Democracy and Its Discontents

18th Forum 2000 Conference

5 Big Ideas at the 18th Forum 2000 Conference

These five ideas represent some of the key focal points around which discussion took place at the 18th Annual Forum 2000 Conference (October 12–15, 2014), held under the theme “Democracy and Its Discontents: A Quarter-Century After the Iron Curtain and Tiananmen.” They are just a sample of the thoughts expressed at the conference and are by no means exhaustive. 

Containment of Democracy by Authoritarian Regimes

Panels held at the conference made reference to an international movement against democracy both within existing democracies and on the front lines of democratic struggles. It was noted that authoritarian regimes are on the rise and are markedly opposing the spread of democracy. National Endowment for Democracy Vice President Marc Plattner described the “Big Five” authoritarian challengers to democracy as China, Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. These nations are “coordinating across borders with one another” and adopting each other’s effective methods of control. Christopher Walker, Executive Director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies, indicated three key spheres where authoritarian regimes generate influence. By “suppressing and eroding” international institutions and norms, manipulating media, and leveraging the international“ learning and cooperation dimension”, these nations “shape the narratives that society will come to rely on.” President of Initiatives for China Yang Jianli stated that “anti-freedom has become an ideology” and offers an “antidote to liberal democracy.” Director of RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service Kenan Aliyev indicated that corruption and nepotism are worse now than they ever were in Azerbaijani history. “The government controls the information landscape… there is no opportunity for alternative politics to develop… no free exchange of information… no independent media.” 

Internal Problems of Democracies

The question of whether democracy is in a current state of decline and what the future holds in terms of the health of democracy is a controversial issue that many intellectuals are struggling with. Democracy is blighted by low voter participation and apathy. People are uncomfortable with the burden that comes with civic responsibility. Delegates were rather pessimistic, asserting that democracy is in decline and will continue on this path unless there is a shift in the political approach to democracy itself. Karel Schwarzenberg, the former Czech Foreign Affairs Minister, stated that “We’ve had democracy and people are starting to get bored. Democracy is going out of fashion.” On the other hand, José María Aznar, former Prime Minister of Spain, stated that “the best political system continues to be liberal democracy [and] it is necessary to reinforce our faith and our insistence in [its] classical pillars and values. Illiberal alternatives, populism and nationalism are [its] most important challenges.”

Democracy Is Not a "One Size Fits All" System

It was felt that we must accept that democracy has to take different forms in different societies; it is not a “one size fits all” system. The classical model will not always be the best option. Tarek Osman, an Egyptian author and analyst, stated that when it comes to establishing democracy in different cultures “though the trajectory may be the same, the destination is not necessarily the same” because it differs based on cultural heritage. Yogendra Yadav, a political scientist from India thinks that we need to look for expressions of democracy that do not follow our script. For example decisions in India being taken by village assemblies, not elected representatives.

Acceptance of Democracy's Flaws

We must also accept that no system is perfect. Discontent is par for the course to a certain extent. Michael Novak, theologian and political scientist from USA said that “in order to be serious about democracy you have to be content to be discontent. It will never be paradise on earth.” Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, agreed that “democracy is not a utopian dream – it is a political system that deals with human beings as they are.” Yevhen Hlibovytsky, the founder of Pro.Mova in Ukraine, pointed out that it is often assumed that democracy is a natural state but it takes work and time to address this largely cultural issue.

The Ongoing Struggle Worldwide

While Europe is experiencing a “lack of democratic passion,” passionate activists around the globe are fighting for democracy and basic human rights. A perspective from several world regions has been presented at the conference.

In the Middle East, the struggle for democracy can be seen in many places. However, one cannot speak about the Arab world as a whole and the situation varies among the different societies.

Zhang Qianfan from Peking University, China, said that “Without a democratic system, rule of law is very problematic. We have made a lot of laws but their implementation is a problem. The government is not responsible to the people. Being a non-democratic country, we come up with many solutions to problems but in vain.” It was felt that the problems of Hong Kong are reflective of major issues in the Chinese institutions. As long as China remains under the Communist Party’s leadership, Hong Kong will not have full democracy.

Steven Gan, editor of, stated that India has the power to be a source of inspiration for democracy across Asia. In regards to Malaysia, he felt a pseudo democracy had been established and that there was still some way to go before true democracy was established.

Igor Blaževič, representing Burma Educational Initiatives, noted that fixing Burma without power sharing deal is not possible: "Generals became capitalists. They have economic strength and they don't want to give it up. The government is not ready for fair elections, the peace process is stuck. We are entering very dangerous year [in Burma] with a lot of uncertainties."

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former prisoner of conscience, Russia, stressed that the best thing Europe can do for Ukraine is to help it financially. “Europe can also take care of the biggest problem of the Ukrainian economy which is the corruption.” Daniel Baer, a representative to the OSCE stated that “reform is Ukraine’s dominant strategy,” though this reform would be difficult and would take time.

Jiří Schneider, Senior Fellow at the Prague Security Studies Institute, wrapped up the closing panel by noting that “We should be encouraged in our spirit and we should be capable of showing solidarity with people who are living in circumstances of fear. We have lived through that. To realize your dreams you have to feel free and not afraid.” 

Post Scriptum

The absence of several people from the conference was highly visible. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu XiaoboAhmed Maher, a blogger and activist from Egypt, and Leopoldo López, an opposition politician from Venezuela, were invited but were unable to attend as they have been imprisoned for political reasons. Chinese poet and photographer Liu Xia could not attend as she has been placed under house arrest for political reasons. Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist and activist from Azerbaijan, was on her way to the conference but was stopped at the airport as the Azerbaijani authorities had banned her from travelling. On the other hand, the presence of recently freed political prisoners, Ales Bialiatski of Belarus, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky of Russia, fills us with hope.