A Russian looks at Western Democracy

Konstantin of Russia Blog has written a post on the failure of western democracy, and it contains such an enormous number of factual errors that I am compelled to address his entire post on here.

Firstly, he makes the assertion that:

It is not hard to see that at the heart of the model of democracy lies confrontation. Conflict and conflict based competition is the essence of democracy. Elections, multi-party system, checks and balances, free press, civil society – they are all about competing, warring, struggling for power, dividing people into winners and losers, fighting for minorities rights.

Well, quite.  The whole idea of democracy is that issues which lead to confrontation are resolved non-violently, even though the confrontation remains.  As rational debate is a non-violent alternative to a fist-fight, so democracy is an alternative to going to war for political ends.  Indeed, conflict and conflict based competition is the essence of democracy as it is the essence of human nature:  managing that conflict is therefore essential, and democracy is the best way of achieving this without killing people or locking them up.

It all works in aggressive cultures where people prefer competition over harmony, criticism over consensus, and change over stability.

I’m not entirely sure what he means here.  Is he saying that there are cultures where people prefer harmony over competition in all cases?  If so, I pity their olympic team.  Is there a culture anywhere which reaches a concensus without first enduring criticism from within?  I doubt it.  And assuming that the world can be divided into “aggressive” and “non-agressive” cultures, does a quick look around us confirm that it is only the former that are able to successfully adopt democracy?  It wouldn’t seem so.  The Dutch, Danes, Swedes, Finns, Irish, Canadians, New Zealanders, and Portugese could be described under the circumstances as “non-aggressive”, yet they are all functioning democracies.  Yet places where violence is commonplace such as the North Caucasus, East Africa, and the Middle East are devoid of anything which could be described as a functioning democracy.  The evidence does not stack up in support of the sentence I’ve quoted above.

How comes people of democratic cultures did not annihilate each other so far? I think it’s a result of several factors.

First, the ability to keep aggression “pacified” is a result of a thousand years of never ending wars in Europe between dozens of countries varying is size. The sheer instinct of survival “civilized” European nations and by the time first concepts of democracy were tried European wars were so “civilized” that citizens of some Crapenburg Principality didn’t even know if today they belong to France or to Prussia although the quantity of wars and conflicts never really decreased. Millennium of European never ending wars also brought up a new type of man – a person who is friendly or neutral towards occupying troops, who is ready to compromise, who values above all the life of an individual but doesn’t care much about the fate of his Crapenburg Motherland. But the most important – Europeans learnt to treat conflicts and even wars more like a game that should be kept within “civilized” rules forged over centuries. Fortunately, it all ended with an invention of weapons of mass destruction.

I’m not sure exactly what he is saying here.  It seems to be that after centuries of fighting, Europeans adopted a style of warfare which was less brutal than that practised elsewhere and Europeans were more concerned with individual wellbeing than nationalism.  Whether this actually occurred at any point I am not in a position to say, but I can assure Konstantin that had this ever been the case, all these principles were abandoned at the outbreak of WWI and by WWII they had long been forgotten.  I don’t think there was anything that was civilised about the Nazi invasions of WWII and the subsequent occupations, and I certainly don’t think there were a great many examples of “a person who is friendly or neutral towards occupying troops, who is ready to compromise”, with the notable exception, of course, of the Vichy French.

In countries where wars were very rare and where people could enjoy at least a hundred years of peace another type culture was molded. We are talking about India, China, Japan, and Russia. In these cultures conflicts were frowned upon, harmony was more important than competition, unity more important winning, where individual interests were less important then interests of a family, group, nation or country. In such cultures conflicts were subdued, competition highly regulated, team spirit encouraged and individualists ostracized.

I really don’t know where to start with this one.  I think I can see what Konstantin is trying to say, and that is in many non-European cultures the unity of the family or group is more important than that of the individual.  We have a word for this kind of arrangement: tribalism.  Far from being a model of harmony and unity, it is probably the single biggest cause of bloodshed in the world today.  Take a brief look at the histories of each country he mentions, for instance.

Prior to India being occupied by the colonial forces of Portugal, Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom, India did not exist as a single entity but as dozens of sultanates, kingdoms, and fiefdoms.  Contrary to Konstantin’s suggestion that conflict was frowned upon, these various entities fought each other tooth and nail until the Europeans arrived and took advantage of the fractious nature of relations between the kingdoms to establish their colonies and eventually subdue the whole of what became India. 

China was similar to India in that the country we now know as China existed only as a collection of ruling dynasties and states,  who fought each other with a regularity broken only when one or two grew strong enough to completely dominate the others.  Then the Mongols invaded and slaughtered the northern Chinese peasantry in the millions, which doesn’t exactly stack up with Konstantin’s assertion that conflict was frowned upon.  Then the peasants overthrew the Mongols, and founded the Ming Dynasty which embarked on a series of military conquests which kept it in power for 300 years before it was overthrown with much bloodshed and the Manchu Dynasty took over.  Sadly for Konstantin’s theory and the Han Chinese, the Manchu Dynasty set about subduing the latter and wound up fighting the bloodiest civil war in history which cost some 20 million lives.

Japan as a conflict free, peaceful nation in harmony with itself and others sounds more like post 1945 than any time before that.  Power struggles between rival clans characterised Japan’s medieval era, with the emergence of the warrior class known as the samurai.  Presumably these warriors lay around getting bored under Konstantin’s version of history.  Then there was a bloody ten-year civil war which led to the “Warring States” or Sengoku period.  Things then looked good for a while, until Japan invaded Korea, leaving only when kicked out by the Chinese, who had come to Korea’s aid.  This brought things into the Edo Era, characterised by – you guessed it – fighting between rival families and clans, all seeking to suppress the others by brute force.  After adopting numerous Western institutions, Japan proceeded to fight and defeat China, thrash the Russian navy, and annex Taiwan, Korea, and the south of Sakhalin Island.  Helping itself to several Pacific islands in WWI, Japan then invaded and occupied Chinese Manchuria and later entered into the war with the USA which would eventually lead to Japan’s complete destruction and capitulation.

All three of the above are examples of tribal conflict, or its big brother nationalism.  Whereas conflict within each family unit, clan, or nation is rare in such a setup, this is because any dissenters are dealt with quickly and brutally.  And under such a system, discontent and conflict was directed, quite deliberately, to those outside the family, clan, or nation.  Far from being a system of peace and harmony, it has caused more wars and bloodshed than any perceived violent by-products of western democracy.

The fourth nation which Konstantin cites as being a place where wars were rare and people lived in harmony rather than conflict is Russia.  I am not sure which period he is referring to, but I think we can safely rule out the time from the violent revolution in 1917, through the barbaric civil war in which no less than 4 sides fought each other across the whole country in thousands of localised actions over 5 years, to the brutal suppression, incarceration, and starvation of the population up to the Great Patriotic War which claimed somewhere in the region of 25 million lives.  No, I don’t think he’s referring to that period. 

But what about the Tsarist times?  Weren’t they periods in which wars were rare and conflict frowned upon?  Hardly.  Having eventually kicked the Mongols out, under whose occupation Russians had suffered for 300 years, Russia spent the next 350 expanding their empire in all directions, fighting Poland, Sweden, Belorussia, Ukraine, Turkey, France, Britain, and Japan.  During this period, Russia conquered and claimed the vast stretches of Siberia and Far East, destroyed the tribal rulers in the Caucasus, and smashed the khanates and kingdoms in the process of annexing most of Central Asia.

I can only assume that the period of peace and harmony that Konstantin is referring to is from WWII up until 1991, during which the opportunities to express dissent with the ruling powers were almost nil, and the government demonstrated its willingness to use force in the face of opposition by sending tanks to crush protests in Budapest and Prague.  Small wonder the voices of political dissent remained a squeak.

Now what happens when an aggressive democratic model is installed in such countries? Let’s have a look. In Saddam times Sunni and Shia lived together in peace, marriages between Sunni and Shia were common, people didn’t even know if their neighbors are Shia or Sunni.

This, in my opinion, is utter nonsence.  I have yet to meet any Sunni who has married a Shia in the Middle East.  In Kuwait, hardly a bastion of western democracy, Sunnis and Shias live together in peace but are fully aware of which side of the line their neighbour sits.  During the Iran-Iraq war, Sunnis in Kuwait sent money to Iraq whereas Shias sent cash to Iran.  And all this ignores the suppression of the majority Shia by the minority Sunni under Saddam Hussein, which involved years of bloody repression culminating in the massacre of Shia by the Iraqi army after the USA had unwisely persuaded them to rise up in arms against the ruling elite before neatly leaving them right in the shit.  Shia and Sunni lived in peace side by side in Saddam’s Iraq for the same reason there was peace in 1930s Russia: anyone who spoke out was murdered, along with their family and close friends.

Of course, there were small groups of radicals but they were underground.

Yes, they were underground all right:  in mass graves.

Then “democracy” comes. It was all but natural that major political parties and organizations competing for votes start profiteering on the most evident topic – religious differences. Conflict that was almost invisible before is blown out of proportion.

The conflict was invisible because anyone who made it visible was immediately killed.  As in the case of the Soviet Union’s demise, conflict arose in the post-Saddam Iraq once the iron fist of tyranny was removed, not because democracy arrived and forced these hitherto peaceful folk to start competing for votes.  Like a boiling pot whose lid is suddenly removed, previously suppressed internal conflict boils over into violence once a tyrant is removed from power.  The notion that democracy forces peaceful people to start shooting each other as they compete for votes is utter nonsense.

At the same time, unlike Westerners, people in Iraq are not used to treat conflicts as a “game”. They take it very seriously. A country is divided by implacable differences – you belong either to a Sunni party or to a Shia party. What’s more – the so-called system of checks and balances leaves no hopes to resolve the conflict peacefully. We get a civil war but what is the real reason of the civil war – religious differences or a model of democracy that encourages confrontation?

So here we have a country with an ugly sectarian split running down its middle, yet the sectarian fighting is not caused by religious differences but by a model of democracy which encourages people to turn violent?  Sorry, but this is shite.

More then that – countries that achieved some harmony are strongly criticized by democracy pundits for lack of conflicts and fights.

Eh?  Such as where?  What countries which are currently living in peace and harmony are criticised by democrats for not being in a state of war?  Sadly, Konstantin doesn’t say.

There are hundreds of examples when a Western type model of democracy gave rise to civil wars.

Really?  Hundreds?  Name them.  And have there really been more civil wars born from western democracy than tribalist systems of government?  No.

American model was probably the worst although Americans try really hard to implement it all around the globe.

And why is the American model the worst form of western democracy?  Again, Konstantin doesn’t say, but I suspect it is simply because it is American and nothing more.

Take Latin America, for example. In the 19th century it took only a year or two for a Latin American country to adopt American type “democracy” and a new civil war between “Democrats” and “Republicans” started.

I think it only took a year or two of a Latin American government adopting Communism, receiving large handouts of Soviet cash and weapons, jailing the opposition and confiscating property before civil war would break out.  Under current circumstances, those Latin American countries which have adopted constitutional democracy seem to being doing better than at any time in their history.

Wonder why only 15 years ago conflict between Ukrainian-speaking citizens of Ukraine and Russian-speaking Ukrainian was almost non-existent? Why differences between Northern and Southern clans in Kirgizia were so meager?

Erm, would that be because anyone advocating such nationalist ideas as Ukrainian language would find themselves harrassed, jobless, arrested, imprisoned, or shot prior to 1991?

“Democracy” in countries like India or Japan is very far away from the Western model. Japan managed to live fifty years with a one-party parliament, symbolic checks and balances system, incredible lack of any political dissent on TV and in newspapers. Things are not better in India.

It is true that the Japanese Liberal Democrat Party held the reigns of power for 35 years, but since the early 90s various opposition parties have sprung up and been included in coalition governments and nobody can say that in the last 15 years there has been an “incredible” lack of any political dissent.  Currently, Japan’s governmental system very much resembles that of western democracies.  So where is the violence and fighting which according to Konstantin should have occured following Japan’s supposed conversion to western democracy?  It doesn’t exist, of course.  Konstantin, in an effort to promote tribalism and dictatorship over western democracy, is talking utter nonsense.

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6 thoughts on “A Russian looks at Western Democracy

  1. Excellent debunking. Konstantin’s stuff sounded more like a parody. Maybe he was pulling eveybody’s else chain? Unfortunately it seems a lot of Russians (or ex-Soviets) think this way. This is why I see very little hope for the future of Russia.

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  3. Ach, it’s just old-fashioned Communism. The Communists believed that utopia contained no disagreement between people and that you could therefore create utopia by forcibly stopping disagreement, lethally if necessary. It appears that Konstantin has yet to notice that it didn’t work.

    > What countries which are currently living in peace and harmony are criticised by democrats for not being in a state of war?

    He means Cuba and North Korea.

    > And why is the American model the worst form of western democracy?

    Because it promotes Capitalism and was on the wrong side in the Cold War.

  4. Its a typical response by a Russian – avoid criticism of one’s own country by launcing an offensive against other countries… “if you think Russia is bad, then look at British democracy, Iraq, corruption”…etc etc

    They use it in the embassy – when I was after a visa and had to reapply because of one of their daft rules, I lost my rag a bit and the embassy worker told me “its even harder to get a visa from the British embassy!!!”

    The Russians are highly patriotic and defensive of their country in a blinkered way – remember they have never ever had the freedom enjoyed by many western countries, they have always lived under autocracy, manipulation and the secret police since the days of the Boyars.

    I don’t think many Russians really understand, or can relate to liberal western values, individual rights, the rule of law, and political democracy – unless they come and live here and try it out.

  5. You are offering opinions on opinions.

    There is no actual rebuttal of factual errors (there are few facts in the original post).

    angry economist seems to equate freedom with democracy, rule of law and other importent but _other_ things.

    Most russians would think of themselves as actually now been free.

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