An “Iron Hand” is No Substitute for Democracy

by PSA Staff | December 7th, 2011 | |Subscribe

Ms Albright is former US secretary of state and a member of PSA’s Advisory Board.  Mr. Kohut is president of the Pew Research Center.  The original editorial appeared in the Financial Times, you can find the article here.

Two decades ago, our opinion survey of the Soviet Union during perestroika showed a huge divide between hardline communists and the young, urban Russians who backed Boris Yeltsin and favoured a free market economy. Last weekend’s election results show how the divide endures 20 years on.

Just 50 per cent of Russians approve of multi-party politics according to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey and half consider it a misfortune that the Soviet Union no longer exists. By a margin of 57 to 32 per cent, Russians believe that having a “strong leader” is more important than a democratic government. This is the conviction that, for more than a decade, fuelled the popularity of Vladimir Putin, but is now beginning to pall. His “look-at-me” style appeared when the economy was on the rise but a combination of inflation and stagnant living standards is prompting many Russian voters once again to signal their unhappiness with the status quo. This search for leaders who will deliver economically holds an important lesson for the Middle East where the democratic tide still swells despite panicked opposition from some and the efforts of others to regulate its tempo.

When people take to the streets, they want to believe that a new government will lead to greater prosperity, but this is often a triumph of hope over experience. Russians remember Boris Yeltsin not as the hero who freed them from communism, but as the bumbler who presided over the free fall of their economy and failed to pay their pensions. Even today, 61 per cent of Russians believe the 20-year-old political transformation has had a negative impact on prosperity. There is a widespread perception that elites have enjoyed the spoils of “democracy”, while ordinary citizens have been left behind.

Our survey in Egypt – conducted after Hosni Mubarak’s departure -– found hopes similar to those once existing in Russia. A 56 per cent majority expected the economy to improve. Instead, it has sagged amid continuing political uncertainty. What is clear is that revolutions tend to create unsettled conditions, which, at least in the short-term, retard economic growth.

Decades of communist propaganda, emphasising social conformity over private initiative, left the newly-independent Russian Federation ill-prepared for capitalism. The Yeltsin government’s version of economic reform was rushed, plundered by profiteers, and implemented at a time when record low oil prices drained revenue from the national treasury. Many Russians saw their social safety nets disappear while the well-connected few became obscenely rich – all under the mantle of democracy. So there is little wonder that the majority rushed to embrace Mr Putin when he arrived on the scene in 1999, promising a strong hand and the restoration of lost benefits. People like to vote, but they need to eat, and Mr Putin, more than Mr Yeltsin, seemed able to deliver what mattered most. But just as Mr Putin received credit for the Russian Federation’s resurgence, so now he is blamed by many for its recent sluggishness and for the government’s failure to share the benefits of oil wealth.

Arabs will have an easier time than ex-Soviets did in supporting privatisation and decentralisation. Calls for reform are stronger in the Arab world than they were in Russia 20 years ago. But the overriding question remains whether newly-democratic governments can meet expectations. Economic restructuring can take years to yield dividends. As Russia’s experience shows, haste is not a solution. But revolutionaries are not known for patience.

Russia’s trajectory and our Middle Eastern surveys suggest three principles for nurturing democracy. First, economic progress is vital. Vibrant political parties matter, and so do competent administrators, transparent laws for business, a stable climate for investment and policies aimed at developing a middle class. Second, fairness counts. New leaders will have more time to succeed if they are given credit for insisting on equitable treatment. That means collecting taxes from rich and poor, creating courts free from political influence, protecting minority rights and providing basic services to slums and suburbs alike.

Finally, it is essential to do everything possible to prevent the idea of democracy from being hijacked by those promising an easier way. The “iron hand” is an illusion, not a solution. One can readily imagine an Arab version of Mr Putin arising, offering a platform that exploits economic yearnings and cultural pride, and that uses democratic means to seize power but then refuses to relinquish it.

Arab protestors have not raised the banner of democratic reform so that their countries may one day revert to autocracy. That danger exists, but so does the chance to build something far greater. Even at its best, democracy can be frustrating, and slow, but it remains the superior means for uniting disparate populations, resolving disputes, and generating prosperity. We can but hope Arab populations will learn – not repeat – the Russian experience.

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