Democracy’s real crisis: Its failure to challenge kleptocrats

Despite what you might gath­er from recent reports, democ­ra­cy is not “in cri­sis” because Russia (a coun­try fac­ing a mas­sive HIV epi­dem­ic) or China (a coun­try fac­ing huge loom­ing demo­graph­ic prob­lems) has a bet­ter eco­nom­ic or polit­i­cal mod­el. These coun­tries are weak, sow­ing divi­sion in the US and oth­er democ­ra­cies pre­cise­ly because they are pathet­i­cal­ly afraid of their own people.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin ® meets with Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Sochi, Russia October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

And Donald Trump is not “speed­ing up the ero­sion of democ­ra­cy.” We all are, by con­tin­u­ing to be too inward-focused and unimag­i­na­tive. With a lit­tle courage and imag­i­na­tion, Western pol­i­cy­mak­ers could dry up the illic­it funds that keep auto­crat­ic lead­ers in pow­er and dri­ve real, “home-grown” demo­c­ra­t­ic reforms in author­i­tar­i­an coun­tries around the world. To do so would, in fact, bol­ster democ­ra­cy at home as well.

To under­stand how, start by read­ing the lat­est edi­tion of the Journal of Democracy on the “Rise of Kleptocracy.” Steal, obscure, and spend (most­ly in Western coun­tries) is the modus operan­di of author­i­tar­i­an klep­to­crats. These ene­mies of democ­ra­cy laun­der stolen cash and their rep­u­ta­tions using new media and PR experts, and become multi­na­tion­al phil­an­thropists. The only way to address this prob­lem is for pol­i­cy­mak­ers to use the rule of law to dis­al­low illic­it finance rather than con­tin­u­ing to enable it. Leaders, both polit­i­cal and oth­er­wise, must encour­age peo­ple to take pride in free and fair exchange accord­ing to true sup­ply and demand — not the greasy opaque push and pull of back­door polit­i­cal favors and crime.

Kazakhstan clear­ly exem­pli­fies the free world’s lack of imag­i­na­tion. It is ruled by thiev­ing klep­to­crats and their oli­garchs — like most of the for­mer Soviet Socialist Republics and mod­ern Russia. Nursultan Nazarbayev, who vis­it­ed the White House last week, has ruled as the nation’s first and only “elect­ed” leader since 1991.

After remov­ing term lim­its, Nazarbayev apol­o­gized for win­ning a reelec­tion bid in 2015 with 97.7% of the vote, cit­ing that it would have “looked unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic” to make his vic­to­ry look more mod­est. Who were the first lead­ers to con­grat­u­late the “elec­toral vic­to­ry”? Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, who both use Kazakhstan as what may be the world’s first major land-locked port.

Billions of illic­it dol­lars have poured out of Kazakhstan and into Western coun­tries over the years. Yet last week, Nazarbayev received the wink-and-a-nod legit­i­ma­cy of an offi­cial state vis­it. Presumably, the atten­tion is to com­pen­sate for Trump’s uni­lat­er­al and sud­den retrac­tion of $1B in Pakistani secu­ri­ty aid and the ensu­ing need for alter­na­tive access to Afghanistan. There are also fears of Russian inter­ven­tion if the Kazakh peo­ple demand reform when the 74-year-old Nazarbayev final­ly dies. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) gave Nazerbayev the Chairmanship in 2010 — like­ly for sim­i­lar reasons.

Here’s an idea: why not hunt down the bil­lions of obscured Kazakh wealth hid­den in Western coun­tries, con­fis­cate it, and give it back to the Kazakh peo­ple when it holds a free and fair elec­tion — with­out Nazerbayev or any of his cronies? That way demo­c­ra­t­ic Western coun­tries would like­ly end up with an ally rather than a client.

Change begins with lead­er­ship. A change in the pos­ture of pow­er­ful Western influ­encers will trick­le down into glob­al­ized cul­tures and civ­il soci­ety. Instead of Western celebri­ties fre­quent­ly indulging auto­crats, per­haps these artists and ath­letes would donate the small for­tunes they earn for appear­ances and per­for­mances in klep­toc­ra­cies back to the poor and repressed peo­ple they were stolen from. Policymakers, moral lead­ers, the media, and con­sumers should give them an exam­ple or a cue to fol­low — such as the high-pro­file seizures of the Justice Department’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative. If these actions were the norm rather than the excep­tion, democ­ra­cy would not be per­ceived as in cri­sis, but rather on the march again.

Democracy’s real cri­sis: Its fail­ure to chal­lenge kleptocrats

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