded that Georgian authorities had "showed the political will" to conduct democratic elections.

Meanwhile the Russian Electoral Commission, which the OSCE grudgingly admits carried out its job of organizing the elections "highly professionally," has just released an overview of the Duma election results. They reveal that twelve national parties qualified for and received federal campaign financing, and that the average electoral district in Russia had nine candidates competing. Incumbency, such a dominant factor in U.S. elections, proved to be of little advantage to Russian parliamentarians, 54% of whom were voted out. Interestingly, the same Mr. George who saw the Georgian election as proof of progress toward democracy, denounced the Duma elections as a "regression in the democratization process in Russia."

Confused? Don't be. This glaring double standard in reporting simply reflects the confusion that underlies public attitudes toward democracy, a confusion that policy makers take easy advantage of to pursue policies that have nothing to do with promoting democracy.

Having found in Saakashvili a willing ally (his foreign minister, Tedo Dzhaparidze, pointedly refers to himself as "among the most pro-American politicians in Georgia"), the media have anointed him the paladin of a new and democratic Georgia. The details of how he got there can be conveniently overlooked. On the other hand, having decided that Putin is a threat (to democracy, to business, to Western interests in general) no rigmarole about democratic procedures is likely to deter us from that view.

The coincidence of these two elections taking place in such a short span of time, however, nicely highlights this double standard, and provides a rare glimpse into what certain policy-makers mean when they talk about "promoting democracy" around the globe. In a nutshell it is this: if we don't like the results then, ipso facto, that country and its political system must not be democratic. Democracy, in this view, has no tangible meaning other than a result that the U.S. and its allies approve of.

Some, like Richard Perle and David Frum, will find such an approach candid and refreshing. They contend that American power should be used to extend specifically "western values" throughout the globe. But this is not quite the same thing as promoting democracy. Indeed, it may actually undermine democratic values.

As many scholars have pointed out, the popular image of democracy is a mental construct rooted in the culture and history of Western Europe and North America. As a result, it tends not only to overlook patterns of democratic development outside that tradition, but also to reinforce, here at home, the comforting fiction being touted by the Bush Administration that people everywhere seek nothing better than to emulate that peculiar form of American democracy that is wedded to capitalism and secularism.

Moreover, playing favorites in such a blatant manner seriously undermines public respect for domestic institutions, which are precisely the ones that need support in fledgling democracies. Ultimately, it is these institutions, not personalities, that guarantee political stability.

Forcing the concept of democracy to serve as a veneer for U.S. policy will ultimately damage both U.S. interests and democracy, further isolating the United States internationally and calling into question this nation's commitment to democratic values. Policy-makers may have an understandable fondness for obfuscating crucial differences, but why should the media be so eager to follow suit?


Nicolai N. Petro is a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island (USA) and author of The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard University Press, 1995). He served as U.S. State Department policy adviser on the Soviet Union under George H. W. Bush.

A version of this essay also appears in The Providence Journal.