No place for defeatism in the struggle for democracy

Published by The i paper (19th March, 2016)

As Russia goes through another sham election to crown its tsar for six more miserable years, it is easy to forget that this mighty nation was briefly a democracy. After the collapse of communism, the country experienced a brief rush of freedom as it emerged blinking into the light, before the crooks and spooks grabbed control again. It was a flawed, stumbling democracy, far from perfect. Yet today it is back in the dark days of dictatorship, one of only two autocracies still staining our continent.

Brave figures still fight for the cause. Some have died, some are in jail, but others risk everything for liberal freedoms with recent protests in dozens of cities. I met several key opposition figures last week in New York at a Human Rights Foundation conference analysing Putin, including Vladimir Kara-Murza, who has been poisoned twice in the past three years. He points out that Putin’s regime is no different from the Soviet era with its censorship, political prisoners and unfair elections – except the bosses have so little faith in their own system they send their children to our schools and stash their stolen cash in our banks.

Kara-Murza accepts that he could probably not survive another poison attack. He has moved his family to the United States for protection, seen close friends such as Boris Nemtsov murdered and others jailed. Yet the only time this motor-mouthed activist paused during our chat was when I asked why he carried on fighting a regime that will clearly do anything to survive. Then he replied softly that, if he did nothing, he would be complicit in the devastation of his country.

Meeting people prepared to risk lives for freedoms we take for granted shames those who aid Putin’s mafia. There is this weird horseshoe effect, where the far right and far left both push his cause. Thus we see nationalists on the right, such as Nigel Farage, praising the deadly Russian dictator as an ‘operator’, despite all the blood on his hands as he eliminates rivals and rips apart other countries. And on the left, we see the likes of Seamus Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s influential spin doctor, who so detest America that they fanned Russian lies with vigour.

Strange bedfellows with shared delusions. Yet the same effect can be seen across Europe. A German analyst told the conference that five of the seven parties elected to parliament last year in his country are pro-Putin. A majority of votes cast in Italy in this year’s ballot went to pro-Putin parties. The far-right force that made the presidential run-off in France took money from Russia. This shows how deeply crass populism demeans our continent. Yet it also underlines something more profound: the complacency over democracy in its birthplace, even as people die for the cause around the world.

Democracy remains the most dynamic and tolerant political system, something to be cherished for all its faults. I am reminded of this frequently in my work reporting around the world, witnessing conflict and hearing of gross human rights abuses. It is one reason I am so angered by an aid industry that props up despotism. Yet in the West we see such cynicism over ‘the system’, such loathing of elites and experts, such casual abuse of freedom, that Putin’s propaganda machine and social media trolls do not need to do much to inflame our wounds.

Yes, many of these lesions are self-inflicted. The pathetic tribalism, trotting out of party lines and ignoring of evidence make it hard to defend a modern politics that seems better suited to the playground. When a prime minister goes to war on a false premise, then chases down a fortune advising repellent regimes, this weakens faith in Westminster. When the police lie, papers break the law, politicians abuse expenses, the Church covers up paedophilia, charities tolerate abuse, corporate titans dodge tax, the health service hounds whistleblowers, then key institutions are left weakened and hollowed out.

These are the bulwarks of democracy. But at least we can challenge the crooks, tackle those flouting rules and fight freely for a better system. And far better to have our politicians, our police, our papers and our priests than the patsy cheerleaders seen under Putin, who has bent the state system so that it serves only him and his billionaire pals. Yet this is why it is so alarming to see Trump offer succour to dictators with praise for repressive rulers and attacks on ‘fake news’ – or indeed, to see how Brexit exacerbated divisions in our society.

Academics now talk of ‘democratic recession’. Even in Europe we see setbacks in places such as Hungary and Poland. Studies show that there is dwindling support for democracy, deepening anxieties over its future and demolishing assumptions that the planet is on an inexorable path towards liberal progress. One survey last year found that only 36 per cent of people in Britain are totally committed to the concept of elected representation, while one in four supported the idea of a leader unconstrained by courts or parliament. There are signs that support among millennials is weaker than among their parents and grandparents.

The surge in populism reflects concerns over democratic failures – some justified. Yet the corrosion of our core values and failure to defend democracy – including by repairing key institutions – is deeply alarming given the challenges we face; not just from the Kremlin, but also from an autocratic Chinese government developing new forms of technological control. We are engaged in a fight for our future. And there is simply no place for complacency or defeatism in the struggle to defend democracy.

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