Democracy is under assault

Published by The i paper (3rd January, 2022)

New Year is a time of hope and renewal. Yet it is hard to be optimistic about the state of the world as we start 2022. Autocracy seems resurgent around the planet, despots emboldened by the West’s weakness and inequality inflamed by pandemic. Democracy feels febrile and fragile in many traditional strongholds, with a series of alarming studies concluding it is under siege and in retreat.

Freedom House, the Washington think-tank, talks about the international balance ‘shifting in favour of tyranny,’ while a major Swedish-led study warned there has been “steep” global decline in democracy, shifting back to levels last seen three decades ago.

Fewer than one in 10 citizens of the world enjoy our privilege of living in a full democracy. Yet it is hard to avoid the conclusion that liberal democracy is in flight, suffering loss of faith not just in leaders – often so casual about the foundations of freedom – but in a system of government that, elsewhere, I have seen people risk their lives and liberty to win.

A global survey by the Pew Research Centre in the US last month found rampant disillusionment and dissatisfaction in most advanced economies, underscoring why the remodelling of democracy and re-engagement of citizenry should be top of every political agenda. Instead, we see political paralysis and talk of civil war in the United States, which for all its flaws has been the leading promoter of democracy in my lifetime. An alarming new book by political scientist Barbara F Walter analyses their culture, grievances and polarisation before concluding “a democracy founded more than two centuries ago has entered very dangerous territory”.

This echoes what I have seen reporting on events there in recent years while gun sales surge. “Countries can fall apart but no one thinks it can happen here,” said one professor of politics. People in Bosnia recently told me they felt the same before Yugoslavia collapsed three decades ago, descending into the worst conflict seen in Europe since the Second World War. This week marks one year since the Capitol invasion – yet, incredibly, an attempt to thwart a presidential election result has failed to stop the Republican Party digging itself deeper into Donald Trump’s populist rabbit hole.

Things may be less disturbing in Europe, but still our continent is cursed by nationalists who inflame tribal fissures. Brussels looks largely impotent. And there is uncertainty in the continent’s three major powers as Britain struggles to resolve the Brexit self-harm, France faces a critical election for a president assailed by extremists, and Germany is led by an untested coalition after the calm stability of Angela Merkel’s long tenure.

Given the crippling lack of confidence, self-absorption and uncertainty in the West, it is hardly surprising to see brutal regimes in Beijing and Moscow flexing their muscles, rattling sabres and seeking to promote their repressive models of government. The response is mostly dismal from democracies: some tough talk, mild sanctions and then business as usual of appeasing the ruling tyrants and laundering stolen assets of the cliques in charge. There is, however, one small European nation showing an alternative by standing up to these global bullies, and it deserves our unflinching support.

Lithuania is one of the poorest and smallest European Union countries. But this pugnacious Baltic state punches far above its size by displaying moral leadership in the face of dictatorship. It takes a firm line backing human rights in Russia, despite the Kremlin’s subversion and its troops carrying out military exercises, practising for invasion.

It stands admirably strong in support of the Belarus democracy movement, providing sanctuary to opposition figures and protesters regardless of the furious reaction from the Minsk dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, and his allies in Moscow, which includes sending waves of migrants over its border as a malevolent destabilisation tactic.

Most remarkable is Lithuania’s refusal to be cowed by China. This is, bear in mind, a country with a population roughly the size of Greater Manchester. Yet its leaders have met the Dalai Lama, despite Beijing’s hostile response to any nation daring to accept the exiled Tibetan leader. It condemned the atrocities against Muslim minorities such as the Uighurs in Xinjiang as “genocide”. It backed the Hong Kong protests. And last year its government led six central and west European nations in refusing to comply with President Xi Jinping’s demand that they send heads of state to a trade meeting he chaired.

Most significantly, Lithuania has confronted China over Taiwan, supporting another little democracy living in the shadow of a big neighbourhood bully. It let the country open a “representative office” in Vilnius under its own name rather than the standard fig leaf of Taipei, its capital city. Beijing, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan, was furious since it has spent decades using its financial and military clout to eliminate such support.

So, first, the Communist regime downgraded Lithuania’s diplomatic status, leading to the Baltic state consular officials and their families fleeing shortly before Christmas amid fear of being locked up. Then it blocked imports of Lithuanian goods. Finally, it imposed an embargo on other European goods using Lithuanian parts or supply chains.

One Vilnius MP told me they were prepared for a forceful response but feared multinationals will kowtow to Beijing, as we have seen shamefully often before, from Hollywood film studios through to Hong Kong financiers. “All countries have a pain barrier,” he said rightly. Already German business leaders have warned that they may “have no choice but to terminate their operations in Lithuania”.

This is a David and Goliath struggle between a small liberal state, inspired by dark memories of Soviet Communism, and the world’s biggest dictatorship. So will the West stand firmly by Lithuania against the Beijing bullies? Or will this be another sad step backwards for democracy in the battle for global hegemony? One thing is clear: this is a significant test for liberal democracy as we start another tumultuous year.


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