Monday, January 7, 2008

On Democracy

Winston Churchill once said that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others.

President Bush has made spreading democracy around the world one of the missions of his administration. I agree with him on this goal – the people of a country should have a say in choosing their leaders. The question is how do you reach this goal? How hard do you push a country into becoming a democracy? Is democracy something that can be imposed upon a people? And even if it is, should it, or should governments be allowed to evolve on their own?

They are tough questions and ones for which I frankly don’t have answers. But one thing I think we can do though is be even-handed in the position we take with other countries regarding their democracies. Its something we look to be failing to do when it comes to Russia and Georgia. Both countries are, supposedly, democracies that have recently held elections, elections that in each case had similar problems. The reaction of the United States and Western Europe though were quite different.

Russia’s December elections were dogged by claims of vote-rigging – students and government workers were said to have been ordered to vote for Putin’s United Russia party or risk losing their positions. Government forces broke up the rallies of opposition parties, while government-owned television stations effectively barred opposition candidates from the airwaves. Russia was roundly criticized in the West for these problems and the legitimacy of Putin’s government was called into question.

In Georgia, President Mikhail Saakashvili used riot police to break up a large, but peaceful, opposition rally in November. Leading into last weeks election there were claims that people were being told how to vote (for Saakashvili of course). The state-run television network effectively barred opposition candidates from appearing and Georgia’s main opposition television station was taken off the air for a period of time. Finally on election day there were numerous reports of voting irregularities. But while observers from the US and Europe said they were concerned about future elections, they judged this one to be fair and chalked up problems to Georgia’s status as a “emerging democracy”, with US Congressman Alcee Hastings (serving as an election monitor) saying: "I perceive this election as a valid expression of the choice of the Georgian people."

So why are circumstances that are considered a threat to democracy in Russia passed off as growing pains in Georgia? The answer probably lies with their leaders. Putin has not been shy in disagreeing with the West on issues from Iraq, Iran, Kosovo and the War on Terror. He has been aggressively asserting himself, and Russia, as a player on the world stage. Saakashvili, meanwhile, has eagerly courted engagement with the West – allowing an important pipeline to pass through Georgia to Europe, contributing troops to the war in Iraq and seeking a place in both NATO and the European Union.

And that’s the problem. If democracy is regarded as the government of choice for people all over the world, then criticism of those who fail to live up to its goals should fall equally on our friends and adversaries alike.
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