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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Democrats Versus Democracy

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 28 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Some self-styled democrats in post-communist countries now represent a major threat to the development of democracy there, according to a posthumously published essay by a leading dissident of the former Soviet Union.

The late Andrei Sinyavsky argues in his book, "The Russian Intelligentsia," that many who see themselves as genuine democrats are seeking to introduce that political system by anything but democratic means.

And he suggests that many other figures in these societies have cynically appropriated the term to cover their otherwise unjustified quest for greater personal wealth and power over others.

Both groups of "democrats" not only subvert the possibility that these countries will successfully democratize but also undermine popular support there for democracy by casting doubt on the claims the "democrats" regularly make for it.

Long a controversial figure in life -- in 1966 he became the first Soviet citizen since the 1920s to be explicitly tried for expressing his opinions and in 1971 he was forced into emigration -- Sinyavsky seems certain to remain controversial in death as well.

Even if his argument that democrats may be a threat to democracy seems farfetched, Sinyavsky's latest challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy deserves to be taken seriously if only to force those who disagree to respond to his charges.

Sinyavsky's argument that efforts to introduce democracy by non-democratic means inevitably subvert the possibility of democracy is perhaps his strongest one.

Across the post-communist region, many democrats are doing precisely this. Sometimes they appear to be doing so because their backgrounds have led them to see "democracy" as but the latest ideological line.

At other times, they appear to be doing so because the obstacles to democracy appear to be so large that non-democratic means are the only ones that will sweep these obstacles away.

And at still other times, they appear to be doing so because their understanding of democracy is in one or another way defective.

But Sinyavsky fails to explain how it could be otherwise. Every democracy has wrestled with the problem of overcoming obstacles to its establishment, and most have had to resort to non-democratic means at one time or another.

And he fails to explain how people conditioned to an ideological environment could comprehend any political change except in ideological terms.

Sinyavsky's other argument -- that many people cynically call themselves democrats -- is significantly weaker, but it poses a much more serious challenge for the future.

At all times and places, people have cynically exploited terms enjoying widespread support in order to advance their own selfish interests.

In the past, any number of communist regimes described themselves as people's democracies, a double lie but one that was often effective in impressing others.

More recently, in post-communist states, many individuals -- former communists and not -- have appropriated the democratic label to win power.

And their behaviour has compromised the value of democracy in the eyes of their once-hopeful fellow citizens.

All this is true. But there is one argument, perhaps even more important, that Sinyavsky does not make: The willingness of Western democracies to extend the term to regimes that are anything but democratic also represents a threat to democracy.

Following the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, some Western governments rushed to proclaim that democracy had broken out and to label many leaders there convinced democrats.

Most governments have pursued a more nuanced approach recently. But the willingness of those who should know the most about what democracy really means to label regimes that are democratic only in the loosest sense of the word has had an impact.

For many people in the post-communist states, this tendency has helped undermine public support for democracy and called into question the actual goals of Western countries in promoting it.

Anti-democratic politicians in these states have exploited this sea change in attitudes to promote themselves and a narrow xenophobic nationalism.

For that reason then, Sinyavsky's argument may ultimately prove true. That would be a tragic epitaph for a man who struggled all his life for the freedoms that only a democratic society can provide.