ALEKSEJ DEMJANSKI, INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS
Almost twenty years ago, Fareed Zakaria published an essay in Foreign Affairs titled “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” in which he explained a frightening new international trend. In his essay, Zakaria noted that, in recent times, democracy has been on the rise all across the world, but that this rise has not coincided with the civil, political, and economic liberties typically associated with it. In fact, he makes a very important distinction—democracy simply means that within a state there exist free, fair, and open elections, or what he calls “the procedures for selecting government.” The various liberties that we have come to believe democracy stands for are not part of the democratic political system; they instead come from the ideal of constitutional liberalism. This constitutional liberalism has been expressed by various philosophers throughout history and proclaims that humans possess many “natural or inalienable” individual liberties that Zakaria considers “the government’s goals.” As he points out, many in the West have associated democracy with this constitutional liberalism because there was a historic tendency for the two to materialize together. This coincidence is exceptional to the rise of democracy in the West and shouldn’t be applied to the democratization efforts of countries around the world today.
As a matter of fact, Zakaria declares that this tendency is not the reality for most newly democratic countries. He mentions that many of them are experiencing the rise of democracy without constitutional liberalism, a phenomenon he calls “illiberal democracy.” In these illiberal democracies, governments are democratically elected, but they are not ensuring their citizens the basic civil, political, and economic rights of a liberal constitutional system. In the conclusion, Zakaria warns the West to be mindful of political elites who consolidate power, hold free elections that are clearly unfair, repress media outlets, incite nationalist rhetoric to divide their societies, and suppress those aforementioned basic individual liberties. He also calls on the West to make an effort to rekindle constitutionalism around the world, as it is in the best interests of all countries and their citizens. Yet, if we look at the world today, it seems that the West and its leadership did not heed this warning. Illiberal democracy has spread like a wildfire, and today it’s in a phase of consolidation, particularly with the rise of right-wing leaders across East-Central Europe and its proximities.
Today, just as we had been warned, in the absence of Western influence, countries such as Russia, Hungary, Turkey, and Macedonia have all sparked flames of this fire. Zakaria himself opened his essay by mentioning the rise of illiberal democracy in the former Yugoslavia and even mentioned that in Russia, “Yeltsin's actions have created a Russian super-presidency. We can only hope his successor will not abuse it.” Ironically, the man to succeed Yeltsin, his handpicked protégé Vladimir Putin, has today consolidated the entire power structure of the Russian Federation under his leadership and created what is termed a “hybrid regime,” or an illiberal democracy, with media freedoms under attack and clearly unfair elections being held. In Turkey, the recent reelection of Reccep Tayyip Erdogan to the presidency proves just how far the consolidation of illiberal democracy has come. In his previous term, Erdogan even banned the use of Twitter and strongly suppressed media freedom. His rise to power and subsequent actions don’t seem to include liberalism anywhere on the agenda.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, during a speech at a university this summer, stated that the path his country will follow is that of Russia and Turkey. Orban explicitly states that “the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.” This proclamation raised concerns for many European Union leaders due to the fact that Hungary is a member state and its new path would contradict the core values of the EU. The Macedonian Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, and his center-right ruling party VMRO-DPMNE, alongside their coalition partners, have been in power since 2006 and were recently re-elected in April 2014. Since gaining leadership of the country, the regime has taken to a higher level what their predecessors already started. This includes corruptly consolidating power in the elite apparatus, using state capacity to maintain authority in elections, reducing media freedoms, allowing for the judicial system to remain unreformed and inefficient, and expressing ethno-nationalist rhetoric, causing ethnic tensions within the country.
After the fall of communism in the 1990s, the United States and the West participated in the guidance of these regimes toward democracy and liberalism. Although democracy was achieved, liberalism clearly was not. Reiterating what Zakaria asserted in his 1997 essay, that the West must ensure the livelihood of individual liberties across the region and globally, I call on the West with great urgency to finish what they started. After having been the greatest promoters of democracy and liberalism in the 1990’s, the West, believing they have completed their goal, have recently begun weaning themselves away from the Balkans and East-Central Europe without considering the kinds of repercussions their inaction will have. If the spread of illiberal democracy is not a clear indication, then I don’t know what is.
Regardless of the Western-led efforts of the 1990s that have slowly been phased out, we must ensure that citizens have a voice in these countries and that their voice leads to active participation by supporting Western-led programs that engage citizens of the West with those of this region for an exchange of ideas. We must support the freedom of the media by holding these countries accountable to international law in order for truth and transparency to flourish. We must assist in the reform of judicial systems that are run by the state rather than independently through joint Western-led law initiatives and educational programs. We must help civil society organizations by creating a civil society partnership between our countries in an effort to help them cultivate a unified national conscious and not an ethnically divided one. We must guarantee citizens their basic liberties by once again advocating for constitutional liberalism. If not, the wildfire of illiberal democracy will not stop spreading--and we in the West will partially be to blame.
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