Both Daniel Drezner and Daniel Larison took issue — in their customarily civil and intelligent way — with my post on the Ukrainian election. From slightly different perspectives, they raise the same question: Ukraine just had a peaceful, democratic election. It was even (relatively) free and fair. So why does Mead think this is somehow a sign of the failure of the democracy agenda in Ukraine? Sure, the ‘bad’, pro-Russia guy won, but a) ‘bad guys’ win all the time in other democracies and the sky doesn’t fall and b) he’s not really as pro-Russian as people say. Larison is a bit more pessimistic about Yanukovych’s politics than Drezner, but the point is substantially the same: the success of democratic processes shows that democracy is moving forward in Ukraine.Maybe I should have explained myself more fully. It’s true that Ukraine just had an election and while I’m not sure how honest it was, and while the Braided One is still making some trouble in the courts, elections are, generally speaking, good things. So far, the two Daniels and I are on the same bus.But having elections isn’t the whole story. Fareed Zakaria talks about ‘illiberal democracy,’ wherein democratic procedures mask a basically illiberal state and society. I was born in one of those — in racially segregated South Carolina where almost half the state’s population was barred from political life and mob violence with tacit state backing was used to keep dissidents in line. Ukraine, I fear, is something even more depressing: an incompetent democracy in which democratic procedures co-exist with a state that cannot deal with society’s core problems. It is not alone in this; the word ‘Nigeria’ comes to mind.
These failed democracies are not necessarily unstable. A weak democratic political system may be perfectly adapted to the needs of elites which are quietly, steadily looting the country. In some ways conforming to superficial democratic norms may assist the elites by veiling their activities beneath a mantle of legitimizing political fluff. It’s arguably Tony Soprano’s strategy: keep your weak, stupid uncle as the nominal head of the family. The courts are corrupt, the police are in the pay of oligarchs and/or criminals, public institutions function poorly if at all.Back in the 19th century when tiresome British do-gooders tried to push Brazilians to do things like suppress the slave trade or clean up their legal processes, Brazilians used to talk about tiny little gestures ‘for the Englishman to see’. Formal democratic procedures in places like Ukraine can protect powerful interests from both international and domestic scrutiny and pressure by giving the Englishman something pretty to look at. The mayor runs for re-election now and then and the dorky election observers report that all is in order; Al Capone goes on running the town. Whatever ballot boxes are stuffed or intimidation of voters goes on takes place where the sun don’t shine and the inspectors don’t look. There are plenty of such places in a big country like Ukraine. (more…)