The Conundrum of Democracy

Last week, Human Rights Watch released its annual report, World Report 2008, and its assessment of Russia has few surprises.  The police crackdown on the Dissenters’ Marches, the detention and brutalization of protesters, the jailing of Kasparov, the legislative restrictions and government closings of NGOs, the application and extension of the Extremist Law, the efforts to paint Anna Politkovskaya’s murder as organized “from abroad,” the police crackdown on gay rights protests, and the mobilization of Nashi to prevent “destabilization” were all listed as examples of Russia’s deteriorating human rights record.  Not much new here.

What is new in the HRW report is its emphasis on despots who masquerade as democrats.  These are leaders who have mastered the “art of democratic rhetoric” as a means to gain international legitimacy, but rule their states using despotic means.  It’s a category which allows HRW to place Putin alongside Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf, and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi.  If you think of democracy as a grand ball, then it’s increasingly becoming a masquerade.

Whether Putin actually belongs in such esteemed company is a matter of debate.  I personally think that HRW lessens their important point with such hyperbole.  This is not to suggest that Putin is a democrat.  It is only to say that he is no Musharraf or Mugabe.  The Kremlin, of course, laughed off the report.  “We take this with a grain of salt because it proves that the report’s authors don’t know the reality and don’t want to know it,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov told reporters in response to Putin being listed alongside such reprehensible Third Worlders. 

Still, such couplings shouldn’t take from the report’s larger point that at the moment of democracy’s zenith is at the same time riddled with contradictions.  You get this sense in the opening lines of Kenneth Roth’s essay, “Despots Masquerading as Democrats.” “Rarely has democracy been so acclaimed yet so breached, so promoted yet so disrespected, so important yet so disappointing,” he writes.  Indeed, democracy has finally become the universally recognized government of choice.  Even states that hardly fit its definitional criteria are pressured to give lip service to it through elections, constitutions, and paeans to the virtues of human rights and civil society.  It seems every state claims to speak for the “will of people” even when it’s abundantly clear that they don’t.

HRW rightly laments this divide between words and deeds.  To its credit, the report doesn’t just place the blame for it on the masqueraders.  It also charges the so-called legitimate democratic states with too often treating the democratic mask as the genuine article.  Among many states, namely the United States, democracy (and here HRW means these states’ emphasis on elections divorced from human rights) is a tool of foreign policy.  “Because of other interests—energy, commerce, counterterrorism—the world’s more established democracies too often find it convenient to appear credulous of these sham democrats.”  In the end, democracy has become stripped of its liberatory content.  In its place stands “legitimacy” which, as HRW maintains, is easily achieved through “elections.”

While HRW denounces the division between words and deeds, I have to ask at what point does the masquerade become democracy’s true face?  It’s interesting that after 200 years, what was once the cry of the dispossessed, the fuel of social revolution, and the hallmark of liberation has become the very means to deny all of these.  At the point when democracy has become universal has it begun to serve as its own contradiction (It is also interesting to note that this moment of contradiction has occurred at the same time capitalism has become universal).  If this is the case, then perhaps the solution to HRW’s conundrum (democracy in form but not in content) is to abandon it altogether and promote a new ideology of liberation, human rights, and freedom.