The Democracy Bubble Starts to Deflate

January 14, 1994|By JOHN HUGHES

Has the world's dramatic explosion of democracy that began in 1989 run out of steam? We cannot yet write off the trend that started with the freeing of Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Berlin wall, and the breakup of the Soviet Union. But there are troubling signs.

Each year Freedom House, the respected New York-based human rights organization, monitors the course of freedom around the world. It recently reported bleakly on 1993. Ethnic violence and political repression made it the worst single-year setback for freedom since 1972. During the year, the number of people denied basic freedoms increased by 531 million. The percentage of people living in free societies now stands at only 19 percent, the lowest level in almost 20 years.

How can this be, when the clamor for freedom in recent years has been so strong?

According to Freedom House, the progress of freedom has been thwarted by increased ethnic, religious, economic, cultural and historical tensions. Most of the decline in freedom is due to the disintegration of multi-ethnic states, often amid mounting economic difficulties, and growing Islamic fundamentalism.

Even as Freedom House was wrapping up its report, the Russian elections threw up Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a swaggering, posturing fascist, spouting a crude stream of racism, who won almost a quarter of the popular vote. If he should achieve power, Russia would be cast back into the dark ages, and its struggling efforts at reform would be dashed.

In Iran, human-rights violations have spurred stinging rebukes in recent days from both Amnesty International and a United Nations panel. The reports condemn not only the jailing, torture and execution of political opponents and religious and ethnic minorities inside Iran, but also the sharp increase in assassinations of Iranian opposition figures outside the country.

Freedom House's 20 worst offending countries are: Afghanistan, Angola, Bhutan, Burundi, China, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Haiti, Iraq, Myanmar, North Korea, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

Particularly unfortunate is the growth of a kind of network among the most repressive dictators. They trade military equipment, collaborate to foil sanctions imposed by the international community, and coordinate against human-rights declarations. A few months ago, China led a coalition of Asian and other dictatorships, including Cuba and Syria, to dilute long-standing human-rights standards at the U.N.'s Vienna Human Rights Conference.

Some of these tyrants believe they can flout international law and the democratic community and get away with it. The examples of Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti would seem to prove them right.

The Freedom House report finds Western democracies turning inward. Foreign aid spending by the U.S., Japan and West European states is under pressure. Germany is focusing more of its resources on reabsorbing eastern Germany. Third-world countries are increasingly neglected.

Meanwhile, the Clinton administration has sharply cut budgets for its democracy-promoting agencies such as the United States Information Agency, the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. The Czech government, which believes the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty are much needed in the newly emerging democracies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, has offered to house them in Prague, cutting some of the expense of their present headquarters in Munich. The parent board of the radios, which met in Washington last week, said it was ''pursuing deliberations to make the move to Prague, if possible,'' but came to no conclusion.

It is too early to declare the democracy movement around the world out of gas, but clearly it has faltered.

John Hughes is a columnist for the Christian Science Monitor.

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