Earlier this month a Russian court acquitted three men accused of involvement in the 2006 murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Politkovskaya’s writing had exposed Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya, and she had been detained on occasion by the Russian military as a result. The end of that court case followed the murder of Stanislav Markelov, another critic of the Russian government who had represented many victims of Russia’s security services. He was gunned down on the streets of Moscow in January. Anastasia Baburova, a 25-year-old student and journalist with Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper that is often critical of the Kremlin, and for which Politkovskaya also wrote, was shot dead when she tried to help. She was the fourth Novaya Gazeta journalist murdered since 2000.
Russia isn’t the only country where it is dangerous to oppose the government these days. China has recently arrested dozens of dissidents as part of a crackdown on free speech on the Internet, which it says is necessary to protect its children from “vulgarity.” Censored websites include those of the BBC and Voice of America. Kyrgyzstan has similarly removed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz-language programs from its national, government-owned TV and radio networks. Kyrgyz authorities said the programs were too critical of the government and would not be broadcast unless they are submitted to and approved by government censors in advance. And Syria last fall sentenced 12 pro-democracy dissidents to 2½ years in prison. The activists had called for greater freedom of expression and an end to the ruling Baath party’s monopoly on power.
These snapshots paint a bleak picture of the state of democracy and political freedom around the world. And yet it was only 20 years ago that the American political philosopher Francis Fukuyama concluded that democracy’s ultimate triumph was at hand.
“The 20th century saw the developed world descend into a paroxysm of ideological violence, as liberalism contended first with the remnants of absolutism, then bolshevism and fascism, and finally an updated Marxism that threatened to lead to the ultimate apocalypse of nuclear war,” he wrote in a seminal 1989 essay published in The National Interest. But the 20th century was ending, he believed, with the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.” The West had prevailed, conclusively and irreversibly, on the battlefield of ideas. History itself, defined as mankind’s ideological evolution, was over.
Fukuyama was, and is, an idealist. But his conclusions appeared to have been supported by facts on the ground. Liberal democracy had prevailed against fascism and Communism. Former Soviet client states were flocking to be embraced by the West. Within a year, McDonald’s would open its first restaurant in Moscow. China’s liberalization was mostly economic rather than political, but pro-democracy activists flooded Tiananmen Square, and thousands of Chinese students were studying in the West. “It is hard to believe that when they return to run the country they will be content for China to be the only country in Asia unaffected by the larger democratizing trend,” Fukuyama wrote.
It is almost painful to read such dated optimism today. China has indeed liberalized its economy but remains as dictatorial as ever. The autocratic Vladimir Putin and a cabal of KGB cronies and alumni run Russia. Cuba’s dictatorship has survived the fall of its Soviet patron, while Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez—who has politicized the judiciary, weakened regional government, and tried to muzzle hostile media—has secured the right to run for office as many times as he’d like. And political Islamism, a movement whose most radical offshoots took flight following the West’s victory against the Soviet Union in a proxy war in Afghanistan, is flourishing not just in the Middle East, but in European enclaves as well. In predominantly Muslim areas of east and north London, it is easy to find signs affixed to walls and street lamps that urge residents: “Stay Muslim, don’t vote.”
Worse, for those who want to believe in the inevitability of liberal democracy, it is no longer possible to attribute democracy’s global stall solely to heavy-handed repression. China’s democratic opposition, brutalized during the protests in Tiananmen Square and understandably quiet, is dwarfed by populist nationalism. Writing in Maclean’s last year, former Canadian diplomat Maurice Strong claimed that Chinese are better off and more satisfied than ever, and value stability and security over democracy. It’s debatable how credible such an assertion is, given that there are frequent strikes and demonstrations across China every year, and questioning the legitimacy of China’s ruling Communist party might earn you a stay in a labour camp. Still, the level of dissent in China is manageable, and few predict a democratic revolution, even as China’s own economic problems intensify popular unrest.
In Russia, also, the democratic opposition is in tatters. Some of this can be explained by the harsh measures used to stifle it. Putin and his allies control most of the levers of power and regional government in Russia. And prominent critics, including journalists, have a habit of ingesting poison or falling to their deaths from upper-floor windows—more than two dozen journalists have been murdered in Russia since 2000. But Putin, for all his undemocratic ways, is immensely popular. Like China’s Communist leaders, he has tapped a deep well of popular nationalism. Russians believe their country is strong again and feel proud. And Putin is not the only anti-democrat capable of making Russians swoon. The mass murderer Joseph Stalin took third place last year in a television contest to determine the greatest Russian ever. Fifty million Russians voted.