Tag Archives: illiberal democracy

The EU, Ukraine, and the Tymoshenko “Show Trial”

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister and prominent opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison on Tuesday.

On Tuesday a Ukrainian court sentenced former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in prison on “abuse of office” charges that many in the West have dismissed as politically motivated.  Tymoshenko is the leader of the political opposition against President Viktor Yanukovich and a hero of the West-leaning Orange Revolution of 2004.  Like several other former Soviet states, including Russia, Ukraine has stalled in its transition to democracy, with crackdowns on political opposition, restrictions on media freedom, and an erosion of basic civil liberties rendering the country an illiberal democracy in the eyes of many observers.

Although there are rumors that the sentence could be reversed in the coming days, the “show trial” of Tymoshenko has angered many European leaders and threatened to derail two pending agreements on free trade and closer association between the European Union and Ukraine.

Financial Times foreign affairs blogger Gideon Rachman argues that the EU bears some responsibility for the corruption and authoritarian backsliding in Ukraine.  He contends that International Governmental Organizations (IGOS), like the EU, can influence states’ domestic politics and internal development.  By refusing to even give Ukraine “candidate status” in the EU, the European Union failed to provide encouragement that “would have hugely strengthened the  reformers and the democrats in Ukraine.”  Rachman goes on to argue:

“[Such support] would also have allowed the European Commission to provide masses of  technical assistance to the Ukrainian authorities, as they adapted their laws to  meet the Brusssels “acquis”. That would have given a big boost to the rule of  law in Ukraine because -as many of the countries of Central Europe  discovered – the process of applying to join the EU is, in itself, a  powerful driver of internal political and economic reform.”

What other examples of links between states’ domestic politics and international organizations can you identify?  Is Rachman correct in blaming the EU for Ukraine’s sputtering democratic transition?  What is Ukraine’s alternative to closer ties with the West if the Tymoshenko verdict is not reversed and if European leaders insist on punishing Ukraine?

The Challenges of Building Democracy: Lessons from the Front Lines

Iraq has had free elections, but has it stalled on the road to democracy?

An interesting article in the New York Times this week features interviews with Iraqis who offer advice for Libyans on how to build a stable and prosperous country post-Qaddafi.  Based on their own bitter experience with corruption, sectarian violence, and political gridlock, they highlight mistakes to avoid in the transition from a repressive dictatorship to an accountable, representative government.

Not surprisingly, these Iraqis reiterated the now widely accepted lesson that the U.S. decision to pursue aggressive de-Baathification (removing members of Hussein’s Baathist regime from government positions) was counterproductive, stoking tensions and preventing capable officials from assuming key roles.  They urged Libyans not to repeat this mistake in dealing with former regime officials.

While this lesson might be dismissed as unoriginal and obvious, their views on democracy were rare in their candor and insight:  “The men said they had learned the hard way what they never understood living under decades of repression: that democracy is not just the absence of oppression, but that it also involves challenging concepts of tolerance, compromise and civic responsibility yet to take root in Iraq, or in Libya.”

Political scientists have distinguished between democratic institutions, which include checks on executive authority and free elections, and democratic norms, the more intangible values of tolerance and compromise that undergird these institutions but take much longer to develop a foothold in society.  What these weary Iraqis clearly recognize is that the institutions of democracy are nominally present but the norms are sorely lacking, which erodes the stability and legitimacy of those institutions.

The conclusions drawn by these ordinary Iraqis are sobering for the future of Iraqi democracy.  “The parliamentary system in Iraq has failed,” said Thaar Abdul Kadhum, 34, a contractor. “They should have a president who can make all the decisions, and not have all these blocs like we have now.”  Many Iraqis are tired of “the chaos of Iraqi-style democracy. Increasingly, they want a strong hand — elected by the people — to wield power.”  This raises the specter of illiberal democracy, a system that combines free elections with a lack of basic civil liberties and checks on governmental authority.  Democratic transitions often get “stuck” in this hybrid stage, as Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela attest.  Can Iraq and Libya escape this fate?

The Troubled Road to Democracy

The toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, 2003 was an iconic image but only the beginning of a difficult transition to democracy.

With the historic changes of the Arab Spring many observers have concluded that “people power” has finally begun to triumph over autocratic regimes in a region that had seemed strangely resistant to the waves of democratization that swept over other parts of the world in previous decades. And while there are indeed many hopeful signs throughout the region for those who value democracy, it is worth noting that the road to democracy is often fraught with setbacks and challenges that the pictures of falling statues, cheering crowds, and jubilant voters don’t communicate.

Scholars such as Fareed Zakaria have distinguished between electoral democracy and liberalism (the presence of civil liberties that limit the government’s reach). While liberal democracies enjoy both free elections and broad civil liberties, illiberal democracies combine (at least nominally) democratic institutional structures with serious deficiencies in the area of civil liberties.  Countries undergoing transitions to democracy sometimes get “stuck” in this halfway zone and find it hard to progress the rest of the way toward full liberal democracy.  Consider Russia, a country that began its transition with the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991.  It holds regular elections (although the degree to which they are free and fair has come into serious doubt), but as noted in this Freedom House report, individual liberties including freedom of speech, assembly, association, and religion are lacking. 

America’s recent “democracy projects” in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced nominally democratic regimes that have a very long way to go before they can be called mature democracies.  Not only do serious questions persist about the freedom and fairness of elections (particularly in Afghanistan) but basic democratic norms such as respect for minority rights and nonviolent resolution of disputes have not yet permeated these societies. 

Despite the stagnation and setbacks associated with so many democratic transitions, Daniel Drezner’s recent thought-provoking blog post on trends in global democracy and autocracy suggests that the future for democracy remains bright.  Drezner cites the analysis of Jay Ulfelder, who explains the deepening authoritarianism of certain nondemocratic regimes as increasingly desperate attempts to contain democratic aspirations that will ultimately prevail: “[It is] evident that these regimes are increasingly struggling to contain the same forces that have propelled the diffusion of democracy elsewhere in the past two centuries. What I learn from the trajectories of prior transitions is that those forces cannot be contained forever. The processes of political change spurred by those forces are often choppy, frustrating, and even violent, but the long-term trend away from self-appointed rulers toward elected government is remarkably strong and consistent, and the forces driving that trend are already evident in many of the world’s remaining “hard” cases of authoritarian rule.”

Are Drezner and Ulfelder simply putting a rosy spin on some very harsh realities, or is there reason to be optimistic that freedom will ultimately prevail in countries such as Russia, Iran, and China? What signs are there that the newest revolutions, in Egypt and Tunisia, will result in democracy? What signs are there that these embryonic transitions have already stalled?