Libertystan by Leon Aron

by Laurence on 3/30/2005

This analysis of the Kyrgyz Revolution appears in today’s Wall Street Journal:

The months and weeks since the successful and magnificently nonviolent anti-authoritarian rebellions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have revealed more about the stark deficiencies of the anti-Communist revolutions in former Soviet states, as well as their true and lasting achievements, than had reams of scholarly theorizing and newspaper commentaries in the decade-and-a-half since the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Similar to the equally inspiring Iraqi election in its reaffirmation of human dignity — which in today’s world is impossible without political liberty — in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, the recent revolts in former Soviet states should prompt a revision of many misleading stereotypes and help the U.S. to reassess its policies in that part of the world.

While the first wave of liberation in the early 1990s ended the state’s monopoly in politics and economy, it failed, first, to establish civic society’s effective preponderance over the state apparatus and, second, to separate political power at every level from control of property. These two preconditions of liberal democracy, which in the West took centuries to develop, proved especially difficult to achieve within a decade for the countries where the land- owning magnate, the village elder, the tribal chief or the king’s satrap had combined economic and political power long before Soviet patrimonialism obliterated any distinction between the state and property for over seven decades.

With the collapse of the Soviet system, patrimonialism in the form of bureaucratic claims on property survived in myriad instances, from the former kolkhoz chairman and district fire inspector to the offices of prime ministers and presidents. Already an integral part of a long national tradition, corruption reached new heights of ubiquity and brazenness. In the end, the national revulsion over the rapacity of the executive branch and its shameless efforts to protect its loot through increasingly authoritarian politics became one of the two key components of this “second wave” of liberation.

Yet the revolts have also shown that in all three nations the anti- totalitarian revolutions of the ’90s did not disappear without a trace. Instead, they left behind a basic framework of rights and liberties — rudimentary by the standards of older democracies and often subverted by the authorities — yet remarkably resilient. People were free to travel abroad and return. Christians, Muslims and Jews prayed, unmolested and side-by-side, in churches, mosques and synagogues. Nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations proliferated. There were dozens of political parties (although small and evanescent) and even more political associations. Although often harassed, political opposition was legal and vocal inside and outside the parliaments. Jailed political opponents were very few. Although the television came to be strictly controlled, staunchly critical newspapers and magazines were published and distributed for sale nationwide.

Because the democratic institutions were so obviously deficient, and because the countries remained relatively poor a decade after the ’90s revolution, our notoriously impatient pundits, and many human-rights activists, derided these manifestations of political and civil rights as “empty shells.” Hence, the crude and grotesquely misinformed taxonomies, such as Freedom House’s 2005 index, which placed Kyrgyzstan (as well as Russia and a post-Saddam Iraq) in the same category of “unfree” nations as the totalitarian states of North Korea, Lybia, Cuba and Turkmenistan.

Yet by far the most important and durable legacy of the first wave of revolution in the ’90s is the notion that legitimacy comes solely from an election. The demonstrators in Tbilisi, Kiev and Bishkek have tested, in vivo, and proved beyond doubt the correctness of Joseph Schumpeter’s minimalist definition of democracy as “free competition for free vote.”

Freedom to vote in a national election, real choices before the voters, and more or less honest tallying of the results may be all that is necessary, initially, for the exercise of popular sovereignty even in the absence of — or with glaring shortcomings in — such components of a modern liberal democracy as independent and impartial courts or complete freedom of all media. Thus, in addition to corruption and its authoritarian cover-up, the other and by far the most powerful grievance in these former Soviet states was the restrictions on the right to vote and falsification of election results. Apparently capable of tolerating a great deal for a long time, the people have “drawn the line” on the right to vote, be counted, and elect whom they chose.

The pro-democracy heroes of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have taught us many lessons. As always in matters of liberty, the people have proved wiser, and infinitely more patient, than the intelligentsia. They grasped the essence of Isaiah Berlin’s adage: “Liberty is liberty — not equality, or justice, or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.”

Of course, the Georgians, Ukrainians and now the Kyrgyz are just as desirous of the other aspects of modern civilization and wish they could be achieved quickly and simultaneously. But to them — as well as the Iraqis — liberty as popular sovereignty and self-governance appear to be the first and most important condition of hope.

Clearly, it is time to change Fareed Zakaria’s grim shibboleth of “illiberal democracy” to “pre-liberal” to convey the possibility of progress in states such as the Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Progress toward liberalizaton in these and other former Soviet states is stunted, uneven, spasmodic — yet real. Indeed, we should approach pre-liberal democracies with the same sustained hope and perseverance that was shown the people behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Varied material assistance to nonviolent pro-democracy political and civic organizations ought to be provided openly and continuously.

Revolutions are notorious for backtracking, looping and dead-ending before beginning anew. Pre-liberal democracies are severely handicapped by centuries of authoritarianism and patrimonialism. Given the enormous structural problems and poverty, there is a danger that the changes brought about by this second wave may not “hold.” As we have seen in Russia with President Putin, the new leaders of these former Soviet states may not be able to withstand the authoritarian temptation long enough for the democratic tradition to take firm root. If so, the second wave is likely to be followed by a third and, perhaps, a fourth — until their citizens live in the dignity of self- rule.

Mr. Aron is director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.


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