World » Americas

When the imposition of Western democracy causes a backlash

As U.S. President George W. Bush criticizes the Russian Federation for its inability to effect fully democratic changes in its society, the world is watching the progression of Western values across the globe.

Bush's clearly outlined policy of spreading democracy and supporting the freedoms of individuals around the world is reverberating in Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon and Iraq. However, even the best intentioned foreign policy -- as Bush's is often called -- must take into consideration the obvious and discreet political, social and cultural conditions that would either allow Western-style democracy to take root or block its further growth for an indefinite period of time.

Russia's Experiences with Western Democracy

Russian-style democracy is by no means unique in the pantheon of countries that have made a democratic transition, or have attempted to do so, since the early 1990s and the end of the Cold War. What made Russia so unique from the start is the solidification of the presidential form of democracy, where all power and major decision-making is concentrated in the strong executive branch that eclipses in importance other branches of government, be they parliament or the judicial system.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's consolidation of power can be viewed as either a necessary series of steps to strengthen the internal mechanisms of government following a series of deadly terrorist attacks on Russian soil, or as the executive usurpation of powers and rights that belong to others in a truly democratic establishment. While the criticisms of the Russian leader have been mounting over the last several months, he can retort Bush's comment with a historical overview of how democracy -- in whatever way it now manifests itself in the Russian Federation -- has been growing over the last 15 years.

Russia -- and most of Soviet society -- was woefully unprepared for the democratic changes that were slowly imposed from the top by the weakening Soviet leadership in the late 1980s. While the population desired much-needed reforms that would revitalize social and economic development in a country that had been stagnating for over a decade, no major social education took place to prepare the population for the eventualities of democracy and the consequences of societal changes that would inevitably take place.

As a result, the government swiftly began to lose its authority in large parts of the country, ceding its former powers to the rapidly-developing local authorities that sought to "even the score" for past decades of abuse by the Communist state. The result was the rise of ethnic strife in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Baltics. While many of the grievances on behalf of some local populations were legitimate, the Soviet government, fearing a general countrywide uprising against its rule, responded with force. That further galvanized local forces bent on maintaining their policies, resulting in massive outbreaks of ethnic conflict in the Caucasus and in other parts of the country.

The Soviet economy, unable to meet the demands of both the government and its people for nearly two decades, began to disintegrate, opening the way for organized crime to begin materializing as a legitimate, parallel institution. And while many truly democratic, liberal forces, backed by large strata of the population, gained significant advantages in Soviet society during the last three years of the U.S.S.R. from 1988 to 1991, their future outlook of the country as a liberal market economy clashed with the extreme difficulties of accomplishing such goals on the ground, where the state-supported planned economy was convulsing in inadequate attempts at readjustment.

There were many other significant developments that took place that served to either promote the cause of democracy in the U.S.S.R. or contributed to the growing chaos in the country, but the Soviet state was in a low-level condition of disintegration halfway through 1991. Then, the first backlash against what was viewed in the West as growing democracy took place. In August 1991, a group of high-level government officials attempted to seize power from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, placing him under house arrest and seeking to impose emergency rule on the country. While their attempts were half-hearted and, evidently, poorly planned, their newly governing body addressed the country, seeking to gather support from the embattled, confused, upset or angry population.  

Western countries, and other democracies around the world, decried the event as an attempt to turn back the clock on the inevitable democratic changes sweeping the globe. President George Bush viewed the spread of democracy in the Soviet Union in a similarly crucial tone as his son now views the establishment of democracy in Iraq and the Middle East. The new Soviet leadership, which governed for less then ten days, gave the following as its reasons to slow down "democratic" and "market" changes that were then taking place in the country: deteriorating living conditions, disrespect of the fellow human being, the seizure of power by the "demagogues" disguised as the "new democrats," growing crime and corruption in the country, and the coming disintegration of Soviet society as a whole with undetermined consequences for millions of people. In their eyes, it was necessary to reverse many of the poorly applied changes and policies in order to save the state from collapse. The Western states promptly condemned the coup, and President Boris Yeltsin emerged as the new leader capable of leading Russia in the new democratic future.

Unfortunately, almost all the predictions of the August "putchist" politicians and generals did come true following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in December 1991 -- the state did fall apart, civil wars took place, tens of thousands were killed in the resulting ethnic and intra-state clashes, the economy tumbled, living standards fell disastrously, crime rose to levels previously unheard of -- all the while as new democratic, liberal forces were supposedly leading the state. While the resulting chaos in the Russian Federation cannot be considered as the fault of democracy -- since there were so many other complex reasons involved -- they were viewed negatively by many as a direct result of the imposition of democracy on what remained of the Soviet Union.

By 1993, the Russian president and his government were on opposing sides in the debate on the now unpopular liberal reforms. In September 1993, Yeltsin dissolved the Russian Parliament. The Parliament refused to obey, deemed Yeltsin's presidency unconstitutional and appointed Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoy as acting president.

On October 2 and 3, 1993, massive street uprisings against Yeltsin erupted in Moscow, as the Parliament members, under leadership of Rutskoy, barricaded themselves in the parliament building. By October 8, after vicious fighting, the army, Interior Ministry troops and K.G.B. forces seized the parliament building by force, killing and wounding hundreds. This second backlash against Russian democracy resulted in strengthened executive rule, which continues to this day.

The West acquiesced to President Yeltsin's rule, which began to morph from populist-democratic to stronger executive with major authoritarian trends. The 1993 Parliament revolt was against the poorly-planned -- and as it turned out -- poorly executed liberal economic reforms. Like their predecessors in 1991, the rebellious parliamentarians wanted to slow down the pace of reform to prevent further disintegration of Russian society and the economy.

From 1993, as the West supported Yeltsin and his democratic and market reforms, the Russian executive power grew, overtaking and diminishing other powers in the state. President Putin ascended to the presidential post on the already established principles of powerful executive rule that would preclude any open revolts against the government with the purpose of slowing down or reversing democratic and liberal economic reforms put in practice since 1991. Putin, with his strong executive rule, now represents the perfect "bulwark" against such opposition. The Western fear of anti-democratic forces in Russia eventually gave rise to the man President Bush now criticizes as not "democratic enough."

Incidents of Backlashes to Western Democracy

While Russia now occupies one of the central positions in President Bush's European agenda, there have been other, no less powerful, backlashes against Westernization and democratization in other societies. In these societies, just like in Russia, the U.S. and its allies supported the imposition of policies that seemed to further greater openness and liberalization that was deemed as a necessary prelude to full-fledged Western democracy.

Throughout the 1970s, the Iranian Shah sought to impose Western liberal values by force, going so far as to have his security services forcefully remove religious headscarves from women's heads in public, proclaiming that such a policy was necessary to preserve the secular nature of the state. This often over-the-top imposition of certain secular Western values clashed with religious principles in Iranian conservative society. The overthrow of the Shah's regime in 1979 and the imposition of theocratic rule in the country were no doubt accelerated by this push towards Westernization and democratization of the society. Such sets of policies that supported any forces that sought to impose U.S.-friendly principles resulted in the emergence of the strong authoritarian government firmly in control of the Iranian legislature, the army and the courts.

Today's Iraqi rebellion against U.S. forces and their Iraqi and international allies is in itself a powerful backlash against Western-imposed democracy on a society that has never known democratic values the way America understands them. Many elements of what is generally perceived as democracy are present on the clan and tribal levels in Iraqi society, where certain decisions are taken by consensus after all sides to a dispute or a problem are presented.

However, democracy on a national level where more than half of the population represents one religious affiliation that has major grievances against another segment of the population can be effectively translated as the "tyranny of the majority," and the latest election confirmed that Muslim Shi'a are now overwhelmingly powerful in the new democratic government. This fear of the tyranny of the majority is one of the reasons behind the disintegration of British India, since British Indian Muslims feared that they would be a permanent minority in the new democratic Indian state. While many of British India's Muslims eventually ended up in a Muslim-majority Pakistan, Iraq's Sunni Arabs do not have the ability to secede from the new Iraq.

While the insurgency is no doubt stoked by certain international terrorist participation, the Sunni Arabs' fight is against the new democratic Iraq and their future in it as the minority with the checkered past. It is possible for such anti-democratic forces to be brought into the "democratic" fold, as the United States did with Moqtada al-Sadr and his Shi'a militia. There are currently rumors of talks between U.S. forces and Sunni Arab rebels that could potentially culminate in the cessation of hostilities and the re-introduction of Sunni Arabs into the new government. However, the nearly two-year old military opposition to the democratic principles that are now taking hold precluded the United States from much-needed reconstruction of the country and its eventual military withdrawal. Moreover, there are indications that such imposition of democracy created mass support for anti-Western and anti-U.S. forces in the Middle East with yet uncertain, but worrisome, implications for the future.

Nor does the United States, itself the "beacon of democracy," necessarily disagree with certain backlashes against democracy in other countries. The 1992 elections in Algeria would have brought to power a party with strong Islamic affiliation. In the end, the Algerian military decreed the election invalid, and prevented the winning party from assuming control in the parliament and the government. The result was a civil war that took the lives of tens of thousands of people. The U.S. and the West did not object to the forceful subversion of purely democratic principles since the winning party was believed to have values contrary to open Western-style secular society. The Algerian civil war was a major destabilizing factor in Northern Africa for nearly a decade.

In present-day Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the "war on terrorism," the democratically elected civilian government was overthrown in a bloodless coup by General Pervez Musharraf, the present head of state. Just like in Algeria, the military's seizure of power did not clash with U.S. interests in the region, but contributed to a series of international incidents with India which pushed the two states to the brink of nuclear war. The current chronic instability in Jammu and Kashmir, under influence of both India and Musharraf's Pakistan, has the further potential to push the two states into a war.

Does every backlash against Western democratic values eventually lead to war or the potential for civil instability? Turkmenistan seems to disprove that assertion -- it is a society where a strong executive decreed that his society was not ready for democratic reforms and imposed a Stalin-like personality cult in place of free elections and public debate. Today, protest against the government is virtually unthinkable. Belorussia is another post-soviet country where powerful presidential authority keeps in check the entire society, and where an all-powerful security apparatus enjoys Soviet-style discretion.

Conclusion

Peaceful massive protests can bring authoritarian states to heel, as Georgia did in 2003, followed by Ukraine a year later. However, there is a potential that anti-democratic forces in other parts of the world may ignite civil unrest that can easily grow into a civil war. In 1997, the Iranian population elected a parliament where a majority of ministers ran on a more liberal platform that called for greater openness of their strict society. The parliament entered a bitter political struggle with the ruling clerics, a fight which they would eventually lose. Several years after the 1997 elections, mass student protests took place on the campuses of major Iranian universities, with students calling for liberalization and an Iran that is more open to the world. These protests were brutally crushed by the police. The United States did not act in both cases, issuing only cautious statements that it supports the will of the Iranian people.

Some African states are perilously close to civil wars as a result of anti-democratic executive behavior, as the current events in Togo unfold. There are countries around the world where the imposition of Western-style democracy may either precipitate unwelcome consequences for the societies in question, or result in the growth of powerful authoritarian executive governments as "keepers of the democratic order." While President George W. Bush's policy of spreading and aiding the development of democracy abroad certainly carries long-term benefits to the United States and the West as a whole, it is important to remember that not all societies where democracy is imposed or influenced by the U.S. are countries where peace, stability and respect for human rights necessarily prevail.

Careful attention must be paid to each country in question, taking stock of its historical, social and cultural developments. Democracy, as the world is finding out after the end of the Cold War, can come in many shapes and sizes. Supporting the right course of development, tailoring U.S. policies to each particular country, will be the best course of action for the present and future American administrations that seek to promote democracy and the rule of law abroad.

 Yevgeny Bendersky