Citizens, with external support, can make a difference

January 5, 2005
Singapore Democrats

This post is at least a year old. Some of the links in this post may no longer work correctly.

Dear Singaporeans,

While the world is reeling from the after-effects of the tsunami, making commendable efforts in providing humanitarian aid to those affected, we missed the development of democracy in another part of the world. So I’d like bringing this to your attention. It’s an inspiring piece of commentary from Los Angeles Times. Note that the columnist mentions that:

1. Democracy can work EVEN in poor countries (so what more Singapore).
2. External international attention and pressure can make a difference.

What is not mentioned (but from reading various news articles online) is that peaceful non-violent resistance/action from civilians (in this case the orange revolution) brought about pressure for a re-vote; as well as election observers exposing the fraudulent actions of the authoritarian government during the election.

As much as Singapore is a unique in its own ways, I believe that liberal democracy will certainly come to us if we put our hearts onto it.

See you all on Sunday at the ARDA forum.

Charles Tan
Young Democrat

Ukraine a ‘model’ for democracy
Max Boot
4 January 2005

One of the most inspiring events of 2004 happened on the last weekend of the year: The election of pro-Western democrat Viktor Yushchenko, who had to overcome everything from poisoning to voter fraud in order to claim the presidency of Ukraine.

The triumph of the Orange Revolution should dispel the quaint notion still prevalent in many Western universities and foreign ministries that democracy is a luxury good suitable only for rich countries with a tradition of liberalism stretching back centuries.

Ukraine fits no one’s criteria of a promising democracy: Its per capita income of US$5,400 (S$8,840) a year is lower than Algeria’s or Turkmenistan’s; it has a history of despotism and corruption, and a short history of independence. The only less-likely democracy is Afghanistan.

Yet Ukraine, like Afghanistan, held free elections last year. Apparently no one bothered to tell the people of these countries that they were not ready for freedom.

These revolutions reveal the hollowness of the cliche that ‘democracy can’t be imposed by outsiders’.

True, but outsiders can help committed democrats overcome internal obstacles. Sometimes, when dealing with an entrenched dictatorship, this needs military intervention of the kind that occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan. More brittle regimes can be brought down by their own people, but even they often need a little external shove.

In Ukraine, the United States government spent US$58 million on democracy promotion in the past two years.

European states and various non-governmental organisations, such as Mr George Soros’ International Renaissance Foundation, contributed millions more.

There was nothing nefarious about the US intervention in Ukraine, which was designed to promote democracy, not any particular candidate.

A quick glance at its website shows that the US National Endowment for Democracy handed out grants such as US$399,968 for trade union education, US$50,000 to conduct monthly public opinion surveys, US$32,000 to train teachers and US$50,000 to maintain a website that analyses Ukrainian media. Pretty innocuous stuff, but it can have a powerful effect in a closed society.

For instance, the American Bar Association spent US$400,000 to train Ukrainian judges in election law.

Among those who attended its seminars were five judges of the Ukrainian Supreme Court, who voted to overturn the fraudulent results of the Nov 21 balloting and to hold the re-vote that led to Mr Yushchenko’s triumph.

Nato has also spent a good deal of money to train Ukrainian officers over the past decade as part of its Partnership for Peace initiative. This Western education, which includes instruction in human rights, was one reason why the Ukrainian military refused to move against pro-democracy demonstrators.

Notwithstanding the Dec 26 election, the Orange Revolution is hardly complete. The West should offer expedited Nato and European Union membership to consolidate democracy in Ukraine.

In the meantime, we need to apply elsewhere the lessons of Ukraine, which are also the lessons of Georgia, Serbia, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Poland, Lithuania and other countries where despotic regimes have been toppled since the original ‘people power’ revolution swept the Philippines in 1986.

An obvious candidate for a similar transformation is Iran. Even as Iranian students have repeatedly taken to the streets to protest against their oppressors and Iranian exiles in Los Angeles have beamed TV and radio programming into their homeland, the US government has largely stood on the sidelines.

In 2003, the National Endowment for Democracy supported 23 programmes in Ukraine worth US$1.9 million. In Iran, there were only two pitiful programmes worth US$55,000.

This disparity, which also exists for other pro-democracy groups, is perverse because the Iranian regime poses a far bigger threat to the West than Ukraine ever did. (The Ukrainians actually sent troops to join the coalition in Iraq, while the Iranians are trying to sabotage our efforts there.) It is hard to think of a higher priority than the overthrow of the mullahs, who are determined to add nuclear weapons to their arsenal of terror.

If we are serious about liberating Iran – and that is a big ‘if’ because regime change is not official Bush policy – we will need to rethink the current sanctions regime, which has not done anything to dislodge the mullahocracy.

The Committee on the Present Danger, a hawkish advocacy group, suggests keeping some sanctions while re-establishing diplomatic ties and lowering barriers for cultural exchanges. The resulting access could be used to help the forces of freedom in Iran.

Democracy in Iran? Sounds improbable, does it not? But so, until just a few weeks ago, did democracy in Ukraine.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.