The au­thor­i­tar­ian temp­ta­tion

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Twenty-four years ago this month, Soviet hard­lin­ers, des­per­ate to stop the coun­try’s nascent demo­cratic tran­si­tion, ar­rested Mikhail Gor­bachev and de­clared mar­tial law. In re­sponse, mil­lions of protesters poured into the streets of Moscow and towns across the Soviet Union. Key el­e­ments of the army re­fused to ac­cept the coup, and it soon col­lapsed – with the Soviet Union soon to fol­low.

Even though eco­nomic con­di­tions were dire in the USSR’s fi­nal months, peo­ple could see the free­doms that were com­ing and, un­like to­day, were will­ing to stand up for them. In­deed, in the early years of the demo­cratic tran­si­tion that fol­lowed, most post-com­mu­nist vot­ers did not suc­cumb to the temp­ta­tion to elect ex­trem­ists who promised to end the hard times they were en­dur­ing. In­stead, they usu­ally chose the most sen­si­ble can­di­date avail­able.

Rus­sians, for ex­am­ple, re­jected Vladimir Zhiri­novsky, a clown­ish Don­ald Trump-like na­tion­al­ist and anti-Semite, in favour of Boris Yeltsin, who had stared down tanks dur­ing the failed 1991 coup and recog­nised that his coun­try’s fu­ture lay with democ­racy and the West. In Ro­ma­nia, the ex­trem­ist poet Cor­neliu Vadim Tu­dor lost to a suc­ces­sion of cor­rupt prag­ma­tists, be­gin­ning with Ion Ili­escu, who had led the ouster of the coun­try’s last com­mu­nist leader, Ni­co­lae Ceaus­escu.

Since then, the world has been turned up­side down. As life has got­ten eas­ier, with peo­ple’s ma­te­rial ex­pec­ta­tions largely met, vot­ers have in­creas­ingly favoured neoau­to­crats who prom­ise to “pro­tect” the peo­ple from this or that threat. Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, of course, leads this group, but there are also Hun­gar­ian Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­ban and Czech Pres­i­dent Mi­los Ze­man. And the trend ex­tends be­yond the for­mer com­mu­nist coun­tries to in­clude, for ex­am­ple, Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan.

The French philoso­pher Jean-François Revel saw the rise of vi­o­lent dic­ta­tor­ships in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury as driven by a “to­tal­i­tar­ian temp­ta­tion.” What we are wit­ness­ing to­day is some­thing a bit less sin­is­ter – call it an “au­thor­i­tar­ian temp­ta­tion.” But it is a grow­ing threat not only to democ­racy, but also to global sta­bil­ity. Af­ter all, the one thing to­day’s au­to­crats have in com­mon with their to­tal­i­tar­ian pre­de­ces­sors is con­tempt for the rule of law, both do­mes­ti­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally.

One cause for this shift to­ward au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism is that many coun­tries no longer view the United States as a bea­con of democ­racy and a model of sta­bil­ity and pros­per­ity to be em­u­lated. Putin’s claim that democrati­sa­tion is ac­tu­ally an Amer­i­can plot “to gain uni­lat­eral ad­van­tages” res­onates with many so­ci­eties fol­low­ing the dis­as­trous in­va­sion of Iraq and rev­e­la­tions about the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency’s spy­ing on cit­i­zens and lead­ers world­wide.

But even be­fore these de­vel­op­ments, the Cold War’s win­ners – and es­pe­cially the US – were show­ing a boast­ful­ness that prob­a­bly alien­ated many. When even al­lies are treated with dis­re­spect – re­call Ge­orge W. Bush’s in­fa­mous shout of “Yo, Blair,” as if thenBri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Tony Blair were some cow­hand – peo­ple nat­u­rally won­der whether their coun­try, too, is deemed sub­servient.

Ris­ing “soft” dic­ta­tors – what the jour­nal­ist Bobby Ghosh calls au­thor­i­tar­ian democrats – have used these feel­ings of un­ease and alien­ation to at­tract votes. Their sup­port­ers do not want to be op­pressed, but they do want sta­bil­ity and na­tional sovereignty – de­sires that their lead­ers ful­fill partly by lim­it­ing op­po­si­tion.

Given the reach of to­day’s mass media and so­cial net­works, only a few peo­ple must be tar­geted to cow the rest of so­ci­ety into con­form­ing to the leader’s vi­sion. So, in­stead of build­ing gu­lags, neo-au­thor­i­tar­i­ans launch crim­i­nal cases. The de­fen­dants range from po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents and crit­ics in Rus­sia – such as the oil oli­garch Mikhail Khodor­kovsky and the anti-cor­rup­tion lawyer Alexei Navalny – to in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ists in Er­do­gan’s Tur­key.

Cit­i­zens seem con­vinced. At least 70% of Rus­sians agree with Putin that this kind of “man­aged democ­racy” is su­pe­rior to the chaotic ver­sion prac­ticed in the West. Al­most half of Hungary’s cit­i­zens find mem­ber­ship in the Euro­pean Union, whose lib­eral val­ues Or­ban mocks, un­nec­es­sary. And more than 70% of Turks have a neg­a­tive view of the US, which Er­do­gan blames for the rise of so­cial media (the “worst men­ace” fac­ing Tur­key to­day – trumping, it seems, even the Is­lamic State’s deadly at­tacks in Turk­ish cities).

When the Ber­lin Wall fell in 1989, peo­ple did not un­der­stand the link be­tween cap­i­tal­ism and democ­racy. Many wanted a Western lifestyle, with ac­cess to the kinds of jobs and goods avail­able in the US, but seemed not to recog­nise that ac­cess to that lifestyle re­quires in­creased eco­nomic and per­sonal free­dom – pre­cisely the kind of free­dom that un­der­pins demo­cratic so­ci­eties.

If, in the cur­rent en­vi­ron­ment, Western pow­ers at­tempted to point this out to the peo­ple of Rus­sia, Hungary, or Tur­key, they would likely stoke even greater re­sent­ment. The bet­ter op­tion would be to work on the coun­tries’ lead­ers. If the Putins, Er­do­gans, and Or­bans of the world want to con­tinue to ben­e­fit eco­nom­i­cally from the open in­ter­na­tional sys­tem, they can­not sim­ply make up their own rules.

The power of such an ap­proach can be seen in Rus­sia, where Western sanc­tions, im­posed fol­low­ing Putin’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, are the main fac­tor lim­it­ing the proRus­sian rebels’ in­cur­sion in eastern Ukraine. Putin’s ef­forts to re­claim “great power” sta­tus for Rus­sia may find sup­port among his peo­ple; but that sup­port will prob­a­bly dwin­dle if Rus­sians face the prospect of los­ing all of the com­forts de­rived from the rel­a­tively open econ­omy that their coun­try has had for more than two decades.

At a time when more and more Rus­sians are be­ing de­nied pass­ports to travel out­side the coun­try, those tempted by au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism would do well to re­call the ele­men­tary point made by John F. Kennedy in his Ber­lin speech in 1963. “Free­dom has many dif­fi­cul­ties, and democ­racy is not per­fect,” Kennedy said. “But we never had to put up a wall to keep our peo­ple in.”

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