Between Hope and Decline

Photo: Peter Župník

When he invited me to address you, Mr Marek Svoboda said: We would like you to assess the state of democracy in the world; you have a full fifteen minutes. So keep it short and sweet.

Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that over the past year we have witnessed the awakening of grass roots democracy in various parts of the world. Democracy is awakening in many unexpected contexts, such as the Arab Spring or the protests in Russia. The bad news is that, on the other hand, in places where we thought democracy had deep roots, it has become exhausted in the current crisis and for the second or third or umpteenth time has had to look for a new lease of life.

To focus on the good news, the Arab Spring is the common denominator political scientists and journalists have given to all these rather disparate movements. Some have drawn parallels with Eastern Europe in 1989 and although this comparison isn’’t always valid, it is true in one respect. First of all, it shows how fragile dictatorships can be. They can suddenly collapse within a few weeks or months. Second, it demonstrates how rapid the domino effect of democratic movements can be – in this respect the latest developments are reminiscent of 1848 or 1989.

So there are some parallels here and I believe that the upholders of these authoritative regimes are also aware of them. This explains certain solidarity of dictatorships that we can now see in the case of Syria. Who supports Assad? It is Iran, Russia and China, whose leaders have made this connection. And the Russian citizens who went out into the streets of Moscow in December in the greatest rallies in twenty years are also aware of this. What we have here is a kind of contagion of democratic revolt, as well as a solidarity of dictatorships.

What makes the Arab Spring important is that it has undermined stereotypes prevalent in the past twenty years, particularly in the Western world. The first was the clash of civilizations: i.e. that there are civilizations where a different religious or cultural background makes the idea of democracy pointless or gives it no chance. However, in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries the Arab Spring has demonstrated that this is a clash within civilizations. We don’’t know what its outcome will be but it is a clash within a specific cultural and religious space. The other idea we in the West have accepted all too readily is that the only choice is between a military dictatorship and Islamic fundamentalism, in other words, between soldiers and men with beards. What the civic movements demonstrated last year is that there is a third force or a third way, even though we are discovering, of course, that it’’s a long-distance race and that we really don’’t know its end point. But at least there is a whole gamut of possibilities.

While it is true that a dictatorship can collapse very rapidly, this fact by no means guarantees a successful transition to democracy. And although it is true that the clash of civilizations wasn’’t the most apposite paradigm for understanding this region we should not simplify in the opposite sense, claiming that universal democratic values have prevailed. I would rather speak of a universal longing for freedom and dignity. However, freedom is not a value per se, it is what enables society to define – through public debate and democratic process – values on which it will build political, social and other institutions.

As we know from history, leaders of democratic revolutions are usually not the ones deciding on developments that follow the revolutions. We have seen the results of the Egyptian elections. If the European West had once thought that the Arab world offered only a choice between soldiers or Islamists, it now thinks along the lines of moderate soldiers and moderate Islamists perhaps reaching a compromise.

These are not necessarily democratic revolutions but it is clearly difficult to stop events that are already in motion. At least in the case of Tunisia the chances are very good but, in my view, Egypt will be the key country. Just like Poland was the key country for Central and Eastern Europe, Egypt will be the key country for this region. However, the final outcome may also be up to us: it will depend on the EU’’s ability to engage with this space. Dealing with the Mediterranean coast in the past Europeans were primarily concerned about their own safety, from Islamic terrorism to the influx of immigrants. These days they have to worry about a third and perhaps the most important, issue, namely the democratization of the region.

Whether we will play a role in this process will, however, depend partly on how democracy develops at home. And that brings me to the worse bit of news: democracy fatigue and crisis in the West.

The context in which Western democracies may engage in the process of democratic change, wherever it may take place, will depend on the following factors.

First, to what extent will the decline of Western influence – not just of Europe but also the US – be matched by the rise of authoritarian capitalism, which has lately been manifesting itself in Russia or China. For a long time after 1989 people believed the mantra that markets and democracy are one and the same thing, even inventing the term market democracy. Today we know that democracy cannot exist without a market economy – there is no such case – but that the market economy definitely can exist without democracy. This was clear to General Pinochet, who introduced harsh market policies under army supervision. And it is clear to Putin, as well as to the comrades in China. They already have a market without barriers, without trades unions, without an array of disturbances.

But here in Europe we are also beginning to realize that markets and democracy are not the same thing. Markets – especially financial markets – are global whereas our democracies are national. How can we make democratic decisions on things we can influence only minimally? We have seen international financial markets collapse and being bailed out by state intervention. And then the markets turned to the same states and their governments, saying: But you’’re in debt.

So we have ended up with democratic governments supervised by financial markets. We keep reading in the press that a certain government has to gain the confidence of the markets. The governments are trying to gain the confidence of the markets and take various steps dictated by the markets, and meanwhile they are losing the confidence of their citizens. Hence the movement of the indignant and dissatisfied. The citizens feel their democratic institutions are deaf to their needs and their protests.

This phenomenon can be observed in Greece or Italy, where the democratic space is becoming narrower and technocracy is on the rise. The best prime minister is not necessarily the one who has been elected and who can resign but the one who will be followed by an appointed banker who has the confidence of the markets. This technocratization, this emptying of the democratic space is a real problem. I don’’t know if Italy and Greece are harbingers of a wider European trend, but to organize elections the way it was done in Greece, with the sole objective being drastically reducing the standard of living by the end of the decade, means a de facto denial of democracy. You may have a technocratic government and if it fails – God forbid – the colonels might come back. These are the risks of the crisis in which we have found ourselves.

The other possible response is populism, which takes the opposite approach. Technocracy wants policy without politics: we have a single agenda, there’’s no discussion and nobody can interfere, neither on the Left nor on the Right. Populism has the opposite goal: politics without policy. It offers very simple answers to very complex questions. A strong leader and usually strong nationalist rhetoric directed against technocratic elites, minorities, immigrants and anyone who is not a true Finn. Examples can be found in nearly every country. This variety of national populism is spreading and it poses a great problem for the EU as such because nationalist populists are not targeting only minorities and immigrants at home but also the EU itself. How this will affect the EU is a serious issue.

If there is a single situation that ought to be highlighted, it is that of Hungary. I have recently spoken to my Hungarian friends and they are all very concerned about what is happening under Orbán’’s government. All the former dissidents have again mobilized. György Konrád has coined the word democratorship to describe this situation – neither democracy nor dictatorship. Three hundred and fifty new laws, tight control of the mass media, eight hundred journalists fired from public TV and radio, and so on. Populists dislike anything located between the people and the government, everything that Montesquieu referred to as Corps Intermédiaires, all kinds of intermediary stages or links, such as constitutional courts, independent judiciary or central banks. They regard all institutions not directly under their control as dangerous and inclined to attack them. And this is an attack on the very foundations of liberal democracy that respect the separation of powers, constitutionality, as well as law and order.

This obviously doesn’’t concern only Hungary; it is a problem for all of Central Europe. The question is whether the situation in Hungary is just a magnified version of the problem we are witnessing in the rest of Central Europe and whether we can say that just as we have survived the Kaczyński brothers, we will survive Orbán, too. Or whether, as György Konrád worried during our most recent conversation, what is happening in Hungary is a kind of detachment from Europe. In his view Orbán is a soft version of a slippery slope towards authoritarianism, whose more radical representative is Yanukovych in Ukraine and an even harder variety Putin in Russia or Lukashenka in Belarus. The further east you go the stronger this trend gets but the greatest cause for concern is the fact that behind the issue of democracy there is the issue of geopolitical integration. In Hungary this is currently a very live issue but we can all think about it in the context of debates within the EU.

As my time is nearly over I will summarize what the above facts suggest about the spread of democracy.

First of all we must not be indifferent to the challenge I have already mentioned – the challenge of changes coming from below. How could democracies remain passive vis-á-vis democratic changes occurring in the regions mentioned earlier? However, it is no longer enough to wave the banner promoting democracy, as was the case with the military interventions in Iraq or Afghanistan. Our Western public opinion will no longer accept this approach, quite apart from the fact that the war in Iraq cost a trillion dollars and Afghanistan is costing two billion dollars a week. We simply can’’t afford this any longer and that is why this form of support for democracy is finished, at least for the time being. The world has changed too, it is no longer unipolar but rather multipolar.

What remains is a challenge for us all, for civil society, to help those who help themselves. To help the development of civil society in countries I have mentioned and where your organisation People in Need operates. Such help, this engagement of ours, has only one condition: that we will simultaneously look after democracy around ourselves, in our own space.

The spreading of democracy must begin at home.

Translation: Julia Sherwood
The text of a speech given by Jacques Rupnik at the opening of the One World Festival in Prague appeared in the Czech weekly Respekt.