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Spotlight Article

Democracies don’t just spring up

Jason Katz
October 09, 2013

Democracies are funny things. They don’t spring from the soil or sand or out of thin air. An election or two, even though “free and fair,” doesn’t make a democracy -- nor does cajoling a nation or quasi-nation with promises of support and money.

Healthy democracies are built from the ground up, a process akin to the construction of a modern building. A solid foundation must be laid first, then the framing, flooring, walls and façade.

The United States seems to have lost sight of this fundamental reality, an irony as the U.S. is the most evolved of democracies. Time and again, the U.S. has attempted to impose democracy upon others, forcing elections on peoples who have never seen a ballot box, let alone have any concept of its meaning. One need only look to Iraq or the Palestinians. 

In Iraq, the U.S. invested billions of dollars and blood. Yet today Iraq is plagued by the same tribal fighting and infighting that existed under Saddam. As Iraqis went to the ballot box to ink their vote, with the media photographing their purple stained fingers, their loosely described “leaders,” were fighting for power in a “new Iraq.” Today Iraq is the same, this time with the Iranian Mullahs pulling the strings. A symbolic victory was achieved, but Iraq now promises to become a vassal state of Iran, much as some Soviet republics, like unfortunate Armenia, have become Russia’s.

And the Palestinians, yes, they voted. They voted for Hamas. What more can be said?

And the so-called Arab Spring?

Many of the nations established out of the ashes of the Soviet Union should be our natural allies… energy rich, open to investment, religiously tolerant (many majority-Muslim), Western-oriented with Western-style aspirations. These are EMERGING DEMOCRACIES. These nations have elections that, although imperfect, are exhibiting efforts to build and embrace democracy.  

As we near the eve of the presidential elections in the Republic of Azerbaijan, there are complaints that the elections are not fair due to a lack of opposition to President Ilham Aliyev. 

I recently visited Azerbaijan and spoke to a myriad of people eager to just talk to an American. They spanned government officials, hotel workers, taxi drivers, etc. These conversations showed very clearly that Ilham Aliyev has little opposition because he is a beloved leader and his people see the political, social and economic results of his leadership. He is also clearly helped by the infighting among the opposition, which has aligned with Moscow politics. thus alienating their supporters for whom Azerbaijan’s hard-won independence ranks above domestic difficulties.

The first of the Soviet republics to become independent, Azerbaijan immediately chose to look toward the West as an ally, not Russia. The new nation almost immediately returned to its core ideals prior to the Bolshevik invasion and resumed the first parliamentary democracy in the Muslim world. Azerbaijan also set upon allying itself with the U.S., Israel and Europe. With the backing of the Clinton administration, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline was built and soon became the backbone of the Southern Energy Corridor…a corridor that contributes to the energy security and diversity of Europe, thus helping to free Europe from autocratic Russian energy dominance.

Over the last 20 years, Azerbaijan has become a respected player on the world stage. Azerbaijani soldiers have stood shoulder to shoulder with American and NATO troops in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. Azerbaijan now serves on the UN Security Council, is a benefactor of humanitarian aid, an economic leader and a staunch ally of the U.S. and Israel, etc. 

Is Azerbaijan’s democracy without growing pains? No. However, it is much further along in the democratic building process than most other emerging democracies throughout the world, and it needs U.S. support and encouragement. Will the elections in these and other emerging democracies be perfect? Probably not. But this brings us back to the original point: democracies don’t just appear. They must be built, carefully and over time. It is a deliberate process and an important one. The U.S. needs to get past its intransigence and lack of understanding and support each of the required steps to build democracies that one day just may be strong as our own. 

Katz is the principal of TSG, LLC, a consultancy that advises foreign governments, NGOs and corporations in the realms of strategic communications, politics and policy. He is also the former head of Public Affairs and Public Relations for the American Jewish Committee, based in Los Angeles.

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