Editor’s Note: This is an expanded version of a piece that appears in the current issue of National Review.
Freedom, democracy, and human rights have always been rare. Dictatorship is the rule. Yet there have been democratic flowerings, as in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed. The weather is now cold. Strongmen are in the saddle, riding high.
There are individuals and organizations that chart such things. Freedom in the world has declined for 14 straight years, according to Freedom House. If there is good news, it is this: People resist this decline, heroically (and often fatally).
What do we mean by “freedom,” or “democracy,” or “human rights”? The basics, really: freedom of expression; freedom of worship; the rule of law; competitive elections, with genuine choice; the right not to live in fear of a midnight knock at the door.
Here and now, I will not do a proper tour d’horizon. That would take a small book, not a brief piece. But maybe a whirlwind tour, hitting some critical spots? Fifty years ago, there was a movie: If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium — or Benin?
Last year, that West African nation held parliamentary elections. Without opposition parties, effectively. Protests against this development were banned. The Internet was blocked on Election Day. But the picture was brighter in Mauritania: That nation conducted its first-ever peaceful transfer of power.
In East Africa, Omar Bashir was at last kicked out. He ruled Sudan for 30 years. He is one of the most monstrous and murderous rulers of our time. To get him out, people massed in the streets, risking everything. Sudan has a long way to go before reaching democracy. But the country is on a hopeful path.
Ethiopia is a curious case. Last year, its president, Abiy Ahmed, won the Nobel Peace Prize. He won it for good reason, or reasons: He had made peace with Eritrea and dramatically liberalized at home. Yet, as I write, Ethiopia is in civil war, with mass slaughter reported.
To the north, Egypt is a sad case, and an outrageous one. Egypt is the largest Arab state, by far, and the most important one — culturally and politically. Egypt has long known oppression. But the current strongman, General Sisi, has pushed the country down to a new level. Civil society is virtually abolished.
By tradition and reputation, Egyptians are a warm, hospitable, talkative people. Yet they now live in a “fear society,” to borrow Natan Sharansky’s term. Declan Walsh, who has just completed a term as Cairo bureau chief of the New York Times, told me that people are afraid to talk to foreigners, understandably.
The country has some 60,000 political prisoners. People are tortured to death, routinely. Sometimes their names make the news: Shady Habash, a young filmmaker; Giulio Regeni, an Italian doctoral student; Mustafa Kassem, a U.S. citizen who had returned to Egypt to see his family.
In 2018, General Sisi was “reelected,” with 97 percent of the vote. (Why not 98?) His nominal opponent was a faithful supporter of his, agreeably playing a role.
The big country in the Gulf is Saudi Arabia. Three years ago, Mohammed bin Salman was named crown prince. There were hopes for him as a liberal reformer, and there still are. Yet there are new political prisoners to go with the old. One of the “old” is Raif Badawi, who blogged in favor of human rights. One of the “new” is Loujain al-Hathloul, who also asked for human rights.
They are imprisoning women now, such as Loujain. The reports of torture — including rape, of course — are as credible as they are unbearable.
The world was fascinated by the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. There was a bone saw! And yet the excitement quickly wears off; yawns set in. Asked who should be held accountable for the murder of this well-known journalist, President Trump said, “Maybe the world should be held accountable, because the world is a vicious place.” That is the attitude of millions.
In the Palestinian Authority, they have not had a presidential election since 2005, and parliamentary elections since 2006 — even sham ones. In Gaza, the authorities arrested Rami Aman and his colleagues from the Gaza Youth Committee. Their crime? They were talking with Israeli counterparts in a periodic dialogue that goes by a playful name: “Skype with Your Enemy.” Hamas, which rules Gaza, does not play.
For rays of democratic hope in the Arab world, look to the Maghreb — to Tunisia and Algeria, in particular.
In Iran, the ayatollahs and their administrators have ruled since 1979. From time to time, people rise up, taking to the streets, demanding their rights. They did so last year. The regime puts these protests down, killing as many as necessary. Someday, the regime’s luck will run out — but when?
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been atop Turkey since 2003. There is democratic activity beneath him — mayoral elections, for example. But nationally, Erdogan’s grip is tighter than ever. His frank goal is to be recognized as the new “Ataturk” — “Father of the Turks” — by 2023. That year will mark the centennial of the Turkish republic.
Erdogan created an agency called — this is not a joke — the “Office for Human Abductions and Executions.” This must be the most bluntly named office in the world.
Turkey is now the world’s leading jailer of journalists, outpacing China, Egypt, Iran, etc. I will relate a Turkish joke, which is obviously as serious as it is humorous: A prisoner goes to the prison library, to request a book. The librarian says, “We don’t have the book. But we have its author.”
In years past, Turkey has been a huge democratic hope in the Middle East. The loss of Turkey is a terrible blow.
Pakistan is in bad shape. Afghanistan will return to night, when the Taliban retake power. A businesswoman and a heroine of civil society, Laila Haidari, told me that it will be the end of independent-minded women when the Taliban come back. They will not have a voice, of course, as they do now. Worse, they could be killed.
Keep an eye on India, the largest democracy in the world. The prime minister, Narendra Modi, is a Hindu nationalist, and this nationalism finds expression in curbs on minority groups, especially Muslims.
In China, the Communist Party has made Xi Jinping ruler for life. He is presiding over the most oppressive period in China since the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). To go with the old gulag archipelago, there is a new gulag archipelago, especially designed for Xinjiang Province, or East Turkestan. More than a million Uyghurs have been thrown into these camps.
Economic liberalization is followed by political liberalization. This is a law of political science. China is defying this law, at least for now.
Hong Kong was supposed to enjoy autonomy for 50 years — starting in 1997, when the British handed the city over to Beijing. “One country, two systems,” was the slogan. By the look of it, Hong Kong’s autonomy will not see its 25th birthday. But Hong Kongers, millions of them, are putting up a glorious fight.
Taiwan is a Chinese democracy. This is a rebuke to the Communists, and they know it. They will wipe away this insult, if they can.
As Taiwan stands in contrast to the “People’s Republic,” South Korea stands in contrast to North Korea. In 2017, a North Korean soldier, 25 years old, made a “dash for freedom,” as it was called. Oh Chong-song crossed from the North Korean side to the South Korean side. His comrades shot him five times, but he made it across the line, and recovered from his wounds.
They never dash the other way — from South Korea to North.
North Korea is on its third dictator from a Communist dynasty. The dictatorship has gone from father to son to grandson. Will there be a fourth? No one, at this stage, would rule it out.
Japan is one of the great political success stories of modern times. Its constitutional monarchy ticks like a clock. Last year, Emperor Akihito abdicated in favor of his son Naruhito. Thus began a new era dubbed “Reiwa,” which can be interpreted to mean “beautiful harmony.” This year, the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, resigned, owing to ill health. He was replaced by another, Yoshihide Suga, in an orderly, democratic way.
Such a system is not to be taken for granted.
In Cambodia, Hun Sen, the strongman, has ruled since 1985. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte is relatively new. He was elected in 2016, at the age of 71. A taste of Duterte and his rule can be had in the following statement: “Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.”
One of the bravest journalists in the Philippines is Maria Ressa. She has been arrested, tried, and convicted — but not yet sentenced, or killed.
Move to Latin America, and to that bludgeoned island, Cuba. The Communists have ruled Cuba since 1959 — in the person of two Castros. Possibly, there will be a third (maybe Raúl’s son, Alejandro). Freedom in Cuba is an ever more forlorn hope. The Soviet Union and its bloc collapsed 30 years ago. The dictatorship in Cuba hangs on.
This dictatorship props up the one in Venezuela, as do the dictatorships of Russia, China, and Iran. Venezuela provides an amazing example of “birds of a feather.”
It also provides an amazing example — a stunning one — of how it can all go wrong: how a prosperous, democratic country can slide into tyranny and starvation. It began with Hugo Chávez’s mesmeric populism.
There were hopes in Venezuela, and for Venezuela, in 2019. The democratic opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, was on the rise. Guaidó and his allies had the support of major democratic countries, starting with the United States. But the Venezuelan regime did the necessary, from a dictatorial point of view.
Better news came from Bolivia — where a mini-Chávez, Evo Morales, was at last ousted. He had tried to grab a fourth presidential term. People filled the streets, in democratic revolt.
There is no good news from Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega hangs on. He is an impressive example, as well as a sickening example, of longevity in power.
While you are keeping an eye on India, keep the other one on Mexico — another large, important democracy. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a.k.a. AMLO, was elected president in 2018. He is a master populist, probably as talented as Chávez. And he is cementing a personal rule.
Vladimir Putin has been in power for 20 years. He is bent on ruling Russia for life. Last year, he cleared out a few constitutional obstacles. As Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian democracy advocate, pointed out, “dictatorship and term limits rarely go together.”
For some years, after the USSR disintegrated, the Russian state was relatively honest about the Soviet record. For instance, the Duma acknowledged that the Soviets had carried out the Katyn Massacre. And yet, the Russian state is now backtracking, on all of it, defending the Soviet Union as Soviet officials once did.
A researcher, Yuri Dmitriev, who had uncovered mass graves from the Stalin era, is now in prison, on fabricated charges.
The Russian foreign ministry has defended — and whitewashed — the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The historian Timothy Garton Ash commented archly, “Molotov would be proud of his old department.”
Last October, an independent journalist, Irina Slavina, killed herself. It is hard — unimaginably hard — to be an independent journalist in Russia. Slavina was harassed by the authorities for years and years. Finally, at her wit’s end, she set herself on fire in front of the ministry of internal affairs.
Sergei Mokhnatkin died in May. He was a human-rights activist, repeatedly arrested, repeatedly tortured. They broke his spine. A fellow activist, Alexei Polikhovich, said the following of Mokhnatkin: “There was a man who lived like a little sparrow stuck in the throat of a snake.”
One of the most dangerous jobs in Russia is opposition leader. A former leader, Boris Nemtsov, was murdered within sight of the Kremlin in 2015. The current opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, barely survived poisoning last summer. They occasionally fail, but Russian agents are master poisoners.
A few months ago, Vladimir Putin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. A joke made the rounds in Russia: “Did you hear that Putin was nominated for the Nobel prize?” “In what, chemistry?”
To the west, in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko was first elected in 1994 — legitimately. (Most of them are elected legitimately, the first time.) He has stolen them ever since. The latest theft occurred in August. Belarusians are still on the streets, protesting. Lukashenko told them, “Until you kill me, there will not be any more elections.” It is he who is doing the killing.
Let’s name just one victim, a brave fellow, 31 years old: Roman Bondarenko. He was a former soldier, and an artist, and a democracy protester. Beaten to death by his government’s agents. His countrymen mourned him with great emotion.
Alexander Lukashenko is known as “the last dictator in Europe.” How is Europe in general faring, by the way? Is the continent a bulwark of democracy? That is a nervous-making question, which we will touch on now.
Vladimir Putin has his admirers — many of them — in Europe. Some of them are in high places. Miloš Zeman, the Czech president, is an example. He sides with his friend Putin against Czech democrats who are targeted by the Kremlin: physically threatened. The mayor of Prague, Zdeněk Hřib, has been such a target.
Matteo Salvini, the Italian politician, is a great Putin admirer: a fanboy, really. There is a famous photo of him in Red Square, sporting a T-shirt that shows Putin in a macho, heroic pose. Putin is a Che Guevara for a certain crowd.
The most telling photo, I think, is of Karin Kneissl. From December 2017 to June 2019, she was foreign minister of Austria. During this time, she got married. Putin danced with her at her wedding. You can see her curtsying to him, in her dirndl, looking up at him adoringly.
This is the posture of many.
“We all sense — it’s in the air — that the world is in the process of a substantial realignment,” said Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary. This was in February 2017, when Putin came to town (Budapest). Putin, in his turn, hailed Hungary as an “important and reliable partner for Russia in Europe.”
That is unquestionably true.
Orbán has been copying the Putin playbook, on the media, non-governmental organizations, and other matters. In Hungary, independent media are ever dwindling. State media are ever more unreliable (or reliable, from a regime point of view). RFE/RL — that American combination of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty — found it necessary to restart its Hungarian service.
RFE/RL has also found it necessary to restart two other services: the Bulgarian and the Romanian.
The Hungarian government chased Central European University from Budapest. (It went to Vienna.) The government also welcomed Fudan University, of Shanghai, which will have a campus in Budapest. This is the first campus ever established by a Chinese university abroad.
Miloš Zeman, incidentally, has warm relations with the Chinese government.
“The era of liberal democracy is over,” said Orbán, beginning his fourth term in office. (He has indicated that he will hold power until 2030.) In the place of liberal democracy, he said, “we will build a 21st-century Christian democracy.”
That is an interesting modifier of “democracy”: “21st-century Christian.” In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims to be effecting “Islamic democracy.”
In the summer of 2018, Erdogan staged his latest inauguration, following his latest “election.” Orbán was the only European Union leader to attend. (He had also been the only EU leader to congratulate Erdogan on a rigged referendum.) The two other prominent leaders on the guest list were Dmitri Medvedev of Russia — standing in for Putin — and Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela. Maduro pronounced Erdogan a “leader of the new multipolar world.”
A year ago, Turkey invaded Syria, to wipe out Kurds there. (The Kurds had been allies of the United States in the fight against ISIS.) The Turks dubbed their actions “Operation Peace Spring.” Five days after this operation began, Erdogan and Orbán met in Baku. The Turk thanked the Hungarian for his steadfast support on the international stage — which included the thwarting of EU resolutions against Operation Peace Spring.
As authoritarians and other anti-democrats are in alliance with one another, democrats should be in alliance with one another. They should also argue for their values: their principles, their ideals, their record, worldwide.
“These arguments should not have to be made!” you might object. “They are self-evident.” Like it or not, they do have to be made, because old people forget, and new people are born.
Also, democracy needs leadership. Champions. People look to the United States — even now — for better or worse. On October 23, Joe Biden tweeted,
64 years ago today, freedom-loving Hungarians revolted against communist rule. Their spirit inspired the Prague Spring, Poland’s Solidarity movement, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. As president, I’ll always stand in defense of democracy and freedom at home and around the world.
That would be something.