February 20, 2005

Global Provincialism and Democracy's Backslide

While I don't think that democratic institutions and values are in a global backslide overall, I do believe that in Russia this is certainly the case. The elections were somewhat irregular and possibly altered, the government has shut down more or less all major independent media, and Khodorovsky (a pro-western wealthy Russian banker and businessman) was arrested a year or two for criticizing the 'managed democracy' that Russia has become.

Now, remember that business with Jorg Haider, the Austrian Freedom Party and the EU boycotting Austria? He used a xenophobic term in the campaign to describe an excess of immigrants; the same term was used by Hitler in the 1920s and 1930s, so people naturally got upset. The boycott came about because the Freedom Party managed to get into the government and Haider got a spot in the Cabinet. Haider resigned, the Freedom Party stayed in-government, and the boycott ended (I believe).

Although Haider and the Freedom Party profited from fear and bigotry regarding immigrants, they 1) were elected in a free and fair election that was not questioned as fraudulent or irregular, 2) did not become the ruling or even dominant party in the Austrian government as a result of the election, and 3) didn't actually do anything more than profit from questionable campaign rhetoric. So while they weren't exactly choir boys, they hadn't yet done anything more than call upon the natural prejudices against a vulnerable minority.

Why then, has the European Union been so disinterested in Russia's recent actions? Putin was elected in questionable elections, holds an overwhelming influence over the country's political institutions, and has done a number of objectionable things (from shutting down free media and jailing opponents to leveling Grozny in Chechnya).

Now, the US has similarly been way too comfortable with Putin's embrace of false-front democracy. Of course, the US didn't boycott Haider, either. Conversely, the US is supposed to be building democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq yet a) didn't do half as much as it could've to build Russian democracy and b) is barely even glancing at the numerous authoritarian portends in Russia today.

Why is it that we want freedom and democracy sometimes, but not all the time? How is it that the EU can boycott and march and protest to block even the first signs of a Nazi resurgence in Austria but won't do the same for the repeal of free speech and free press in Russia? How is it that the US is selling democracy in some countries as a prerequisite to peace and security, but tacitly condoning its decline in Russia, the single-largest country in the world and a nuclear power?

Seems like everybody needs some brushing up on Universalism 101, and maybe a follow-up in Stoicism for Policy-Makers.

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