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Analysis From Washington: Hyphenated Democracy in Kazakhstan

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 6 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Results from a poll in Kazakhstan highlight a problem found in many post-communist countries: popular confusion about the exact meaning of democracy and free markets, and even more about the relationship between the two.

The poll, conducted at the end of last year by the U.S.-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems, found in just-released results that an individual's economic success since the fall of communism often predicted his attitude toward democracy as well.

Individuals who have done well economically, the study found, were more inclined to have a positive view about democracy than those whose economic fortunes have been less good.

The existence of such a linkage in the popular mind between economic success and democratic values helps to explain why many Western governments have promoted the development of the free market even more actively than the development of democratic institutions.

They clearly believe that the one will lead to the other, but the situation on the ground is more complicated than this latest example of anti-Marxist economic determinism might suggest.

Moreover, the combination of the two concepts into "free market democracy" entails some significant costs, few of which have received much attention either in these countries or in the West.

First, the use of this term has created a situation in which many people in the post-communist states have come to expect more from a free market or from a democratic system than either can deliver in isolation.

Democracies by themselves cannot make anyone rich, and free markets do not by themselves guarantee a democratic form of governance. The two may prove to be mutually supportive, but they are not one and the same thing.

In situations where people have little experience with either, this confusion has another serious consequence: it may mean that any failures in the one may be blamed on the other.

Second, the use of this term has created a situation in which governments that are making good progress in one area may be able to escape pressure for progress in another.

Some of the post-communist countries have made remarkable progress in the direction of democracy but without concomitant changes toward a free market.

Others have made equally outstanding progress in the direction of free market economics but without parallel changes toward genuine democracy.

But because of the concept of free market democracy, both kinds of state often are able to escape pressure from inside and outside for further change.

And this simultaneously limits the ability of the population to improve its situation economically or politically and the ability of Western states to promote the kinds of post-communist change that they have said they would like to see.

And third, the regular use of the term "free market democracy" has had the effect of devaluing the special virtues of each in the minds of people far beyond the post-communist countries.

Free market economies have demonstrated beyond any doubt that they are the best means available for promoting the general economic welfare of a population.

And democracies have shown that they are far and away the best means for a population to govern itself.

But while the two may support each other in important ways when they exist together, there is little clear evidence that the one will necessarily lead to the other. Indeed, the opposite may be the case.

Democracy can lead to demands for a larger state sector and greater redistribution of wealth than the free market. And the growth of a free market can create circumstances in which wealthy elites will seek to stifle democratic procedures.

All this is in no way to suggest that these countries or the West should back away from a commitment to promote both democracy and free markets. Rather it is to suggest that doing so means working on two fronts rather than on only one.

During the Cold War, it was common ground in the West to note that countries which called themselves "peoples' democracies" were neither popular nor democratic.

In the post-Cold War world, it is equally important for everyone involved to avoid yet another form of hyphenated democracy, one that could undermine the values that almost everyone now seeks.