This is no time for indifference

My maternal grandfather was from Estonia. As a child, he and his family fled the Imperial Russian pogroms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The pogroms were essentially another large-scale Russian false-flag special operation alleging that Jewish citizens were responsible for the brutal assassination of Tzar Nicholas II and his Romanov family. Lenin and his Bolshevik strongmen were afraid of royalist Russian resistance. Promises made to peasants for land ownership were never fully realized and low pay and poll taxes diluted the Bolshevik promises.

Autocrats contrive for power and the pathway to that power is littered with lies, violence, promises and deceit. Populism is a subspecies of the autocracy strain, if not so toxic, that is, if constrained by democracies. Symptomatically we bear witness to their “uncanny ability to repeatedly rationalize away inconvenient facts while continuing to reinvent themselves to fit the moment.”

Much attention has naturally been focused on Putin, his tortured rationalizations for invading the sovereign nation of Ukraine, his lies about his war crimes, his constitutional gymnastics to extend his Russian rule, his “red flag” tricks and his KGB style bullying and tactics of intimidation.

But this column is less about Putin per se and more about Putinism and the forewarnings that we may be witnessing the twilight of democracies.

I began purposely with an anecdote about Estonia. It’s a small country about the size of Maryland with a population of about 1.3 million. Next to it is the country of Latvia (1.8 million), and next to it Lithuania (2.0 million). All together these three nations have about half the population of Ohio and combined they are about the size of Oklahoma or Wisconsin. These countries, on and off occupied by Germany and Russia, were liberated from the former Soviet Union and Russia over 30 years ago. They are thriving independent democracies. Yet these small vulnerable democracies share a border with Russia that is over 800 miles long. They could be smothered in a matter of hours and Mr. Putin has “dog whistled’ that tune already.

I could go on. The peaceful nation of Finland has an even longer border with Russia. Both Finland and Sweden are peaceful and proximate to Putin’s revanchist and revisionist state of mind and likely ambitions.

Geographically, Africa is one of the most vibrant but vulnerable to democratic instability or creeping autocratic contagions. The Central African Republic, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Mali and Zimbabwe come to mind and are very much on the mind of Chinese interlopers.

Max Fisher (NYT) wrote last year that “According to data from ‘V-Dem,’ a monitoring institute based in Sweden, more democracies are declining, and even sliding into autocracy, today than at any point in the last century. This trend, continuing for over a decade, appears to be accelerating, data shows, affecting established and fragile democracies alike across the globe.”

Examples abound all over the world. In Eastern Europe promising democracies freed from the shackles of the Soviet Union are being lured into the nationalistic illusions of strongmen like Viktor Orban in Hungary, or recent right-wing populists who had recent successes in The Czech Republic and Slovenia. Turkey’s Recep Erdogan’s rearrangement of Turkey’s democracy to strengthen his rule, or the sad dissolution of the once proud Venezuelan democracy are equally troubling. The biggest democracy in the world, India, is being threatened by the strong-armed prime minister, Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist.

Not to overburden the obvious, but then there’s Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Mali, Myanmar (Burma), Nepal and the Central African Republic. Freedom House offers its view online ranking countries on a 1-100 scale, but their map view of what’s currently trending is my concern. Autocrats like Putin and Xi Jinping love to exploit instability, unrest, corruption, poverty, income and wealth disparities, hunger and disasters like earthquakes and pandemics.

Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Moldova, Poland and Taiwan are, or are certain to be, in the crosshairs of these despotic opportunists, but strongmen and autocrats emerge sometimes in unlikely places and destabilizing events like the Covid-19 pandemic, widespread migrations, cultural clashes, hunger, financial failures, disinformation campaigns, iterative propaganda, energy instability and deprivations from war; all these attract strongmen who are determined to undermine democratic values and institutions.

Tactics can be even more insidious. Russia’s attempts to undermine our democratic elections, destabilize our society with lies and disinformation are becoming increasingly notable with respect to our national sovereignty and security. Canada among other nations are now fighting what the Chinese call “Service Stations,” embedded in their communities in Quebec and Montreal. In a report by the BBC: “The stations are believed to be among at least 100 operating across the globe in 53 countries, including the UK and the U.S., according to Spain-based NGO Safeguard Defenders, which monitors disappearances in China.”

In that report last year, the non-profit said the stations are part of efforts by China’s regime to “harass, threaten, intimidate and force targets to return to China for persecution.”

While our reasons for making war with Vietnam may have been dubious, the meme of the times was that if we lose Vietnam there will be a “domino effect” across Southeast Asia to the detriment of our national security. Maybe not. I just got a nice sweater made in Vietnam.

But if trends continue for nations to succumb to dictatorial incursions in our complex times, then these first one then another dominos, whether in Eastern Europe, Africa or South America will gain momentum. Not to make light of all this but as the poet Ogden Nash said in a very short poem, “Shake and shake the catsup bottle, none’ll come and then a lot’ll.”

Rapacious strongmen and autocracies will always press for more power and control. China with Taiwan, probably. Russia with Ukraine, already. Russia with Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Moldova, very likely. Anne Applebaum, historian and writer for The Atlantic, believes, “that authoritarian rulers are joining together to create economic and political support and to suppress democracy.”

For leading democracies like the U.S., the UK, the European Union, NATO allies, and Australia, this is no time for indifference or appeasement.

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.