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Christopher Walker: Citizens are the Key in Democracies
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 30 Aug.'17 / 13:04

Christopher Walker, Vice President for Studies and Analysis at the National Endoqment for Democracy in Washington DC. Photo: VOA

Voice of America’s Anna Kalandadze sat down with Christopher Walker, Vice President for Studies and Analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC. In this capacity, Walker oversees the department that is responsible for NED’s multifaceted analytical work, which includes the International Forum for Democratic Studies, a leading center for the analysis and discussion of democratic development.

Anna Kalandadze leads VOA’s Georgian team in DC and can be followed on Twitter @annavoa or on facebook.

Thank you for the interview. In your latest article you coined a term “authoritarian internationalism.” Would you explain in a nutshell what do you mean by this?

I think what we have experienced in the most recent period is a reflection of developments that had been underway for quite some time. If we had this conversation, say 20 years ago, the degree to which countries like Russia and China would have been integrated and participating in democratic societies in business, in many ways in politics, certainly in media, it would have been far more limited. Today, in a globalized world with this deep integration, we see that ambitious, very well resourced, authoritarian regimes are quite internationalists. In some ways it is counter-intuitive that at the time, when overall, Zeitgeists in many countries are retrenching, China and Russia certainly in this case are quite active internationally, so we have called that an “authoritarian internationalism.”

How do you explain that quite often weak and fragile democracies fall under the disruptive influences of outside, dominant forces and subsequently start acting against the publicly proclaimed values of their own countries? By this they effectively, and not always on purpose, aid those dominant powers. We see cases like these in Hungary or Georgia, etc.

I think there is a number of forces that are at work simultaneously, and if we take the cases, the countries of Central Europe which, not all that long ago were seen as the most positive examples of democratic success, the changes there have been rather dramatic. Certainly, some of these forces are internally driven. These countries have undergone quite serious challenges since the financial crisis, but at the same time, Russia first and foremost has become much more active in countries like Hungary, Czech Republic and elsewhere in the region, in ways that have amplified and stomped, in many ways accelerated, some of the negative trends that have emerged in these settings. 

What goals do the authoritarian regimes pursue in weak democracies by compromising and blemishing activities of Western institutions? Is this another tactic of the soft power?

One of these challenges, or one of the challenges that have emerged in the recent past (my article is titled “A new era of competition”), is that the country like Russia has seen fit to participate, and in many ways to compete, to pursue its own interests. I think in one sense people look at what country like Russia does internally but I think what you see is the values and the preferences that emanate from the government in Russia domestically and the way they are expressed in its foreign policy. We see this throughout central Europe - countries that have media systems which are under extraordinary stress right now, countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and others find it far more difficult to deal with the vast resources that Russia puts into its state media instruments in the form of websites, in the form of international broadcasting, in the form of surrogates, who will communicate ideas that are allying with the Russian government’s point of view. It is a much more challenging environment now than it was even seven or eight years ago, and I think the democracies have been slow to recognize that this balance has been tilted in ways that is very disadvantageous to young democracies that are struggling under very difficult circumstances.

What is the situation in Turkey and is democracy in an infinite danger there? 

I think if you look at the case of Turkey in a larger global context, Turkey was a country that not that long ago looked to be heading in a positive direction. We can put it into this context of countries including South Africa, Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, all of which to one degree or another had a far more positive trajectory in terms of a reform and a democratic ambition. Turkey’s case now: it has been a rather dramatic turn for the worse. I think one thing we can see in hindsight is that the authorities in the country really devoted an enormous degree of effort to restricting open media and in some ways, it was an indicator of some of the things to come. Of course, it has not slowed down but rather picked up steam in the recent past and that is a pretty good barometer of the swords of challenges a system like Turkey can face when its independent media is targeted in ways it has been targeted. And I think until Turkey’s independent media and civil society, among other factors, until those sectors are permitted a meaningful degree of autonomy, independence and space, Turkey will be in for a very difficult road.

What is the main problem in a fragile democracy where there is no space left for a compromise among political actors, while also fragile political parties are oriented towards their own survival but not fulfilling voters’ aspirations?

It is a very big question and it relates to some larger forces that have developed in terms of the weakening of political parties. The fragmentation of political parties which we can see in many ways is a factor of fragmentation in systems more generally. We have seen this in the media sphere and in politics certainly in terms of political party development, and it is a real challenge to find sort of channels that can meaningfully express voter preferences and then deliver in terms of governance in a way to meet those preferences and aspirations. I do not think there is any easy answer to it. Certainly, ensuring that public is as informed and engaged as possible is critical. Citizens’ participation is a condition for these sorts of challenges to be more effectively met, but this is a very complex issue that has any number of challenges. In the Georgian case I think it is also fair to say that part of Georgia’ success over the years, certainly since the Rose Revolution, has been the fact that in an incredibly challenging geopolitical environment the country has managed to safeguard strong degrees of media freedom, strong degrees of political competition, even if it has been uneven at times and challenging, but I think that at a very fundamental level, the country has demonstrated both the will and the commitment to these sorts of values and standards. I believe those are the sorts of values and standards that have to be safeguarded if Georgia is to continue on a positive democratic path.

Who should fight a negative, antidemocratic propaganda and how? 

It is a great question because the forces that have developed, that have so quickly put terms like fake news and disinformation into the modern discussion, have been long in the making but have seemingly hit us in a very abrupt fashion. See, if we take the examples of very large, powerful, authoritarian information apparatuses that are doing this, I think the competitive advantage of the democracy is using both private capacity in the form of private media, certainly the civil society sector, but also governments. I do not think any single element in democracies would be sufficient to meet this challenge, but it is a combination of the nimbleness, innovation that would come from the private sector, the capacity and commitment that you would find from many of the civil society groups that are working on this issue in a very effective way. This is certainly the case in Central Europe and in the Baltic states where many of the civil society groups there are doing the most cutting-edge work of any groups, and then democratic states which will have to make a firm commitment and devote both political will and resources that can complement the private actors in this fight. They have to work on the same page in order to be as effective as they can.

What role does the public have in instilling a healthy political discussion in a country? 

Citizens are the key in democracies, and this is fundamental. I think, if I would identify one element of the challenges today that confronts us all, it is the extraordinary changes that have happened to our media and information systems, which shape the way ordinary citizens see the world, and the rapid emergence of social media, new media platforms that have offered many opportunities but have also presented enormous challenges to the way in which societies have a shared sense of values and commitment to their systems, and the way in which they understand public policy challenges. So I think we all need to think very hard about ways to ensure that the ways in which citizens and democracies understand the world and that the information systems we are using are working, and ways that allow us to achieve more positive outcomes.

The material was prepared for Civil.ge by the Voice of America. In order to license this and other content free of charge, please contact Adam Gartner.

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