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  • Democracy’s FutureWhere East Meets West
  • Marcin Król (bio)

About 20 years ago, the great historian of ideas and political thinker John Plamenatz wrote that the most dangerous threat to democracy is not some openly antithetical political system, but rather “sham” democracy. 1 In order to predict whether the “third wave” of democratization will continue to rise or not, we must first acknowledge that many of the world’s new democracies are currently situated somewhere between real democracy and sham democracy. There is little doubt that if we restricted ourselves to the survey of institutional forms or democratic facades, we should perceive a still rising wave of democratization. There are countries where institutional democracy will soon arrive (Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam), and there are countries where it has very recently been imposed from above (Russia and some of the Transcaucasian republics of the former USSR). At the substantive level, it is impossible to say at this moment whether the latter countries are moving toward authentic democracy or a debased and counterfeit version of the same.

Even the fate of democratic facades, however, is open to doubt. Why do these strange new countries in the area from East Central Europe to Transcaucasia want to impose democracy on their citizens? Do the citizens of these countries know what they are doing? Are they willing and conscious participants in the democratization process? On the answer to these questions the future of democratization depends.

I strongly suspect that some among the fledgling democracies became [End Page 37] democracies because it was expected of them, certainly by public opinion in the West, but most crucially by the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, the Council of Europe, and so on. I do not mean that this was the only reason, or that absent external pressure the new democracies would have become despotisms, but I do mean that such international expectations go a long way toward explaining why leaders like Boris Yeltsin or Lech Wa__sa behave as they do and specifically try to avoid even the slightest suspicion that they might be less than totally devoted to democracy.

The West’s possession of such influence abroad carries with it the additional burden of promoting and implementing standards of democracy at home. If the West lowers its own democratic standards, certain political forces inside the new democracies will be encouraged to flout democracy in speech, in deed, or in both. When Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France and the Republicans in Germany seemed to be successful, Polish and Hungarian nationalists immediately drew the lesson that xenophobic nationalism is acceptable in a democracy.

In the sense just outlined, then, the future of democracy in the world—and especially in East Central Europe and the former Soviet Union—depends much more on the state of democracy in the West than it does on developments in the new democracies themselves. The new democracies want to be democratic because in the years leading up to and immediately following 1989, liberal democracy was seen there as the beau idéal of political life. If it ceases to be obvious that liberal democracy is a good solution for the major problems of these countries, some of them may turn elsewhere for solutions. I do not fear that there will be a comeback of “real socialism” or even of some milder form of authoritarianism, but I do worry that existing democratic structures will persist without a liberal spirit to animate them. We may end up with collectivist, slightly nationalist, or paternalistic sham democracies.

The somewhat primitive democratic idealism of former dissidents did not survive prolonged contact with the realities of day-to-day politics. When we hear nowadays that President Václav Havel still speaks of an “antipolitical politics,” we are less impressed than amused. Public discourse in the new democracies, meanwhile, does not look like a realization of Hannah Arendt’s hopes. 2 Venomous invective, accusatory rhetoric, ad hominem argumentation, and the like are not unknown in the established democracies, of course, but they do seem to be scarcer and under better social (and perhaps moral) control there than in the newly...

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pp. 37-43
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