Documents on Democracy

Issue Date January 2016
Volume 27
Issue 1
Page Numbers 181-85
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World Movement for Democracy

On November 1, at the opening of the Eighth Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy in Seoul, Iranian historian Ladan Boroumand delivered remarks on the current state of global democracy (for more information on the Assembly, see pp. 185–86). Below are excerpts from her remarks:

When the World Movement for Democracy held its inaugural Assembly in New Delhi in 1999, its aim was to build a worldwide movement that would benefit from 25 years of the “dramatic expansion of democracy” and create a network of organizations from all over the world that were united “by shared universal democratic values and a commitment to mutual support and solidarity.” In the mind of its founders, the most important role such a network of activists and civil society organizations could play was “to consolidate recent democratic gains.” The founders of the World Movement knew only too well that creating an enduring democratic culture is a difficult long-term endeavor that requires sustained efforts at all levels of social life. They also foresaw the dangers looming in the uncertain situation of Russia, China’s repressive attitude after Tiananmen, and the rise and spread of a totalitarian Islamist ideology that was diversifying and expanding well beyond Iran, the first country it had conquered.

But in 1999, Islamism was not yet considered a serious challenge to the triumphant democratic worldview, and communism’s collapse in many parts of the world, including in its cradle of Russia, had discredited antidemocratic arguments carried by communist ideology. In short, in the realm of ideology, democracy was still unchallenged. Authoritarian regimes were not defying it ideologically, but only violating it in practice. Even in a country such as Iran, with its Islamist regime, the political language of the leadership had changed after the demise of communism, and taboo words such as democracy, freedom, civil society, and individual rights had burst into official political discourse. [End Page 181]

Sixteen years after that first World Movement Assembly, the situation has dramatically changed. We no longer have the strong wind of triumphant democracy in our sails. Instead, we are facing a reinvigorated wind of authoritarianism that defies us not only in practice but also ideologically and tests our understanding of our own values, our consistency, and our commitment.

Chaos in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, plus the lingering economic crisis and need for lucrative new economic ties with rich authoritarian regimes, prompted democratic governments to deemphasize democracy promotion and favor a traditional diplomacy based on selfish and shortsighted notions of “national interest.” But reality keeps getting in the way. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; the tragic war of Boko Haram in West Africa; the annexation of Crimea and Putin’s “hybrid war” in Ukraine; China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors; the assassinations of Jewish kids and journalists in the heart of old Western democracies; the hundreds of thousands of refugees at the doors of these same societies; the financing of propaganda outlets and extreme rightist parties in their midst by foreign authoritarian regimes—these continue to demonstrate that what authoritarians do is not easily contained within national borders. Thus China’s detention of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and assault on prodemocracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, the extrajudicial killings of Russian opposition figures, the arrests of Venezuelan dissidents, Iran’s executions of political and religious dissidents, and Syria’s bombing of its own people are not the internal business of China, Russia, Iran, Ukraine, Venezuela, and Syria anymore. On the contrary, they are the business of the whole world.

Democratic regimes urgently need to rethink and rearticulate their foreign policies and their alliances based on their democratic values rather than on the legacy of the Treaty of Westphalia or the pressure of irresponsible commercial lobbies.

Inaction, ladies and gentlemen, is as much founded on principles and values as action is. It is time for democratic polities to name the principles that preside over their inaction and disunity, and to ask if they are consistent with their democratic values. For at this point what is at stake is not only the expansion of democratic values in the world, but also and more urgently the preservation of these values within established democracies.

We need no elaborate political theories to prove that there is a tie binding the fight for democracy within nondemocratic countries to the strengthening of democracy within societies that already enjoy democracy’s blessings. French citizens today understand that Tunisians who fight for human rights in Tunisia are defending the democratic institutions of France as well. In 2009, when millions of Iranians stood up to claim their right to free and fair elections, they were also defending the democratic rights of Iraqis. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s violent [End Page 182] suppression of its own people—hundreds were arrested, tortured, and killed—was a setback not only for Iran’s democrats, but also for pro-democracy forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Today, human-rights activists from France, Germany, Sweden, the United States, or Britain know very well that when they support Iranian, Chinese, or Russian dissidents they are not only defending the rights of distant fellow humans, but are shielding and strengthening their own rights as well. This is not idealism—it is pragmatism and realism. …

Our enemies’ arsenal is terrifying, and we, at first glance, seem powerless in comparison. … [But] we have the truth, we have our courage and imagination, we have cyberspace, and we have still more. We have potential natural long-term allies in democratic countries. The alliance of authoritarian states is a matter of mere temporary convenience—their interests and ideologies are divergent, and only their common hostility to democracy brings them together. We, by contrast, have as potential allies each other and all the world’s democratic governments, which we can meet on the lasting ground of shared principle: Government by consent of the governed, the rule of law not arbitrary power, and respect for human rights will always be our cause. … This alliance, I am confident, can be the source from which the next wave of democratization in the world will spring.

Venezuela

In legislative elections held December 6, the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) won a surprising landslide victory over the longtime ruling United Socialist Party of the late Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro. As the results were being announced on December 7, Jesús Torrealba, secretary-general of the MUD, celebrated the gains made by the opposition. Excerpts from Torrealba’s speech appear below:

The change has started, Venezuela! Today we have reasons to celebrate: The country was imploring for a change, and that change is starting today.

The agenda of peace reigned and the citizens’ agenda prevailed. A democratic vote managed to overpower a government that is not democratic.

We thank all the people of Venezuela. To those who have accompanied us for years, thank you for your loyalty! To those who for the first time voted for us, thank you for your trust! We will not disappoint you. And to those who chose a different option, our sincere respect and recognition. To you we want to say, especially to you, that you have also won, because in our program, there is space for everyone. This program has only one name: Venezuela. A united Venezuela! [End Page 183]

Today is a day of celebration, but this historic day also deserves some reflection. We have been divided for years, and the country has not gained anything with this historical mistake. It is time to prove to ourselves that we have learned from our mistakes. When we are divided, we sink and we all lose.

A new majority was expressed and sent a clear and overwhelming message. Venezuela has a mandate that represents a historic awakening, a stop to the road of destruction and a call that invites every sector to put our beloved homeland back on track so that, for the first time in a long time, we can think of a future as a nation, a future that belongs to our children, who deserve a different Venezuela.

We are living through the worst crisis of our history. It is urgent that we all leave our particular agendas aside so we can see the example of unity that this suffering nation is giving us, and so we can all prepare ourselves to confront the challenges.

In this regard, it is our responsibility to send a clear message to the government: The people have spoken loud and clear … Venezuelan families are tired of living with the consequences of failure. The people will no longer tolerate even the smallest diversion from the principles established in the constitution. Not anymore! Enough is enough! Respect the decision of the people!

Venezuela can rest assured that the MUD will be able to manage this victory with humility, firmness, and responsibility. This is everyone’s victory, and we are not going to trample upon anyone … Arriving to the Assembly in unity and with a desire for change does not mean we will destroy the social gains achieved, much less that we will persecute and condemn anyone who thinks differently.

Today this has changed. Venezuela now has a National Assembly at the service of the people, one that will be guided by the principles of the Constitution. The Constitution will be a common compass that will guide the actions of all institutions in Venezuela.

This historic victory also offers real hope for those who throughout this time have been unfairly persecuted, imprisoned, disqualified, or exiled. We pledge to restore their rights as free citizens so that we can have them with us again, building the future that is coming.

With this victory begins a cycle in the political and institutional life of Venezuela, with the support of all its citizens.

Russia

On September 10, the International Republican Institute honored Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated in February 2015, with a posthumous freedom award (see p. 186). Opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, Nemtsov’s close friend and colleague, accepted the award on his behalf. Below are excerpts from Kara-Murza’s remarks: [End Page 184]

So many things about Boris were diametrically opposite from [the person who is currently sitting in the Kremlin], both as a politician and as a human being.

He was kind and decent, humble and full of self-irony; he was always ready to help others and never one to boast about it. As a political leader, Boris Nemtsov was always a maverick. He said what he believed, and he always did what he said. He never betrayed his principles, or his friends.

He never profited from the many high government posts he occupied, a rarity in my country. And he never put his personal interests above the interests of his nation. He valued freedom and dignity, both his own and that of others. And above all, he always did what he believed was right, not what was easy, expedient, or profitable.

As a young leader of the anticommunist movement in Nizhny Novgorod, he ran for the Russian parliament against the establishment at the age of 30, and won. Just a year later, as the communist regime fell, and the old party apparatchiks simply ran away, he found himself the governor of a large industrial region on the verge of economic collapse. And within just a few years, he transformed it into Russia’s economic miracle, a hub of free-market reforms. Leaders from across the world … went to visit Nizhny Novgorod and its reformist governor to see the changes with their own eyes. For its unparalleled media pluralism, Nizhny Novgorod under Governor Nemtsov was known as “The Land of Untamed Journalists.”

As the deputy prime minister of Russia in the late 1990s, he tackled head-on government corruption, crony capitalism, and the oligarchs, at the expense of his own political advancement. As ex-congressman Bob Livingston said after meeting Boris Nemtsov, “This guy is simply too good to be true, except he is true.”

He always did what he believed was right, whether when he placed one-million signatures against the war in Chechnya on President Boris Yeltsin’s desk, or when he led the protests against Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. In the last fifteen years, as my country entered another authoritarian spell and as so many of Boris’s former political colleagues chose the comfortable path of silence or collaboration, he continued to fight for his beliefs, regardless of the cost. His was the loudest and the clearest voice against the abuses, the corruption and the aggression of Putin’s rule. And to the many friends, including Senator John McCain, who voiced concern about his physical safety and urged him to leave Russia, he would answer one and the same thing, as I am sure you all remember, “This is my country, I have to fight for it.”

He gave everything he had to that fight, and in the end he gave it his life. Boris Nemtsov was destined for much more. He was undoubtedly the best president that Russia never had. But our country is fortunate to have had such an authentic, principled, and visionary political leader. I am fortunate to have had such a great colleague and such a true friend. [End Page 185]