The Democracy Backlash

By Fred Hiatt (THE WASHINGTON POST, 10/07/06):

When communism collapsed in 1991, no one expected democracy to triumph everywhere and instantly. But no one expected the other side to fight back, either. After all, what was "the other side"?

Yet when President Vladimir Putin hosts the first summit of Group of Eight leaders in Russia this week, the most notable thing won't be that his country has failed to become the consolidated democracy that the G-7 countries expected when they invited Russia to join a decade ago. What will be remarkable -- but has been little remarked on -- is that Putin has become a leader and an emblem of an active movement to combat the spread of democracy.

"What seems to be the case," Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told me, "is that governments that are authoritarian have decided to fight back."

Lugar chaired a hearing last month on "The Backlash Against Democracy Assistance," which is the title of a report he commissioned from the National Endowment for Democracy, a private, federally funded organization created in 1983 to promote democratic institutions around the world. The organization found the backlash to be most pronounced in what Carl Gershman, NED's president, calls "hybrid regimes": autocracies that maintain some nominally democratic processes, usually including elections, and that generally claim to be democracies.

Many of these regimes tolerated civic groups promoting freedom and human rights during the 1990s and allowed them to receive help from democracy promoters in the United States and other nations. But after the Rose Revolution swept away the corrupt regime of Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia, followed by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Putin and other leaders decided they could no longer take any chances.

They concluded, Gershman said in a recent talk, that, as Abraham Lincoln noted in a different context, "a government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." And so they accelerated their harassment of civic groups, radio stations, political parties and any other independent voices -- with arbitrary detentions, visa bans, impossible funding rules, intrusive registration requirements and more.

For the most part, the regimes claim that these measures are aimed only at protecting state sovereignty, defeating terrorism or countering espionage. That's good news, in a funny way; most of them still feel compelled to describe themselves as democrats. Even now there is no "other side," ideologically speaking.

But it also makes the measures difficult to combat. Post reporter Peter Finn's account last week of how the Kremlin has eliminated Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasts from most Russian radio stations without formally banning the programming -- instead harassing, insinuating and threatening to revoke licenses -- provides a good example.

And the rebounding dictators are learning from each other. In January Putin signed legislation regulating nongovernmental organizations that will give 30,000 bureaucrats the option of revoking the registration of any troublesome group. Now Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe are pushing similar legislation. China reportedly sent researchers to Uzbekistan and other former Soviet states to compare notes on democracy countermeasures; meanwhile, Belarus's dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, "reportedly acquired China's latest internet monitoring and control technology while in Beijing in December 2005," NED reported.

The man who helped provoke all this -- Georgia's democratic president, Mikheil Saakashvili -- was in Washington last week warning that Putin and his ilk may be interested in more than defense; they may want to roll back democracy in Georgia, Ukraine and beyond. Bush, who spent two hours with the Georgian, appears to understand this.

Putin is, in fact, working hard to undermine democratic Georgia, a nation of fewer than 5 million people bordering Russia on the south. He has banned imports of Georgian produce, wine and mineral water; he is manipulating secessionists inside the country. Saakashvili's success in promoting economic growth and diminishing corruption may be too dangerous an example for Putin to abide.

A key question for this week will be whether the G-7 leaders make clear that undermining neighboring democracies is not an acceptable policy. France and Germany will be reluctant to allow principle to interfere with commercial interests, which lie with Russia, not some tiny nation to the south. So it will be up to Bush.

Saakashvili seemed to be delivering just such a message when he handed Bush a photocopy of a 1936 letter his government had discovered in the KGB archives. The letter, handwritten by leaders of fiercely independent people of the mountainous Khevsureti region, was addressed to the "Great American Government." It bewailed the encroaching Bolsheviks, who were forcing the locals onto collective farms and preventing them from practicing their religion.

"We won't surrender as long as a single Georgian in Khevsureti is alive," they wrote. "We'll defend ourselves with swords and daggers. . . . We hope you will help us. You are the only ones who can . . . ."

The letter never reached Franklin Roosevelt, of course, and all its signatories were promptly murdered by the KGB (then known as the NKVD).

Times have changed, thank goodness. But history hasn't ended, and the spread of democracy still can't be put on autopilot.