In March of 2005, after color revolutions had swept across Central Asia and the Caucasus, Kyrgyzstan seemed on the verge of its own revolt. Crowds of protesters gathered in the streets of Bishkek, the capital, to demand free elections. Activists seized government buildings, and, as the movement gathered force, leading politicians joined the pro-democracy forces. Kyrgyzstan's press-savvy demonstrators called their movement the "Tulip Revolution," a knock-off of Georgia's "Rose Revolution," and, within weeks of the initial protests, the country's authoritarian leader, Askar Akayev, fled the country. Kyrgyzstan soon elected a new government, and, in the streets of Bishkek, protesters celebrated into the night.
Three years later, dreams of a Tulip Revolution have withered. The country's new leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, passed a constitution that vastly enhanced his powers, while cracking down on the once-vibrant Kyrgyz press and on religious freedom. Roughly one-tenth of the country's population has left, and jubilation has given way to despair. "Akayev made life miserable for us for fifteen years. But Bakiyev is twice as bad," one demonstrator told the Financial Times last year.
Kyrgzystan, though, is just one of many nations whose democratic prospects have faded. Just five years ago, democratization advocates were popping champagne. Across Africa, in the 1990s, elected governments replaced dictators in many nations. In Central Asia and the Caucasus, after the fall of the Soviet Union, new nations appeared ripe for change, and young democrats like Mikheil Saakashvili, who led Georgia's 2003 "Rose Revolution" and ascended to the presidency, pointed to a bright future. And, in East and South Asia, democracy spread across Thailand, Bangladesh, and Nepal. In March 2005, President Bush exulted in the progress he thought he saw: "Throughout the world, freedom is on the march."
Now, look again. After decades of advance, the worldwide march of democracy has come to an abrupt halt. Over the past three years, military coups forced out elected governments in Bangladesh and Fiji. In Nepal, democratic progress has disintegrated into political chaos. In Lebanon, the "Cedar Revolution" has collapsed into anarchy while glimmers of hope in crucial nations like Egypt have faded, with the Egyptian regime rounding up some of the country's most prominent dissidents over the past four years.
Meanwhile, many of Africa's most important nations, like Kenya, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have fallen back into authoritarian rule, rigged polls, and, in Kenya, possible civil war. And the touted "new generation" of African leaders in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Rwanda's have overseen brutal repression of dissidents and independent media. "Fifteen countries in sub-Saharan Africa registered reversals of significant magnitude," noted a recent report from the international monitoring group Freedom House.
Central Asia looks much the same. In Turkmenistan, the death of long-ruling, bizarre autocrat "Turkmenbashi" two years ago offered the chance for real reform. But, rather than holding a free election, the country's political elites replaced him with another palace insider, who has done nothing to open up the political system. Kazakhstan, once a democratic hope, has descended into political thuggery, with opposition leaders brutally murdered and power concentrated in a tiny circle around President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Even some long-established democracies like the Philippines and Thailand have faltered. A wave of political killings and other crackdowns led Freedom House to downgrade the Philippines from "Free" to "Partly Free" in 2006, while a military coup in 2006 toppled Thailand's elected government, leading to the shredding of its reformist constitution and, most recently, the declaration of a state of emergency. "I'm afraid to admit many things were better under [longtime former dictator] Ferdinand Marcos," one activist told me last year.
In its latest report on global democracy, Freedom House glumly admitted, "2007 was marked by a notable setback for global freedom ... a profoundly disturbing deterioration." For the second year in a row, the number of countries sliding backward in Freedom House's analysis was vastly greater than those making progress toward democracy. And many nations that had previously achieved the ranking of "Partly Free" in the organization's index have failed to progress toward democratic consolidation. At the same time, the most undemocratic states on earth, places like Burma and North Korea, made no progress toward reform last year.
Some of this is the fault of the Bush administration, whose halfhearted support for democracy around the world has given democratization a bad name. At the same time, new democracies have not figured out how to secure their new political systems beyond their first elections. And the corruption and instability resulting from these half-successes have undermined public confidence and given succor to new authoritarian leaders. After years of confidence, some advocates of democratization now are wondering: Has democracy reached its global limits?
As members of the Bush administration eye their legacies, they can be sure that their embrace of democratization has tarnished the very idea. In a 2006 report on the backlash against democracy, the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, which funds democracy promotion around the world, admitted that some of its grantees overseas did not want to meet with NED program officers for fear of being tainted by association. The Iraq war, which was rationalized as an exercise in democratization, has also inspired new faith in authoritarian rule by linking the idea of democracy with the chaos in Baghdad. "What happened in Iraq makes the entire region afraid," Haitham Maleh, a former president of the Committee for Human Rights in Syria, told Salon.com. "People don't want to risk foreign occupation, chaos, and sectarian bloodshed."
Worse, the administration has not even stuck by its guns. After having earlier emboldened some Middle Eastern democrats with promises of a "freedom agenda," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on her most recent trip to the region, barely mentioned the word "democracy." At times, the Bush administration has gone out of its way to assist autocrats, aiding the Ethiopian regime over the past three years in exchange for promises to help fight terrorism in Somalia and welcoming the leader of Azerbaijan at the White House after he rigged a national poll. The administration has even embraced leaders like Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who has been accused of abhorrent crimes, overseeing a regime under which political opponents are tortured, starved, and raped (Obiang himself has even been accused of eating the body parts of rivals). Still, in April 2006, Rice met Obiang at Foggy Bottom and--no doubt aware that Equatorial Guinea is becoming one of the largest oil exporters in West Africa--told him, "You are a good friend, and we welcome you."
Beyond the Bush administration's failings, the new democracies have failed on their own in many ways. The first generation of elected leaders in many developing nations seems not to have absorbed a critical lesson of liberalism: that it requires real opposition parties and civil society to thrive. Instead, these new leaders use elections as a mandate to crush opponents or to reward their own ethnic groups or close allies. Many Western nations have held up elections as proof of advancing democracy, but, as Larry Diamond, a noted democracy specialist, wrote in a recent Foreign Affairs essay, "For a country to be a democracy, it must have more than regular, multiparty elections under a civilian constitutional order."
In Thailand, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was elected twice, in 2001 and 2005. After his first election, he co-opted nearly every other political party, crushed much of the independent press, and oversaw a so-called "war on drugs" in which thousands of people were shot and killed, including many who had no apparent links to narcotics. Thaksin openly defended his strategies: Democracy, he said, is not an end in itself, but merely a means--a means, clearly, to amassing personal power. In Kenya, meanwhile, President Mwai Kibaki, elected in 2002 on promises to clean up Kenyan politics, used his first term to reward his own ethnic group, the Kikuyu, a move that directly led to the ethnic strife that today is weakening a nation previously known for its stability.
The result of political systems in which the formal opposition is destroyed is more instability: People unhappy with their leaders, and seeing no established alternatives to turn to, take to the streets. This has happened in dictatorships throughout history; today, it is the nominally democratic leaders who wipe out the opposition and spark protest. In the Philippines, when Filipinos grew tired of current president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, they decamped to the streets of Manila, though so far without success. Kyrgyzstan's political opposition has camped out, too--seemingly permanently--in the streets of Bishkek, demanding the resignation of the president. In Bolivia, protesters frequently block roads, shutting off commerce and impeding economic growth; today, the country remains locked in an explosive standoff, with massive protests and violent clashes across the country. A recent poll by Latinobarometro, an organization that studies the region, revealed that, "In many countries, a significant percentage of voters (a regional average of 14 percent) believe that participation in protest movements is the most effective way to change things."
Newly elected regimes have done more to sabotage democracy than simply squelching the opposition. They have presided over rising corruption, growing crime rates, and weak growth. This social instability has led many publics to associate these problems with democratic government, even though they are actually often the result of broader changes like economic globalization. As a result, across the globe support for democracy is waning. In Latin America, the Latinobarometro poll showed a drop in support for democracy, with only around half of respondents "convinced democrats," according to the Economist. In an even more disturbing United Nations study in Peru, over 70 percent of respondents said that the country needed an authoritarian government. The Afrobarometer study shows similar trends. It found that younger Africans were less interested in voting, and less trustful of public institutions, than their elders. And, in Nigeria, it found that satisfaction with democracy after the two-term reign of President Olusegun Obasanjo--who was elected in 1999 on a mandate of reform but then tried to modify the constitution to entrench himself in office--was at a paltry 39 percent.
Hand in hand with the tarnishing of democracy, however, comes something more unusual: the revival of a newly effective authoritarianism. Over the past five years, authoritarian rulers have replaced old-fashioned tools of repression--electric shocks, brutal beatings, and arbitrary executions--with subtler and more sophisticated types of crackdowns. In Venezuela and Egypt, authoritarian governments have neutered foreign non-governmental organizations and press outlets. Then they have backed domestic NGOs with idealistic names like Cairo's National Council for Human Rights and Bahrain's High Council for Women, while ensuring that these Potemkin organizations advocate little in the way of real reform. According to Middle East scholar Barry Rubin, Bahrain's High Council for Women actually tried to stop the creation of women's groups.
The new breed of dictators also cynically uses the structures of democracy to empower itself and bypass international scrutiny: In 2002 and 2006, Bahrain held an election for a "parliament" that has no real authority, while Egypt repeatedly has held votes in which major opposition candidates could not run, and tens of countries, from Zimbabwe to Azerbaijan, have held polls in which the entire electoral process was rigged from the start. "Many governments, including Bahrain, Jordan, Nigeria, Russia and Thailand, acted as if simply holding a vote is enough to prove a nation 'democratic', and Washington, Brussels, and European capitals played along," said Human Rights Watch in its 2008 annual report.
This authoritarian revival, of course, is directly aided by old allies: China and Russia. In addition to their own domestic anti-reformist trends, both countries--threatened by the wave of color revolutions--have begun fighting back against reforms in other nations as well while cloaking this fight in the rhetoric of "promoting democracy" themselves. As Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment found, the Kremlin under Putin has established its own network of political consultants and election monitors, parallel to Western organizations, which Russia deploys in neighboring countries to help anti-democratic leaders keep their grip on power. The Kremlin also has allegedly helped the Tajikistan regime arrest a key opposition leader, tried to block European election monitors, launched an outpost of the psuedo-fascist group Nashi in Uzbekistan--and, most prominently, invaded Georgia. At the United Nations and other global bodies, Russia consistently opposes plans to sanction dictatorships.
Similarly, according to several Chinese writers, Beijing was terrified by the color revolution protests in Central Asia: In response, the Chinese government reportedly launched a "counterrevolution" plan. As part of its broader anti-democratic initiative, China now offers training programs for judges, police, and other law enforcement officials from Central Asia; in China, they can learn how to use the legal system to subtly prevent opposition in their home countries. And China and Russia have warily begun cooperating with one another, joining together at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group comprising the two giants and several Central Asian states, to condemn democracy promotion in the region.
Perhaps most dangerous of all are China's and Russia's economic success--and the economic triumphs of other repressed nations. Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute has shown that, in recent years, authoritarian nations have outperformed their freer peers' economic growth. Such trends have sparked the idea that a new model of economic development, a kind of authoritarian capitalism, can outperform capitalism combined with liberal democracy. In this authoritarian capitalism, the state allows some degree of economic openness in order to obtain foreign technology and investment, while keeping control over key sectors like oil and gas. This ensures that economic freedom does not translate into political reform, since the state carefully controls the pace of economic reform, preventing the kind of rapid opening that often sparks broader change.
The authoritarian capitalism model also tries to ensure that middle and upper classes, which have benefited from the economic opening, align their interests with the regime rather than with any democratic forces. In 2002, for instance, China's Communist Party threw open membership to entrepreneurs and other private businesspeople, who have joined in droves. The regime has instituted broad pay raises for academics, helping ensure that they don't lead protests as they did before the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. Most importantly, the Party also constantly emphasizes that, if democracy were to arrive, it might upset the growth that has made Shanghainese and Beijingers rich. And, as in China, the Kremlin has co-opted the very people--middle-class businesspeople, students, academics--who, in other countries, have pushed for political change.
This strategy is successful both domestically and abroad: After two terms in office, Putin still enjoys approval ratings higher than 80 percent. According to Jonathan Unger, former co-editor of the China Journal, "Many of [the Chinese middle class's] members do not want democracy--that is, multiparty elections for the nation's top leaders." Meanwhile, the relative success of the Russian and Chinese model is appealing to other, smaller, proto-democratic regimes. Thousands of officials and technocrats from poor African, Latin American, and Asian nations attend Chinese training courses each year and return home awed by China's growth and convinced that this authoritarian capitalism is the secret to its success. "You are an example of transformation," said Madagascar's President Marc Ravalomanana during a visit to Shanghai for a meeting of the African Development Bank. "We in Africa must learn from your success."
In Vietnam, senior officials have modeled the country's development program on China's, and Phan Van Khai, Vietnam's former prime minister, pushed his officials to go to China to study its reforms. Other nations as varied as Laos, Syria, and Cuba have begun implementing elements of the model as well. Mounzer Mously, a Baath Party member in Syria, told Knight Ridder, "Reform should be aimed at improving the party and allowing free market elements into a socialist state, like China."
Of course, in admiring Beijing and Moscow, many leaders do not consider the fact that the growth of Russia and China may be due not to authoritarianism but to unique circumstances that cannot be replicated in Angola or Iran or Laos. Still, it's a formula that will be hard to argue against. John McCain talks a lot about showing solidarity with nascent democracies, but he doesn't acknowledge the extent to which democracy has become a discredited idea--or that his steadfast backing of the Iraq conflict has undermined some of his other democratic support. Meanwhile, Barack Obama has pledged to vastly increase the kind of soft power needed to set an example worldwide but has offered few specifics about how to take on this monumental task.
The sad truth is that, aside from expressions of solidarity with fledgling democracies, there may be nothing in the U.S. political arsenal--and nothing in U.S. coffers--that will be powerful enough to counter either the successes of savvy authoritarian capitalism or the rollback of idealistic-but-weak democracy. "There's always been support here for the U.S., but for this U.S.?" Thai politician Kraisak Choonhaven tells me. "And people here go to China, and they see the cities, the factories. They see the future."
Joshua Kurlantzick is a special correspondent for The New Republic.
By Joshua Kurlantzick