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8 May, 2012

Democracy Matters: Where and Why?

In his concluding speech at the 5th Kyiv Security Forum, James Sherr, Senior Fellow at the Chatham House Russia and Eurasia Programme, talks about the essence of democracy in the EU, its prospects in the Arab world, Ukraine’s choice and good governance as the essential tool of democracy

I would like to begin by thanking Open Ukraine and the Arseniy Yatseniuk Foundation for their commitment, for the quality of discussions that they organise and for their example. It’s is an honour for Chatham House to be your partner.  

Let me add two words to our central topic. ‘Does democracy matter?’: ‘where’ and ‘why’?

Our answers to these questions today have to be somewhat different from what they were a few years ago, maybe even from last year.

One of the biggest worries we face today is that throughout Europe these questions will be answered by image-makers rather than by experienced, knowledgeable and honest people. Worse, image-makers can always offer certainties. Experienced and knowledgeable people dealing with complex problems do so with some humility.

Point No.1: The EU received a lot of attention in two panels of this Forum.

Where has democracy mattered? Apart from the US and Canada, first and foremost the EU. Karel Schwarzenberg was absolutely right in what he said at the beginning: although the European Union always had an economic basis, it was from the beginning a political project and, I would add, a geopolitical project. From the time its antecedents—the European Coal and Steel Community, the Treaty of Rome— came into existence, democratic values were under threat not only from inside the future EU, but from outside it.  The European Union not only became a success and an example. It became a model. This takes me on to the question of why democracy matters.  The model has been attractive to two sets of people: to those who believe that political and economical liberty matter in their own right, and to those who simply think that democracy is the most effective route to prosperity. These are not always the same people. Thanks to the financial crisis and the Eurozone crisis, the liberal democratic model has lost its luster for a number of people in both camps—and it has lost its aura of infallibility, too.

There is another awkward fact. In the wider world, we now find prosperous states that are not democracies and prosperous people who do not have democratic values. And if you turn on your TV today, you can see demonstrators in Athens and Madrid who are more angered by the so-called dictatorship of Brussels than demonstrators in Moscow and St. Petersburg are by the dictatorship of Putin. And it doesn’t matter if you watch BBC World or RTR Planeta.  The images are the same.  And these images, even when they are very deceptive, can create political facts.

Why are these images deceptive?  What don’t they tell us? First, they fail to remind us that the demands of a currency union are far more stringent than the demands of EU membership or association. Second, they fail to tell us that protests in Madrid and protests in Moscow are about very different things. Today the bitter economic and social consequences of deficit reduction are a matter of controversy across the EU. Yet  what no citizen of the EU needs to fear is that he or she will lose the right to criticise, to differ, to be different, to organise and to be represented. And even if this crisis stagnates or worsens, no EU citizen fears he will lose the right to own property or that his business will be taken away, not because it is bankrupt, but just because somebody more powerful wants it.  Neither does he have to fear that the courts will make decisions on the basis of political norms, political pressure and financial inducement rather than on the basis of judicial norms, civic rights and public order. Finally, no one in the European Union today has reason to fear predatory and brutal attacks by police, tax authorities and others who are supposed to protect the citizens but, in many countries simply exist to enrich themselves. In Russia and Ukraine, many do fear these things, and the absence of these liberties and safeguards matter very much.  What the protests in Russia show is that as people have become more prosperous, they have begun to demand these other things as well.

The second thing we considered was democracy and revolution, particularly in the Arab world. This was an excellent discussion unlike many discussions you now see in the UK and the United States. One of the main questions under discussion in the UK and the US is whether the new political orders in the Arab world will be Islamic or secular. That is a construction invented in the West. The Islamic world will remain Islamic. But this, in itself, tells us little. It does not tell us whether old patterns of dominance, old structures of power and old patron-client relationships will be restored under new facades. It doesn’t tell us whether confusion and disappointment will lead to more revolutions, or worse, to less structured and more anarchic forms of conflict. It doesn’t tell us whether new political orders will be hospitable to or hostile to modernity. It doesn’t tell us how geopolitical interests will change. It does not tell us whether what we call new democracies will in fact turn out to be majoritarian dictatorships. And it doesn’t tell us whether in some of these countries, minorities will not only be able to secure protection, but representation and incorporation in new political orders. With all these uncertainties, I believe that the West, whatever its record before, was entirely right to work with the grain of these changes and support them. In doing so, I believe, we have not only made a political choice, but a historical choice. Even if it is not clear now, I believe it will become clear in the future that Russia and China have made the wrong historical choice.

Third, I have only two points to make about very important and complex issues of Black Sea region security before concluding. The first is that after May 7th Russia will return to de jure leadership of a president who not only has the desire but the will to resolve the most outstanding issues in Russia’s neighborhood, beginning with Ukraine and not excluding Georgia and Moldova. And if things are bad between Russia and Ukraine now, I think it is only prudent to predict they will get tough. Not to be thinking about how to protect oneself now means one might not have a luxury of thinking later, just reacting – more chaotically than cohesively. President Kuchma said in his first term that the critical issue is whether people will pull together at a critical moment.  Now as much as then, the question is whether Ukraine has the institutions and the culture of security capable of achieving that.

My second comment concerns NATO. My lesser worry stems from the fact that NATO’s assumption of a global role fatefully coincided with the contraction of its resources. That is one reality that NATO faces today, and every NATO ally is conscious of it. But the bigger problem is that this global role has taken NATO away from its core task and its roots: European security. When you separate yourself from your historical roots, you also separate yourself from your moral roots. It is indicative that prior to the Russia-Georgia war, Georgia’s armed forces were not being trained for territorial defence, but for support of NATO’s expeditionary operations far from the South Caucasus—and hence, at the time hostilities commenced, Georgia’s best brigade was deployed in Iraq. Today the Alliance needs to ask itself: ‘Does NATO wish to remain relevant to European security?’ If so, then how, given the fact that enlargement is no longer a realistic answer to security problems?

Let me now conclude on a personal note by mentioning the love that dare not speak its name. And that love is Ukraine. Forgive me if I begin, with a comment that is not only counterintuitive but perhaps unwelcome in a conference about democracy:  Ukrainehas a right to remain an independent state whether it is democratic or not. But my second point is this: Ukraine does not have a right to join the European Union, to have an Association Agreement with it, or even come closer to it. These things are not entitlements. They depend upon the fulfillment of standards set by others. In practice, they depend on Ukraine’s ability to persuade EU member states that it shares their interests and values – not just rhetorically or by imitation, but by conviction and in practice. Every government of the EU understands that.

There is a second, but related point.  Ukraine is a sovereign state, and it should be treated like one. Those in Ukraine who remind the EU of this would be well advised to remind themselves of it. A sovereign state not only makes its own decisions, it accepts responsibility for them.  It does not ask others to accept it. If Ukraine wants Association with the EU, it needs to meet the terms of Association.  If instead it chooses not to build democracy and not to reform its economy, that is its sovereign prerogative.  But it has to live with the consequences.

My last point has been made more than once today. The post-Orange Revolution leadership damaged the cause of democracy in Ukraine. It produced the kind of political order that, in this part of the world we saw centuries ago during the Polish liberum veto, whereby a great European power disappeared in a few decades. The Third Republic of France, another great state in Europe, disappeared in 1940. Why?  Because the constitutions of both states made it easier to obstruct government than to govern. Sergei Konopliov’s observation today was absolutely right. Democracy will lose its legitimacy if it is not accompanied by good governance. If democracy is to have a future, it must be accompanied by good governance in both parts of Europe. May I simply restate, in conclusion, that in the future work of Open Ukraine, I hope that we will spend as much time discussing good governance as we do discussing democracy.

Thank you very much!

The best of luck to all of you! 

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