Today’s Threats to Democracy Assistance

Carl Gershman, President of the NED

Transcript of Opening Remarks
IRI Democracy Backlash Seminar

Belgrade, Serbia

Thank you, Liz and thank you to IRI for putting this meeting together. It’s an important discussion. I am also very pleased to be here this morning with my good friend, Edward McMillan-Scott, who is such a staunch supporter of all of this work and one of the key people that we are able to work with in Europe.

Last night, and already this morning, a great deal has been said about the causes of this so called “backlash” and the impediments that a number of governments have put in place to block the work of promoting democracy. Many of these governments are what we call “semi-authoritarian” regimes where activists can use some small openings in the political process to try to push for more change. This is what happened in the so-called “colored revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine which have alarmed many of the remaining “semi-authoritarian” leaders who are determined to on to power at any cost. Their goal is to pre-empt any colored new revolution before it can get started, an effort that involves bringing NGOs under government control, preventing them from receiving international funding, making it impossible for international democracy institutes to do their work, and so forth. All this is very self-evident and actually not very surprising. We also know a lot about the various impediments that have been created, which I might note affect some of us at the table differently from others. Groups like IRI, which establish offices in some of these countries, are obviously going to be affected differently than the NED, which does not have a local presence but makes grants to groups that are inside. I’ll speak shortly about our response to these impediments, but for now I just want to note that they are a defensive reaction by a number of regimes to the success of democracy in the last period.

What I want to do this morning is to say a few words about the larger context in which this backlash is taking place and how we need to respond. I think what is important to understand is that the pushback against democracy is happening at a time when the third wave of democratization has come to an end and we have entered what Professor Samuel Huntington has called the “reverse-wave period.” The third wave crested in the late 1980s and early 90s, and it is actually surprising that the reverse wave did not come earlier. Following the two previous waves of democratization – before World War I and after World War II — there were very powerful pushbacks. They occurred in the 1920s and 30s with the rise of communism and fascism, and then in the 1960s and 70s with the collapse of many of the new democracies in Africa and other regions, the rise of the authoritarianism in Asia, the takeover by military dictatorships in Latin America, and so forth. After the third wave peaked in the and early 1990s, there were a few isolated cases of democratic breakdown, such as the coup in Pakistan. But for the most part there was no significant pushback until now.

Actually, it’s a much larger phenomenon than just a backlash against democracy promotion. What gives this backlash a special kind of force is that it’s not taking place in isolation but is being reinforced by many other phenomena. For one thing, there is not today the same kind of confidence about democracy and its prospects that there was in the early 1990s in the wake of the great revolutions of the third wave. Part of that has to do with the fact that many of the new democracies are not doing very well. The transitions have not been consolidated and many of the new democracies are in trouble. Serbia itself is a good example. As we heard from Ambassador Polt last night, there was a breakthrough in October 2000, but the transition has stalled here, nationalism is still strong, and democracy seems to be backsliding. And it’s not just here in Serbia where there’s a troubled transition. In many other countries new democracies have not been able to perform up to the expectations that people had in terms of fighting poverty, eliminating corruption, delivering the kind of government services that people want. It’s in that sense that many people are losing confidence in democracy.

Beyond that, the major democracies themselves are more pre-occupied with other priorities right now than aiding democracy, and they are not showing the same kind of force in driving this issue that they demonstrated at an earlier time. The US is obviously pre-occupied with the war in Iraq. The fact that Islamists in certain countries were able to take advantage of elections to strengthen their own position has certainly complicated the work of aiding democracy, and it has contributed to the growing strength in our own country of the so-called realist school of thought which says that we have pressing security concerns to attend to and should put promoting democracy promotion on the back burner. I’m sure we will hear from Edward about a similar trend in Europe.

On top of all this, there are also a number of international factors that are contributing to the reverse wave. The drastic increase in the price of oil in the last few years has obviously strengthened a number of belligerent opponents of democracy – in Russia, in Iran, in Venezuela — and has also made the western democracies more dependent on these countries and therefore less willing to push very hard against them.

In addition, China is a much more influential country economically and politically than ever before. In its quest for natural resources to fuel its economic growth, it’s perfectly happy to establish close and collaborative relations with governments in Burma, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Sudan and other authoritarian countries. It also purports to offer an alternative, autocratic model of economic development. And so that, too, is a problem. Moreover, the whole context of the war on terrorism creates new difficulties for democracy promotion since there are many authoritarian regimes, Russia and China in particular, that justify their crackdown on democracy activists by saying that they’re fighting terrorism. The Russian law on extremism is a case in point. There is also, as we know, a rise of anti-Americanism in the world, and that, too, is a factor that can be used by autocrats to resist those seeking the advance of democracy, given the leading role the United States has played in this effort.

I mentioned before the crisis of governance in many of the new democracies — the cancer of corruption that has contributed to the rise of populist leaders who campaign demagogically against a political class that has not delivered services to the most impoverished people or even to shown any concern for their suffering. Even though these populists don’t themselves have any constructive answers to social and economic problems, they make great promises and appeal to people’s grievances and inveigh against formal democracy as being inherently unresponsive to people’s needs.

Finally there is the phenomenon highlighted by the memo that Liz referred to earlier – the increased cooperation among the autocratic governments, as in the case specifically of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which brings together Russia, China and the Central Asian countries to promote regional economic cooperation but also to resist democracy promotion efforts and to defend their kind of regimes against the influence of the West This, then is the larger context in which the backlash is occurring and which makes our work today especially difficult.

Now what should be our response to this? First of all, I think we need to put this problem in perspective and not get too alarmist about what is happening. Obviously, one of the ways in which we need to respond is by staying engaged in every way possible and by continuing to do our work, despite the obstacles — working with parties, with NGOs, building broad coalitions of groups, supporting independent media, insisting on free and fair elections and challenging the way many of these regimes use elections to legitimize autocratic power. We probably need to do a better job of making the argument that an election that is controlled and manipulated by a government that controls the entire environment in which the election occurs cannot be accepted by the international community. I want to especially emphasize the importance of cross-border assistance, the kind of work that we heard about last night from our friends Otpor friends, since it extremely effective and credible way of aiding beleaguered democrats in backsliding countries.

It’s important to note that the Russian NGO law has been on the books now for more than a year, but the jury is still out on its impact. We know that the NGO community is operating under great pressure and is expending enormous effort just responding to onerous reporting requirements and government threats. But the consequences so far have not been crippling. Let me just give a couple of examples.

We had a visit last week from Karinna Moskalenko of the International Protection Center in Moscow, which is a NED grantee. Last July the Russian government threatened to impose a crippling tax of $180,000 on this group, which brings human rights cases that have not been satisfactorily resolved in the Russian courts to the European Court in Strasbourg,the juridical body of the Council of Europe, which Russia joined in 1996 The group mobilized support domestically and internationally, and so far that tax has not been imposed. The group is still under threat, and there are indications that the government may move to disbar Karinna, but until now she continues to do her work.

A number of you know of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, which is also a NED grantee. This is a group that the government has gone after for a long time, long before the NGO law was adopted. Last October the 9th, two days after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the prosecutor in Nizhny Novgorod, where the group is based, ordered that it be closed down. Interestingly the order came right after the murder of Anna, which was not a coincidence. Both she and the Society offended the government by reporting on what was happening in Chechnya.

The Society immediately challenged the decision of the Nizhny Novgorod Court in the Russian Supreme Court. And they started reaching out, organizing a statement that was signed by over a hundred intellectuals, including, I might note, Francis Fukuyama, Andrej Gluksman, and even Noam Chomsky signed this statement defending the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society. Moreover, they were not only signing a statement, they were agreeing to becoming honorary members of the Society as a statement of solidarity. In other words, the group was using the crisis to strengthen themselves internationally and build a network of support. On January the 23rd, the Russian Supreme Court obviously confirmed the decision of the Nizhny Novgorod Court. That was never really in question. But the Society immediately registered itself in Finland and it is now a Finnish NGO that is able to receive grants, and it continues to function in Nizhny Novgorod as the Nizhny Novgorod Foundation to Support Tolerance. The same people are running the organization. To be sure, the government continues to harrass these people. Just yesterday, they tried to break into the offices of the Foundation and arrest the two key people, Stas Dmitrievski and Oksana Chelysheva. But they immediately were on the phone with all of their international friends and were not arrested, though the police did arrest a young activist.

I might note that tomorrow in Nizhny Novgorod, which is the third largest city in Russia, there’s going to be a major demonstration, a March of Dissent. There was a similar march in St. Petersburg on March 3rd that many of you read about it in the papers. Garry Kasparov was there and a lot of groups associated with The Other Russia came together. They got a good deal of international attention and showed that there are people in Russia who are not just lying down helplessly in the face of state repression. Regarding tomorrow’s demonstration in Nizhniy Novgorod, the local authorities have denied the organizers a permit to hold the march, saying they had received a request from the Orthodox Church not to have events in the vicinity of holy sites. Also, art fair has suddenly materialized which is another excuse that is being given not to allow the march. But the demonstration is going to take place anyway, and you’ll read about it. The democrats in this situation are not about to give up. Let me add that on the 14th of April, a similar demonstration will take place in Moscow. The fact that all this is happening and that the opposition groups have not been stopped or closed down is of some interest.

Moreover, Russia is not a unique case. Conditions are even harsher in Belarus, yet our grants program there remains quite vigorous. Most of the groups that we are supporting are not licensed organizations, but we’re making grants to these organizations anyway. It is also worth noting that IRI has moved its Belarus office to Vilnius, and the NDI office is now in Kiev, but both continue to support partners in Belarus. I would say that the NED has some 50 or 60 grantees in Belarus — independent media groups, human rights organizations and others. The point is, this work is going forward. You can ask how it’s possible, but it is happening. And it’s happening in many other places as well, in Zimbabwe, for example, and in Venezuela.

Interestingly, an NGO law similar to the Russian law was introduced in Venezuela last June, on the very day we testified before Senator Lugar and presented him with a report on the backlash that he had requested. But that law has not been passed yet. The NGOs in Venezuela, many of which work with Chavistas, got together to protest. In addition, Finland, in its capacity as chair of the EU, also protested vigorously to the Venezuelan government. The law may still be passed, but so far the Venezuelan government has held off.

My point in saying all this to you is that I sense a certain ambivalence on the part of a lot of these regimes. They are dictatorial in their aspirations. But they are, in fact, semi-authoritarian and make some claim to being democratic, even if it’s a false and ersatz form of democracy. We’re not talking about Cuba here, or Burma. Both are dictatorships that have always repressed any independent political or intellectual activity. There’s nothing new here. What’s new is that the so-called semi-authoritarian or hybrid countries, where some independent activity has been allowed, are now trying to close off that opening. But it’s not a simple thing to do that. Once people have tasted a little bit of freedom, they want more. And they want to use whatever freedom they have to defend their rights and expand the political space that exists.

Just yesterday I was just talking yesterday with a group of young people in Novi Sad. They were feeling very discouraged about the situation in this country. And I said to them, “Look, we are meeting today in the Parliament of Vojvodina. You have access to all sorts of media in this country that did not exist during the period of communism and then Milosevic. You can organize. Yes, you don’t really have the same kind of access to the people that you would have in a full democracy, but this is not a dictatorial situation.”

And I think it is very, very difficult to impose a dictatorship once you’ve had an initial opening. The regimes are trying, they are definitely trying. But the groups inside are showing a high degree of resilience. It’s significant that the NED continues to receive a growing number of grant requests from Belarus, from Russia, from Venezuela, from Zimbabwe, from all of these “hybrid” countries. In some cases, like Uzbekistan, we don’t make the grants directly to the groups inside the country because the government requires that funds go through their banks, which allows them hold up and even confiscate the funds. Still, there are ways to work, and I think that the NED and other democracy foundations, whether we have programs on the ground or are providing grant support, have to be very flexible in how we work if we are to continue to provide assistance. We have to keep our ears close to the ground and adjust to what the groups inside feel is the best way to stay alive in this kind of a situation.

Let us also remember that we can now use one asset that exist in previous periods. I am speaking of the Internet.and the enormous access this gives democratic activists to information and communications. Dictators may close newspapers, but democratic groups still have access to the internet. In Ukraine, the Internet publicationUkrainska Pravda was so effective that its editor, Georgy Gongadze, was murdered for exposing corruption in the government. Still, the publication continued to publish because it was so hard to close down. Governments China and Iran try to close off access to the Internet, but it’s very difficult to do that, even for dictatorships. For a country like Russia, that still wants to participate in the G-8 and be accepted in Europe, it makes it much more difficult for them to cut off Internet access.

That leads to my second point, which is the need to build international support for the democratic groups and for democracy. The fact that Russia wants to be a member in good standing of the G-8 gives the democracies leverage over its behavior which can be used to prevent it from imposing a real dictatorship. The Community of Democracies is another international association that should condition participation on observing certain basic standards of democratic behavior. It is now preparing for its Bamako Ministerial, which will take place in November. A process of review is now underway, and if Russia and Venezuela continue to centralize power and eliminate any independent activity, whether it’s by political opposition, civil society, independent media, or other sectors of society, they should lose their status as full participants and not be invited to participate in future meetings of the Community of Democracies.

You can certainly ask how important all of this is. I think it’s important that the international community maintain and insist upon the observance of democratic standards and not permit regimes that are engaging in blatantly undemocratic behavior to get away with it, at least in terms of their standing in the international community and their participation in various international fora. We need to bring Americans and Europeans together to address this problem and to build new international coalitions of solidarity with people fighting against backsliding. I might note that I first spoke about the backlash problem at a meeting of democracy foundations in Stockholm in August 2005, when we first saw this problem developing. I described what we saw happening in Belarus, Venezuela, Russia and other backlash countries to a group of thirty or so democracy foundations. A coalition of democracy foundations needs to work together to defend democracy and to enlist the support of the Community of Democracies. I might note that the World Movement for Democracy, which is the global association of non-governmental activists, is preparing a report, in cooperation with the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), which will be called Defending Civil Society. It will try to state in normative terms what the relationship should be between governments and civil society and what is appropriate in terms of international assistance to NGOs. There are a lot of complex questions here. When governments say that international democracy assistance violates their sovereignty, the response has to be based on clearly established norms that are embraced by the international community. These norms were first articulated in the Warsaw Declaration of the Community of Democracies, which was adopted in June 2000; and this report, Defending Civil Society, will carry the discussion a step forward. It will try to build a new international consensus in support of democracy assistance and the pro-democracy work of non-governmental groups. We’re assembling an eminent persons’ group to endorse this report. Already Vclav Havel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Anwar Ibrahim and others have signed on to be part of this eminent persons’ group. This is just a one step that is part of the effort we have to undertake to build international support and solidarity with the people who are fighting for democracy in these backlash countries.

I think it’s very important not to become defensive in our own approach, but to stay on the offensive. Even though we’re in a reverse wave right now, we should be thinking about how to reverse the negative momentum, where the opportunities are for new democratic gains. In that regard, we should start with the understanding that many of these semi-authoritarian governments are inherently unstable. These governments have a great deal of power. They can try to control elections. They can try to close off independent media. They can try to control NGOs and eliminate independent centers of power and activity. But it’s very, very difficult to close down society, especially in a period of expanding communications and after people have tasted a little freedom. The Russians call what they now have “managed democracy,” but it is inherently unstable. If they close off access to information, even the government won’t know what’s going on. It will become paranoid and think that everyone is against them. That makes it much more difficult for them to govern effectively. It’s an unstable situation and opportunities will present themselves in all of these countries for democratic advances. We will have to be alert to where those opportunities will be. For example, regarding the crisis taking place in Zimbabwe right now, a lot of people think that that government is going to have trouble surviving. Brutal as it is, it’s a government which is increasingly isolated both at home and abroad. Sooner or later that government is going to fall. You will never know precisely when these opportunities are going to present themselves, but you have to be ready. Many of the regimes that we’re having the most trouble with today are living off of high oil prices. These prices will not remain high forever. There’ll be economic crises in these countries. Such a crisis is building in Venezuela where the effort by the regime to centralize power is leading even many Chavistas to say, “We don’t want one party, we had many parties before, why should there be just one party?” There are high crime rates, infrastructure problems, a concern about new restrictions on freedom of expression. In many backlash countries these internal crises will become greater and we have to be ready to take advantage of new opportunities to reverse the negative momentum.

I think also we have to keep our eye very close on Iran, which is ruled by people who are terrified of a Velvet Revolution. And with good reason. There is a student movement in Iran. There is a worker’s movement. There were bus strikes last year; they had to arrest the leaders of the striking bus workers. There is a significant movement for women’s rights. There’s a campaign for a million signatures for a petition demanding more rights for women. There are NGOs that that want more freedom and accountability. Obviously there is a great deal of government repression and fear, but there is potential. Again, we have to be looking for opportunities and not let ourselves be put on the defensive.

This relates to the country where we are meeting – Serbia. I asked Patrick, “Why was Belgrade chosen as the site of this conference?” Maybe it’s just a great venue, I don’t know. But I’m especially happy to be here at this time because I think this is a historic moment in the history of this country. This is what I spoke about yesterday to a large group of youth activists in Novi Sad. Next week Martti Ahtisaari is going to be presenting his plan on Kosovo to the United Nations Security Council. Russia is making a lot of noises vetoing a resolution based upon this plan, which will set in motion a process for the managed independence of Kosovo and for protecting the Serb minority population there. This could open the door for a process that I hope will take place, whereby the problem of Kosovo can resolved, Serbia will deal with its obligations The Hague tribunal, and the Balkans can ultimately become integrated into the European Community. And if that happens – and I realize we have a long and difficult road ahead — this will be a major factor in shifting the balance that exists in Europe today between the forces pushing toward the West and toward democracy and the efforts by Russia to try to reverse these trends. It will increase the possibility that the border of democracy will move further to the east. It will increase the pressure on Belarus and Russia for democracy. These are very long-term prospects, but the struggle that is taking place in this country now, one which I think can succeed, has the potential for tipping the balance in favor of the democrats here and in the region and more broadly in Europe. Thus, we have a very great stake in the struggle that is unfolding here. As the Ambassador was saying last night, we shouldn’t turn our backs on this struggle. Rather, we need to see the relationship of the events that are taking place in this small country to the broader events that are taking place regionally and then globally. This is a critical moment; it’s an historic opportunity. If this opportunity can be seized to help move Serbia and the neighboring countries closer to and into Europe, this could help turn back the reverse wave and maybe even open up the possibility for a fourth way of democratization.

Thank you.