Un semeur sortit pour semer. Comme il semait, une partie de la semence tomba le long du chemin: les oiseaux vinrent, et la mangèrent. Une autre partie tomba dans les endroits pierreux, où elle n’avait pas beaucoup de terre: elle leva aussitôt, parce qu’elle ne trouva pas un sol profond; mais, quand le soleil parut, elle fut brûlée et sécha, faute de racines. Une autre partie tomba parmi les épines: les épines montèrent, et l’étouffèrent. Une autre partie tomba dans la bonne terre: elle donna du fruit, un grain cent, un autre soixante, un autre trente. Que celui qui a des oreilles pour entendre entende. Jésus (Matthieu 3: 3-9)
Ne croyez pas que je sois venu apporter la paix sur la terre; je ne suis pas venu apporter la paix, mais l’épée. Car je suis venu mettre la division entre l’homme et son père, entre la fille et sa mère, entre la belle-fille et sa belle-mère; et l’homme aura pour ennemis les gens de sa maison. Jésus (Matthieu 10 : 34-36)
Il n’est rien de plus fécond en merveilles que l’art d’être libre ; mais il n’y a rien de plus dur que l’apprentissage de la liberté. Tocqueville
The revolution will not be televised, the revolution will be no re-run brothers; the revolution will be live. Gil Scott-Heron
En fait, la Révolution française n’est qu’un aspect d’une révolution occidentale, ou plus exactement atlantique, qui a commencé dans les colonies anglaises d’Amérique peu après 1763, s’est prolongée par les révolutions de Suisse, des Pays-Bas, d’Irlande avant d’atteindre la France en 1787 et 1789. Jacques Godechot
Les droits de l’homme n’ont pas commencé avec la Révolution française. Ils remontent à la tradition judéo-chrétienne qui a proclamé l’importance de l’individu et le caractère sacré de la personne humaine et de certains droits des individus qu’aucun gouvernement ne peut leur retirer. Nous avons eu ensuite la Grande Charte en 1215, et la Déclaration des droits au dix-septième siècle, et notre révolution tranquille de 1688, lorsque le Parlement a imposé sa volonté à la monarchie. Nous avons d’ailleurs célébré, mais discrètement, cet événement l’an dernier. Bien sûr, ce n’était pas une révolution, mais un changement dans le calme, sans bain de sang. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité ! C’est la fraternité qui a manqué pendant longtemps. Il n’y avait que sept prisonniers lorsque la Bastille a été prise… C’est incroyable que la Terreur ait pu suivre. Certains arguments qui ont été utilisés alors, par exemple que les contre-révolutionnaires doivent être exterminés, rendent un son familier aujourd’hui. C’est le langage des communistes. Et après, vous avez eu Napoléon, un homme remarquable, dont on ne célèbre pas assez les innovations administratives et juridiques, et qui a essayé d’unifier l’Europe par la force. On ne s’en est débarrassé qu’en 1815. Non, les droits de l’homme n’ont pas commencé en France. La Révolution a été un tournant fantastique, mais aussi une période de terreur. Quand on relit les livres d’histoire, on est horrifié par de nombreux aspects de cette époque, et certains Français sont tout autant horrifiés que nous. Margaret Thatcher
Les Israéliens ont eu leur propre guerre civile en 1948, bien qu’elle n’ait duré que dix minutes. L’artillerie du premier ministre de l’époque David Ben-Gourion a coulé le transporteur d’armes Altalena avec le futur premier ministre Menachem Begin à son bord. L’Altalena appartenait au groupe d’opposition Irgun, qui a alors placé ses forces armées sous le commandement de Ben Gourion. Spengler
Un des grands problèmes de la Russie – et plus encore de la Chine – est que, contrairement aux camps de concentration hitlériens, les leurs n’ont jamais été libérés et qu’il n’y a eu aucun tribunal de Nuremberg pour juger les crimes commis. Thérèse Delpech
Il est alarmant que l’intervention militaire dans les conflits internes à l’étranger soit devenue chose ordinaire pour les États-Unis. Est-ce dans l’intérêt de l’Amérique à long terme ? J’en doute. Des millions de personnes à travers le monde considèrent de plus en plus l’Amérique non comme un modèle de démocratie, mais un modèle reposant uniquement sur la force, fabriquant artificiellement des coalitions sous le slogan du « vous êtes avec nous ou contre nous ». Vladimir Poutine
Alors que les politiciens américains des deux partis politiques continuent à faire des aller-retour entre la Maison Blanche et le Capitole, sans parvenir à un accord viable pour apporter la normalité au corps politique, et qu’ils s’en vantent, c’est peut-être le bon moment pour le monde embrouillé de commencer à envisager la construction d’un monde dé-américanisé. (…) Des jours aussi inquiétants où les destinées des autres pays sont entre les mains d’une nation hypocrite doivent prendre fin. Un nouvel ordre mondial doit être mis en place dans lequel toutes les nations, grandes ou petites, riches ou pauvres, verront leurs intérêts clés respectés et protégés sur un pied d’égalité. (…) À cette fin, plusieurs mesure fondamentales doivent être prises pour soutenir un monde dé-américanisé. (…) Pour commencer, toutes les nations doivent respecter les principes fondamentaux du droit international, y compris le respect de la souveraineté et ne pas s’ingérer dans les affaires intérieures des autres. (…) En outre, l’autorité de l’ Organisation des Nations Unies dans la gestion des points chauds du monde doit être reconnue. Cela signifie que nul n’a le droit de mener toute forme d’action militaire contre d’autres sans un mandat de l’ONU. (…) En plus de cela, le système financier mondial doit également faire l’objet de certaines réformes importantes. (…) Les économies émergentes et en développement doivent avoir davantage leur mot à dire dans les grandes institutions financières internationales, y compris la Banque mondiale et le Fonds monétaire international, afin qu’ils puissent mieux refléter les transformations du paysage économique et politique mondial. (…) Autre élément clé d’une réforme efficace, l’introduction d’une nouvelle monnaie de réserve internationale qui doit être créée pour remplacer le dollar américain dominant afin que la communauté internationale puisse s’éloigner définitivement de la contagion de la crise politique intérieure des États-Unis qui s’intensifie. (…) Bien sûr, l’objectif de ces changements n’est pas de mettre complètement de coté les États-Unis, ce qui est également impossible » conclu l’éditorialiste. « Il s’agit plutôt d’encourager Washington à jouer un rôle plus constructif dans la lutte contre les affaires mondiales. Agence Xinhua
How does a nation become self-governing when so much of « self » is so rotten? Run-of-the-mill analyses that Ukraine is a « young democracy » with corrupt elites, an ethnic divide and a bullying neighbor don’t suffice. Ukraine is what it is because Ukrainians are what they are. The former doesn’t change until the latter does. (…) that’s what people said about Ukraine during the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, or about Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution in 2005, or about the Arab Spring in 2011. The revolution will be televised—and then it will be squandered. (…) The homo Sovieticus Ukrainians should fear the most may not be Vladimir Putin after all. Bret Stephens
The son of the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, has been fined approximately £2 for a minor traffic violation, in an attempt by the fledgling administration to defuse a row over the 19-year-old’s conduct. Andriy Yushchenko has been criticised in the Ukrainskaya Pravda internet newspaper – which helped foment protests in support of his pro-western father during the orange revolution last year – for his allegedly luxurious lifestyle. A series of articles entitled « the Son of God » claimed that the university student drove a rare BMW M6 car costing £90,000, employed a private bodyguard, and had a luxury platinum Vertu mobile phone worth up to £20,000. The paper also said Andriy, whose father fired the entire traffic police for widespread corruption and rudeness, acted « arrogantly », and parked his car illegally. They added that he drank French champagne at a nightclub called Decadance, and paid expensive restaurant bills with a roll of cash. The Guardian
Western countries almost all extended the right to vote long after the establishment of sophisticated political systems, with powerful civil services and entrenched constitutional rights, in societies that cherished the notions of individual rights and independent judiciaries. The Economist
Les révolutions télévisées sont-elle nécessairement condamnées ?
Révolution des Roses (Géorgie, 2003), révolution orange (Ukraine, 2004), révolution des Tulipes (Kirghizistan, 2005), révolution du Cèdre (Liban, 2005), révolution pourpre (Irak, 2005), révolution bleue (Koweit, 2005), révolution verte (Iran, 2009), printemps arabe (Tunisie: 2010, Egypte et Syrie: 2011) …
A l’heure où, dix ans à peine après la déception de la Révolution orange, une Ukraine plus divisée mais aussi plus corrompue que jamais semble repartie pour un tour …
Et des conditions de possibilité de la démocratie elle-même ?
Democracy was the most successful political idea of the 20th century. Why has it run into trouble, and what can be done to revive it?
March 1, 2014
THE protesters who have overturned the politics of Ukraine have many aspirations for their country. Their placards called for closer relations with the European Union (EU), an end to Russian intervention in Ukraine’s politics and the establishment of a clean government to replace the kleptocracy of President Viktor Yanukovych. But their fundamental demand is one that has motivated people over many decades to take a stand against corrupt, abusive and autocratic governments. They want a rules-based democracy.
It is easy to understand why. Democracies are on average richer than non-democracies, are less likely to go to war and have a better record of fighting corruption. More fundamentally, democracy lets people speak their minds and shape their own and their children’s futures. That so many people in so many different parts of the world are prepared to risk so much for this idea is testimony to its enduring appeal.
Yet these days the exhilaration generated by events like those in Kiev is mixed with anxiety, for a troubling pattern has repeated itself in capital after capital. The people mass in the main square. Regime-sanctioned thugs try to fight back but lose their nerve in the face of popular intransigence and global news coverage. The world applauds the collapse of the regime and offers to help build a democracy. But turfing out an autocrat turns out to be much easier than setting up a viable democratic government. The new regime stumbles, the economy flounders and the country finds itself in a state at least as bad as it was before. This is what happened in much of the Arab spring, and also in Ukraine’s Orange revolution a decade ago. In 2004 Mr Yanukovych was ousted from office by vast street protests, only to be re-elected to the presidency (with the help of huge amounts of Russian money) in 2010, after the opposition politicians who replaced him turned out to be just as hopeless.
Between 1980 and 2000 democracy experienced a few setbacks, but since 2000 there have been many
Democracy is going through a difficult time. Where autocrats have been driven out of office, their opponents have mostly failed to create viable democratic regimes. Even in established democracies, flaws in the system have become worryingly visible and disillusion with politics is rife. Yet just a few years ago democracy looked as though it would dominate the world.
In the second half of the 20th century, democracies had taken root in the most difficult circumstances possible—in Germany, which had been traumatised by Nazism, in India, which had the world’s largest population of poor people, and, in the 1990s, in South Africa, which had been disfigured by apartheid. Decolonialisation created a host of new democracies in Africa and Asia, and autocratic regimes gave way to democracy in Greece (1974), Spain (1975), Argentina (1983), Brazil (1985) and Chile (1989). The collapse of the Soviet Union created many fledgling democracies in central Europe. By 2000 Freedom House, an American think-tank, classified 120 countries, or 63% of the world total, as democracies.
Representatives of more than 100 countries gathered at the World Forum on Democracy in Warsaw that year to proclaim that “the will of the people” was “the basis of the authority of government”. A report issued by America’s State Department declared that having seen off “failed experiments” with authoritarian and totalitarian forms of government, “it seems that now, at long last, democracy is triumphant.”
Such hubris was surely understandable after such a run of successes. But stand farther back and the triumph of democracy looks rather less inevitable. After the fall of Athens, where it was first developed, the political model had lain dormant until the Enlightenment more than 2,000 years later. In the 18th century only the American revolution produced a sustainable democracy. During the 19th century monarchists fought a prolonged rearguard action against democratic forces. In the first half of the 20th century nascent democracies collapsed in Germany, Spain and Italy. By 1941 there were only 11 democracies left, and Franklin Roosevelt worried that it might not be possible to shield “the great flame of democracy from the blackout of barbarism”.
The progress seen in the late 20th century has stalled in the 21st. Even though around 40% of the world’s population, more people than ever before, live in countries that will hold free and fair elections this year, democracy’s global advance has come to a halt, and may even have gone into reverse. Freedom House reckons that 2013 was the eighth consecutive year in which global freedom declined, and that its forward march peaked around the beginning of the century. Between 1980 and 2000 the cause of democracy experienced only a few setbacks, but since 2000 there have been many. And democracy’s problems run deeper than mere numbers suggest. Many nominal democracies have slid towards autocracy, maintaining the outward appearance of democracy through elections, but without the rights and institutions that are equally important aspects of a functioning democratic system.
Faith in democracy flares up in moments of triumph, such as the overthrow of unpopular regimes in Cairo or Kiev, only to sputter out once again. Outside the West, democracy often advances only to collapse. And within the West, democracy has too often become associated with debt and dysfunction at home and overreach abroad. Democracy has always had its critics, but now old doubts are being treated with renewed respect as the weaknesses of democracy in its Western strongholds, and the fragility of its influence elsewhere, have become increasingly apparent. Why has democracy lost its forward momentum?
The return of history
THE two main reasons are the financial crisis of 2007-08 and the rise of China. The damage the crisis did was psychological as well as financial. It revealed fundamental weaknesses in the West’s political systems, undermining the self-confidence that had been one of their great assets. Governments had steadily extended entitlements over decades, allowing dangerous levels of debt to develop, and politicians came to believe that they had abolished boom-bust cycles and tamed risk. Many people became disillusioned with the workings of their political systems—particularly when governments bailed out bankers with taxpayers’ money and then stood by impotently as financiers continued to pay themselves huge bonuses. The crisis turned the Washington consensus into a term of reproach across the emerging world.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party has broken the democratic world’s monopoly on economic progress. Larry Summers, of Harvard University, observes that when America was growing fastest, it doubled living standards roughly every 30 years. China has been doubling living standards roughly every decade for the past 30 years. The Chinese elite argue that their model—tight control by the Communist Party, coupled with a relentless effort to recruit talented people into its upper ranks—is more efficient than democracy and less susceptible to gridlock. The political leadership changes every decade or so, and there is a constant supply of fresh talent as party cadres are promoted based on their ability to hit targets.
China says its model is more efficient than democracy and less susceptible to gridlock
China’s critics rightly condemn the government for controlling public opinion in all sorts of ways, from imprisoning dissidents to censoring internet discussions. Yet the regime’s obsession with control paradoxically means it pays close attention to public opinion. At the same time China’s leaders have been able to tackle some of the big problems of state-building that can take decades to deal with in a democracy. In just two years China has extended pension coverage to an extra 240m rural dwellers, for example—far more than the total number of people covered by America’s public-pension system.
Many Chinese are prepared to put up with their system if it delivers growth. The 2013 Pew Survey of Global Attitudes showed that 85% of Chinese were “very satisfied” with their country’s direction, compared with 31% of Americans. Some Chinese intellectuals have become positively boastful. Zhang Weiwei of Fudan University argues that democracy is destroying the West, and particularly America, because it institutionalises gridlock, trivialises decision-making and throws up second-rate presidents like George Bush junior. Yu Keping of Beijing University argues that democracy makes simple things “overly complicated and frivolous” and allows “certain sweet-talking politicians to mislead the people”. Wang Jisi, also of Beijing University, has observed that “many developing countries that have introduced Western values and political systems are experiencing disorder and chaos” and that China offers an alternative model. Countries from Africa (Rwanda) to the Middle East (Dubai) to South-East Asia (Vietnam) are taking this advice seriously.
China’s advance is all the more potent in the context of a series of disappointments for democrats since 2000. The first great setback was in Russia. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the democratisation of the old Soviet Union seemed inevitable. In the 1990s Russia took a few drunken steps in that direction under Boris Yeltsin. But at the end of 1999 he resigned and handed power to Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative who has since been both prime minister and president twice. This postmodern tsar has destroyed the substance of democracy in Russia, muzzling the press and imprisoning his opponents, while preserving the show—everyone can vote, so long as Mr Putin wins. Autocratic leaders in Venezuela, Ukraine, Argentina and elsewhere have followed suit, perpetuating a perverted simulacrum of democracy rather than doing away with it altogether, and thus discrediting it further.
The next big setback was the Iraq war. When Saddam Hussein’s fabled weapons of mass destruction failed to materialise after the American-led invasion of 2003, Mr Bush switched instead to justifying the war as a fight for freedom and democracy. “The concerted effort of free nations to promote democracy is a prelude to our enemies’ defeat,” he argued in his second inaugural address. This was more than mere opportunism: Mr Bush sincerely believed that the Middle East would remain a breeding ground for terrorism so long as it was dominated by dictators. But it did the democratic cause great harm. Left-wingers regarded it as proof that democracy was just a figleaf for American imperialism. Foreign-policy realists took Iraq’s growing chaos as proof that American-led promotion of democratisation was a recipe for instability. And disillusioned neoconservatives such as Francis Fukuyama, an American political scientist, saw it as proof that democracy cannot put down roots in stony ground.
A third serious setback was Egypt. The collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011, amid giant protests, raised hopes that democracy would spread in the Middle East. But the euphoria soon turned to despair. Egypt’s ensuing elections were won not by liberal activists (who were hopelessly divided into a myriad of Pythonesque parties) but by Muhammad Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Mr Morsi treated democracy as a winner-takes-all system, packing the state with Brothers, granting himself almost unlimited powers and creating an upper house with a permanent Islamic majority. In July 2013 the army stepped in, arresting Egypt’s first democratically elected president, imprisoning leading members of the Brotherhood and killing hundreds of demonstrators. Along with war in Syria and anarchy in Libya, this has dashed the hope that the Arab spring would lead to a flowering of democracy across the Middle East.
Meanwhile some recent recruits to the democratic camp have lost their lustre. Since the introduction of democracy in 1994 South Africa has been ruled by the same party, the African National Congress, which has become progressively more self-serving. Turkey, which once seemed to combine moderate Islam with prosperity and democracy, is descending into corruption and autocracy. In Bangladesh, Thailand and Cambodia, opposition parties have boycotted recent elections or refused to accept their results.
All this has demonstrated that building the institutions needed to sustain democracy is very slow work indeed, and has dispelled the once-popular notion that democracy will blossom rapidly and spontaneously once the seed is planted. Although democracy may be a “universal aspiration”, as Mr Bush and Tony Blair insisted, it is a culturally rooted practice. Western countries almost all extended the right to vote long after the establishment of sophisticated political systems, with powerful civil services and entrenched constitutional rights, in societies that cherished the notions of individual rights and independent judiciaries.
“Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.” Alexis de Tocqueville, “Democracy in America”
Yet in recent years the very institutions that are meant to provide models for new democracies have come to seem outdated and dysfunctional in established ones. The United States has become a byword for gridlock, so obsessed with partisan point-scoring that it has come to the verge of defaulting on its debts twice in the past two years. Its democracy is also corrupted by gerrymandering, the practice of drawing constituency boundaries to entrench the power of incumbents. This encourages extremism, because politicians have to appeal only to the party faithful, and in effect disenfranchises large numbers of voters. And money talks louder than ever in American politics. Thousands of lobbyists (more than 20 for every member of Congress) add to the length and complexity of legislation, the better to smuggle in special privileges. All this creates the impression that American democracy is for sale and that the rich have more power than the poor, even as lobbyists and donors insist that political expenditure is an exercise in free speech. The result is that America’s image—and by extension that of democracy itself—has taken a terrible battering.
Nor is the EU a paragon of democracy. The decision to introduce the euro in 1999 was taken largely by technocrats; only two countries, Denmark and Sweden, held referendums on the matter (both said no). Efforts to win popular approval for the Lisbon Treaty, which consolidated power in Brussels, were abandoned when people started voting the wrong way. During the darkest days of the euro crisis the euro-elite forced Italy and Greece to replace democratically elected leaders with technocrats. The European Parliament, an unsuccessful attempt to fix Europe’s democratic deficit, is both ignored and despised. The EU has become a breeding ground for populist parties, such as Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, which claim to defend ordinary people against an arrogant and incompetent elite. Greece’s Golden Dawn is testing how far democracies can tolerate Nazi-style parties. A project designed to tame the beast of European populism is instead poking it back into life.
The democratic distemper
EVEN in its heartland, democracy is clearly suffering from serious structural problems, rather than a few isolated ailments. Since the dawn of the modern democratic era in the late 19th century, democracy has expressed itself through nation-states and national parliaments. People elect representatives who pull the levers of national power for a fixed period. But this arrangement is now under assault from both above and below.
From above, globalisation has changed national politics profoundly. National politicians have surrendered ever more power, for example over trade and financial flows, to global markets and supranational bodies, and may thus find that they are unable to keep promises they have made to voters. International organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the European Union have extended their influence. There is a compelling logic to much of this: how can a single country deal with problems like climate change or tax evasion? National politicians have also responded to globalisation by limiting their discretion and handing power to unelected technocrats in some areas. The number of countries with independent central banks, for example, has increased from about 20 in 1980 to more than 160 today.
From below come equally powerful challenges: from would-be breakaway nations, such as the Catalans and the Scots, from Indian states, from American city mayors. All are trying to reclaim power from national governments. There are also a host of what Moisés Naim, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, calls “micro-powers”, such as NGOs and lobbyists, which are disrupting traditional politics and making life harder for democratic and autocratic leaders alike. The internet makes it easier to organise and agitate; in a world where people can participate in reality-TV votes every week, or support a petition with the click of a mouse, the machinery and institutions of parliamentary democracy, where elections happen only every few years, look increasingly anachronistic. Douglas Carswell, a British member of parliament, likens traditional politics to HMV, a chain of British record shops that went bust, in a world where people are used to calling up whatever music they want whenever they want via Spotify, a popular digital music-streaming service.
The biggest challenge to democracy, however, comes neither from above nor below but from within—from the voters themselves. Plato’s great worry about democracy, that citizens would “live from day to day, indulging the pleasure of the moment”, has proved prescient. Democratic governments got into the habit of running big structural deficits as a matter of course, borrowing to give voters what they wanted in the short term, while neglecting long-term investment. France and Italy have not balanced their budgets for more than 30 years. The financial crisis starkly exposed the unsustainability of such debt-financed democracy.
With the post-crisis stimulus winding down, politicians must now confront the difficult trade-offs they avoided during years of steady growth and easy credit. But persuading voters to adapt to a new age of austerity will not prove popular at the ballot box. Slow growth and tight budgets will provoke conflict as interest groups compete for limited resources. To make matters worse, this competition is taking place as Western populations are ageing. Older people have always been better at getting their voices heard than younger ones, voting in greater numbers and organising pressure groups like America’s mighty AARP. They will increasingly have absolute numbers on their side. Many democracies now face a fight between past and future, between inherited entitlements and future investment.
Adjusting to hard times will be made even more difficult by a growing cynicism towards politics. Party membership is declining across the developed world: only 1% of Britons are now members of political parties compared with 20% in 1950. Voter turnout is falling, too: a study of 49 democracies found that it had declined by 10 percentage points between 1980-84 and 2007-13. A survey of seven European countries in 2012 found that more than half of voters “had no trust in government” whatsoever. A YouGov opinion poll of British voters in the same year found that 62% of those polled agreed that “politicians tell lies all the time”.
Meanwhile the border between poking fun and launching protest campaigns is fast eroding. In 2010 Iceland’s Best Party, promising to be openly corrupt, won enough votes to co-run Reykjavik’s city council. And in 2013 a quarter of Italians voted for a party founded by Beppe Grillo, a comedian. All this popular cynicism about politics might be healthy if people demanded little from their governments, but they continue to want a great deal. The result can be a toxic and unstable mixture: dependency on government on the one hand, and disdain for it on the other. The dependency forces government to overexpand and overburden itself, while the disdain robs it of its legitimacy. Democratic dysfunction goes hand in hand with democratic distemper.
Democracy’s problems in its heartland help explain its setbacks elsewhere. Democracy did well in the 20th century in part because of American hegemony: other countries naturally wanted to emulate the world’s leading power. But as China’s influence has grown, America and Europe have lost their appeal as role models and their appetite for spreading democracy. The Obama administration now seems paralysed by the fear that democracy will produce rogue regimes or empower jihadists. And why should developing countries regard democracy as the ideal form of government when the American government cannot even pass a budget, let alone plan for the future? Why should autocrats listen to lectures on democracy from Europe, when the euro-elite sacks elected leaders who get in the way of fiscal orthodoxy?
The financial crisis has starkly exposed the unsustainability of debt-financed democracy
At the same time, democracies in the emerging world have encountered the same problems as those in the rich world. They too have overindulged in short-term spending rather than long-term investment. Brazil allows public-sector workers to retire at 53 but has done little to create a modern airport system. India pays off vast numbers of client groups but invests too little in infrastructure. Political systems have been captured by interest groups and undermined by anti-democratic habits. Patrick French, a British historian, notes that every member of India’s lower house under the age of 30 is a member of a political dynasty. Even within the capitalist elite, support for democracy is fraying: Indian business moguls constantly complain that India’s chaotic democracy produces rotten infrastructure while China’s authoritarian system produces highways, gleaming airports and high-speed trains.
Democracy has been on the back foot before. In the 1920s and 1930s communism and fascism looked like the coming things: when Spain temporarily restored its parliamentary government in 1931, Benito Mussolini likened it to returning to oil lamps in the age of electricity. In the mid-1970s Willy Brandt, a former German chancellor, pronounced that “western Europe has only 20 or 30 more years of democracy left in it; after that it will slide, engineless and rudderless, under the surrounding sea of dictatorship”. Things are not that bad these days, but China poses a far more credible threat than communism ever did to the idea that democracy is inherently superior and will eventually prevail.
Yet China’s stunning advances conceal deeper problems. The elite is becoming a self-perpetuating and self-serving clique. The 50 richest members of the China’s National People’s Congress are collectively worth $94.7 billion—60 times as much as the 50 richest members of America’s Congress. China’s growth rate has slowed from 10% to below 8% and is expected to fall further—an enormous challenge for a regime whose legitimacy depends on its ability to deliver consistent growth.
At the same time, as Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in the 19th century, democracies always look weaker than they really are: they are all confusion on the surface but have lots of hidden strengths. Being able to install alternative leaders offering alternative policies makes democracies better than autocracies at finding creative solutions to problems and rising to existential challenges, though they often take a while to zigzag to the right policies. But to succeed, both fledgling and established democracies must ensure they are built on firm foundations.
Getting democracy right
THE most striking thing about the founders of modern democracy such as James Madison and John Stuart Mill is how hard-headed they were. They regarded democracy as a powerful but imperfect mechanism: something that needed to be designed carefully, in order to harness human creativity but also to check human perversity, and then kept in good working order, constantly oiled, adjusted and worked upon.
The need for hard-headedness is particularly pressing when establishing a nascent democracy. One reason why so many democratic experiments have failed recently is that they put too much emphasis on elections and too little on the other essential features of democracy. The power of the state needs to be checked, for instance, and individual rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to organise must be guaranteed. The most successful new democracies have all worked in large part because they avoided the temptation of majoritarianism—the notion that winning an election entitles the majority to do whatever it pleases. India has survived as a democracy since 1947 (apart from a couple of years of emergency rule) and Brazil since the mid-1980s for much the same reason: both put limits on the power of the government and provided guarantees for individual rights.
Robust constitutions not only promote long-term stability, reducing the likelihood that disgruntled minorities will take against the regime. They also bolster the struggle against corruption, the bane of developing countries. Conversely, the first sign that a fledgling democracy is heading for the rocks often comes when elected rulers try to erode constraints on their power—often in the name of majority rule. Mr Morsi tried to pack Egypt’s upper house with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr Yanukovych reduced the power of Ukraine’s parliament. Mr Putin has ridden roughshod over Russia’s independent institutions in the name of the people. Several African leaders are engaging in crude majoritarianism—removing term limits on the presidency or expanding penalties against homosexual behaviour, as Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni did on February 24th.
Foreign leaders should be more willing to speak out when rulers engage in such illiberal behaviour, even if a majority supports it. But the people who most need to learn this lesson are the architects of new democracies: they must recognise that robust checks and balances are just as vital to the establishment of a healthy democracy as the right to vote. Paradoxically even potential dictators have a lot to learn from events in Egypt and Ukraine: Mr Morsi would not be spending his life shuttling between prison and a glass box in an Egyptian court, and Mr Yanukovych would not be fleeing for his life, if they had not enraged their compatriots by accumulating so much power.
Even those lucky enough to live in mature democracies need to pay close attention to the architecture of their political systems. The combination of globalisation and the digital revolution has made some of democracy’s most cherished institutions look outdated. Established democracies need to update their own political systems both to address the problems they face at home, and to revitalise democracy’s image abroad. Some countries have already embarked upon this process. America’s Senate has made it harder for senators to filibuster appointments. A few states have introduced open primaries and handed redistricting to independent boundary commissions. Other obvious changes would improve matters. Reform of party financing, so that the names of all donors are made public, might reduce the influence of special interests. The European Parliament could require its MPs to present receipts with their expenses. Italy’s parliament has far too many members who are paid too much, and two equally powerful chambers, which makes it difficult to get anything done.
But reformers need to be much more ambitious. The best way to constrain the power of special interests is to limit the number of goodies that the state can hand out. And the best way to address popular disillusion towards politicians is to reduce the number of promises they can make. The key to a healthier democracy, in short, is a narrower state—an idea that dates back to the American revolution. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men”, Madison argued, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” The notion of limited government was also integral to the relaunch of democracy after the second world war. The United Nations Charter (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) established rights and norms that countries could not breach, even if majorities wanted to do so.
The most successful new democracies managed to avoid the temptation of majoritarianism
These checks and balances were motivated by fear of tyranny. But today, particularly in the West, the big dangers to democracy are harder to spot. One is the growing size of the state. The relentless expansion of government is reducing liberty and handing ever more power to special interests. The other comes from government’s habit of making promises that it cannot fulfil, either by creating entitlements it cannot pay for or by waging wars that it cannot win, such as that on drugs. Both voters and governments must be persuaded of the merits of accepting restraints on the state’s natural tendency to overreach. Giving control of monetary policy to independent central banks tamed the rampant inflation of the 1980s, for example. It is time to apply the same principle of limited government to a broader range of policies. Mature democracies, just like nascent ones, require appropriate checks and balances on the power of elected government.
Governments can exercise self-restraint in several different ways. They can put on a golden straitjacket by adopting tight fiscal rules—as the Swedes have done by pledging to balance their budget over the economic cycle. They can introduce “sunset clauses” that force politicians to renew laws every ten years, say. They can ask non-partisan commissions to propose long-term reforms. The Swedes rescued their pension system from collapse when an independent commission suggested pragmatic reforms including greater use of private pensions, and linking the retirement age to life-expectancy. Chile has been particularly successful at managing the combination of the volatility of the copper market and populist pressure to spend the surplus in good times. It has introduced strict rules to ensure that it runs a surplus over the economic cycle, and appointed a commission of experts to determine how to cope with economic volatility.
Isn’t this a recipe for weakening democracy by handing more power to the great and the good? Not necessarily. Self-denying rules can strengthen democracy by preventing people from voting for spending policies that produce bankruptcy and social breakdown and by protecting minorities from persecution. But technocracy can certainly be taken too far. Power must be delegated sparingly, in a few big areas such as monetary policy and entitlement reform, and the process must be open and transparent.
And delegation upwards towards grandees and technocrats must be balanced by delegation downwards, handing some decisions to ordinary people. The trick is to harness the twin forces of globalism and localism, rather than trying to ignore or resist them. With the right balance of these two approaches, the same forces that threaten established democracies from above, through globalisation, and below, through the rise of micro-powers, can reinforce rather than undermine democracy.
Tocqueville argued that local democracy frequently represented democracy at its best: “Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and enjoy it.” City mayors regularly get twice the approval ratings of national politicians. Modern technology can implement a modern version of Tocqueville’s town-hall meetings to promote civic involvement and innovation. An online hyperdemocracy where everything is put to an endless series of public votes would play to the hand of special-interest groups. But technocracy and direct democracy can keep each other in check: independent budget commissions can assess the cost and feasibility of local ballot initiatives, for example.
“You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”James Madison, America’s fourth president
Several places are making progress towards getting this mixture right. The most encouraging example is California. Its system of direct democracy allowed its citizens to vote for contradictory policies, such as higher spending and lower taxes, while closed primaries and gerrymandered districts institutionalised extremism. But over the past five years California has introduced a series of reforms, thanks in part to the efforts of Nicolas Berggruen, a philanthropist and investor. The state has introduced a “Think Long” committee to counteract the short-term tendencies of ballot initiatives. It has introduced open primaries and handed power to redraw boundaries to an independent commission. And it has succeeded in balancing its budget—an achievement which Darrell Steinberg, the leader of the California Senate, described as “almost surreal”.
Similarly, the Finnish government has set up a non-partisan commission to produce proposals for the future of its pension system. At the same time it is trying to harness e-democracy: parliament is obliged to consider any citizens’ initiative that gains 50,000 signatures. But many more such experiments are needed—combining technocracy with direct democracy, and upward and downward delegation—if democracy is to zigzag its way back to health.
John Adams, America’s second president, once pronounced that “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” He was clearly wrong. Democracy was the great victor of the ideological clashes of the 20th century. But if democracy is to remain as successful in the 21st century as it was in the 20th, it must be both assiduously nurtured when it is young—and carefully maintained when it is mature.
The turmoil in Ukraine is a chance for the West to prove that it is still a force for good
Mar 1st 2014
A MAN goes bankrupt, Ernest Hemingway wrote, gradually, then suddenly. Autocrats lose office the same way, as the fate of Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s deposed president, dramatically illustrates. His authority had ebbed since popular protests against his spectacularly corrupt regime erupted last November. After the savage shooting of scores of his own people in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, once-supportive tycoons and generals abandoned him, and his power evaporated. Mr Yanukovych fled, pursued this week by a charge of mass murder.
His countrymen celebrated—some of them, at least (see article). The relief is understandable: with Mr Yanukovych gone, Ukraine has a chance at last to ditch its ersatz, post-Soviet version of democracy for the genuine kind. Equally—and terrifyingly for both Ukraine and its neighbours—this country of 46m people could implode. Averting that outcome is an urgent task for the West; for the European Union, in particular, this is a chance to show that, for all its internal fissures and foreign-policy quiescence, it is more than a busted flush.
By any historical measure, Ukraine is part of Europe. It borders four EU nations. Its great cities—Kiev, Lviv, Odessa—are ornaments of European civilisation. So its problems are Europe’s problems, too. Many Ukrainians already live and work in the EU, legally and otherwise. Economic or political turmoil could drive many more to emigrate.
And the turmoil bequeathed by Mr Yanukovych (reportedly in Russia, perhaps having fled on his unfortunately named yacht, the Bandido), is acute. Tension is crackling between Ukrainians who welcome the revolution, and those who repudiate it: in Kiev its victims are mourned as martyrs, yet elsewhere the riot police who battled them are lionised. Even with the unadulterated goodwill of outsiders, the situation would be perilous—and goodwill is not conspicuous in the Kremlin, which propped up Mr Yanukovych’s presidency and now denounces those who ousted him as terrorists. Meanwhile, this perennially mismanaged nation is almost broke.
First and foremost, Ukraine needs a legitimate, national government. The interim leaders installed by the Rada, its parliament, may be more palatable than Mr Yanukovych; but the Rada is a nest of crooks and placemen, and scarcely more legitimate than he was, as some protesters, and Russia, have pointed out. It is vital that the presidential election in May is clean, and seen to be: Western monitors must help to ensure that. And the new president should be untainted by the score-settling and nest-feathering that have blighted Ukraine’s politics. That is one lesson from the Orange revolution of 2004—an event that seemed to herald a democratic future, but instead merely reshuffled an entrenched elite. Yulia Tymoshenko, the Orange veteran and two-time prime minister, who was sprung from jail as Mr Yanukovych fled, should keep out of it.
Whoever wins will need help, and not just the financial kind. When he wasn’t pillaging his country, Mr Yanukovych undermined its courts, suborned its constitution and harassed its media, institutions that are as much a part of an enduring democracy as elections (see essay). That is another warning from the Orange revolution: without a proper underpinning, emerging democracies can slip back into misrule. The West must lend its expertise and resources to restore it.
But Ukraine needs money too—lots of it, and urgently. Its finances are dire: its hard-currency reserves are dwindling, the current-account deficit is widening and around $13 billion of debt repayments are due this year. Russia is unlikely to honour the $15 billion bail-out it agreed with Mr Yanukovych in December. Ukraine needs around $25 billion to stay afloat. That should come in two parts: first, several billion dollars in emergency loans to tide the country over until after its election, then a big multi-year package, financed largely through the IMF.
Of course, IMF support will come with conditions, such as a clean-up of Ukraine’s Augean corruption, a depreciation of its overvalued currency and a curtailment of its lavish energy subsidies. The interim government should begin these reforms, to take some of the heat off the elected one. And the Europeans can help, too, both with technical assistance and by holding out the best inducement to reform they can offer: the prospect (however distant) of full EU membership. That idea will alarm some member states, not to mention their voters. They should see that incentivising democratic change in this pivotal country, and welcoming it to the European club if that is accomplished, is as much in their interests as Ukraine’s.
Right and wrong, not west and east
The EU and its allies should do all this because it is right, rather than to rile Vladimir Putin. All the same, Mr Putin will be outraged. Russia is already destabilising—perhaps even preparing to annex—the Crimea, a peninsula transferred to Soviet Ukraine in 1954. Pro-Russian gunmen seized administrative buildings there on February 27th. Even if Mr Putin restrains himself for now, he is sure to respond eventually: he nurtures grudges for years, and the Potemkin democracy he has engineered in Russia lets him stick around long enough to avenge them. He exorcised his grievance over the Kosovo war of 1999 by invading Georgia in 2008. Ukraine is much more important to him than Georgia, for without it Russia’s sphere of influence looks paltry. Even in Mr Putin’s warped view of Russia’s interests, a civil war there would be undesirable—but, short of fomenting one, he will doubtless do his best to stop the country becoming an independent democracy.
All the more reason for the EU and its allies to help generously now. At root the real division among Ukrainians is not between east and west, but between hope and cynicism: between those who believe a better kind of government is possible and those who understandably think that, in their troubled post-Soviet nation, corrupt paternalism is the best they can do. Creating an honest, competent government, devoted to the well-being of its people, is the best way to persuade all Ukrainians that they are better off without the kleptocrats—and, incidentally, to show that the West is still a force for good
The revolution in Kiev was televised. Will it now be squandered?
Feb. 24, 2014
How hard can it be to change $60 into a foreign currency? On a visit to Ukraine last fall I found out.
This was in Yalta, the Black Sea resort where Churchill, Stalin and FDR met in 1945 to sort out the future of Europe. The two ATMs I tried, both with the familiar Cirrus logo, wouldn’t dispense cash. So I walked into a bank and went to the teller, who was reading.
Izvinite, excuse me, I said in my phrase-book Russian, since Yalta is a Russian-speaking town. He kept reading. Vybachte I offered in Ukrainian, no doubt badly pronounced. He ignored me. Excuse me, this time in English. Apparently I didn’t exist. I left.
A few blocks away I spotted an old building with a currency-exchange sign. Inside, about a dozen women sat at their desks behind inch-thick windows. I was the only customer. I went to the first window, took three $20 bills from my wallet, and showed them to the woman behind the glass. Wordlessly, she pointed at the woman at the next desk. That woman pointed at another.
At the third desk, the woman said, « Passport! » I handed it over, along with the money. She vanished into a back room. A while later she reappeared with four separate documents, all of which I was required to sign before I could get my 500 Ukrainian hryvnia. I got a lousy exchange rate, but it seemed pointless to argue.
Yes, this is just a personal anecdote from which nobody should draw firm conclusions. And yes, every society has its share of Bartlebys who would prefer not to.
Yet the hard question that hovers over Ukraine now that President Viktor Yanukovych has been abruptly deposed is just how representative those homo Sovieticus scrivener types I encountered that day in Yalta are of the country as a whole. A lot, I suspect.
Keep this in mind: However courageous and determined the protesters who occupied Kiev’s Maidan Square these past few months, the president they brought down had been freely elected just four years ago, in a vote international observers described as an « impressive display of democracy. »
Keep in mind, too, that however brutal and venal Mr. Yanukovych proved to be, he isn’t exactly outside the norm of Ukrainian politics.
« It was further part of the conspiracy, » alleged then-U.S. Attorney and future FBI Director Robert Mueller in a May 2000 indictment, « that [former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo] Lazarenko received money by companies owned by Ukrianian [sic] business woman Yulia Tymoshenko . . . in exchange for which Lazarenko exercised his official authority in favor of Tymoshenko’s companies, and that Lazarenko failed to disclose to the people and government of Ukraine that he was receiving significant amounts of money from these companies. »
Mr. Lazarenko wound up spending six years in a U.S. prison for stealing more than $100 million. Ms. Tymoshenko was never charged with a crime in the case and denies all wrongdoing; she went on to become a prime minister in her own right before being imprisoned by Mr. Yanukovych on separate, trumped-up charges. Now she’s free and offering herself as a tribune of the people, and she may yet return to power. If she does, her political comeback will be a kind of mirror image of Mr. Yanukovych’s, who was elected after he had tried to steal the previous election.
Whatever else one might say about the uprising in Kiev, then, a revolt against naked tyranny it was not. More like a revolt against self. How does a nation become self-governing when so much of « self » is so rotten? Run-of-the-mill analyses that Ukraine is a « young democracy » with corrupt elites, an ethnic divide and a bullying neighbor don’t suffice. Ukraine is what it is because Ukrainians are what they are. The former doesn’t change until the latter does.
Over the weekend I traded emails with young Ukrainian friends active in the uprising. It was encouraging. « Bringing back to power people who already were accused of corruption would be a betrayal to those 88 people who died, » one wrote me. « Maidan is not ready to compromise for what we were fighting [for]: freedom, responsibility for action, and honesty. » Another friend wrote: « What I can say for sure [is that] Ukrainians started to identify themselves as a nation. And we don’t want ‘new’ politicians [to] continue acting in the same way: corruption, nepotism, impunity. »
These are the sorts of voices we’d all like to believe are the authentic ones—the winning ones. Then again, that’s what people said about Ukraine during the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, or about Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution in 2005, or about the Arab Spring in 2011. The revolution will be televised—and then it will be squandered.
I hope I’m wrong. I want to keep faith with my brave and idealistic friends who risked their necks at the barricades. Then I think of the bank teller, indifferent to the presence of another human being the way a mule is indifferent to a fly, and I wonder. The homo Sovieticus Ukrainians should fear the most may not be Vladimir Putin after all.
The western media’s view of Ukraine’s election is hopelessly biased
27 November 2004
There was a time when the left was in favour of revolution, while the right stood unambiguously for the authority of the state. Not any more. This week both the anti-war Independent and the pro-war Telegraph excitedly announced a « revolution » in Ukraine. Across the pond, the rightwing Washington Times welcomed « the people versus the power ».
Whether it is Albania in 1997, Serbia in 2000, Georgia last November or Ukraine now, our media regularly peddle the same fairy tale about how youthful demonstrators manage to bring down an authoritarian regime, simply by attending a rock concert in a central square. Two million anti-war demonstrators can stream though the streets of London and be politically ignored, but a few tens of thousands in central Kiev are proclaimed to be « the people », while the Ukrainian police, courts and governmental institutions are discounted as instruments of oppression.
The western imagination is now so gripped by its own mythology of popular revolution that we have become dangerously tolerant of blatant double standards in media reporting. Enormous rallies have been held in Kiev in support of the prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich, but they are not shown on our TV screens: if their existence is admitted, Yanukovich supporters are denigrated as having been « bussed in ». The demonstrations in favour of Viktor Yushchenko have laser lights, plasma screens, sophisticated sound systems, rock concerts, tents to camp in and huge quantities of orange clothing; yet we happily dupe ourselves that they are spontaneous.
Or again, we are told that a 96% turnout in Donetsk, the home town of Viktor Yanukovich, is proof of electoral fraud. But apparently turnouts of over 80% in areas which support Viktor Yushchenko are not. Nor are actual scores for Yushchenko of well over 90% in three regions, which Yanukovich achieved only in two. And whereas Yanukovich’s final official score was 54%, the western-backed president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, officially polled 96.24% of the vote in his country in January. The observers who now denounce the Ukrainian election welcomed that result in Georgia, saying that it « brought the country closer to meeting international standards ».
The blindness extends even to the posters which the « pro-democracy » group, Pora, has plastered all over Ukraine, depicting a jackboot crushing a beetle, an allegory of what Pora wants to do to its opponents.
Such dehumanisation of enemies has well-known antecedents – not least in Nazi-occupied Ukraine itself, when pre-emptive war was waged against the Red Plague emanating from Moscow – yet these posters have passed without comment. Pora continues to be presented as an innocent band of students having fun in spite of the fact that – like its sister organisations in Serbia and Georgia, Otpor and Kmara – Pora is an organisation created and financed by Washington.
It gets worse. Plunging into the crowd of Yushchenko supporters in Independence Square after the first round of the election, I met two members of Una-Unso, a neo-Nazi party whose emblem is a swastika. They were unembarrassed about their allegiance, perhaps because last year Yushchenko and his allies stood up for the Socialist party newspaper, Silski Visti, after it ran an anti-semitic article claiming that Jews had invaded Ukraine alongside the Wehrmacht in 1941. On September 19 2004, Yushchenko’s ally, Alexander Moroz, told JTA-Global Jewish News: « I have defended Silski Visti and will continue to do so. I personally think the argument … citing 400,000 Jews in the SS is incorrect, but I am not in a position to know all the facts. » Yushchenko, Moroz and their oligarch ally, Yulia Tymoshenko, meanwhile, cited a court order closing the paper as evidence of the government’s desire to muzzle the media. In any other country, support for anti-semites would be shocking; in this case, our media do not even mention it.
Voters in Britain and the US have witnessed their governments lying brazenly about Iraq for over a year in the run-up to war, and with impunity. This is an enormous dysfunction in our own so-called democratic system. Our tendency to paint political fantasies on to countries such as Ukraine which are tabula rasa for us, and to present the west as a fairy godmother swooping in to save the day, is not only a way to salve a guilty conscience about our own political shortcomings; it also blinds us to the reality of continued brazen western intervention in the democratic politics of other countries.
February 27th, 2014
I wish it were as easy as goodies against baddies, students against secret policemen, democrats against autocrats. In the early stages of an uprising – what we might call the Arab Spring Phase – Western media, wanting to simplify things for their readers, gloss over the complexities. Later, when things turn tragic, those readers can be left baffled.
Don’t get me wrong. Viktor Yanukovych was a nasty piece of work, whose goons carried out unspeakable crimes. My sympathies were with the protesters, both in general (the vision of a pluralist, market-oriented Ukraine is more wholesome than that of a country tied to Putin) and on the specific issue that triggered the demonstrations (a free trade agreement is better than a customs union, because it is non-exclusive).
But the ousting of a thug doesn’t mean that “all shall be well / and all manner of thing shall be well”. This is, after all, not the first time that Yanukovych has been toppled by street protests. Ten years ago, crowds in the same places pushed him from office and, in new elections, installed their candidate, Viktor Yuschenko. Years of corruption and failure followed, and Yanukovych came back, in an election that observers agreed had been free and fair, in 2010.
Ukraine means “edge” or “borderland” (Krajina in the former Yugoslavia shares its etymology). To Russian nationalists, Kiev is the cradle of Russian nationhood, and Ukrainians are the Little Russians who, along with the White Russians and the Great Russians, comprised the historic motherland. Plenty of Russians will tell you that Ukrainian is a Russian dialect and Ukrainian national identity a creation of, first, Polish and, later, Austrian occupiers. They point to the many famous Russians who might as easily be called Ukrainian – Gogol, Tchaikovsky, Brezhnev – arguing that the distinction is synthetic and pointless.
Ukrainian patriots respond by pointing to the result of their 1991 referendum, when 92.3 per cent of voters, including a clear majority of Russian-speakers, voted for independence. There were majorities for separation in every region – even Crimea, which had always historically been part of Russia until whimsically given to Ukraine by Khruschev (another Russian with Ukrainian connections) in 1954.
These two views – Ukrainians as a historic people, Ukrainians as a strain of Russians – frame the present quarrel. Most Russian nationalists allow, albeit reluctantly, that Ukrainian national consciousness exists. Alexander Solzhenitsyn grumpily accepted that western Ukrainians, after the horrors of the Soviet era, had been permanently alienated from Mother Russia; but he insisted that the frontiers were arbitrarily drawn under Lenin. If Ukrainians claimed independence on grounds of having a separate national identity, he argued, they must extend their own logic to the Russian-speakers east of the Dnieper.
Look at the two maps below: the first showing the linguistic division, the second the result of the last presidential election. The Slavophile-Westerniser split (to borrow nineteenth-century Russian terminology) is not only about language, of course. There are always complexities: Russian-speakers who are fiercely anti-Moscow, Western Ukrainians who associate the Tymoshenko years with cronyism and sleaze. Still, 13 years after independence, there are few signs that the two sides of the country are melding.
Plainly a pro-Russian regime can’t govern the whole country: the recent uprising has put that fact beyond doubt. If the Slavophiles can’t rule the West, might the Westernisers win the East? The way of life they propose ought to be more attractive. But we should not underestimate the importance, in such a region, of blood and speech. Nor should we underestimate how much more Ukraine matters to Moscow than it does to Brussels. Vladimir Putin has mobilised troops on the border. Does anyone imagine any EU government, with the possible exception of Poland’s, contemplating a military response?
If neither the Slavophiles nor the Westernisers can carry the entire territory, some kind of separation starts to look inevitable. Such a separation might come about as paramilitary groups establish local supremacy. Or it might happen as a result of Russian intervention, as in Armenia, Moldova and, later, South Ossetia. It is easy enough to imagine Russian security forces crossing the border at the request of local proxies and establishing a de facto Russophone state. The Trans-Dniester Republic still exists, unrecognised but very much in force, on Ukraine’s western border; why not a Trans-Dnieper Republic to its east?
Does Nato have the will to prevent such a development? If not, what are our options? If a partition is coming anyway, might it not be better to take ownership of the process: to see that the border is decided peacefully and by referendum rather than by military occupation? To ensure that the two new entities recognise each other, that free movement of goods and people is guaranteed, that we avoid another frozen conflict in which families are separated and the economy is wrecked. It might be that negotiations would not result in the destruction of the Ukrainian state, but in the development of a loose confederation.
To put it another way, if a cleavage is coming in any event, it is surely better for it to happen through reluctant agreement than through war and ethnic cleansing. I may be wrong about all this. I hope I am. But the prospect of a Korea-style military division, of thousands left stranded on the wrong side, of a bristling Russian armistice line cutting through a European state, of a lasting military confrontation between Moscow and the West, ought to make us cast around for alternatives.