Thursday, March 22, 2007

NGOs are not the same as democracy

Romance and revolution
Mar 22nd 2007

The future is no longer orange

IF YOU joined or even just watched the revolutions in eastern Europe in 1989-91, life may have started to look pretty dull soon afterwards. The prospect of recapturing the heady spirit of those days a decade or so later was bound to seem tempting—but trying to relive your youth can be as disappointing in politics as it is in romance.

The “colour revolutions” of 2000-2005 in Georgia, Ukraine, Serbia, Lebanon and (not much mentioned these days) Kyrgyzstan did indeed promise more of that same collective shudder of joy that had made the earth move from Berlin to Vladivostok.

Here were more hopeful, patriotic, idealistic and photogenic youngsters trying to topple more cruel, deceitful, incompetent and unphotogenic oldies. They had everything going for them. And yet, somehow, these later revolutions guttered or failed.

Ivan Krastev, a sharp-witted Sofia-based analyst, argues now that the colour revolutions, though inspiring, were based on a poor model for political change. People power can sometimes change history: think Boris Yeltsin on a tank. But, especially when inspired and financed from abroad, it is not the same thing as democracy, and may not even ensure it.

For a start, the foreign-funded non-governmental organisations that prepared and organised the colour revolutions now face big obstacles in the ex-Soviet countries where they would most like to work. Society’s appetite for economic and political liberalism and for Euro-Atlanticism has waned over the past decade. Taking money, however innocently, from the American government or even from the European Union, may be a taboo.

Iraq has weakened America’s soft-power appeal and stoked anti-Americanism. So has the perception of double standards. Dick Cheney may see logic in bashing the Kremlin for authoritarianism and then praising Kazakhstan for its progress towards democracy, as he did during a trip round the region last year. But for most audiences the argument is eccentric or repugnant.

The bottled-up anger with the petty humiliations of daily life that fuelled past protest movements in ex-communist countries has weakened, partly because life has improved and partly because of the opportunities offered by migration. The EU—to put it mildly—no longer looks like a lighthouse beckoning new members towards peace and prosperity. As Mr Krastev says, the clearer the EU’s borders become, the less attractive it is to outsiders, and the weaker its promise that “if you are like us, you could become one of us”.

Plus, there is serious competition. Russia has learned the importance of the people-power game, and is going to play it with increasing skill. The Kremlin looks set to invest more money, more time and more expertise in winning over wobbly post-Soviet countries than the West ever will. It can call now on sinister pro-Putin groups, such as Nashi (Ours), which know how to mobilise a crowd. If you applaud orange-clad activists making history on the streets of Kiev, it is hard to explain why those trying to do the same in the Kremlin's red white and blue are inherently more objectionable.

Nor, even if a revolution comes and goes, is that alone going to be decisive, especially when democracy is its aim. The real struggle to build a well functioning democracy starts afterwards, and can get horribly bogged down, as Ukraine's experience has shown. In 1989-91 the West was itching to help, and its help made all the difference. Now it is not. It is divided, demoralised and inattentive.

Indeed, the West seems to have lost the stomach for promoting democracy in post-Soviet Europe almost entirely. And if it ever regains it, it will have to reach further back than 1989 for its inspiration. With Russia getting stronger again, though perhaps not sustainably so, the more relevant precedent may be the long hard slog of the cold-war decades.

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