Putin more in tune with the times than Obama

March 12, 2014

One of the more unfortunate pronouncements by United States President Barack Obama in this Ukraine embroglio was that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, had put himself “on the wrong side of history.”

Obama was not explicit, but his case appears to be that by intervening in the majority ethnic Russian eastern Ukraine, especially Crimea, Putin is pushing against advancing international values of respect for nation states, popular sovereignty and the rule of law.

Yet as one looks around the world it seems it is Putin, far more than Obama, who is step with the times.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago, it did seem to be a crushing victory for democracy, which I will define for these purposes as a system of representative and accountable governments, operating under the rule of law mediated by an independent judiciary.

There was indeed a democracy spring in the 1990s and 2000s when authoritarian regimes appeared to be collapsing throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and even in the satellite states of the defunct Soviet Union. But now, everywhere one looks, transitions to democracy are stalled, under threat, or even being reversed.

Most poignant perhaps, given the tug of war in Ukraine between those drawn to Europe and those still pulling for Moscow, is the experience of the former Soviet satellite states now in the European Union.

Twelve of these states are among the 14 that have joined the EU since 2000. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia joined in 2000. Bulgaria and Romania were accepted in 2007, and Croatia – arguably not a direct Soviet fiefdom – in 2013.

But in all of them democracy is struggling or under threat. The situation has become so perilous that on Tuesday the EU’s Brussels bureaucracy, the European Commission, created a process to oversee member states respect for the organization’s key principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and exact tough penalties for backsliders.

Indeed, many of these countries are evolving a system that maintains a veneer of democracy behind which political parties vie for unchallenged power, usually for financial gain. Several observers have pointed out that it is a model of government that most resembles that of Putin in Russia.

Three years ago it seemed the Arab Spring might produce democracies of some form in the Middle East and North Africa. That seemed to be what the demonstrators in the city squares around the region wanted.

Well, there is still some hope that reform might happen in Tunisia, where it all started, but elsewhere the picture is grim. Libya, after a brief civil war, has progressed from being a particularly nasty dictatorship to a simmering pottage of rival tribal militias. Egypt is again under military control after a brief experiment with democracy brought the crusading Muslim Brotherhood to power.

Yemen is festering, as it always does, and Syria is embroiled in a catastrophic civil war, which apart from killing well over 100,000 people and displacing millions of others, threatens the security of the entire Middle East.

The end of Africa’s role as a proxy battlefield for the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the Cold War, brought hopes that Moscow and Washington’s favoured dictators would be shunted aside and democracy prevail. There were some encouraging signs in places like Zambia, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya and even South Africa.

But foreign lust for Africa’s resources, especially in China, has come to the aid of the Big Man regimes. Men like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Eduardo dos Santos in Angola, and Michael Sata in Zambia know that they can count on Beijing to provide the wherewithal to keep them in power, no questions asked.

In China itself, the new President and leader of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, is looking more and more like a throwback to the style of the dynasty’s founder, Mao Zedong. Far from contemplating reforms that might give the country’s 1.3 billion people a say in their own lives under a trustworthy government, Xi seems bent on creating a more efficient autocracy and using Mao’s textbook to erase his rivals for power.

Elsewhere in the Far East, democracy seems to have taken root in Japan and South Korea. In Taiwan, however, the return to power of the old party of military dictatorship, the Kuomintang, has also brought what looks like the judicial persecution of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party.

The same thing is happening in Malaysia, where the United Malays National Organization-led government uses every underhand and extra-legal weapon at its command, to keep the grip on power it has held since independence from Britain in 1957.

Transitions to democracy in other parts of Southeast Asia are equally frail. Although Cambodia holds elections, everyone knows that unless they re-elect Hun Sen, who has ruled in various guises since 1985, there will be civil war.

At the heart of eight years of political chaos and violence in Thailand is the fervently-held belief among many in the middle class and among the royalist elites, that the votes of poor rural people should be worth less than their own.

Only a fool would have predicted a decade ago that the apparently most successful transition to democracy in the region is taking place in Indonesia.

In South Asia, democracy in India remains a highly flawed entity, wracked by corruption, patronage, nepotism and the corrosive divisions of caste and class. The less said about the state of democracy in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan the better.

In Central Asia the “Stans,” that were once Soviet states, have moved seamlessly to become grim khanates whose despotic rulers are sustained by their natural resources wealth.

In Latin and Central America and the Caribbean democracy seems reasonably secure in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Uruguay and the oldest regional democracy, Costa Rica. But the transitions in the northern Andean states are far from secure, and in Venezuela and its Caribbean ally Cuba, the socialist regimes are intent on keeping power.

In much of the Caribbean region, whether dictatorships or professing some form of democracy, the real workings of power are distorted by drug trafficking and the vast wealth laundered through tax havens.

And a good deal of that wealth, of course, comes from the oligarchs and corruption party officials who surround China’s Xi and Russia’s Putin, the men who have struck their own paths into history.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com


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