SPECIAL REPORT: Seeking a New World : 2: Can Universal Democracy Work? : Freedom hasn’t brought instant prosperity and contentment. Now some say that the Western mode of government needs renewal.
By all rights, Yuri Shchekochikhin, a 39-year-old Russian playwright, should be a very happy man. His plays are winning wide acclaim; the newspaper column he writes is avidly read. He has even been elected to the new Soviet Parliament. Most important, his ardent cause--the advent of democracy--is closer to fruition than ever before.
Yet Shchekochikhin, like many of his countrymen, is deeply depressed.
“The situation is terrible,” he declared, chain-smoking his way down Kalinina Prospekt, one of Moscow’s tree-lined boulevards. “I am worried about a right-wing coup, a military coup. . . . We are heading for terrible trouble.”
Russians simply are not ready for democracy, the new Parliament member complained. His constituents besiege him for help in getting jobs, or apartments, or telephones. “People here still want a good czar to fix everything,” he said.
These should be heady days for Moscow’s democrats. The city is a madcap bazaar of new political movements, from Liberal Democrats, Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and Constitutional Democrats to Monarchists, Pacifists, Greens and even Blues (“the color of outer space,” an official explained).
But when Shchekochikhin and his wife, Nadia, welcome friends to their cramped apartment for a dinner of lamb stew and endless bottles of vodka, their conversation returns time and again to the same discomfiting paradox: Their hopes have never been higher, and they have never been more afraid.
And the Russians aren’t alone. Around the world, from Prague’s Hradcany Castle to the Royal Palace of Katmandu, an extraordinary uprising of popular will has swept communist and other authoritarian governments from power, seemingly resolving the central political struggle of the 20th Century in favor of capitalism and democracy. But instead of a golden age of stable, humane politics, most newly democratic countries find themselves beset by insecurity and fear.
In Latin America, rightist dictatorships have given way to popularly elected presidents, only to see democracy’s luster dimmed by economic stagnation. In Eastern Europe, a string of communist dictatorships have fallen, but some countries are already feeling what a leader of Poland’s Solidarity movement called “the totalitarian temptation.”
“The tide is coming in now; I think the tide will go out,” said Brent Scowcroft, President Bush’s national security adviser. “A lot of (the new democracies) will not survive the strains of societies trying to cope with very difficult problems.”
The worldwide move toward democracy is beset by three major challenges:
* Where prosperity seems beyond reach, as in Eastern Europe and Latin America, citizens may despair of elected governments. Empty grocery shelves and unemployment tempt some to trade freedom for promises of order and security--whether a return to military strongmen in Latin America or a resurgence in Eastern Europe not of Stalin-style communism, but of authoritarian populism.
* From the Soviet Union to the Middle East and Asia, democracy’s tolerance for pluralism and diversity often collides with religious beliefs and other traditional values--sometimes bending democratic principles into almost unrecognizable shapes. Russia, for example, appears headed down a zigzag path toward a Slavic combination of democracy and authoritarianism; other Soviet republics may invent their own variations, too. One consequence: ideological friction among nations, while less acute than during the Cold War, is unlikely to disappear.
* Even in the stable and prosperous West, there’s a growing consensus that democracy needs renewal, but no agreement on how to go about it. In parts of Western Europe, the radical right and the radical left have shown worrisome bursts of strength. And in the United States, polls find Americans troubled by the shortcomings of their own political system. On both continents, new movements and pressure groups are seeking to make government more responsive.
In the 1990s, all these prospects may become sources of concern for Americans, who have long believed that the spread of democracy helps ensure world peace because democratic governments rarely go to war with each other. The promotion of democracy around the world was a major goal of U.S. foreign policy during the 1980s. Now, as democracy is being threatened, Americans may find themselves debating whether--and how--to step in and help.
The turn of the 1990s marked a political epoch: the collapse of Marxism and the virtual dissolution of the left-vs.-right spectrum that defined Western politics for more than a century. But the change may not be over yet.
The old political alignments are taking new forms, from Russia’s Democrats, Greens and Blues to Israel’s Zionists--from South Africa’s white minority to the Arab world’s Muslim majority.
“As long as people are people, democracy, in the full sense of the word, will always be no more than an ideal,” Czechoslovakia’s President Vaclav Havel said in his speech to the U.S. Congress last February. “One can approach it as one would the horizon in ways that may be better or worse, but it can never be fully attained. In this sense, you, too, are merely approaching democracy.”
ON THE RACK OF ECONOMIC DESPAIR
With luck, Daman Dhungane, a middle-aged lawyer from Katmandu, may some day be remembered as the James Madison of the Himalayas. A member of the commission that drafted the first democratic constitution for Nepal’s 1,200-year-old monarchy, he trekked from jungle valleys to the slopes of Mt. Everest asking his countrymen what their charter should say.
He got responses Madison never contemplated.
“All they say is ‘Airplanes,’ ” Dhungane recalled. “Everyone wants an airfield and an airplane, plus seeds and fertilizer. How can we write that into the constitution?”
Dhungane’s dilemma is emblematic of a predicament facing many of the world’s new democracies: From Asia to the Andes, citizens want fundamental liberties, but they often judge a government first on how well it delivers the goods--airplanes and fertilizer, jobs and prosperity.
From that standpoint, the new democracies face tough times.
Throughout the 20th Century, when economic troubles hit countries with weak democratic institutions, the result was frequently democracy’s collapse. The regimes that followed were authoritarian and sometimes bellicose--from Germany’s Hitler to Latin America’s generals.
Nowhere is the problem more stark--or more heartbreaking--than in Poland and Argentina, whose peoples struggled to escape from tyranny, only to be handed the painful legacy of economic misrule.
In both countries, the old political struggle between left and right has been put aside. Now, the question is whether citizens will keep faith in democracy through hard times, or surrender to the promises of new authoritarian demagogues.
Poland opened the way for democracy in Eastern Europe through the epic, decade-long struggle of the Solidarity movement. Now, a little more than a year after its triumph, economic hardship has stripped democracy of some of its allure.
An economic austerity program, after an initial period of success, stunned Poles with its severity; more than 1 million found themselves suddenly unemployed, and the price of bread more than tripled. Almost overnight, the language of politics changed from celebration to recrimination.
“What shape will political life take here?” asked Adam Michnik, one of Solidarity’s leading intellectuals. “It will not be . . . the rebuilding of a Western European state with division into left and right. It will be a conflict of two political cultures: on one side the culture of European liberalism and the other, nationalist, authoritarian and conservative.”
Indeed, Solidarity split in two along the lines Michnik predicted. And the movement’s charismatic leader, Lech Walesa, successfully ran for president on a populist platform that, to some, seemed tinged with authoritarian zeal.
“Today, when we are changing the system, we need a president with an ax: decisive, tough, straightforward,” Walesa declared. The president, he said, should be able to issue decrees without waiting for Parliament to act: “I would save half of Poland if I had such powers.”
Another candidate, Polish-Canadian entrepreneur Stanislaw Tyminski, campaigned for “a democracy of money.”
Only one candidate, Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, called for both scrupulous adherence to democratic processes and perseverance with the economic austerity plan. The voters rejected him.
Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, which had longer histories of democracy before World War II, are suffering the same ills, only to a lesser degree. Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia, with a more meager democratic heritage, are doing even worse.
At a personal level, many Eastern Europeans seem ill-prepared for the risks that capitalism imposes.
“Maybe it’s all gone too fast,” fretted Hans-Joachim Rockstroh, who is trying to turn his East Berlin typewriter-repair shop into a business that can compete in the new Germany. A few doors down, he noted, the neighborhood handyman tried to turn his tinker shop into a Western-style retail outlet and failed. “He didn’t have any business for four weeks,” Rockstroh said. “He tried to hang himself.”
“The rope broke,” he added.
Far across the Atlantic from Eastern Europe, South America is waging its own struggle to stay democratic. A continent once run by so many generals that military rule became known as “the Latin model” now boasts an unbroken string of elected civilian governments. And after a long wave of economic disasters turned the 1980s into what Latins call “the Lost Decade,” most governments--whatever their original political stripe--now proclaim that protectionism and state management of the economy were wrong.
“We in South America are enacting a true epic,” said Argentina’s former president, Raul Alfonsin, who restored democracy after seven years of military rule.
“This has occurred in the framework of the worst (economic) crisis we have suffered in this century. This thoroughly gives the lie to those who suggest that democracy is not viable in countries that don’t have a given level of well-being or economic growth.”
But the democracy Alfonsin restored in Argentina is now in danger of collapsing because of economic chaos. Last year, inflation soared to more than 3,000%, hungry mobs looted supermarkets, and Alfonsin lost his bid for reelection.
His successor, the populist Carlos Saul Menem, launched economic reforms so stringent that they shocked his own followers. Menem’s program initially drove inflation down to only 5% per month--but then, just as in Poland, conditions turned worse again. Today, inflation is back up to 15% per month and thousands of Argentines are applying to emigrate back to Spain and Italy, the countries their grandparents left in search of a better life.
“There is a danger that behind this disenchantment there could come . . . a pre-Nazi climate, a climate that would allow all the authoritarian sectors to move us backward,” Alfonsin said sadly.
Political scientist Atilio Boron is more bitter. “You can save democracy only when you can show that democracy matters and that democracy works,” he said. “Alfonsin said that with democracy, people would eat, people would find their (kidnapped) children and people would be cured. None of that came true. . . . Democracy for us has been nothing.
“If democracy does not work in Latin America, then the way is open for fundamentalist messianic leadership . . . an ultra-nationalist right-wing movement,” he said.
In 1981, after Argentina’s generals led the country into a disastrous war with Britain over the Falkland Islands, the nation rejected military dictatorship. But now the military is restive again; only last week, rebel troops attempted a coup d’etat--the fourth such uprising since democracy’s return.
The fastest-growing party in Argentina today is the rightist Republican Force led by retired Gen. Antonio Domingo Bussi.
In 1984, Bussi was charged with ordering the summary execution of political prisoners during the military dictatorship. He was never tried. In 1989, his party won 10 of 20 contested seats in a provincial assembly in northwest Argentina.
“This battered society has said enough is enough,” the general proclaimed. “There is no stopping us now.”
DEMOCRACY, EASTERN STYLE
It was one of the most democratic elections ever held in the Arab world. The campaigning was spirited; the vote count was honest. For the first time, women were allowed to vote. The winner: an alliance of Islamic fundamentalists who believe democracy is legitimate only if it obeys the dictates of the Holy Koran.
The members of Jordan’s new Parliament, elected in that vote last year, promised to respect democracy, Islam and the monarchy of King Hussein, all at the same time. Most of them also openly rejected secular, Western values--the values most Americans think of as part and parcel of democracy.
“We accept democracy,” said Laith Shubeilat, a soft-spoken civil engineer who is one of the newly elected fundamentalists. “We do not accept liberal democracy. . . . The values of society should be Islamic.”
One of the basic goals of Islamic democracy, he said, is to make Muslim values the moral standards of Jordanian society and Muslim religious law the basis of civil jurisprudence. Otherwise, he complained in a thoroughly modern metaphor: “We are Muslim hardware being reprogrammed to carry Western software.”
From Muslim Jordan to Buddhist Burma, ordinary people have stood up with courage and persistence to demand the same things: democratic government and an economy that works. But while the demand has been universal, the chosen solutions are not.
As a result, in the decade ahead, the banner of democracy may unfurl over forms of government the West will find hard to accept or even understand.
In much of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the democratic ideals first developed in 18th Century America and Europe still conflict with more traditional views of life. In the Middle East, the main political struggle is not between left and right, but between Islamic and secular. In East Asia, it is between the Confucian tradition of hierarchical authority and newer, more populist challenges. In Africa, it is between tribal and nationalist forms of political life.
In the Soviet Union, where the stakes are highest of all, the contest is between the traditional Russian desire for a strong central authority and the growing centrifugal tendencies toward pluralism.
“Right now, we’re in a wave of democratic advances,” Scowcroft said. “I don’t think they’ll last everywhere, because there are many societies, in many parts of the world, in which a society based on the individual . . . is kind of anathema. An individual is nothing as an individual; he only gets identity as part of a group of some kind or another, whether it’s religious or cultural or ethnic. So I’m not sure that democracy is going to sweep the world.”
“The American model is a model that will not function in certain countries,” said Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the former president of France. “The universal values will be values of liberty. But the organization of power can be on very different models.”
In China, the demonstrators who occupied Beijing’s Tien An Men Square in 1989 erected a statue of the goddess of liberty--but their vision differed from that of demonstrators in Prague and Berlin.
“I believe the form of pluralism most suited to stable change (in China) is not the multiparty system of the West, but rather a ‘regional pluralism’ that would evolve along ethnic and regional lines,” wrote Li Xianglu, a reformer who now teaches at Malibu’s Pepperdine University.
In Africa, strongmen from Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko on the right to Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano on the left are moving haltingly toward multiparty systems. But they appear to be developing a distinctly African hybrid that relies on an autocratic president to maintain a balance among rival tribal groups.
“The idea of the nation (in Africa) . . . still will need time to consolidate,” explained Luis Bernardo Honwana, Mozambique’s minister of culture.
In the Islamic world, the burgeoning Muslim fundamentalist movement has won elections in Tunisia and Algeria as well as Jordan--with no intrinsic commitment to liberal, secular democracy at all.
“There is no single Islam: there is regressive Islam, reactionary Islam, progressive Islam--all sorts of Islam,” said Essam Montasser, an economist at the American University of Cairo. “There isn’t one single democracy: there is regressive democracy, corrupt democracy, progressive democracy, efficient democracy. . . . Democracy has many shapes.”
But the test of democracy in which the world holds the greatest stake is the Soviet Union. A millennium of Russian history offers nothing resembling democracy save nine chaotic months in 1917, and that interlude was cut off by the Bolshevik founders of the present regime.
Insulated from the rationalistic and humanitarian precepts of the Enlightenment, Moscow’s sprawling empire became an ironbound collection of authoritarian cultures.
Even today’s drive toward democracy was ordered from above, in good Russian fashion, by a sometime-strongman named Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
By its own historical standards, the Soviet Union has already become a very democratic place. The new Supreme Soviet, unlike its rubber-stamp namesake of old, has turned into a televised, sometimes-raucous town meeting at which Gorbachev draws fire from both left and right.
Grass-roots movements have halted nuclear weapons testing in Kazakhstan and blocked the construction of a power plant in Moscow. And the Soviet media routinely questions government policies and practices, even at the feared KGB.
But little of this may help the Russians build a stable democratic political system. Many are deeply skeptical of political pluralism and worried about the breakdown in order it might bring. At the beginning of 1990, only weeks before Gorbachev pushed through the constitutional changes to allow a multiparty system, pollster Nikolai Popov found that almost two-thirds of ordinary Russians were cool to the idea.
“Only 27% wanted a multiparty system for the sake of democracy,” he said.
The problem, said Vyacheslav N. Shostakovsky, leader of a reformist group of former communists, is that Soviet citizens simply don’t know what democracy is.
“Soviet society is turning its back on Marxism-Leninism, but at the same time it needs a new religion, a civil religion,” he said. “No wonder. There has been an ideological brainwashing which has affected millions of people over decades. . . . Everybody here wants a party to lead him by the hand.”
On the extreme right, he noted, democratization has had an unforeseen side effect: the resurrection of fascist, anti-Semitic and extreme nationalist groups.
“They can exploit sentiment toward minorities and Jews--and there is the old Russian idea of empire,” Shostakovsky said.
Others have forecast a form of rough democracy tied to traditional Russian nationalism, with the Russian Orthodox Church playing a major role. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the exiled novelist, recently proposed a revival of the Zemstvos, local councils that existed in czarist times as the core of a partly democratic, partly aristocratic system.
Russia “does need democracy and needs it badly,” Solzhenitsyn wrote in an essay published in Soviet newspapers in September. “But given our lack of preparation for the complications of democratic life, it should be built little by little, from the bottom up.”
What finally emerges, French social historian Emmanuel Todd suggests, may be a kind of hybrid: “a liberal facade on an authoritarian population.”
“I don’t think (Gorbachev’s reforms) mean that the traditional authoritarian aspect of Russian culture has dissipated,” he said. “I’m quite sure they are going to produce something intermediate. I think their conversion to democracy is sort of instrumental; they are converting to liberal democracy because it works, not because they love it.”
Even if a new Russian democracy is rooted firmly in Slavic tradition, it will face the daunting challenge of remaking an economy that is sinking toward collapse.
Many Soviets, from top politicians to ordinary citizens, warn that unless the economy improves quickly, social disorders--from the “cigarette rebellions” in towns hit by shortages of tobacco to strikes by coal miners and oil workers--could endanger the process of political reform.
“We could see a major breakdown of the existing industrial system,” warned Vladimir Tikhonov, a leading reform economist.
“The question of where we will be in five years depends on whether we manage to carry out privatization and create a system of free enterprise,” he said. “If yes, then by five years from now we’ll be at the level of the medium-developed countries of Europe. If not, we will slide down into poverty--and our president will have to rule us through the military, through martial law.”
STIRRINGS ON THE FRINGE
In an old five-story apartment building at 122 Weitlingstrasse in what was once the communist half of Berlin, the leaders of Germany’s newest political movement meet behind reinforced doors. Their headquarters’ narrow entryway is filled with shiny new rolls of barbed wire; steel grates lean against a wall, ready as instant barricades.
Officially, the members call their movement “National Alternative.” But almost everyone in the neighborhood calls them by their old name: Nazis.
Its members are young and disaffected, like the Nazis of an earlier era. And while no one expects National Alternative to win any elections, few expect them to disappear soon, either.
“The potential in (the former) East Germany today for people on the right and people who think in terms of nationalism is very big,” declares Andreas Richard, a 20-year-old machinist who is a member of National Alternative’s ruling council.
Berlin has been reunited for only a year, but the city is already showing signs of the same polarization that divided it in the 1920s. For every neo-Nazi cell there is an equally eccentric leftist faction, from anarchists to radical Greens.
Rightists and leftists regularly trade punches in the streets, in a dim echo of the political brawls of their grandfathers’ day. Last April, on Hitler’s 101st birthday, small mobs of rightists smashed shop windows, stormed a homosexual bar and harassed foreign tourists; a few weeks later, leftists attacked National Alternative’s headquarters in Weitlingstrasse.
On paper, the Germans of 1990 have everything: roaring prosperity, a stable democracy and, now, reunification. So why are some of them unhappy with the new post-modern order?
Spokesmen for the neo-Nazis, the anarchists and radical Greens offer vaguely similar answers, despite enormous differences in their ideologies: somehow, parliamentary democracy doesn’t satisfy all the hungers of people caught up in a confusing, changing world. Some Europeans still yearn for causes and ideologies more consuming than market capitalism.
“I think 10 years from now we will need to have gone through a real re-evaluation of our current values,” said Vera Wollenberger, a Greens leader who was active in the movement that toppled the East German communist regime. Eventually, she said, “I think we will experience a similar collapse of the capitalist system.”
That may take some time: In the recent German election, the “fringe” parties came up with their lowest vote in a decade. On the left, the Greens won only 3.9% of the vote; on the right, the nationalist Republican Party took only 2.1%.
But no one is counting them out for good. And the upsurge of extremist politics is not confined to Germany. In France, the rightist National Front won almost 12% of the vote in elections for the European Parliament last year, largely by stirring hatred of non-European immigrants. In Italy, local neo-fascist parties have been gaining respectability and support. Even in the United States, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke won a surprising 44% of the vote this year for a U.S. Senate seat from Louisiana.
There is more going on here than simple racism or xenophobia. French historian Emmanuel Todd believes these movements are, in large part, reactions to the larger strains of adjustment as societies move into the 21st Century. Paradoxically, he argues, as the traditional quarrels between left and right die down, fringe movements gain more support.
“The existence of the National Front (in France) is quite typical of the situation where the politics are becoming centrist,” he said. “The existence of the National Front . . . is not so much connected with the intensity of the immigration problem; it’s much more connected with the speed of the transformation in society itself.”
Both the new European right and the Greens, he suggested, have risen to provide “disoriented individuals and groups threatened by economic changes a chance to express their anguish.”
But there is yet a deeper problem, a philosophical one: is democracy satisfying to the soul?
The two totalitarian ideologies of the 20th Century, communism and fascism, were both utopian creeds born of dissatisfaction with the existing democratic order (abetted, of course, by economic distress). There are some who suggest that the same bleak mood could arise again.
“Liberalism has won, but it may be decisively unsatisfactory,” wrote Allan Bloom, the conservative social philosopher at the University of Chicago, referring to “liberalism” in the broad sense of democratic secularism.
“It appears that the world has been made safe for reason as understood by the market, and we are moving toward a global common market, the only goal of which is to minister to man’s bodily needs and whims,” he wrote.
And in such a future, he argued, a rebirth of fascism cannot be counted out. “If an alternative is sought there is nowhere else to seek it,” Bloom wrote. “I would suggest that fascism has a future, if not the future.”
Bloom’s gloom was prompted by the suggestion of Francis Fukuyama, a scholar at Santa Monica’s RAND Corp, that the triumph of democracy could mean that humanity has reached its final stage of development--or, as he titled a provocative essay, “The End of History?”
The highest form of human society, Fukuyama wrote puckishly, could be defined as “liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic.”
But Fukuyama admits that his venturesome theory could stumble on the philosophical question.
“Is life in liberal democracies going to be satisfying?” he mused. “If not, then history is going to continue.”
“The question is this: Is perfect security and material prosperity sufficient for people? Those have been fragile enough goals for all of human history thus far. The philosophical question will be: Is that what makes people happy? Or is it the struggle to get there that makes people happy?”
TRADING GOODS AND MONEY
Volume of global merchandise trade (goods) (1988):
$1.2 billion a day (or, $2.9 trillion a year)
Volume of global foreign exchange transactions (money) (1989):
$640 billion a day (or, $160 trillion a year)
Source: GATT, Bank for International Settlements
WHERE THE BUCKS ARE
Top Recipients of U.S. Direct Investment, 1989
In billions, U.S. dollars.
United Kingdom: 61
*West Germany: 23
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce
WHO’S ‘BUYING UP AMERICA’?
Top 10 Foreign Investors in the United States, 1989
In billions of U.S. dollars.
United Kingdom: $119 billion
West Germany: $28
Netherlands Antilles: $11
New Zealand: $6
South Africa: $6
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce