Monday, April 30, 2007

Democracy on the Defensive

You probably heard that Boris Yeltsin died the other day. For me, Yeltsin's life and passing is emblematic of the dark feeling I (and many others) have been having lately about democracy as a sustainable form of government around the world. Here are some highlight's from Yeltsin's Russia:

1991 - Yeltsin famously stands on a tank during a failed coup attempt by hard-line communists. Several months later, the Soviet Union ceases to exist.

1991-1999 - Yeltsin serves as the Russian president during a time of newfound political freedoms...and great corruption, instability, and poverty. In general, Russia fades dramatically as a world power during Yeltsin's tenure.

1999 - Vladimir Putin takes over the presidency when Yeltsin suddenly resigns. Under Putin's leadership, democracy is widely seen as being on the decline, taking a back seat to law, order, economic prosperity, and the projection of global power.

This is, of course, a greatly oversimplified synopsis. But there is a general point that remains. Fifteen or so years ago, there was great hope that democracy would continue its march around the globe, to places where it had never been before. This would ultimately make the world a safer and more prosperous place than ever.

Fast forward to today. Many Russians view Yeltsin's democratic legacy quite skeptically. Some Iraqis who had little use for Saddam Hussein are now looking back fondly on certain elements of life under his dictatorship. All across China, there are citizens who are quite content trying to get rich, regardless of how repressive the political environment might be. The spread of democracy seems to have hit the skids. It is at least experiencing a significant bump in the road.

I want to posit that one reason for this discontent is advances in technology and communication. The march toward democracy, although punctuated by dramatic moments, was slow and steady throughout much of the Western world. Democracy was given the time it needed to mature and develop in places like the United States. This time is simply not available today, in an age when it is easier than ever for citizens to see the misery of others and to connect with their fellow malcontents. As a result, what might have been pockets of unhappiness in times past turn into general strife and unrest in today's electronic world. And it is such general movements that can lead to and prop up regimes that do a good job of maintaining safety and security, regardless of what happens with political freedoms.

Mind you, I am not endorsing the leadership and decision making of Boris Yeltsin. I am just suggesting that his job, and the jobs of all would-be democrats, is not as easy as we thought it was going to be back when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.



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