Authoritarian regimes

 
 

In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, Francis Fukuyama asked whether the world had reached ‘the end of history’. With the Soviet Union on the brink of collapse, Fukuyama advanced the theory that humanity had found the end-point of its ideological evolution in Western-style liberal democracy. The same year, however, saw a crackdown in China against student dissidents that culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4 June – a sign that the tide of democracy was not about to roll across the world.

According to advocacy organisation Freedom House, of the 193 recognised countries in the world, 89 could last year be classed as ‘free’ (with predominantly free and fair elections, freedom of expression and religion, and a generally equitable system of rule of law), with 62 ‘partly free'(can experience unfair elections and one-party dominance, heavy military interference in elections, censorship and the prevention of free association) and 42 ‘not free’ (where dictatorships govern or civil war makes democracy impossible, and there are few – if any – civil rights).

In Western eyes, most of the findings are not surprising, with the likes of Cuba, Burma, China, North Korea, Russia, Iran and Iraq all falling in the ‘not free’ category. Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Malaysia, the Philippines and Afghanistan are all classed as ‘partly free’, while Indonesia, South Korea, Japan and, not surprisingly, Australia are all considered ‘free’.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Overall, the Freedom in the World 2009 report found that ‘freedom retreated in much of the world in 2008’. However, the organisation’s director of research, Arch Puddington, puts the findings in context, saying, ‘there are many more countries that have declined than advanced, but the degree of decline in most cases has not really been dramatic. And, in many of the cases, what we’re looking at is countries with mediocre or, in many cases, poor records getting even poorer.’

Improvements and declines

Puddington identifies areas of improvement in South Asia and of decline in sub-Saharan Africa. But while he believes ‘authoritarian regimes should not be rewarded’, he agrees that this is not necessarily international practice.

‘We have this unusual – almost unprecedented – situation where you have got authoritarian regimes that are not poor countries,’ Puddington says. ‘They don’t have failed economic systems; they are very much part of the global economy. And that makes it much harder to get countries to treat them the way they would treat a less powerful country.’

Puddington cites Russia as a prime example, from the murder of journalists critical of the Kremlin to ‘the awful war against the Chechens’. And, he says, ‘the United States and Europe gave them a pass on that’.

The global financial crisis (GFC) has also had a bearing on how the international community responds to acts of repression. As reported in the January/February issue of The Diplomat, ‘the GFC is leaving no time for any sustained focus on Zimbabwe. Western countries have become inward-looking, concerned with averting or mitigating the impact of the crisis.’

However, Puddington is unable to say whether, overall, authoritarianism will become more prevalent as a result of the GFC. ‘I think one of the things that democracies can try to do is to build in incentives for democratic practice into their policies,’ he says.

Both the EU and US have such incentives, but concerns have been raised about how and when they are applied. For example, Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, claims ‘the EU lifted a travel ban on Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka despite a lack of discernible improvement in Minsk’s dismal human rights record.

‘The decision,’ Roth says, ‘was motivated by the EU’s worsening relations with Russia, and European governments’ hope to bring Belarus closer to the West.’

Expediency first

This inconsistent, some would say cynical, approach hasn’t gone unnoticed by those living under oppressive regimes. Natalia Kolyada of the Belarus Free Theatre, an underground acting troupe that uses performance as a means of inspiring domestic dissent, says, ‘From time to time the leaders of the European Union start to play with the Belarusian government, with the dictatorship. It really worries us. And this is exactly what’s going on in the moment.’

Of course, the West is also known to flirt with ‘authoritarianism’. From Guantanamo Bay in the US to libel tourism and the phasing in of identity cards in the UK, from freedom of expression concerns in Canada to worries over France’s counterterrorism laws, a faint whiff of hypocrisy surrounds those countries charged with advancing international democracy. Even Australia isn’t immune, with the proposed Internet censorship legislation attracting criticism from civil rights groups and businesses alike, and drawing parallels with the Chinese government’s Web policy.

And although no-one is seriously equating living in Perth to living in Pyongyang, it serves as a timely reminder that when it comes to a State of control, authoritarianism is not fundamentally limited to fundamentalism.

Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief