A tide of democracy is sweeping the globe

The news from Ukraine is that Viktor Yushchenko's side is probably going to win. Things were already looking good last week. But the supreme court's weekend decision to order an election rerun tells us that, whatever the fate of Mr Yushchenko and his pro-European "Our Ukraine", the prospects for true democracy are strengthening in yet another of the globe's nations.

Nor is the Ukrainian outlook rare. That is the theory of Adrian Karatnycky of the democracy advocacy group Freedom House. Mr Karatnycky, an American, has worked at democratising nations since the period when that meant smuggling Mimeograph machines from Brussels to Gdansk. In the summer issue of the magazine National Interest, Mr Karatnycky lays out a simple thesis. Chaos, violence and great uncertainty often follow political disruption, especially the toppling of dictators. And certainly democratisation happens very slowly - indeed, more slowly now than at other points. Nonetheless, it does happen. Countries that hold relatively free elections once tend to repeat the effort. This shift to democracy transcends political party and individual regimes.

Two things make us overlook this pattern. The first is what might be called our Marshall McLuhan problem. Television and computers have strengthened our craving for instant positive outcomes. Anything gradual we label a failure. The second is the aversion of the western intelligentsia to finding themselves in the same camp as the White House. The virtue of anything that the Bush administration supports - and democracy is a big Bush objective - must therefore not be recognised. Even if that means downplaying a revolt that would free a large country from a post-Stalinist regime. Hence a recent headline in the Guardian: "US behind turmoil in Ukraine." And Britain is not?

Consider the period of 2000-04 - a period which, we are being told, is a foreign policy disaster. Serbia saw the democratic overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic; in Peru, Alberto Fujimori fell. So did Liberia's Charles Taylor, and, in March this year, Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti. Eduard Shevardnadze resigned in Georgia's "Rose Revolution". The Taliban's Sheikh Omar was removed, so was Saddam Hussein. Afghanistan had elections. Iraq, for all its anguish, plans them.

In its 2004 survey, Freedom House found that 25 of the world's nations had made significant steps towards democracy, while 13 slid back towards despotism. The ratio of "free" to "not free" countries has been more favourable each decade: in 1973, there were more unfree countries than free ones and in 2003 the "frees" dominate. The truth is that free countries - ie not China - account for 89 per cent of global output.

The push for democracy comes from a variety of places. Sometimes it comes from the White House - Democratic or Republican. Sometimes it comes from rebels at home or the governments of neighbouring states. Australia and New Zealand suspended aid when there was a coup in Fiji. They then provided help for new elections. Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo travelled to São Tomé and Prncipe to dress down the officers who had staged a coup there.

But there are setbacks and exceptions. Egyptian politicians talk about slowly democratising, but their schedule refers to millennia, not years. On occasion - Hitler's Germany, Algeria in the early 1990s - democracies create dictators. More often, coups halt the democratic march (the Middle East). The central Asian "Stans" - Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, for example - moved more or less directly from communism to one-man rule. The populations of China and the Muslim nations grow faster than in the west, pushing up the population in unfree places. Then there is the threat of a contest between the west and fundamentalist regimes that support terror.

Still, the trend of state-by-state democratic expansion tells us that terrorism does not necessarily halt freedom's momentum. Even deeply flawed war strategies can be followed by good results. The west failed Yugoslavia yet it also helped bring about a democratic outcome. Such records inspire the Ukrainian opposition. The events in Ukraine for their part may in turn inspire Russia to create its own opposition hero, a Russian Yushchenko.

The trend ultimately tells us something important (albeit obvious): that the democratic cause is not the brainchild of three Republican guys in the Pentagon. Democracy is rather a non-partisan global movement that antedates both George W. Bush and his father - and, one can argue, the modern French, British and American states. (Liberals rush across the globe to aid liberals: "Lafayette, we are here.") The philanthropist George Soros backs Mr Yushchenko, although - or because - Mr Soros spent the rest of the year trying to unseat Mr Bush. Mr Yushchenko is himself no fan of Mr Bush, having called for immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq. A significant share of the money flowing into the pro-Yushchenko comes not from Washington but anti-Putin Russians. What's more, we can safely wager that this very morning dazed US administration officials are trying to square their support of Mr Putin and their sympathy for Mr Yushchenko.

All of which makes the accusation that Washington puppeteers are running the "Orange Revolution" sound odd. Once again, anti- Americanism trumps reality.

© Copyright 2004 Financial Times

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