Vulnerabilities of Post-Cold War Democracy

September 27, 2018

People of the Eastern neighbourhood met the end of the cold war with high expectations of embracing the values of freedom, plurality, rights and the life style, as in the West. But as the time showed, there was an idealist overestimation of the people’s capacity to overcome legacies and reach it overnight, complexity of the geopolitics and ambitions of the former metropolis, as well as readiness of the West to accept and fully integrate former Soviet republics, such as in the EU and NATO.  While political integration was slow, the economic relations developed quickly, as the “young” states needed investments and the “old” states- access to resources.

Once the ideological confrontation of the cold war ceased to exist, pragmatization of the post-cold war relations in relations of the West to the FSU and political openness has replaced it- former socialist and Soviet states became members of WTO, but also joined the multilateral institutions, such as OSCE and Council of Europe.  De-ideologization of relations and opening the FSU subjects to globalization was supposed to have liberation effect on them, as follows from the neoliberal approach, or at least create favourable grounds for prosperity and stable relations between the former foes.

Yet, things did not go as they were supposed to. First, in conformity with the classical literature on resource curse the West’s economic interests in the oil rich state did not lead to the opening of the political systems, but rather created additional structural obstacles to democracy building, as the experience of Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan demonstrated. Among other effects, oil revenues changed the balance state versus society, strengthening elite in control of resources and undermining the social power. The foreign donors and foundations with their miniscule resources could not compensate billions of petrodollars being monopolized by a small group of people. The oil interests influenced democracy promotion agenda by the leading actors EU and the US. As Barroso noted in 2006, during the signing of ENP action plan with Azerbaijan, one should not expect speedy establishment of democracy in a country, which did not have a historical experience of it. The latter was not true, as Azerbaijan had a precedent of functioning democratic republic in the early 20th century. But this kind of justifying approach emboldened the leadership of the country, which by now has the highest number of political prisoners among the EaP states -nearly 150.

But not only overestimation of the interests and attitudes of the major actors was exposed during these years of cooperation. The former communist bosses appeared to be much better adjusted to the system of international relations, than it was expected. They made the best use of pragmatism and real politik of the international relations, projecting their experience and skills of “shrewd technology of power” acquired in the corridors of the Soviet bureaucratic institutions. While the authoritarian leaders of Eurasia perceived the “real interests” of the Western states as mainly economic, with values being pointed to only in a purely rhetoric fashion, their domestic and international strategies were shaped. Hence the perception of the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the Western partners, such as inconsistency and greed.  Moreover, with growing frustration by its declined international status and compensatory ambitions of Moscow, besides its own problems with Brexit, rising illiberalism and rightist populism, the democratic world encountered both hard and soft power threats emanating from Russia and some other post-communist states. And while hard power threats extend mainly to the former parts of the Soviet Union and are obvious and visible, the soft power threats, as recent scandals with corruption in the Council of Europe and interference with US elections have shown, spread much farther beyond the borders of near abroad and are less apparent.  For the former communists the values have never changed, it was just the power centre which has relocated from Moscow to Brussels and Washington, and so the same informal rules applied. Hence the corruption and in some cases bald bribery resulting in corrosion of the reputation and substance of the democratic institutions.

How come that the post-Soviet autocrats went so far? Political integration of the newly independent states – and including them in multilateral European institutions in particular - rendered them with the political influence, both formal and informal.

 Until recently, Putin and his oligarchs successfully used vested interests to split Europe, and even influence the US politics. Ilham Aliyev used the institutes of the Western politics, such as lobbying to buy off western politician’s tolerance of the human rights abuses in the country.

Partly it is due to the openness and belief that not only the end of Cold War is irreversible, but also - in the Fukuyama tradition - that democratic values have been resilient and that democracy meant the end of history. This put the West on defensive, unlike the authoritarian leaders, who aggressively and pro-actively pursued their policies undermining the liberal order and democratic values. In fact, hard policy threats were rather distracting the West’s attention from the deeper, but less visible destructive processes going on.

Democracy is under strong pressure from the side of the authoritarian kleptocratic regimes, who use all the available assets – IT, social networks, satellites, vested interests, bribery in multilateral institutions, right of veto, support of illiberal and rightist movements in Europe, creating alliances of like-minded and other. 

Vulnerability of the Western values partly also originates from the formed “establishment” in the international relations, when particularly economic relations are much less open to public scrutiny and transparency. This has led to enormous amount of murky deals, offshore activities and interdependencies among the international elite, some of which are threatening the liberal order and unity of the West.

However, the autocrats are not only trying to undermine liberal  values by discrediting and corroding them, but also through manipulating their public by offering sense of “power”, “stability”, “greatness” and self-confidence. This in fact is a strongly misleading message, as the substance of autocratic rule is creation of opportunities only for a small group of people, who capture the power, while leaving enormous potential of the whole society unrealized. The essence and advantage of democracy in turn is creation of equal opportunities for every citizen, so the creative potential of each person would be realized. Only these conditions of freedom and democracy, enabling each citizen to contribute to the common national value, help to multiply creative power of  nation and people.


Author of the article is Leila Alieva, who will attend the 22nd Forum 2000 Conference.

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