Why haven't all the world's countries become democracies?
Why haven't all the world's countries become democracies? Here's a provocative new answer.
The question itself may seem romantic and naive. But when Communism was collapsing two decades ago, many people assumed that democracy would sweep the world. Once countries reached a certain standard of living, dictatorships couldn't manage the complexities. Without an ideology to justify their repression, dictators would have no basis to rule. And with open borders, open trade and open communication -- especially the Internet -- they'd be unable to squelch their people's natural desire for freedom.
Now comes Ivan Krastev with the counterintuitive suggestion that those very factors -- openness and the absence of ideology -- may in fact be helping authoritarianism to survive. Krastev, a Bulgarian and one of the world's most original thinkers on subjects like this, propounded his theory, taking Russia as his example, in a speech Tuesday night, the Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World at the Canadian embassy in Washington.
It's true that ideology helped the Soviet regime keep its grip for 70 years, he suggested. But ideology also provided the basis for the Soviet Union's undoing. The people who brought the USSR down were former believers in Communism who became disillusioned (think Andrei Sakharov) or current believers who embarked on reform to save the ideology (Mikhail Gorbachev), only to find they could not control the reform process.
Russia's current rulers, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his subordinates, have the "identity of corporate managers," Krastev said. "It's not about ideas." In Russia today, you can't have dissidents -- because there's nothing to dissent from. "Anti-corruption" is the only available language of protest, he said.
You could, in theory, still have opposition politicians, and many middle-class Russians are disillusioned with their government. But the same Russians, unlike in Soviet days, can freely travel and even emigrate, as millions of the best educated have. This exit option, Krastev said, weakens the incentive to do the very hard and potentially dangerous work of protesting or organizing protests. "Even when they do not emigrate," he said, "they don't try to make Russia like Germany, because they could go to Germany."
None of this proves that Putin's model will be a success -- "Decay is an option, too," Krastev said -- but it may persist longer than many people expected.
Meanwhile, dictators who continue to base their rule on revolutionary ideology and control their people's movements may be more vulnerable than they seem. Which means, Krastev said, that it may be "much easier to have a democratic breakthrough in Iran than in Russia."
| October 20, 2010; 9:01 AM ET
Categories: Hiatt | Tags: Fred Hiatt
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